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Note: I’ve had this in the hopper for a few weeks, but after Bethany Mandel published My Top Parenting Pet Peeve, I figured why not hit publish?
Despite the social discord wrought by the Vietnam War, civil rights movement (an obvious good), and the loud-mouthed hippies who traveled the world seeking the ruin of standards of decency; the 1960s were a pretty good time to be a kid. In those days; which weren’t idyllic, but were halcyon compared to the present age of discontent, children had many venues in which to learn. There was a fair amount of competition among the schools; particularly parochial versus public, which motivated all teachers to perform well. The nuns of Holy Rosary School, where I came of age, taught both the three Rs, and truths of eternal importance: Our lives are not our own but belong to God. We were to know, love and serve Him this life by doing good and avoiding evil, and thereby live with Him forever in heaven. It’s been fifty years since my last catechism class, but that lesson is permanently fixed in my mind.
There were many other less formal centers of learning as well.
Back then families tended to be large. My folks had the six of us, but we were a relatively small brood compared to my aunt and uncles’ crew of eleven. Many homes were filled with eight, ten, even fourteen kids. This was sometimes true of Protestant as well as Catholic homes. Large families were a principle center of learning, not just to instill good manners and a healthy fear of the Lord and His adult enforcers, but also because kids had no choice but to learn how to compromise, sacrifice for the greater good, and treat siblings as if they were equals in the distribution of wealth and attention. Marxism’s second premise was, in a certain sense, confirmed in large families—to each according to his needs, within the restrictions imposed by the overall resources and events of the household. In the families of those days, equality was understood as equality of love informed by day-to-day exigencies.
The skills learned at home were carried out into the world at large. My neighborhood was home to countless numbers of children, each of whom was considered a friend, and all of whom were welcome in our play. Our games were an exercise in negotiation and compromise. We would play “Army,” divvying up the bad guys from the good guys. No one wanted to be a German soldier, but the battles required a villain, so we took turns or flipped a coin to set up the ranks. In football, we accommodated the unskilled, often by choosing them first to spare them embarrassment (had it been otherwise I’d have spent most of my childhood red-faced). When the sides were uneven players would switch teams, playing one down on offense, then over to the other team for defense. I don’t know how the girls handled things, but among the boys, the unstated rule was “whatever makes things work for everybody.” We learned that we were not only to hone our skills but to rend our hearts to the advantage of others.
We got in trouble together too, sometimes barely escaping with our lives.
The adults had little say in the day to day of play: That, odd is it may seem in our hyper-anxious age, was the key to making things work. We weren’t totally unsupervised; most of the adults knew who we were and were prepared to step in if we were at inordinate risk. Otherwise, we were left to our own developing devices. Life in our neighborhood was improvised chaos, but we all made it out alive and, as far as I know, nobody ever went to prison (although I do wonder about Jimmy).
There was much more at stake than survival. We were learning to negotiate the world. The only way this could work was if our parents set us pretty much free to figure things out on our own in the company of a band of fellow pupils in the school of life. We wandered freely, and through varied experiences, grew into reasonably competent adults. Most importantly, we took those skills out into a world where respect, fortitude, and compromise are mandatory virtues.
Now, sadly, those days, if not completely over, are approaching absolute entropy.
My wife and I live in a neighborhood populated by the old, the middle-aged, and young families. There’s a little park a couple of blocks away, and when we go out to walk we often stop there to abide amidst the trees and green grass. The space, unfortunately, is usually ours’ alone. No kids, or if there are any, they are always accompanied by a parent. The whole neighborhood is like that. Despite the many young families that live around us, the sight of a ten-year-old wandering alone celebrating his freedom is vanishingly rare. I can’t remember the last time I saw a group of boys playing football in the generally empty streets, getting up a sandlot baseball game, or just hanging out with slingshots in their back pockets–things we did without much thought. Now, if kids are strolling through our current neighborhood an adult is always leading the pack. Free children are a rare breed around these parts.
It isn’t surprising, then, that so many young adults are inveterate crybabies. Far too many of these kids were fobbed off on daycare centers in which the “teachers” settled every disagreement and devised all the activities. Many elementary schools have abandoned recess. Parents schedule play dates for their kids or cram their young lives with endless adult-organized activities. There is little time for kids to just be kids.
Simply put, Millennials have been deprived of the lessons taught in the rough and tumble of childhood.
In his new book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, Professor Anthony Esolen offers insight into the plight of today’s children. In days gone by
…a childhood culture [was] in part independent of the adult world and gave children a chance to be the lords and ladies of their own ‘society,’ with its habits, its laws, its entertainment, its rivalries, and its language. It is a deeply human thing…We are the odd ones out. We are the people whose neighborhoods do not ring with the voices of children at play. A student of mine, an Eagle Scout, once told me that he had to teach the boys in his troop how to organize a game. They enjoyed it, but they could not do it alone. …it was like having been confined to a cubicle for the first ten years of their lives, so that they never really knew how to run or how to walk with strong strides. Such youths are cripples, not by nature, but by un-nature: crippled by neglect.
I’d put that in a slightly different way: We have rejected benign neglect. And all because we’ve surrendered to the belief the world is a dangerous place for children.
A few weeks ago, the lady who cuts my hair commented that the contemporary world is just too dangerous to let kids run free. This is ridiculous. The truth is in the statistics: Crime rates are at historic lows, while the possibility of a child being abducted by a stranger is less than the chance of being hit by a watermelon tossed out of an airplane. Sure, kids can hurt themselves, but as French philosopher Simone Weil noted, risk is a fundamental need of man. No risk, no courage. When I was young, there was a serial killer lurking in our town. Among his atrocities was the killing of a boy scout who was on a troop camp-out (my two elder brothers had to take a lie detector test to rule themselves out). But even then, we were still largely on our own. Our parents knew that, although the danger was real, the odds were overwhelmingly in our favor. Coddling, on the other hand, was sure to be our ruin.
Today’s Millenial “snowflakes,” paralyzed with the fear that their feelings might be hurt, simply do not have the skills necessary to engage courageously with those with whom they disagree. Instead, far too many Millennials indulge the delusion that life should be a safe space free of even the tiniest threat to their insular sense of self-worth.
But is it really their fault? The doors of the school of life have been shut. Listening to the young lady who ripped into Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis is irrefutable proof that far too many children of the last two decades have lived in a bubble too confining to teach them how to grow up.
So what do we do?
First, we must recover our understanding of reality. The world has always been dangerous, but we do not, no matter what the experts might say, live in a jungle filled with lions, tigers, and bears. The belief that our children need twenty-four-hour coddling is to deny the brute fact that growing up is impossible when kids are trapped in adults’ unreal jungle.
Secondly, stay at home motherhood should be the default position in public policy. According to a recent Gallup poll, fifty-six percent of working mothers would prefer to stay at home to raise their kids. If there were plenty of mothers in our neighborhoods keeping that sideways glance on the shenanigans, our kids would again enjoy the freedom to grow into adulthood with confidence–to become citizens rather then an arbitrary numerical category of people who happen to be eighteen years old. It won’t be easy to accommodate that hope; women make up 47 percent of the workforce, so if there were a mass exodus, we’d suffer serious negative economic consequences. But perhaps fewer new and exciting toys would be a price worth paying for our children to learn how to make their way through the world.
We should also strongly encourage the return of the traditional neighborhood, where parents can confidently set their children free, knowing that their neighbors are quietly keeping an eye on the roughhousing, but are otherwise leaving the kids free to grapple with the world and each other. And there out to be a law against loading kids up with an endless number of activities which leave them too spent to just go outside and play.
To sum up, perhaps a few steps back to a time when children could be children would do the world a lot of good.
And having a few more kids around would be a good idea too.Published in