It’s time for me to take a shower, so I tell my 8-year-old I’m heading upstairs. He says he’s going to stay downstairs at the little table he shares with his sister by the big sunny window, the table where they do art project after art project. He’s going to draw.
I climb the stairs and, before I shower, I check my email and get tangled up in some work-related stuff. As I’m trying to muddle through a problem, sending off emails and double-checking case notes, I hear whistling from downstairs. Sometimes tuneless, sometimes melodic, always cheery, it’s the sound of a child doing what children love to do most: being creative, making something, exploring the space between his own imagination and the world around, his discoveries reflected in what he puts on the page. I can hear my son drawing away happily, his cheerful bird call signaling to the world that he is drawing at the table by the sunny window and loving the moment. It’s the sound of happy industry.
My son and daughter are very different kids. My son wears contentment on his sleeve, humming and singing and whistling while drawing or painting or reading or building or even eating. Yes, he hums when he is eating something that he really loves – nice feedback for the cook. My daughter shows her contentment differently, by channeling her natural intensity into an activity, be it art or reading or writing or pretending. She just goes deeply into whatever it is, and it’s her involvement and concentration that tell me that she’s truly happy.
Both of my kids seem happiest when they are creating. Children love to make stuff. They are industrious. It’s not the adult version of productivity, which is so often marred by anxiety and pressure, banality, repetition, performance metrics and high-stakes outcomes. Instead, children pursue happy industry. They eagerly seek ways to interact with the world in a fully active, engaged manner. They turn a box into something to play with; create a small book of drawings; glue together sticks to make a little house; fall into a great book; play school with stuffed animals or dolls; create entire imaginary worlds – it’s all about making something, transforming one thing into something else, learning and engaging, pretending, being active, not passive. A great deal of what they do most naturally is inherently creative. When their version of productivity is devalued and forced to look more like that of adults – e.g., with an over-reliance on performance metrics, high-stakes outcomes (i.e., testing), repetition, banality, pressure – we are getting in the way of their healthy development.
The trailblazing psychologist Erik Erikson conceptualized psychosocial development as a set of stages, each stage framed as a conflict between a healthy developmental step and what happens if that stage is not completed successfully. His theory, unlike other psychoanalytic theories of the day, extended the concept of development across the lifespan and was concrete about what people are trying to accomplish at each stage. The fourth stage of psychosocial development, from ages 5 to 11, he called “Industry vs. Inferiority.” Healthy development in this stage is marked by increasing pride in one’s accomplishments, active engagement with the world around oneself, and a blossoming sense of oneself as competent. In college and graduate school, studying child psychology, I was particularly taken with the sense that children are industrious, and their form of industry is fun and creative and both inspiring and humbling to see.
Under the evergreen tree in the front yard, shadows move in the twilight. My kids and two friends are building a fort out of logs. They move about, staying low under the boughs, pausing and squatting and placing logs, spider-walking around their developing creation. Walls take shape; conflicts and compromises get worked out; gravity is reckoned with when some logs topple and have to be placed carefully anew. Plans are laid, attempted, and reworked. Their discussions are barely audible through the house window. My son occasionally whistles. I’m aware of all of these sounds as the hum of contented kids doing what kids love to do most – it’s the hum of happy industry.