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MAIN IDEA 2 (read this second!)

Just two hundred years ago children were so important, so useful, so crucial to a family’s survival that a man with seven children was considered a very lucky man. Today, if a guy tells you he has seven children you probably won’t say, “You are so lucky. If only I had seven children my life would be so much easier!

If you were at my talk yesterday, you know that I concluded with this new definition of parenting: the opportunity to co-create and enjoy a healthy relationship with one’s offspring. Today, I will talk about the number one thing we do as a society that makes it harder for parents and children to relate to each other in a healthy way:

It’s this idea we have of childhood, this idea that
-children are pure and fragile and need to be protected from the big, bad world, they can’t handle reality
-children are crazy and immoral and need to be controlled, you can’t just let them do whatever they want
-children are blank slates, and lazy by nature, they wouldn’t learn anything if we didn’t make them

In almost all of human history there was no such thing as childhood. Old people and young people lived life together. This didn’t even begin to change until the middle ages in Europe.

And it began to change because Big Religion decided that drinking, feasting and fornicating were wrong and if children were kept at home, they would never grow up to drink, feast or fornicate because they wouldn’t know those things existed.

In order for children to kept at home, someone else had to stay home, someone who could police all those children. So it was decided that women also belonged at home, the world was too crude for them too.

It took four and half centuries to thoroughly implement this removal of children from the world—it was really the Victorians, only 150 years ago that made it happen.

So what happens to the parent-child relationship when we follow this particular “should be”. What does this script demand from us? It demands that we hide sex, certain words, drugs, alcohol and violence from our children. It demands that we never yell or fight in front of our children and that we hide our feelings of anger and depression.

So if we are good moms and dads and we do hide the adult world, the real world from our children what we are doing is excluding our children from huge chunks of our lives. This is NOT how one starts a healthy relationship with someone.

And of course, the truth is, we’re not really hiding anything. Children learn about sex, they learn all the bad words, they try alcohol and no matter how good our acting—they know when mom and dad are fighting.

Our children, in order to be good boys and girls, either have to pretend they don’t know these things or they have to really not know them by turning a blind eye and blocking out reality. What we are actually teaching our children, who are born as passionate students of reality, is that it is good to not know reality.

Joseph Campbell talks about two ways religions can be classified: there are those religions that see life as it is and say: well, that is perfect. Birth, death, pleasure, pain, life feeding on other life—that is perfect.

And then there are those religions that see life and say: oh no, this is not good. Life should not be like this. It should be more fair. There should not be death. Death is bad, it’s like failing.

And so they come up with these stories that once life was different but we messed it up somehow and we have to spend our lives atoning or when we die, life will finally be okay, but in the mean time, we must spend our lives atoning.

Any psychologist could tell you that not accepting reality will only make you miserable. We hear a lot about repression and shadow selves and all the ways we hide parts of ourselves that we don’t want to accept—that’s the other thing we teach our children when we hide these parts of life from them. We give our children the message that these aspects of life are things of which they should feel ashamed.

What if, instead of hiding our anger from our children, we felt angry. What if feeling anger was okay? Okay from mom and okay for three year olds.
What if sex just was part of life?

Another thing that happens when we follow the script that decrees children must protected from the adult world, is that parenting becomes a lot harder.

You know bring your daughter to work day? That’s how I think about parenting. I want to bring my son to life with me—and I can’t. If I want to get a drink with my friend—I have to hire a babysitter. If I want to take a yoga class—hire a babysitter! Want to go back to work—daycare!

Imagine how much easier parenting would be if we could bring our kids everywhere we went.

And what about for the children? John Holt says: What kind of model of adult life does the modern child get, who sees his father come home in the evening, sit down, perhaps read the paper, and spend the rest of the evening and much of the weekend watching television…. Is this, then, all that men do?

Every time children are left at home with a babysitter—they are being deprived of real life skills they could be learning.

In the Carrabean today, you can still take your child everywhere with you. So everyone is used to kids being part of the world and so the world is set up for children. If you go to a bar, waiters take the kids around, they put the baby on their hip and go back to the kitchen, older kids run around outside— the children are very happy and mom and dad get to sit there, talk, laugh and drink their beer.

Compare that way-of-life to here, where parents have to spend their entire meal suffering from the intense stress provoked by policing their child and doing their best not to disturb anyone else’s meal because the standard of what a meal at a restaurant should be like is without children.

John Holt says: The institution of childhood [is] all those attitudes and feelings, and also customs and laws, that put a great gulf or barrier between the young and their elders, and the world of their elders, that make it difficult or impossible for young people to make contact with the larger society around them,
and, even more, to play any kind of active, responsible, useful part in it, that lock the young into eighteen years or more of subserviency and dependency and make of them a mixture of expensive nuisance, fragile treasure, slave and super pet.

The third thing that happens when we follow the script that decrees children must protected from the adult world, is that: a huge other-world has been created just for children… and parents have to live there instead of in the adult world.

Want to spend the evening reading—nope, you need to go watch a bunch of seven-year-olds dance at a recital. Want to go to your friend’s birthday party—nope, you have soccer games every Saturday for the next ten years. And what do parents do at these must-attend events? They’re not dancing with their children or playing soccer with their children, they are not interacting, they are not building a relationship they are participating this system of judgment, this performance of a script in which you perform for me and I approve of you.

What would parenting be like if parents did not have to move into this puppet show for twenty years but rather they brought their children into their lives? Would Americans allow that?

I don’t think so. I think that when Americans picture children as a part of the adult world, the picture that comes into their head is pure horror—and that’s not new. For 150 years, American parents have lamented that American children behave worse than children in the rest of the world. The protected childhood, it turns out, is not just about protecting children from the adult world, it’s about protecting adults from other people’s children.

Did you know that a hunter-gatherer child, by the time he is about four, is able to catch a lizard, roast it and eat it. No parents needed.

And that, in hunter-gatherer societies, children are considered to be adults at around the age of 8, smaller and weaker than those who have matured, but mentally capable of making responsible decisions like an adult would and behaving like one.

Imagine thinking you could go away for a month because your eight-year-old could totally keep things running at home while you were gone.

In the middle ages, when a French child was somewhere between the age of 8 and 12 and he wanted an education, his parents gave him some cash and sent him on his way. He would leave his family’s farm and find his way to Paris where he would get himself a room, food and then he would explore the rue des ecoles where there where numerous teachers offering different classes—like an education strip mall. This child would chose his teacher and start learning.

Imagine not having to deal with your pre-teen’s drama because he was an adult doing his own thing in Paris. Or at Harvard. Because when Harvard was founded, the average age of an entering freshman was 12 to 14.

So… American kids today don’t act like these kids. Is it lack of discipline? Or is something else?

In Huck’s Raft: A History of the American Childhood, Stephen Mintz, explains how the expulsion of children from the adult world dramatically changed how children wrote about their parents in their journals. In the 1700’s and early 1800’s, when American children still worked alongside their parents, they wrote about their parents with fondness, appreciation and reverence—it’s insane to read, you’re like, is this real? Is this kid being serious?

By the end of the 1800’s and then in the 1900’s when children were no longer allowed to work with their parents and instead went to daycares and schools, children wrote about their parents exactly as children today write about their parents—with anger, angst, disappointment and struggle.

This change in the parent-child relationship is also reflected in the journals of parents. Same story—children used to be an appreciated asset but by the 1900’s parents describe their children as parents today describe their children--disagreeable, unappreciative, hard to control, irresponsible and childish.

Excluding children from the real world made them… children! But excluding them alone didn’t make them children. We also sent them off to daycares and schools.

And this talk is not a talk about the problems with education. This is a talk about the parent-child relationship and what school and daycare do to that relationship.

First, in the history of world, three year olds never hung out with other three year olds. And they don’t want to. In her essay The Comprachicos Ayn Rand says: A small child is mildly curious about, but not greatly interested in, other children of his own age… He is not seeking equals, but cognitive superiors, people who know. Observe that young children prefer the company of older children or of adults, that they can hero-worship and try to emulate.

When three year olds are included in the adult world, they don’t try to act like the other three year olds. They try to act like the seven year olds who are trying to act like the adults. When we take all of our children and put them in a pen with other people their age, they adjust to fitting in with people their age.

This means, according to Rand, they adjust to all those things we adjusted to in elementary school: cruelty, injustice, blindness, silliness, pretentiousness, snubs, mockery, treachery, lies, incomprehensible demands, unwanted favors, nagging affections, unprovoked hostilities… [They adjust to] the protective devices of… unformed children….

The Victorian’s thought school was the perfect place to protect children from the adult world, but as it turns out, school is more competitive, contemptuous and cruel than the adult world.

So today people say, “Well, yeah, school is rough but he’s gotta learn what life is like.” But if the point of school is to teach children about real life… do I have to finish this sentence?… why not just let them out into real life?

But back to getting along with our children: we make our children act a lot differently than they would otherwise by forcing them to spend all day with only people of the same age.

Another way that school makes our children act a lot differently than they would otherwise is still something that happens at school: daycare and school means our children are being raised by Not Us.

I read a book on The History of Daycare and this was not a conspiracy theory book, it was one of the driest books I have ever read, and it mentioned the women who started daycare and who sold it, as a good idea to the public in the early 1900’s and it was a hard sell. Parents were like, “you’re not taking my children.”

But these upper class protestant women were determined to convince the American public that daycare and preschool was a good thing because without daycare and preschool, they were afraid Jewish children would grow up to be Jewish and Catholic children would grow up to be Catholic. But this is not the purpose of modern daycares and preschools.

Steven Mintz’s wrote the following about communist regimes: Substantial government control of childhood, not only through schools, but through youth groups and other mechanisms, aimed at socializing children to be better workers and soldiers and certainly to be loyal citizens… but it also sought to mold children to be different from their parents, to develop values and characters more appropriate to [the society’s’s] goals… most interesting was the ambitious attempt to expand kindergarten and nursery schools in order to begin the preparation of children early and to reduce family influence.

Whether or not it is the goal of daycare and school to reduce the family influence, that is what is does.

The third thing we do to our children, the third reason our children act a lot more like children today than the competent young people of the past is lie to them. A lot.

150 years ago, the Victorian’s, the champions of the protected childhood, had a problem: their children couldn’t be with them learning about reality, but stopping children from learning about reality was almost impossible and was making the children quite unhappy—they needed a distraction, something for the children to do, something more enticing than reality. So they created an entire fantasy world for their children.

In the Atlantic Monthly in 1865 an essay says: How to keep our young Americans under the thumb of… father and mother without breaking his spirit? Fiction. Children’s fantasies of adventure and freedom [and] empowerment.

From a relationship angle: imagine how much easier it would be to relate to your four-year-old if she didn’t live in a fantasy world of princesses and tea parties. Four-year-olds who have been raised in reality are a lot easier to hang out with.

In most parenting books it will instruct you to not really get a child in trouble for lying before they are 5-8 years old because children can’t truly distinguish reality from fiction until then.

In Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Lillard writes: Dr. Montessori… believed that the goal of childhood is being able to learn and perceive the real world… giving the child fantasies… thwarts their understanding of the real world…

One study showed that children under 4 or 5 become confused about reality by stories that depict animals engaging in human activities.  Another study showed that young children accept anthropomorphic information about objects as real as well. When children are read books about trains with moms and dads and feelings, they are significantly more likely to have wrong ideas about trains.

Piaget wrote that pretending is largely assimilation of reality to one’s own thoughts, rather than adjustment of one’s own ideas to fit reality. Piaget writes that fantasies really dupe children—which holds children back from learning about reality.

Fantasy for young children is sold to us as important for the development of their imagination. But Montessori says: how is it possible for the child’s imagination to be developed by that which is in truth the fruit of the adult’s imagination? We alone imagine; they merely believe.” Adults, then, are abusing children’s trust.

Ayn Rand thought it was more serious than that, she said: Cut off from reality, which [the child] has not learned fully to grasp, he is plunged into a world of fantasy…. He may feel a dim uneasiness, at first: to him it is not imagining, it is lying. But he loses that distinction and gets into the swing. The wilder his fantasies, the warmer the teacher’s approval… his doubts [about what he is doing] are intangible, the approval is real. He begins to believe his own fantasies…his precarious hold on reality is shaken, and his cognitive process subverted. His desire to know… is diluted and swims away. Why bother facing problems if they can be solved by make-believe? Why struggle to discover the world if you can make it become whatever you wish—by wishing?

Young children react to fantasy the same way they react to trauma. A child who experiences something traumatic, like seeing a car accident, will reenact this scene over and over trying to make sense of it and understand it. Processing. The child previously thought that cars don't hit each other or fly through the air but now he saw that happen and he needs to understand. So he "plays" the car accident over and over.

A child who is read a fictional story that doesn't agree with his current understanding of reality reacts similarly. Children who previously thought that dogs don't fly but then sees a dog flying in a cartoon, needs to play this scene over and over so he can process it and come to understand it… but he won’t.

Children’s self-esteem does not depend on how often they are complimented, but rather it  depends on their ability to feel competent at understanding reality.

Maria Montessori tells a great story about this: A boy of about a-year-old was looking at pictures of babies and flowers. He kissed the picture of the babies and smelled the picture of the flowers… The child knew how to behave with both babies and flowers… The people present thought this quite charming and began to laugh, picking up a crayons [for the child] to smell and cushions to kiss. He became thoroughly confused. The bright intelligent expression that had transfigured his face earlier disappeared… He had known how to distinguish things in the pictures and how to behave towards each; this was a new, important acquisition of his intelligence—which he gave up. He ended up smelling and kissing everything indiscriminately.

I have a personal story to share along the same lines that is much more hopeful. When my son was about a-year-old some sweet friends of mine came over and on the tour of our house when we were in the bathroom he got out his toothbrush. They tried to get him to brush his hair with it, laughing all the while and he looked at me and I was like, “I don’t know why they’re telling you to do that.” So he looked back at them and he showed them that actually toothbrushes go in your mouth.

But this is not what usually happens. What usually happens is that children became confused about reality is and then they feel incompetent. They start to believe they can’t understand and that is how children start to see themselves as children.

Montessori wrote: Thus is born in the child, precisely because reality in all its forms is hidden from him, a sickly and fantastical form of life that withdraws completely into unreality. But the little spirit battles and defends itself constantly. As with all impotent creatures, this opposition manifests itself in nervous fits, willfulness, anger, tears and tantrums. The child involves himself in a kind of mischieviousness –for the most part another aspect of angry and premeditated rebellion—that consumes not the right energy but other kinds, which dissipates through the malignity and irritating little acts that can only be dreamed up by an unoccupied, lazy imagination. Further, it happens that these little rebels, who are the desperation of their teachers, or anyone else who has to deal with them, find among the other children imitators and little followers…. It is the adult who produces in the child his incapacities, his confusion, his rebellion, it is the adult who shatters the character of the child….

But here’s the thing: we turn out okay. All of us here probably lived in a fantasyland until we were 5-8. It didn’t ruin our minds forever, it just slowed our ability to behave like adults. It caused us to behave in ways that made us harder for our parents to connect with.

So in conclusion:

It’s all math: children who live in the real world from birth spend 8 years practicing real life instead of pretending they’re a princess. That’s a lot more expertise in real life skills than the average American child gets.

The number one thing parents can do to facilitate the co-creation of a healthy relationship with their children is to welcome their children into their lives instead of trying to keep them out or trying to get them to do "children" things.

Parents can bring their children with them to life while they model a life-well-lived instead of going to great lengths to invent a world for children that doesn't actually exist. When parents do this, they are on the same team as their children and parenting becomes a lot easier and more fun.

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