Saturday, June 12, 2010

Free-Range Kids, Part 2: And Here Are Its Shortcomings

Free-Range Commandments 8 and 9 are “Study History: Your Ten-Year-Old Would Have Been Forging Horseshoes (or at Least Delivering Papers),” and “Be Worldly: Why Other Countries Are Laughing at zee Scardey-Cat Americans.”

In many ways, these two chapters provide a lot of helpful perspective. For example, Mark Twain started work as an apprentice printer when he was 11 or 12. Herman Melville went off on a whaling ship (a very hard life) at the age of 16, abandoned ship, and was captured by cannibals. Ben Franklin began his apprenticeship with his older brother when he was twelve. “In colonial America, especially in colonial New England, it was not uncommon to send off children who were very young – six, seven, eight, nine – to live with other families as servants” (page 70). Today, Skenazy points out, in most cities a kid cannot even get a job delivering papers. Cities are too spread out for bicycle delivery, and newspapers are worried about liability (page 71).

The point is well taken. The benefits of kids going to work - especially before the Industrial Age made hours longer and work unskilled, repetitive, and brutal – were that the kids were learning actual skills, with lots and lots of mentoring and practice. “Adults and children worked together, and there wasn’t such a huge gulf between them. Children were expected to rise to the adulthood all around them, not stew in adorable incompetence” (72 – 73). That is why those who did great achievements, often were ready to do so in their 20s, an age when many of us today don’t have any skills or experience yet.

Those are the benefits. However. The Cinderella story reminds us that the fate of a kid sent to be a servant in someone else’s home was not always the cheeriest. Colonial kids got the benefits of learning adult skills; they also got beatings, deprivation, pneumonia, etc. Skenazy’s point is not that their existence was ideal, merely that they survived to become competent and often compassionate adults. And if they could survive that, then our kids can survive learning to do a few things on their own.

My quibble is that Skenazy does not make this point very loudly. A sympathetic reader can infer that she is not recommending we send our six-year-olds to live in another state, but she does not actually say so.

It gets worse in the next chapter. Skenazy cites a range of practices found in other cultures, some of which are good for the kids, others not so much. Examples of good-for-you cultural practices: siblings and cousins playing together in a big field all day while their moms work (Liberia), or walking to the local chestnut tree to pick chestnuts (Germany). Not-so-good: “In more than one culture … the mother’s job is to reject the child so that the child has no choice but to join the group of youngsters who take care of each other and keep themselves occupied so their parents can work. The adored small child must suffer the trauma of growing into an object of contempt” (page 80 - 81). Gosh, surely there are ways to teach our children independence without subjecting them to rejection and contempt. But Skenazy assures us that “it just happens to work really well in about half the world.” In the polygamous Liberian family described, “the dad barely knew [his children’s] names” (page 81).

Once again, I believe Skenazy’s point is not that we should reject our kids and minimize their personal contact with their fathers. I believe her point is simply that kids can survive, and even thrive, with a lot less supervision than we think they “need.” However, that point remains latent. It comes off sounding as if Skenazy is actually recommending that we reject our kids because it will be so good for them.

This raises the whole question of what supervision is for. There are, after all, reasons to keep our kids close to us other than safety: to have fun, to express affection, to teach and mentor them. To observe their habits, likes, reactions and faults, so that we can encourage, correct, and guide them. We want children who have good character, and this takes a lot of face time and training so that they learn to have self-discipline, respect authority (in their case, primarily us), be considerate of others, etc. For a book-long development of this point, see the book or web site Raising Godly Tomatoes.

However, the kind of never-letting-the-kids-out-of-our-sight that Skenazy rightly deplores has as its main goal the kids’ physical safety. It is the classic mistake of paying too much attention to the body and not enough to the soul. The parents described in Free Range Kids keep close tabs on their kids because they’re worried about germs, skin cancer, kidnapping, bumps and bruises, not because they’re worried that their kid might have a habit of pride, rebellion or selfishness that is growing unchecked. Skenazy rightly points out that physical overprotection can be bad for the child’s soul (though she does not use that word). Unfortunately, she ends up implying that the children’s souls will be just fine with minimal input from their parents. This is just not true. Benign neglect is certainly much better for the child than obsessive overprotection, but better than both is an approach that involves lots of input and mentoring from parents combined with lots of opportunities for kids to learn adult skills, play on their own, and explore.

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