First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
What Do We Do For Our Kids?
Even baboons have children successfully. Chimps get their babies to adulthood all the time.
Of course, their kids can't read and write. They won't be going to college. They'll never head a Fortune 500 company. They aren't likely to be hired even to dig ditches -- they just don't dig straight enough. I guess their parents failed them.
Humans aren't baboons or chimps. Our children are helpless or dependent for far longer. We have a more complicated society to prepare them for.
But one fact remains: Most of what our children need to learn to succeed as adults, they learn simply from being in a well-functioning family.
Children are designed to be learning machines. They may not be able to feed themselves, but they teach themselves with astonishing speed, breadth, and depth.
We notice the outward markers: Look, the baby's grabbing things now! The baby can sit up! Watch her scoot across the floor! And now she's standing up! Walking! Was that a word? No, I won't let you wear that dress to the bathroom, let alone to a dance with a boy, what are you thinking?
The influences on a child's life are innumerable -- but let's enumerate anyway. Parents don't just feed and protect and provide, they also create in the child's mind their permanent image of what a man and a woman, a father and a mother, should be.
Older siblings can be co-parents; younger ones can be babies to practice parenting on; and any sib can be a rival or a friend, depending on character and circumstance.
Children in the neighborhood or at school; the parents and siblings of friends; teachers and other school authorities -- they all affect our children in ways that are almost completely out of our control.
I remember when our oldest children were in elementary school, my wife and I had an argument. Voices were raised. Till our daughter asked us if we were getting a divorce.
When I was her age I had literally never heard the word divorce. But in her school class, she was the only child living with both her birth parents. Because of the influence of people outside our home, she had the expectation that marriages could and probably would end.
We couldn't shield her from that. For our children to grow up completely secure in their trust in marriage, in their expectation of loyalty to and from their own future spouses, we needed the cooperation of our entire community -- we needed marriage to be the overwhelming example, and divorce to be rare.
But we could not control what other people did. We could only help our children grow up knowing that they would follow our example, not the example of strangers.
What Parents Can't Do
1. We can't control our children's mental development or their innate character. It can only be observed, discovered, and adapted to.
2. We can't control our own unconscious behavior. Our children will learn from things we don't even realize we're doing.
3. We can't control -- we can barely, and only rarely, influence -- what goes on in school or in the neighborhood.
4. We can't control our children's own choices when they're out of our sight.
Anybody who thinks that parenthood is a science, that you can possibly know what is the right thing for a parent to do in every circumstance and then do it, is hopelessly deluded.
Looking back into history, we find that even before there were child-rearing manuals, there were parents who tried to do the right thing. Ancient books are dotted with child-rearing advice, and we have stories of parents in every society and every era, trying to provide well for their children, trying to teach them to be good (socializing them) and happy (giving them skills).
We also find parents suffering as their children do not behave as they wanted them to. There's a reason why ancient law codes imposed penalties on children who struck their parents -- those little babies had a way of growing up to be bigger and stronger than the parents who once held them in their arms, and they didn't always grow up filled with kindness, self-restraint, patience, or love.
Learn from the Experts
From Dr. Spock onward, we Americans have turned to experts to tell us how to be better parents.
The irony is that only recently have any "experts" had a clue about what children actually need. The normal pattern is that somebody gets some theory and simply writes about it, without any attempt at rigorous thought, let alone competent science, prior to publication.
Lay your baby on its stomach to sleep. No, on its back. No, on its stomach. And each time, this advice is followed with the dire warning: ... or your baby may die!
Put your baby on a schedule. Let your baby determine its own schedule.
Here's how and when to toilet train your baby. You can't toilet train until the baby is ready, so just offer the potty and let the child decide when it's time.
Early readers make the best students, so teach your child the alphabet early. Children learn to read when they're ready -- trying to teach them too soon only makes them hate reading.
If reading to children is good for them, then reading and singing to the fetus before it's born will give the child a head start!
New Ways to Be Bad Parents
Unfortunately, at any given moment, the current child-rearing advice is likely to be hideously counterproductive, turning childhood into a nightmare.
For instance, the advice that it's better to get a divorce so your children aren't surrounded by constant bickering. (Remember that hideous song by Kenny Loggins, celebrating his divorce by singing to his child, "I did it for you"?)
Only thirty years later do we find out that, ooooops, what's better for the kids is to stop bickering and stay married -- you know, bear your disappointments in marriage, suck it up, be a grownup, put the children first. Meanwhile, we have a couple of generations of kids who are functionally homeless, shuttled from house to house, from life to life.
Many parents subscribe to a Darwinian model of life. It's a jungle out there! You have to get your kids ready to compete! If you don't force your child to devote countless hours to memorizing flash cards, your child will be behind! If you don't get your kid into the best college-oriented preschool, your child will be left behind!
The result is children who are terrified of letting their parents down, who never had a childhood at all because they were never allowed their own unstructured play -- which is how children really learn the mental skills the misguided parents were trying to teach by force.
How can you sort out which advice is good and which is bad?
You Turned Out OK
Fortunately, the simplest answer is also the one that happens quite naturally. Except where you're putting forth a conscious effort to be different from your parents, you will automatically follow the script you learned from them. You will be the mother or father you grew up with; you will expect your spouse to be the parent-of-opposite-sex you grew up with.
So, no matter what theory you're consciously following, most of the things you do with your children will be an echo of the generation before. And since you turned out to be ok, mostly, so will your children.
The very fact that you feel a duty to intervene in every stage of your child's development is born of your protectiveness -- which is good. Children whose parents pay attention to them thrive better than those that are ignored. And children instinctively know this -- that's why they demand attention from the cradle on.
We adults also instinctively know it -- that's why the sound of a child crying is the single most annoying sound in nature: When we hear it, we have to do something.
Nature is predisposed to raise children well, or at least well enough. Parents are always surrounded by advice, whether they buy child-rearing books or not. Every parent has relatives and neighbors who are full of opinions about what they ought to do.
In practice, parents act according to their own upbringing and innate character. An impatient, controlling parent will be demanding and impossible to satisfy, whether the family lives in a village in Amazonia or a high-rise in Manhattan. Lazy parents, inattentive parents, loving parents, joyful parents, anxious parents -- they exist in every culture and choose the child-rearing theory that suits the kind of parenting they want to do.
So do we just forget about it and do what we want?
We can't -- because as parents, we often have to struggle against the myriad influences in the world that distort and mar and endanger our children's lives. Most of our ancestors didn't have to have a policy on homework, driving, or dating, because the surrounding society had strict rules that protected children when they were away from home.
Now we don't -- we've thrown away such "old-fashioned" customs as chaperonage, keeping children from dating until they're actually old enough to marry, expecting teenagers to learn how to work and bear responsibility.
We can't give them the family life that our parents gave us, because we don't live in our parents' world. The expectations of society used to help us -- for instance, teenagers would be publicly shamed by pregnancy and therefore most of them avoided the activity that would lead to it. Now society actively promotes underage sex "when you love each other enough" (the stupidest advice ever given to a child), and parents who want to raise their children to be responsible spouses and parents are virtually at war with society in order to accomplish it.
Do We Despair?
There are books that give good advice. Most of the time, the title alone tells you the main point the book is making. You read the book only to get the details -- proofs and examples.
For instance, two books by David Elkind: The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children, and Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance. Elkind is a Freudian, and you can see it in his method -- he generally offers edicts, so that his books sound like scripture in their claim of authority. But the advice he offers is generally good. (I suspect what we're really getting is a wise man's common sense, but because he studied with and practically worships Piaget, everything has to be cloaked in jargon and fit to procrustean theories.)
In the first book, he decries the way we deprive our children of genuine play experiences. He bemoans the standard list of modern sins -- videogames! Television! -- but if you want to know what play is and why kids need plenty of time for it, the book is very helpful.
In the second, Elkind points out the dangers of forcing our children to make adult decisions far too young. Thirteen-year-olds shouldn't be thinking about condoms; kids shouldn't be forced to see the weakness of the adults around them. Instead, they need a grounding in security; they need to be and feel protected, even when they chafe against the restraints.
Both books make wonderful reading, as long as you take the theories with a grain of salt and simply think about the advice he offers and compare it with your own experience of life.
William Crain's Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society is a powerful jeremiad about some of the awful things we're doing to our kids. For instance, here is a portion of his take on the "standards movement" -- the theory that is driving test-centered education:
"There is broad agreement ... that students in traditional schools don't like their work very much and don't work very hard at it. But the standards movement doesn't call for more intrinsically interesting work -- work that students find exciting and meaningful. Instead, the movement calls for more external pressures and incentives" (p. 159). It's all threats and pressure. Do this or else.
Many of Crain's observations ring true to me -- because they fit with my own memory of childhood. Here he is, echoing an idea of Montessori's: "Until children find tasks on which to concentrate, they seem restless and out of sorts. Then they rather mysteriously become attracted to the tasks (as if moved by an inner guide) and work on them with a concentration so deep that it looks like a kind of meditation" (p. 170).
I remember this over and over from my own childhood. I've seen it with my own kids, too: "I'm bored! There's nothing to do!" And when the parent suggests a task (usually a chore) the child sighs as if the parent were the stupidest person on earth. But a few hours later, there's the same fitful, restless child -- you know, the one with the short attention span -- working for the second hour at a task of her own choosing, unaware of the passage of time, so concentrated that she didn't even hear the call to dinner.
"Children's natural behavior is frequently joyful and spirited. In their informal sports and games, children run, leap, dodge, and chase with freedom and exuberance" (p. 171). Which brings us to another wonderful book, Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
My first thought, when I saw this book, was: I hate camping.
But this isn't a book that says we must take our kids on camping trips. Or, well, it doesn't just say that.
As I read it, I kept remembering my own childhood. I was the least outdoorsy kid you could imagine. My idea of heaven was to curl up in a chair with a stack of books and read and read and read.
And yet my memories of childhood include far more than books. When I was four, I remember my older brother and sister taking me exploring in the woods behind our house in City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City and discovering a fort that neighbor boys had built.
Later, growing up in California, we had a creek behind our house (all we had to do was climb over a six-foot-high board fence -- even a non-athlete like me somehow managed it) and another between our house and the elementary school. Most of the time the creeks were dry, and my sibs and I, or my friends and I, explored every inch of those creeks.
I walked in meadows, climbed trees, dug in the dirt, planted things and watched them grow and ate the produce from our garden; I weeded gardens and lawns, held bugs in my hand and studied them, or squished them and studied the guts.
And when we moved to Arizona, I walked the lush deserts with my father and brothers, so I knew paloverdes and all kinds of cacti, the desert birds and reptiles and mammals; we carried .22s and occasionally aimed at something, but never actually hit anything; but we climbed the rocky hills and traversed the streambeds.
I have rapelled down into caves and moved in near darkness, my hands on the clammy cave walls. I have moved among the aspen and scrub-oak forests of the Rocky Mountains and waded in a mountain lake.
And I hate the outdoors. Think what I would have done if I loved it?
Some children seize nature and hold it close. One of my son's best friends, a boy named Jason, walked everywhere. It didn't bother him that Greensboro had no sidewalks -- he disdained pavement. He found ways to walk in woods right in the middle of town. He grew up to be a geographer, but I remember admiring him when, as a boy, he refused to live in the city even when, in fact, he did.
But some -- many -- children are almost completely cut off from the natural world, from the cycles of life, from the flora and fauna of planet Earth. And in Last Child in the Woods, Louv explains possible reasons why this might be a very bad thing.
The Most Important Gift We Give Our Children
The most important book of all those I've recently read, however, is Kay S. Hymowitz's devastatingly fact-based Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age.
Hymowitz takes it as a given that we have pretty much destroyed the institution of marriage in our society. Marriages still exist, but they are not the rule.
However, the surprise is who has given up on marriage. One would assume, listening to the rhetoric of the highly educated in America, that it is the upper class, the elite, that have abandoned marriage and are now producing babies out of wedlock.
It is the opposite that is the case. The intellectual elite may preach about how a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, but in fact the overwhelming majority of children born to educated, well-to-do parents are born within a marriage, and raised in married households.
Meanwhile, it is in the lower classes that the message about the unimportance of marriage has been most powerfully believed. The result is that Hymowitz sees a deep and self-replicating gap in our society: On the one side, the moneyed, educated caste, marrying and raising their children in more or less stable families, with the result that these children grow up with a far, far greater likelihood of success. On the other side are the less-educated, who are increasingly raising their children in single-parent homes, which cripples the children from the start.
Cause and effect can be argued here, but Hymowitz offers compelling evidence that unmarriage is a cause, not just a symptom, of the disadvantages of the disadvantaged. If there is one book from this column that you read, make it this one. Because, by the end, it will be hard for you to argue against the proposition that the single most important thing that any would-be parent can do to ensure his or her children's success and happiness (by any measure) is: Provide those children with a father and mother who are married to each other, and stay married to each other.
Fifty years ago, such a declaration would have been met with complete puzzlement. Why would anyone need to say anything so obvious? The very idea of having children out of wedlock, or breaking up a marriage once you had children, was very nearly unthinkable. Now you practically have to apologize for doing something so old-fashioned as to marry. And yet ... the smart people are doing it, no matter what they say in theory.
It's the great American divide, and the decision to have children outside of marriage has negative consequences for generations afterward. Hymowitz chose the word "caste" very carefully: You can easily move between classes based on money or education, but you can't so easily undo the consequences of growing up in a single-parent home.
Keep in mind: All of the devastatingly failed experiments we have performed on our families over the past fifty years have been advocated by passionate "intellectuals" who assured us that the result would be greater happiness. But the result of breaking down and denigrating the traditional family has been nothing but misery and failure.
And yet the same authoritarians and ideologues continue to insist that tearing down the family is still the smart thing to do, that "traditional values" are to be sneered at. Their theories' utter lack of good results does not deter them. They go on preaching their ludicrous "reforms" and sneering at traditional values and many are the people who are still deceived.
What Can We Do for Our Kids?
For the good of your own family:
1. Give your children two parents who are married to each other and live in the same dwelling, and who are kind to each other and to the children.
2. Don't put your children to work, except for a reasonable number of chores; let them play -- and play with them at their games.
3. Connect your children with the natural world -- get them out of the house, with a rational amount of freedom and a chance to explore.
4. Keep in mind that parents who mean well and try hard generally do OK even if they make mistakes along the way.
And for the good of everyone's children:
1. Protect not only our own children but the children of all other families by helping the institution of faithful marriage return to being and seeming secure and nearly universal.
2. Fight to protect all our children from authoritarians abroad and at home, no matter what guise they wear or what ideology they preach. People whose faith in their ideas makes them ignore all evidence and seek to give their groundless opinions the force of law are a danger to us all.
Don't trust my opinion, of course. Don't even trust the writers of these books, though some of them, at least, do try to marshal serious evidence in support of their ideas.
Read these books, but then compare what they say to your own experience, your own memories -- the things you remember about your own childhood, the things you learned from your parents and from your own child-rearing experiences. Do your own reality checks, and trust your instincts and common sense.
Chimps and baboons generally do ok at raising their kids, and they never read a book. We humans have higher standards and harder tasks to accomplish. So let's read the books -- but then trust our common sense, our love of our children, our understanding of what it means to be happy and successful.
Our children come to us with their own personalities, desires, tastes, fears, needs, and hopes. Our job is to help them discover how to live well and happily within the world they happen to have been born into. We can't control what that world does. But we have extraordinary power to shape the experience our children get within the walls of our own homes.
And, being adults, we have the wisdom and self-control to do, not just what we feel like doing, nor just what someone else tells us to do, but what we choose to do after much study and discussion and thought.
We can change our own behavior. We can change the small world we create for our children, the haven they are so eager to escape from and will always long to return to. We can raise our children in safety, in strength, in wisdom, in joy.
William Crain, Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society
David Elkind, The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children
David Elkind, Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance
Kay S. Hymowitz, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age
Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
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