Sunday, September 16, 2012

There's a Name for That

It is fashionable these days to talk about how spoiled children are, and to speculate about the causes of the spoiling (see, for example, Elizabeth Kolbert's "Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?" from the New Yorker, and this popular Facebook meme).

It is less fashionable to point out, as Alfie Kohn did in a 2010 Washington Post essay, that Americans have been churning out nearly identical complaints about children since the early 1900s.

And if one wants to be so unfashionable as to be considered radical?  He or she might note that all of these discussions about spoiled kids do a really good job (as they have always done) of calling attention away from the fact that many of our beliefs about children are self-serving.

Here are some of the beliefs I'm talking about:
  • Children's needs, feelings, and preferences are less important than the needs, feelings, and preferences of adults.
  • Children have it easy compared to adults, and we should frequently remind them of such.
  • It is appropriate for adults--even strangers--to correct children's grammar and quiz them on their reading ability.
  • Children who aren't spanked will become entitled adults.
  • There is nothing wrong with stores and public facilities holding children to rules different from the ones to which adult patrons are held (e.g., only two teens allowed in store at a time; even older children can't handle merchandise that adults are permitted to handle).
  • Children shouldn't have any say in what, when, or how they learn, because they can't possibly know what's good for them.
  • Children are lazy; if we don't force them to complete the lessons we provide, they won't learn anything worthwhile.
  • Going out for recess, talking during lunch, and getting drinks of water are privileges that children in school should be required to earn.
  • Religious groups have the right to evangelize children, even those who have not reached the age of reason, and even without the children's parents being present.
  • It is okay to laugh at children when they do something that strikes us as cute (e.g., mispronouncing a word, making a mistake in a play or performance, confusing some idea that most adults understand).
  • Because children are so cute, it is okay to dress them in uncomfortable clothing, spray them down with hairspray, and enter them in contests where they compete with other children to determine who among them is cutest. 
This list is my own, but my thinking on the subject has been influenced by the work of John Holt, a teacher-turned-unschooling advocate best known for the books How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967).  Holt's lesser-known 1973 book Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (out of print but still available in used copies) is arguably the most thorough examination of how harmful attitudes toward children affect public policy, parenting methods, and children's well-being.

In Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, published posthumously in January of this year, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl provides a name for the problem.  Praised by such diverse thinkers as Diane Ravitch, T. Berry Brazelton, and Carol Gilligan, Childism focuses primarily on how prejudice toward children is embedded in public policy (i.e., institutionalized), and at work in cases of abuse and neglect.  Young-Bruehl's argument is complex, and I don't share all of her conclusions.  Nonetheless, I think that the book is important, and that her justification for adopting the word childism is spot-on:

The history of the word "sexism," coined in 1965, shows how important it was to put under the same conceptual umbrella different acts, attitudes, and institutions that targeted women as a group.  If you understand that domestic violence against women and wage discrimination against women are similarly rationalized or legitimated by a prejudice--sexism--you can develop ways to explore the prejudice and resist it.  Without a synthesizing concept, you do not see that child poverty and child abuse are both rooted in and rationalized by prejudice against children.  (Young-Bruehl, from the book's page)
Respecting children's rights takes both time and energy, which is why it seems so much easier just to spank children, or take away their recess, when they won't do what we want.  And while honoring children's rights in no way diminishes the rights of adults, it tends to undermine adult privilege, which is another reason childist attitudes are so easy to justify--even when we, as former children, should know better.

Monday, September 10, 2012


This is a story about a seven-year-old girl--a girl who had recently taken a knitting class and happened to spot, on a street corner of the pretty town where she was vacationing with her family, a little yarn and crafts shop that had beautiful things in the windows.  Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and the shop was closed, and the girl had to accept her parents' reassurances that she could return some other day.

When this other day arrived, the girl bounded into the shop with her mother, and with great enjoyment began working her way around the shop's perimeter.  She looked at many things, asked her mother some questions, and gently caressed a few skeins of gorgeous hand-spun yarn, as did her mother.  The girl had spending money, and she noticed a glass bowl full of decorative pewter buttons.  She told her mother she thought they were beautiful, that she could use them for some projects, and that she wanted to look at the different designs to see which ones she liked best.

At this point, the girl's mother left her to look at the buttons, and walked about ten feet away to select some yarn for herself.  She looked back at her daughter several times, the last time just as the shop owner walked up to the girl and said, "I must ask that you not handle anything!" in a rather severe voice.  The girl quickly dropped the buttons back into the dish and walked over to her mother, reaching her just in time to release a torrent of tears.

After escorting the girl outside to the car where her father and brothers were waiting, and comforting the girl, and reassuring her that she hadn't done anything wrong, the mother went back inside and had a talk with the shop owner.

The conversation went like this:

Mother: Are you the owner?

Owner: Yes.

Mother: I believe you said something to my daughter.

Owner: Oh--um, yes.  I just asked her not to touch anything.

Mother: She was handling metal buttons, correct?

Owner: Yes.

Mother: And they were in no way breakable or fragile?

Owner: Well, that's true.  But I have a lot of kids who come in here and aren't supervised.

Mother: I was watching her carefully the whole time, taking responsibility for her.  You could see that I was with her.  If you had a concern about anything she was doing, you could have addressed it to me. 

Owner: I'm glad you're responsible for her, but I can't tell which parents are going to be responsible for their kids and which ones aren't.

Mother: Can you remember what it felt like to be seven years old, and how scary it was when an adult who wasn't your parent scolded you, especially when you weren't even doing anything wrong? 

Owner: (Silence)

Mother: Did you know that my daughter is learning to knit, and that she was going to spend money here?  That she spotted this store the other day when you were closed, and that we made a special trip back so she could shop here?  Now she's out in the car, sobbing.

Owner: Well, I'm sorry I upset her.  I had no way of knowing all that.  And if everyone handles things, then they aren't so nice to sell.

Mother: I understand your concerns as a business owner, and how frustrating it must be when people aren't respectful with your merchandise.  But my daughter wasn't being disrespectful.  There was no way to see the different designs on the buttons without picking them up.  And I noticed that the other customers who were in here were handling things as well, and you didn't say anything to them. 

Owner: (Stare)

Mother: Well, you've lost two customers.  I was going to buy some things as well.  I do hope I've given you something to think about.

* * *

There's a sort of happy ending to this story.  A week later, in a different town on our vacation, we found another yarn shop.  Understandably, my daughter was nervous about going inside.  I suggested that I hold her hand the whole time, and that before we started browsing we tell the person behind the counter that she and I were both new knitters.  The person at the counter introduced us to the owner, who was friendly and gracious.  She actually urged us to touch all the yarns, and she told my daughter she'd learned to knit at age seven, too.  We bought some yarn.

I shared the story about the first shop with a relative, who went on to tell me about how she'd broken a candle holder in a store, and how the store employee had come over and starting scolding her daughter, assuming she'd been the one who had broken the item.  As soon as the employee learned the mother was responsible, she changed her tone completely, and starting assuring the mother that she wouldn't have to pay for the item.

I have more to say in an upcoming post about prejudice against children, though I'm aware that the mere assertion that such a thing exists seems to infuriate some people.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Four Thoughts on a Wednesday Morning

1.  When people go out of their way to say, "I'm praying for you," to an atheist, do they realize it sounds pretty much like "F*** you," only with more syllables?

2.  Are Jehovah's Witnesses now sending lots of households in Muhlenberg County handwritten letters in the mail, or is my family just lucky?

3.  How would I look next month at Downtown Trick-or-Treat, standing on the corner near the Gideons, handing out little copies of the United States Constitution instead of those little orange bibles?

4.  Does anyone know where I can get little copies of the Constitution--or even just the Bill of Rights--at a price that would allow me to purchase fifty or so copies? 

I welcome your responses.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Grades My Kids Aren't In

Here is something new.

When someone who knows we homeschool asks what grades the children are in, I'm no longer going to spout off a number. 

Instead I'm going to say, "We don't do grades, but this one is eight years old, this one is seven, and this one is five."  If the person looks at me with confusion--or contempt--I'm going to try very hard not to add, "If they were in school, they'd be in such-and-such grades."

The reason for this change is that I've stopped thinking of my children in terms of grade levels.  I no longer care what grades they would be in if they were in school.  It's no longer important to me that their skills are at or above grade level, whatever that means.  In fact, that goal seems utterly incompatible with the kind of deep, joyful learning my family values.

I have seen each of them, in turn, learn about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln because they were interested in money. 

They have learned about fractions because they are interested in being fair.

They are learning to write, at different paces and in different ways, because they have things they want to say.  Yesterday, one of them set up a booth with our face/body paints (the safe kind, in case anyone's wondering) and a sign that said "TATTOO CITY."  The other two paid a quarter each for custom-designed body art.  A few hours later, I noticed a discarded piece of paper that read "TATTOO SITTY."  I don't know the process by which the spelling was corrected, but neither I nor any other adult was involved.

By the way, I didn't come to this decision (realization?) about the kids' grade levels by myself.  A few things Sandra Dodd wrote crossed my path at the right time.  One was the essay, "How Holly Takes the World for Granted," from Moving a Puddle, though there may have been others.  Sandra has written a lot, for which I am grateful.