The disappearance of childhood and what we can do to get it back

The disappearance of childhood and what we can do to get it back
Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool, also blogs about motherhood at Steady Mom

I want my kids to have a childhood. A living, breathing, mud-between-toes, romping-in-woods, staring-at-the-sky childhood. A secure foundation setting the stage for a secure life.

The gift of childhood. I allow my kids to slowly unwrap it each day within our homeschool.

But as I look around–at influences, at media, at society–I see childhood disappearing, evaporating further with each passing year. Are we all okay with that?

I’m not. For the good of our children, for the good of our society, for the good of the world we need to reclaim it.

How did this happen?


Author David Elkind saw it coming–tried to warn us, but we didn’t listen. Over 30 years ago his book The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon was published. In the most recent edition from 2001, Elkind describes what he now sees as not only a hurrying of childhood, but a complete reinvention of it.

In explaining how and why this has happened, Elkind points to the concepts of “infant” education, out-of-home care for young children, targeting children as consumers, the influence of screens in kid life, and moving childhood indoors:

“When I first wrote this book, I was most concerned about the stress our culture placed on children and the mental health consequences of continued emotional upset. Today, however, the sedentary lifestyle introduced by our new technologies makes child physical health an equally important concern.”
~ From the Preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition, The Hurried Child

The tools and technologies we now live with are nothing short of miraculous. But in the same way that a hammer can be used to build a house or tear one down, we can use the tools of our society to build childhood or tear it down.

When children and adults spend more time, by far, with faces in screens than in books or conversation, what do we expect will be the result?

Are we parenting with purpose or parenting for convenience?

Childhood is not the same as adulthood.


Childhood is unique, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to let life unfold slowly. Those who reach the average Western life expectancy of around 80 years spend 75% of their lives as adults, only 25% as children. Why rush through what is already a short and precious phase?

It isn’t easy to recover a lost childhood. And far too many of us are ourselves the culprits and thieves–in the race to look good in front of friends and family we push, enroll, and bribe for bragging rights of whose offspring read, wrote, or beat the other team in little league first.


Imagine this phase of life as an inverted pyramid.

We start off at the narrow end, protecting and nurturing our babes–allowing influences, media, and screens in at the right time–not the time someone else tells us is right, not the time when we feel pressured by our peers or even our own children, but the time we feel inside is right.

The goal is not to keep that narrow focus forever; the goal is to slowly and steadily move outward. The end aim of parenting this way isn’t sheltering, but influence.

Finding our way back


Finding our way back to childhood means planning for and allowing margin in our lives and the lives of our kids.

Author Richard Swenson defines margin as “the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits. It’s something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations.” It’s in this in-between space that the magic of childhood casts its spell–allowing our kids to fall in love with this world that will one day be their grown-up inheritance.

One of my favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting, outlines a prescriptive remedy to families on the fast track toward complication instead of connection. Author Kim John Payne offers practical suggestions on simplifying our children’s environments, rhythms, and schedules. I highly recommend it.

But the first step in reclaiming this phase of life is to acknowledge its rapid disappearance. I’m convinced that parents are not intentionally stealing it as much as we are not intentionally choosing it. We are the only ones who can win the war on childhood–our kids cannot. By the time they realize what they’ve lost it will be too late.

We are the guardians of their childhood. Let’s stop shirking our duty and take the responsibility seriously.

Our kids deserve it.

“In the end, a playful childhood is the most basic right of children.”
~ David Elkind, The Hurried Child

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She serves as editor of Simple Homeschool, and blogs about mindful parenting at Steady Mom. Jamie is also the author of two books: Steady Days and Mindset for Moms.


  1. Kristine says:

    I feel myself trying to protect a sacred space for my kids with varying degrees of success. Wish more people thought about it as deeply as you have.

    • Me too. I get exhausted by the constant onslaught of movies (given by well-meaning family) I don’t like that I have to say no to, toys I don’t like, etc. It just seems to tiring to constantly be trying to weed out all the junk to make room for the good. Not that I’m giving up, I’m just feeling I need to come up with some better guidelines.
      I just read Simplicity Parenting for about the 5th time. Love it!

  2. I love this post sooo much, Jamie! When I think of all the years I’ve homeschooled and all the “accomplishments,” I have to say that this is the biggest one: that my kids had (and are still having) long childhoods. I love this quote: “I’m convinced that parents are not intentionally stealing it as much as we are not intentionally choosing it. ” So true.
    Sarah at SmallWorld’s latest post: Saturday Snapshot: Office Take-over

    • Jamie Martin says:

      Thanks, Sarah. So good to hear that you feel that is one of your biggest takeaways, especially since you’re so much further down the homeschooling road than so many of us!

  3. LeAnna says:

    My mom was a kindergarten teacher for 30 years and it’s crazy how much it has changed over those years: the loss of recess, rest time, and the academic expectations. When we started homeschooling this year, it definitely felt like it was a fight to protect our kids’ childhood! Yet I still catch myself worrying if my child is keeping up with a system I think is too fast. So thanks for the helpful reminder!

  4. Heather says:

    YES!!! I love The Hurried Child…it was a great influence in our parenting choices. Thank you for such a great post.

  5. Nola says:

    We see this too. I live where there are a lot of kids around, but I only see a small number of those kids out and about during the hours when they are not in school. We go on walks as a family and hardly see anyone as well, either other families or kids out playing. It was much different when I was a kid (I’m 30) but I think I lived at the tail end of that era. We had 4 stay at home moms on my section of the block and there were 4 other moms who worked outside the home only on a limited basis. The saddest thing is when I hear things today from parents/kids like this: my neighbour I heard trying to get her (then 5 year old) to go to dance class after school…and the little girl was crying that she just wanted to play. The other day, a bunch of Dads were talking and asked my husband what activities our children are in (they are young). My husband said instead we do lots of family activities like outdoor things and we try to have lots of time for the kids to play. The other dads said that must be nice! Their kids, apparently, don’t want to go to all the activities, and the dads don’t want to have to sit around and wait for the kids to be done. :( There is a lot of pressure out there. I even got pressure when I decided to homeschool- my child might be “behind” I was told! (she’s not anyways). There is so much pressure to have kids do academic work so young. This post is a much needed one for our society to listen to…thank you.

    • Jamie Martin says:

      I can imagine, Nola, that all those activities would steal away a lot of the precious little free time adults have, too. So there’s definitely a win-win for both sides by having limits and saying no a bit more. Thanks for the encouragement!

      • Nola says:

        Yes, it’s very true. We moved (not by choice) and we are now living in new city and trying to get connected with others. These same people who are so over scheduled can’t seem to make any time to come over when we invite them. Time after time, people are “soo busy, I will get back to you” and when I mention it again later “oh yes, I will get back to you, but we are sooo busy”. It does make us wonder WHAT is wrong with us…but then the same people send signals in other ways that they are interested, but they seem to have NO TIME! Its like a plague…the NO TIME SO BUSY plague. Then it makes me feel so wierd for not having it too. But I refuse, there are more precious things in life than that. I am praying we can meet some lonely people who actually take time to come over.

  6. Natalie says:

    We have made a very intentional effort not to be too busy as a family. I didn’t sign my kids up for classes until they went to Kindergarten, and even then you were only allowed to do one thing at a time. I make sure the kids have time to just play. In fact, I’ve started an Outdoor Adventure Group where we go out and explore different natural areas, with time to just dig in the mud or climb a fallen tree. I’m always amazed at how well-behaved all the kids are because they’re not being hurried to the next thing. Thanks for reminded us how important it is to relax and let kids be kids.
    Natalie’s latest post: What I’m going to be reading #1

    • Just wanted to comment on the “not being hurried to the next thing” part. I think that’s when most of the stress happens in our house, when I am hurrying my kids to get them out the door to the next thing. When we have time to relax and enjoy life at home (or out exploring) we are all so much happier! I agree!

  7. Corinne Logan says:

    I have to wonder if this is the reason we have so many adults acting like children these days. Just a thought. Awesome post!

  8. Alyssa says:

    I am only 10 weeks into parenthood and not sure whether or not we’ll be homeschooling BUT I appreciate this article so much and just put both books on hold at the library. I am grateful for parents who protected my childhood well, and I want to do the same for my son!
    Alyssa’s latest post: The Real Prosperity Gospel

  9. heather m. says:

    Yes, yes, yes, and amen! Great post!

  10. Becky says:

    My husband and I were just talking about this over the weekend.
    One of the most common responses I got when I told people I was going to start homeschooling was, “I could never spend that much time with my child.” I look around and see how over-scheduled so many friends’ kids have become, even children who are 3 and 4 years old. It is a competition to see how many things we can get our kids doing or a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. Or is it because we don’t know how to spend time with our children and just play.
    We recently moved across country, and we never see people/families enjoying all the parks here. It is really upsetting. We have also visited the beach for a couple of weeks, and I constantly got the comment of “What are you going to do with the boys?” I’m going to play in the ocean, sand, etc!!!

  11. Amen! Well said, Jamie. Thanks for calling attention to this insidious problem.

  12. Amen.

  13. Christina says:

    thanks for a great post! I have recently read Simplicity Parenting and it had some good things to think about. although we have been reading on simplicity in general since well before kids, so in many ways we have some good habits started, but it’s good to be conscious about how we are parenting. I have never read David Elkind but have seen quotes; one for the list!

  14. Lisie says:

    I just started homeschooling my oldest son about a month ago, and next year will have my middle son home too. I was so worried about making the leap, but am so happy I did, for my sons and myself. I am so grateful for this post (and all the others!) – the daily reminders and encouragement are just what I need! It’s so refreshing to read about so many other families who have the same values as my own. Thank you!

  15. Alta says:

    I homeschool a 7 year old and 5 year old. I love following your blog and books and I enjoy this post. I have read some of each of the books you mentioned, and we have tried to implement a slower, more intentional lifestyle in our home.
    But I’m wondering what exactly is meant by “childhood” and how much of our ideal is romantic vs. realistic. My kids would play all day if they could, and I think they get a lot of time to just explore and enjoy life. But in many generations and many cultures, children don’t get this kind of idyllic experience. I’m wondering some how much you need to encourage your kids to actually work (chores, schoolwork) when they need to. Thanks.

    • I think chores and learning to contribute to the family are a vital part of childhood, Alta, as opposed to just doing whatever one wants all the time. I’m referring more to the overscheduling and extracurricular obsession that take away the other time our kids should be playing. I agree with Montessori that play IS a child’s work and therefore is just as valuable to their development as what we do with our days.
      Jamie~Simple Homeschool’s latest post: The disappearance of childhood and what we can do to get it back

  16. Sarah M says:

    The first time I took notice of this topic was before kids when I read the book “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv, and it had such an effect on me. I taught in a public school setting and I really noticed how little outdoor time (or any recreation at all, really) they had during the day, and at the after school program.

    Now, as a homeschooler, outside time is just a normal part of our everyday, sort of the same way 3 main meals are. This was very similar to the childhood I had–playing throughout the neighborhood with the kids from down the block until it was dark, free reign of about a 1 mile radius, and really, we played until we were at least 13 years old (then we got babysitting jobs, and played with little kids!), and I am grateful for that. I have to constantly remind myself of how I grew up, to let go of the fear that I think holds us back at times.
    Sarah M

  17. Kate says:

    This brings me back to my focus for this year. I needed the realignment. THANK YOU.
    So, so good.
    I want to hop on Amazon and order all the books you mentioned. Excellent.
    Thankful for your work here on the homeschool blog.
    Kind Blessings,
    Kate :)
    Kate’s latest post: Home Days

  18. I for one am NOT o.k. with it (world’s influence on childhood) and I reclaim it every single day!

  19. Bethany says:

    Our pastor made this statement a few weeks ago: “An over scheduled life is evidence of an under nourished heart.” It saddens me just how true that is and that parents with under nourished hearts are raising children in that shadow as well. A full schedule is not a sufficient replacement for a full childhood.

    I loved this post and will return to wad it again often. Thanks for your wisdom, Jamie.

  20. Bethany says:

    *read it again

  21. Jen says:

    I just had the pleasure of hearing Kim John Payne speak at an event recently and he said there is an undeclared war on childhood, but that “we can declare peace in our homes.” So true. Hard at times, but he gives me the courage to stand firm in my convictions so that my kids can stand strong in this world.

  22. I also recommend a book by Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise called “The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap.
    GREAT book!

  23. This is a great post! I find it hard to find a balance though between “being a kid” and having the expectations on us for what education demands of us. We don’t seem to have enough time in the day to get everything in done otherwise.

    I found that instead focusing on schoolwork for the first 3-4 hours of the day, and then leaving time to be active children would be good.
    Martha Artyomenko’s latest post: #1 thing not to do when your child embarrasses you

  24. tracey says:

    I don’t understand how it’s possible to NOT have a “childhood” like we did. I look at my kids, and they seem to have even more free and unscheduled time than I ever did. And I wonder if it’s because of homeschooling or if it’s just who I naturally am, so it translates to how I parent…
    tracey’s latest post: 2 Weeks!!

  25. Lucy says:

    I just moved to a new town and we are surrounded by 3 enormous parks and have a gorgeous river path running through it. Yet whenever we go walking as a family and look at the deer or the outdoors it’s empty. However, whenever we walk through the big shopping center nearby, it’s teeming with families. So sad that parents are teaching children that a “fun” weekend activity is going shopping. I like a trip to the shops now and again, but it buying stuff doesn’t bring happiness in the way that people expect it to.

  26. DenSchool says:

    Frequently I have to step back and remind myself that these are children! They deserve the chance to be children!! I have not read the Hurried Child but I will definitely add it to my list!

  27. Jessica says:

    Thank you Jaime – you’ve put into words exactly the lifestyle I am hoping to influence and nurture in my family. I am expecting my first baby within this next month and over here in Great Britain childhood seems to be eroding before my very eyes and I’m desperate to hold on to it for the sake of my little one (and future little ones). There are very few people in my community that seem concerned with the ways that modern schedules and technologies often take away from family life and childhood rather than add to it and at times I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. This post has encouraged me to perserve for the sake of my family and in the hope of encouraging other families, so thank you!

  28. Great post! I find that many parents fall into that trap of pushing their children at a young age to be successful. I’m a victim of this and I’m certainly not the only one. We live in a society that believes in obtaining your dreams at any cost. Unfortunately, for many, that’s at the cost of our childhood.
    Justin Gregoire’s latest post: What Employers Think About Your Major

  29. Emily says:

    This is a subject so close to my heart these days. We are very careful with our time at home and what media our children are exposed to and what they read, but I am finding that the girls my 8 year old daughter is friends with at school are so teenage like, and it is influencing her. The other day she wondered if a boy thought she was sexy, and I am just not o.k with that! She is 8 for crying out loud, and I know that did not come from home. We are homeschooling next year, but I am worried that she has already grown up too fast. She still seems like a little girl at heart. I wonder if I can reclaim her childhood?

    • Jamie Martin says:

      Yes, of course, Emily! One step at a time…and it sounds like for you perhaps your one step to homeschooling is a great place to start. You’ll know just what you need to do, so don’t worry.

  30. I’ve come to see this as a pivotal issue. Holding a place for childhood to unfold seems increasingly difficult because there’s an avalanche of pressure to hurry and perform and DO. It’s easy for parents to get caught up, to think acceleration means they’re doing the best for their kids. Those of us who prefer make believe, day dreams, snuggling, and free play often feel like we’re holding back that avalanche on our own. Thanks for such a beautifully written post. Sharing on my FRL facebook page, as I find myself doing with every one of your posts!
    Laura Grace Weldon’s latest post: Where Fascination Leads

  31. Faigie says:

    I personally find that television takes away the innocence of childhood. There is so much provocative stimulation that kids are exposed to that it robs them of their childhood, aside from the fact that kids that watch too much don’t read and I for one cannot imagine a childhood without reading. It was one of mine and my kids biggest delights.

  32. Really well said, Jamie. I have a 5 and 7 year old in a Waldorf/homeschool setup. It’s 3 days a week (1/2 days) and that is more than enough school for them… we don’t pack up weekends with competitive sports, but rather plan outdoor projects and camp whenever we can, or go fishing. Screens and iparents are killing their active bodies and minds. I applaud any blog or writing that tells parents to turn off the screens and simplify. We are reading the Little House series, set 100 years ago, and the kids love it. We try to build boot jacks and wood projects and recreate that time. Ah, I wish sometimes we were all born 100 years ago. :)

  33. Gaz says:

    This is a fantastic post. Our childhood disappears all too quickly. I remember my childhood so well and all the fun we used to do, never sitting at home watching tv or playing games etc. To me it is so vitally important that children get out into nature and learn about life that way. Every weekend we do something and then once a month we rotate and do a whole weekend of what one of us have planned in our family of 4.
    Gaz’s latest post: Interesting facts about the ear

  34. Noelle says:

    Hi there, I love this post! I am a stay at home mom with a two year old and an almost five year old. The oldest, a girl, goes to preschool three days per week from 9 to 12. We did this to let her socialize a little bit, and make a few friends. We just moved into our neighborhood and there are no small children ever around, they are always at school or I guess at outside activities. We took a alook at our local public school, and it is huge, almost 900 kids, and just so busy and not really in line with our lifestyles. But I wanted to ask you ladies with experience, how do you fit in everything? I know it is possible as so many people do it, but when I think about my day at home, I cant imagine also fitting in schooling for the kids. I make all our food from scratch with us all having multiple food allergies, I make crafts to sell to supplement our income etc etc. i know you ladies do all this kind of stuff too, and you manage to get it done! Let me give you a run down of my day so maybe you could tell me where I would fit it in: Wake, shower 7am, no fancy makeup or drying hair etc, breakfast, nurse child, compile myriad of supplements and vitamins we all take for all our health issues, and breakfast, clean that up, phone calls and home administration, go for a walk, play outside in sun little while, prep lunch, eat lunch, nurse youngest down for nap, HERE is where I read with oldest, or do activities tc while child naps but we only have about an hour and a half while he sleeps, nurse child at waking, snack, go outside prep dinner, eat dinner, start bed routine, and in between all that are snippets of time where I clean a toilet, sew a craft to sell, clean up the playroom, make gluten free muffins and pancakes for the freezer for the weeks , breakfasts, etc etc. I know some of you have twice as many children and do twice the things I do! I dnt know if it is my low thyroid making my slow outlook on life seem impossible, but maybe someone on here could offer me some advice! And do any of you live in a neighborhood where there is not a single other homeschool child? Do you have any issues with them not having any social or playtime with other kids? My oldest and youngest are still not the besst playmates yet, so my daughter craves playing with kids her age, she loves preschool for that reason…any books on these topics you recommend too? Thank you all!

  35. Jill says:

    Amen to this! I have a co-worker who spends every evening and all weekend driving her one child to and from one activity/club/activity to the next. It’s bad enough her husband’s a busy doctor and she works full time too. I wonder how that bunch ever has time to just…be a family.
    And all this overscheduing doesn’t just take away from childhood. Add up the cost of all these classes/memberships/fees plus the cost of all of the equipment and all the fundraisers many of these groups expect you to partcipate in…plus the cost of gas to do all that driving around. Wow! How do these families afford to be so “active”???
    And really, children are fickle. One day they are sooooo into something and then a week later they don’t like it anymore. Before rushing to sign a child up for the next class or club wouldn’t it be a bit more prudent to wait a bit and see what talents and interests really stick and THEN investing time and money in extra-curriculars??

  36. Dana B says:

    Your first paragraph describes my childhood and my children’s childhood perfectly. Everything has a trade-off and we are a bit isolated but we wouldn’t give up the mud between our toes and romping through the woods for anything!!!
    Dana B’s latest post: Science Conundrum

  37. Gary says:

    As a child we moved to different countries so often so having special memories of just one home and school friends that grew up together are unfortunately foreign to me. As a teenager I was put into boarding school and these memories are the ones I hold of my friends. I never really had the childhood I always dreamed of but I understand circumstances at the time did not allow for it but this all changes with my childrens memories . Thank you for this article even if it bought back some sad memories for me
    Gary’s latest post: Eye Exercises

  38. Janalin Hood says:

    Jamie, You speak to my heart once again. What a post! My favorite book about mothering and childhood is Steady Days, YOURS! :) xo Janalin

  39. Anna says:

    We are so blessed, we live a small country town with a river the children can play in and easy access to woods and beaches. My husband is planning to set up a Saturday morning outdoor club for basically playing outdoors in some woods we rent. The interest in this has been incredible even amongst parents who are farmers and gardeners. There seams to be a real heart among parents to give children this time to be children. Our oldest daughter has opted out of all after school clubs and activities in favour of playing in the river ir at the woods. it seams that it is in thier hearts we just feel blessed to be able to facilitate this play. Thanks for this post Jamie it is a real encouragement we are on the right track.

  40. Dorcas says:

    Wow, I love this reminder to reclaim our children’s childhood. I noticed that the more movies, computer games, and playing on line games the kids do, the more bored they become. It literally dulls their brains! I’m looking forward to reading the books mentioned. Thanks for the encouragement to slow down.:)

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