Creativity and enthusiasm define childhood, but American children seem to be losing these gifts, teachers say.
American children are less creative and less motivated than past generations. When teachers compare today’s children with their peers from only a few years ago, there’s a clear difference, according to Page Park, an Indiana teacher with 24 years of experience.
“They don’t know how to think for themselves, too. I do have a few kids that are really good at problem-solving, but not as many. They’re not good at problem-solving,” she said.
Park said that since she first started teaching, creativity has declined. Students today don’t look for solutions to simple problems.
For instance, if a student found he didn’t have a pencil, he wouldn’t ask for a spare, Park said.
“I’ve taught most of my career,” Park said. “I’m talking high school students who just don’t think to ask, ‘Hey, can I borrow a pencil?’ And I have them available where they can just take them.”
When Park looks at her classroom, she sees a disconnected generation.
“They talk about games a lot. They never talk about going outside. They talk about staying up late. Their sleep rhythms are awful,” Park said.
“I have one that was telling me last week or the week before that he doesn’t go to bed until three o’clock in the morning. They might be a little more rigid in movement.”
Other teachers in different states have seen a similar change.
Theresa, a teacher in New York and writer for The Developing Mom, also said her students seem to lack creativity and motivation. To protect the privacy of her students, Theresa chose to remain anonymous.
“I thought, all I have to do is just show up every day and do my very best, and I can inspire these kids. I can change your life. Every teacher thinks that,” she said. “But what I started to see was the students, they were not inspired, no matter what I or my fellow teachers did.”
In the three schools where Theresa has taught, she’s found this same problem.
Theresa, a Nigerian immigrant, said that the children she grew up with had far greater creativity and motivation than the children she now teaches. In her experience, American children give up when challenged.
“Why is it that these kids show up and they are completely disinterested in education? It baffled me,” she said.
About half of the students at Theresa’s current school are homeless, but they lack the drive to escape the poverty that Nigerian children had, she said.
Theresa knows the challenges of poverty. As a child in Nigeria, she and her siblings often had only one daily meal, but they and other children were desperate to get educated and succeed.
“To see people waste their opportunity makes me want to cry,” Theresa said. “Any child in Nigeria would give an arm and a leg to come to this place. And you guys have everything, and you throw it away.”
Jessica Bonner, a speech pathologist for elementary schoolers in Birmingham, Alabama, also said she sees a difference between children today and in the past. They don’t usually talk about what they like to do together, she said. Instead, they seem centered on absorbing online videos other people make.
“The thing that changed was the cellphones. Smartphones, though, were the thing that started the change. So now students are looking at and relying on the devices more,” Bonner said.
Recently, she asked a group of children in one of her classes to choose an educational topic for a music video they would create. Instead of debating or making a choice, they looked at her blankly, then started talking with each other about unrelated subjects.
“I honestly believe that elementary school students are so accustomed to having to follow a set curriculum throughout the day with little to no input from them that they unconsciously shelve their ideas,” Bonner said.
In the stories these teachers tell, creativity and the drive for success seem closely connected. Creativity arises from an intense desire for some result. When children feel apathetic, they don’t create.
Trading Dreams for Screens
Experts have several theories on why American children are less creative. But the first and most popular theory is that living constantly online damages a child’s ability to think and self-motivate.
Teachers who contacted The Epoch Times agreed that too much time online is part of the problem, and the statistics back them up.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics suggest that in 2010, something changed mental health for teens.
From 1999 to 2010, only a few years had teen self-harm rates above 300 injuries per 100,000 people or suicide rates above 10 per 100,000 people. But after 2010, suicide and self-harm rates for young people 18 to 24 have never dropped below these numbers, and have generally trended upward.
According to Pew Research Center, one of the biggest changes in society during the same time period was a rise in cellphone ownership.
Other surveys suggest that young people spend extremely high amounts of time online.
While correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, in the experience of both teachers and psychologists, excessive time online and mental problems tend to go together.
Psychologist Dr. Leonard Sax said that American children spend much more time online compared to children from other countries.
“In this country, for example, it’s very common for kids to go to bed with their phones, or for boys to have video game consoles in their bedrooms,” Sax said. “It’s actually unusual in continental Europe.”
As children have started living online more, child mental illness has increased dramatically, Sax said. Somehow, excessive time online seems linked to disengagement, lack of motivation, and a wide variety of other symptoms.
“Over the last three years, American kids have gone off the deep end and are now many, many times more likely to be anxious, depressed, disengaged, unmotivated, and not paying attention compared to kids in Europe, Australia, or New Zealand,” he said.
Growing Up Smart
According to teachers, children today tend to spend their whole lives tied to their smartphones.
Even the friendships of today’s children don’t resemble those of children a decade ago, Park said. They revolve around what happens online. For them, it seems like the internet is ‘the real world.’
“It’s all about what he or she did on TikTok,” Park said.
Park, who also teaches yoga, said that children seem separated from their bodies because of their extensive online life.
“If they get frustrated with something, they don’t know how to deal with that within their body. They don’t know how to shut their nervous system down and come back into a rest-and-digest state,” she said. “So they live in this constant state of panic and anxiety.”
Fixation on technology leaves children isolated from nature, too, Park said, and this separation from nature makes them less creative.
“They don’t go with their toes in the grass,” she said. “There’s a huge disconnect between kids and nature, a huge disconnect between what’s going on with them physically.”
When children live online, they tend to consume the content of others without developing their own thoughts, Bonner said.
“They’re pretty much being influenced by what they’re seeing,” she said. “That definitely contributes heavily to them not being as creative, because they’re being influenced by someone else.”
According to Dr. Patrick Capriola, founder of the education website Strategies for Parents, kids learn creativity in early childhood. To do these activities well, they have to practice without distractions.
When children spend more time looking at screens, they don’t take advantage of this crucial time, he said. Instead of experiencing life, processing it, then engaging with it, they risk being overwhelmed by stimuli.
“The more time children spend in front of a screen, the less time they have to be with their imagination, focus on their thoughts, and experiment with them in creative ways, because the content behind the screen often does it for them,” Capriola said.
“This exposure has the potential to degrade their ability to develop these skills, because the child has less time to conceptualize ideas on their own.”
Theresa said she believes that American children aren’t creative because others solve their problems for them.
With access to the internet and parents who quickly intervene instead of letting kids struggle a little, children approach life as if someone else will always solve their problems, she said.
“Every little problem that they have is immediately solved for them. And if it can’t be solved by their parents, they just find a resource online,” she said.
When children don’t have challenges to overcome, they don’t know what to do when they face a difficult concept in school, Theresa said.
Teachers at her school struggle to find a solution to this problem, she said. In her teachers’ lounge, how to help kids who won’t face challenges is a common discussion. But there aren’t any good answers.
“We complain about the issue, and then we just accept it. Like, this is just how America is. This is how the kids are,” she said. “You just have to move on.”
Psychologists call this sort of dependence on others “learned helplessness.” When parents help their children too much, children conclude that they don’t have agency.
The problems caused by learned helplessness resemble the problems caused by too much time online. They include depression, underachievement, and anxiety.
Issues at School
Another reason why kids don’t create may be the nature of school today. According to Sax, many things about the American education system leave it struggling to capture the interest of children.
Unlike schools in Europe, which focus on teaching kids to enjoy school before teaching them academic skills, American schools often teach kids skills before children are old enough to learn them, Sax wrote in his book “Boys Adrift.”
Because boys develop more slowly than girls, this trend harms them more, he said.
Boys who are too young to succeed at school feel like they’re stupid, Sax said. They start to hate school because it forces them to fail.
After about 20 years of trying to persuade school leaders to change how they teach, Sax has found that for the most part, they’re unwilling to listen.
“When you approach a principal or school administrator with that kind of concern, you are a nuisance, and you will accomplish nothing. They may or may not say something nice, but it doesn’t really matter,” he said.
Park said that in her experience, schools do a poor job with children that aren’t academically gifted. Although everyone should have some competence with reading and math, not everyone needs to be great at it.
A child could be a creative artist, creative carpenter, or creative builder, but a school that focuses on teaching academic subjects often will let that child down, she said.
“I feel like those kids who maybe would have been creative in some of those other areas, maybe they would be an amazingly creative welder. They would be able to create a beautiful thing, given the opportunity,” Park said.
But because they struggle in more academic subjects, they aren’t able to go into this program.
College isn’t for everyone, Page said, and there are many other good ways to earn a living.
Times Are Changing
It may be that children are more perceptive of what the future will hold than adults are, said Robert Powers, a college counselor.
Although excessive online activity seems tied to mental problems, online life is here to stay, he said. Life in the future will likely be even more online.
Children won’t be creative, relationally connected, and ambitious in the same way they once were, he said. But we’ll use the same words to describe what they do in new settings.
This generation will become esport athletes and online friends, he said.
“The child who was once glued to his screen was really ahead of his time, trying to balance two worlds that really ought to have been combined all along,” Powers said.
A digital or “blended” world is the future, he said.
“And I do think that also means that the kids are all right,” he said.
But to many teachers who knew children before they lived online, creativity, determination, and friendships today seem less than what they could be.
Park said that she has always loved technology. But she has seen that too much time online cuts her students off from the beauty of nature and from human relationships.
“It’s not as good as it could be,” she said.