Monday, July 05, 2010

Breaking the Walled Garden of Childhood

A very long time ago, I attended a conference at which one of the other participants was the late John Holt, a prominent and unconventional writer on education. The part of his talk I still remember was his description of the Victorian ideal of the walled garden of childhood—that children needed to have their innocence preserved by being walled away from the corrupting influence of the real world. As he put it then, some children want nothing more than to climb over that damned wall.

It is an attitude that is all too common in the modern world. The Internet is a wonderful educational tool—but a lot of parents assume that their children must be protected, by monitoring or filtering, from seeing too much of it. What psychological damage would be done to a six year old from seeing a picture of two humans engaged in sexual intercourse that was not done, over the centuries, to six year old farm children observing cattle engaged in the same activity for real has never been explained to me.

It goes along with the hostility to children working. The image of the boy with a newspaper route has been largely supplanted by Dickensian fantasies of juvenile slave labor in dark satanic mills. The prejudice is not even limited to paid employment. Libraries, at least the one my daughter briefly volunteered at, take it for granted that any teenager who volunteers is doing so to fulfill a requirement or get a box checked in a college application, and should be let go as soon as that objective is fulfilled. The idea that someone younger than eighteen might want to actually do something useful is ruled out ab initio.

Discussing this with my daughter, she mentioned how surprised she was as a young teenager to discover that something she did—playing harp—could actually be of use to people as an accompaniment to dancing. Later, as a college student, one of her complaints was that she was writing papers that nobody, aside from the professor who graded them, would ever read. Given the opportunity to do a winter term project of her own design, she chose to translate a renaissance Italian cookbook, a translation that is now up on my web page to be used by people interested in historical cooking. The walled garden is for playing in—what she wanted was to do things.

One exception used to be the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical recreation organization that I have been involved with for a very long time. I was taught to use a sewing machine by a twelve year old girl; a few years later she was the moving spirit behind a puppet theater. But that has gradually changed. More and more over the years, children who come to SCA events are expected, not to help set up the hall or cook the dinner or run the event, but to attend "children's activities."

What set off this post was the discovery that at the Pennsic War, the SCA's largest gathering, a two week long camping event with something over ten thousand people and a Pennsic University with about a thousand classes (some of which I teach), there is now a new rule. Nobody under eighteen can attend a class unless accompanied by parent or legal guardian. When I complained to one of the people responsible, I was assured that they had made special provision to allow children to attend children's classes.

I have long held that there are two fundamental views of children: That they are pets who can talk, or that they are small people who do not yet know very much. The wrong one is winning.

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35 Comments:

At 8:56 PM, July 05, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have raised our children very much in keeping with Holt's philosophy, although I suspect he would have been uncomfortable with the weapons training. Our eldest daughter started working outside the house at 14, in violation of child labor laws. She continues to do so. Fortunately, some children can still slip through the cracks in the system, but it is sad that more and more they are being segregated into a ghetto.

 
At 10:08 PM, July 05, 2010, Blogger SheetWise said...

I shared your link with Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids. It's encouraging that she's developed the audience she has.

I've simply taught my children about the law -- and they have all thought that the laws make no sense. I let them know that the laws do not apply to people who are self employed or engaged in family businesses -- and that I would be available to open a business or assist them in opening their own, if they wanted to. They all did.

You think it's the competition some people are afraid of? Look for the union label -- in deed!

 
At 11:14 PM, July 05, 2010, Blogger Jonathan said...

Thank you for this, I do agree with it. As I moved through my own teens, I increasingly wanted to do something that was intrinsically useful, and not the things that I was actually required to do, which seemed utterly useless—and which have in fact been utterly useless to me ever since.

The conventional view is that formal education up to and even well into adulthood is necessary and valuable. I think that in most cases it imprisons people for large parts of their youth and teaches them things that they soon forget, having no use for them and no interest in them.

I like the Sudbury Valley ideal of education, though I never experienced it myself.

 
At 11:41 PM, July 05, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

We have created a such a free ride, something for nothing society that it isn't surprising that the lawyers have stepped in to go after anything childhood for a quick buck for themselves and their parent clients willing to sell their children's future.

The irony is that these children protected from the world of responsibility, are expected to be the ones to pay for the retirement of their protectors.

 
At 11:47 PM, July 05, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might want to put commas between your tags there, so you have several tags instead of ONE REALLY BIG (and not useful) one :)

 
At 1:19 AM, July 06, 2010, Anonymous Kid said...

The psychological damage is not caused by the picture itself but by the reaction of adults to them having seen it.

Much the same as people getting psychologically damaged by having their private parts seen by someone - it is not that being seen is psychologically damaging in itself. The reaction of other people that you were involved in a scandal, or did something shameful or impure, and the expectation of such a reaction from other people, is what causes the psychological damage.

 
At 4:37 AM, July 06, 2010, Blogger sconzey said...

I'm guessing you've heard of the FreeRangeKids thing: freerangekids.wordpress.com/

 
At 6:32 AM, July 06, 2010, Blogger Liutgard of Luxeuil said...

A very interesting entry and discussion! When I first started in the SCA 21 years ago, a local Peer pointed out to me that this is not a Ren Faire, where you pay your money and get entertained. We all work to make it happen- or it doesn't work. When my kids were younger, when they came to events (and their friends- I frequently traveled with as many as six extra girls) I required them to put in volunteer time. They helped at gate, were runners for the heralds and lists, were waterbearers, and even babysat the chirurgeon's dog. They also helped with cooking and cleanup. All of it was simply expected of them, and they didn't question it. They're all in their 20s now, and are mature, responsible adults. My oldest even moved to New York City and is thriving. I like to think that they are successful in part because I did not hold their hands and 'protect' them until the day they turned 18.

 
At 6:45 AM, July 06, 2010, Blogger Kai Jones said...

Some children want to be useful and are ready to take up their adult lives early. Others have to be taught duty and independence. More wiggle room in the rules and the law is great for the first class.

What responsibility do we have to protect children from bad parents, who might take advantage of that wiggle room?

 
At 6:45 AM, July 06, 2010, Blogger ErolB1 said...

Not only is childhood being kept a walled garden, the garden is being kept largely as one suitable for very young children. There's a strong tendency toward a "one size fits all" policy to be applied whether the child is 6 or 11 or 16.

There's also a perverse exception in that a teenager may well be treated as an adult if he commits a seriously criminal act, but will be treated as a child (and often as a pre-teen child) if he is honest and well-behaved.

 
At 9:41 PM, July 06, 2010, Blogger Anna Martelli Ravenscroft said...

I look forward to reading your daughter's translation! I love Italian cookbooks and historical cookbooks, and the combination sounds great.

 
At 4:48 AM, July 07, 2010, Anonymous Halima said...

While it is unfortunate that fear of child abuse is the #1 reason for the change in the SCA class policy, I suspect the #2 reason is due to some parents lack of parenting, that is teaching children how to behave when they aren't around and judging what their children are capable of doing on their own. However I still think the SCA and Pennsic can be a great place for children to practice independence. Last year I hired 2 pre-teen boys to keep my cooler stocked with ice all of war! They worked hard and enjoyed spending the money in the merchant area, without their parents present.

 
At 6:05 AM, July 07, 2010, OpenID hudebnik said...

The especially bizarre thing about the Pennsic class rule is that many of the same under-18's are allowed to wander the streets of Pennsic unattended, stay out until 3 AM unattended... but can't go unattended to a class in a public place with a number of adults who aren't related to one another -- probably the safest place they could possibly be at Pennsic.

 
At 7:23 AM, July 07, 2010, Blogger SkyDaddy said...

I was very gratified to see you weigh in on the debate in the listserves. If there is *any* individual with standing to address issues related to Pennsic, it's you! :-)

Like you, I complained "through the chain of command" but also in public via several lists. And by midday the next day, some "clarification" had come forth. As you said, backing off from the "legal guardian" statement makes the rule merely onerous, but it is nevertheless an improvement.

While "post hoc ergo propter hoc" is often a logical fallacy, in this case I think there is a cause-and-effect relationship.

Thank you.

 
At 8:39 AM, July 07, 2010, Blogger OmegaWolf747 said...

The new rule probably comes from fear of liability if a kid gets hurt. It's shameful, but there are too many parents nowadays who don't teach their kids how to behave in public, how to be careful and just let them run wild, then turn around and sue, sue, sue if the kid gets so much as a scratch. That is why children and even teens are being excluded from the real world more and more.

 
At 8:44 AM, July 07, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found your comments very thought provoking, and as a parent, perhaps even useful. I have often thought that "teenage angst" is merely another way of saying "teenage boredom."

However, I did want to point out that children are not "small people who don't know much yet." The simple fact is that children are physiologically different than adults. Their bodies, especially early on, work a little differently than adults. This is true physically and mentally.

So it is not just a lack of knowledge and size that separates adults and children. No doubt David, you are as grateful as I am that I am not suffering the torments of puberty right now. And if you did not have the physiological equipment to think abstractly, as is the case for young children, I think your books would be rather less interesting.

 
At 9:16 AM, July 07, 2010, OpenID a-c-fiorucci said...

Thank you for this, your last line has crystallized ideas which had been swirling in my head. I had been hoping that the SCA might be more welcoming to my two small kids as they grew up but now I'm not so sure.

 
At 10:12 AM, July 07, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

To Anonymous, re differences between children and adults:

Part of the problem is that "children" covers such a wide range. A three month old baby is different in ways that go beyond what I said. But a ten year old is capable of abstract thought and logical reasoning, and a few years past that, as best I can tell, is the point at which someone is about as smart as he is ever going to be.

And while puberty may have its problems, I don't think they are different in kind from problems associated with sexual feelings in those well past it.

 
At 10:16 AM, July 07, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

In response to fiorucci re the SCA and kids:

1. It depends a lot on the local group, to some degree on the kingdom. Judging by my experience, the West Kingdom is probably one of the better places at this point.

2. The long term trend has been down, as I suggested in my post. On the other hand, the particular decision I mentioned set off a storm of outrage, with (I'm guessing) opinion running at least ten to one against. One result was that the rule was modified to permit a teen to attend a class accompanied by any adult acceptable to the parent. It's possible, but not likely, that it will be eliminated entirely.

That reaction—a lot of people felt the way I did--is encouraging. How encouraging I'm not sure.

 
At 10:33 AM, July 07, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The image of the boy with a newspaper route has been largely supplanted by Dickensian fantasies of juvenile slave labor in dark satanic mills."
Look, do be careful about throwing this stuff around. There are still children in 3rd world countries making stuff in factories, working long hours and getting no education. "hostility to child labour" has nothing to do with thinking kids can't be productive -- it's that their priority should be education.

 
At 10:53 AM, July 07, 2010, OpenID ravenclaw-eric said...

I'd say that a lot of this sort of thing, these days, can be traced to the hysteria about (mostly-imaginary) child abusers and child molesters that started in the 1980s. The media whipped a lot of people into frothing hysterias of fear about imaginary legions of slavering pedophiles lurking behind every tree and corner, just waiting to snatch little Johnny and Susie and drag them into lives of shame and infamy.

Of course, our idiotically honked-up liability laws don't help any, either.

 
At 11:03 AM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Kai Jones said...

And let us not forget: even if you disagree with society's general dumbing-down of childhood, if anything happens to your child/ren, society (as individuals and a court system) will nevertheless judge you as a parent by those standards.

 
At 11:17 AM, July 07, 2010, Blogger SheetWise said...

"There are still children in 3rd world countries making stuff in factories, working long hours and getting no education."

And why is this a good argument to protect American children from the dangers of sitting at a computer terminal in a OSHA compliant office?

 
At 8:16 PM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Karl said...

Dang! I think Science Fiction fandom may be one of the last areas where children can be given responsible work.

I was at Westercon last weekend, and my adopted nephew, at age 20, was effectively second-in-command in Convention Operations (Con Ops). He was recruiting teenagers to work in the department, and the recruits included one twelve-year-old named Grant.

Current plans are that Grant will be working in the Teen Lounge at this coming Loscon, with the intent that he be groomed to take it over next year, when he's actually in his teens.

 
At 3:14 AM, July 08, 2010, Anonymous Kid said...

There are still children in 3rd world countries making stuff in factories, working long hours and getting no education. "hostility to child labour" has nothing to do with thinking kids can't be productive -- it's that their priority should be education.

I'd have no objection if you'd said "our priority should be to make education possible for them". I would feel that is a noble goal.

As you wrote it, it sounds, not like you are creating opportunities, but like you are taking them away.

You have no right to decide what their priority should be, and I think it is very dangerous to do so. The reason they prefer to work instead of educating themselves is mostly because they or their families would otherwise starve.

Their living conditions are indeed atrocious by our standards, and that is a serious problem. This problem can not be solved by making child labor illegal. It can be solved by creating enough wealth in their society that most of them will have the means to get education for as long as they want.

Perhaps, in the meantime, creating that wealth needs to make use of everybody's productive abilities, including the children.

 
At 6:11 AM, July 08, 2010, Anonymous Neil Craig said...

There is also the extension of "childhood". Anybody who thinhs eighteen year old girls can be restricted to children's pre-sewing activities should get out more.

In ancient times the age of adulthood was 13 - as still shown in the Bar Mitzvah ceremony & in most countries the age of consent was no higher than 12. Yet nowadays it seems many people don't get out of school till their early twenties.

The Gardened Wall of 21 is obviously unhealthy.

 
At 12:11 PM, July 08, 2010, Anonymous AC Houston said...

I think this 'no touch' policy wrt kids is a toxic pathology in American culture and we'll likely pay a price for it in some yet-to-be-discovered fallout. Primates are touchy critters by nature. In the elementary schools in my area (Arlington, MA) i've been told by several parents that the new policy is that, on top of no touching by teachers, etc., the kids themselves may not touch each other. How sick is that? The whole outlook behind this is just creepy and chilling, the foundations of pod people. And, yes, Latin culture is full of personal expression, outbursts of happiness and anger, and lots of touching. Those folks are going to survive. I'm not so sure about the increasingly withdrawn, fearful, no-touch crowd. They sll need some dog therapy - a good face-licking and paws in the lap! :-)

 
At 12:12 PM, July 08, 2010, Anonymous AC Houston said...

I think this 'no touch' policy wrt kids is a toxic pathology in American culture and we'll likely pay a price for it in some yet-to-be-discovered fallout. Primates are touchy critters by nature. In the elementary schools in my area (Arlington, MA) i've been told by several parents that the new policy is that, on top of no touching by teachers, etc., the kids themselves may not touch each other. How sick is that? The whole outlook behind this is just creepy and chilling, the foundations of pod people. And, yes, Latin culture is full of personal expression, outbursts of happiness and anger, and lots of touching. Those folks are going to survive. I'm not so sure about the increasingly withdrawn, fearful, no-touch crowd. They sll need some dog therapy - a good face-licking and paws in the lap! :-)

 
At 12:13 PM, July 08, 2010, Anonymous AC Houston said...

sorry for the double post - got an error first time.

 
At 4:56 PM, July 08, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love that you've spoken out on the Pennsic issue. Thank you for championing-- once again-- the cause of freedom and liberty.

It's very sad to see that same Pennsic, that I once regarded as a "Little Utopia," (or as close to it as we can come) get dragged down and choked to a slow death by beaurocracy.

Laura

*sigh*

 
At 8:22 AM, July 11, 2010, Anonymous Josh said...

One wonders if the "walled garden" is a major reason for trends like the creativity crisis:

"Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”"

 
At 12:47 PM, July 12, 2010, OpenID fallenpegasus said...

There is a local member operated makerspace here in Seattle, Jigsaw Renaissance. Most of the members appear to be in their mid20s to mid30s. I recently asked one of the people heavily involved how many minor and young kid members they had.

Zero.

Apparently, the issue is insurance. If they allowed minors to be members, their insurance premiums would go up by a significant multiple. Not significant percentage, significant MULTIPLE.

That made me sad and angry.

 
At 12:55 PM, July 12, 2010, OpenID fallenpegasus said...

There is a concept I call "parents disease". One expression of it goes as follows:

A generation of kids discover / create a "space" or event where they can socialize together, produce together, and have a "3rd place", other than home and at school.

Those kids grow up, and keep going to that space, or have good or powerful memories of it.

Eventually, they themselves have kids, to get to be of the age that their parents were when they started going to that space.

Then suddenly entirely too many of these parents remember all the stuff that they enjoyed doing in that space, see kids in that space that are the age they were then, and then they lose their freaking minds, and clamp down hard in over-controlling terror, and forbid all the freedom that they enjoyed when they were kids.

And when called out on it, they get angry, defensive, and start their sentences with nonsense phrases such as "Speaking as a parent, ..."

This has happened to wilderness camping, long summer vacations, band camp, and science fiction conventions.

And now, most recently, raves and the SCA.

 
At 9:35 AM, July 13, 2010, Anonymous Anton Sherwood said...

Paul Graham put it neatly: Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs.

 
At 10:53 AM, August 22, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: Rebecca's Translation of an old Italian Cookbook

I clicked on the link, and browsed through the cookbook... Wow, Rebecca understands renaissance Italian (from the South) much much better than an Italian would! Definitely better than I do.
Bravissima!
diana
Roma, Italia

 

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