Monday, February 4, 2013

Kids Without Scars

Or Why I Fear Living in the First World May Be Ruining My Children

I have read a litany of articles over the past few months talking out how the current generation of young people in western society is earning the title "Generation Me." One article explained that when a survey was conducted of 13-24 year olds, that these young people were inclined to label themselves as "above average" in terms of academic ability and motivation. Statistics, however tell us a different story, saying that young people of this age group in the US generally score lower in academic areas than much of the industrialized world, struggle to land and keep decent jobs, and balk at the need to work their way up in the workplace. Collegiate institutions across the US, when  pursuing faculty development topics, now find themselves needing to re-educate professors as to how to teach the "Me Generation" students entering their classrooms. If professors assign coursework with loose parameters or requiring autonomy from their students, many of them find their learners to become paralyzed by a lack of point-by-point instructions. And universities are responding by (tragically) changing how they teach.

In contrast, let's look at the lives of children in what we first-worlders call "less-developed" cultures. Eskimo toddlers handle sharp knives to trim whale blubber successfully. Six-year-old Peruvian children are capable of not only fishing, but cleaning and preparing the fish they catch. Children all over the world mend their clothes, chop wood, build fires, handle livestock...you get the picture. Now, I understand that we aren't bound by the daily survival tasks that dominate the daily business of less automated cultures, but the convenience technology that should be freeing us up to become better, smarter, people, has instead made us lazier and more easily frustrated.

I know I am as guilty as the next busy mom in not letting my almost six-year-old do things he's sure he can accomplish. He may be wrong, but in my effort to avoid mess or frustration (my own, not his) as he tries, I withhold from him the opportunity to attempt, and the more I look around society, the more my soul stings that I'm dead wrong. That I am buying straight into the first-world mentality.

Sure, our American children may have fewer scars than the knife wielding Eskimo child, but they also have far less competency at daily tasks than they should. Their problem solving skills wither before they so much as bud with this kind of "Just let me do it, we don't have time" mentality. Their executive function is non-existent. We pretend we're trying to spare our kids physical harm and emotional discomfort, but in demanding nothing of them of practical use, we risk creating a generation of children with black belts and no life skills.

I informed my kids at the breakfast table on Saturday that we are going to be a different kind of family--that we need to do some radical things to make sure the current of society doesn't carry us off where we see so much of the world is going. For me, this means leaving my kids as the primary responsible parties for their school work. Granted, I will give them tools to keep track of what they need to do, but I think parents, across the board, need to take a giant step back from how much hands-on whip cracking, hovering, and let's face it, completing of school work. Better an honest, this-is-what-my-child-can-do B minus than an A earned by me, not him.

And when it comes to the home, we will need to start embracing the long time it takes to train children to do things right. Honestly, there's no rocket science going on at my house. All my kids know a white shirt from a red one, and the dishwasher can be loaded by an 8-year-old with no house leveling explosions, I'm pretty sure. They all know how to work the vacuum and a toilet brush contains no mysteries. The question I have to ask myself is if I have the strength of character to show them, let them do the task on their own, and evaluate their performance (even if it means saying "You did a pretty inadequate job, and even if you cry, you have to do it again, as right as a kid your age can. Even if it takes five times as long as if I did it. Here, let me show you again...")

I may have a major bee in my bonnet over what society is doing to ourselves, but I believe it is not to anyone's benefit if I just get over it. And since I'm already an indisputable eccentric, how can it hurt if I begin looking crazy in a new way? We shall see if our family can have any success in resisting the pull of the "Me Generation" tide.

5 comments:

  1. As a member of the older end of the age range from the survey you cite, I agree with you. All my life, I wanted to feel that I could do something well. I wanted to be proficient and skilled. When I would daydream about my adulthood, I would imagine my future self as some kind of self-sufficient, seasoned adventurer, like a fantasy ranger. In reality, I was just an awkward kid, too shy and reserved to gain real-world expertise.

    Although I agree with you, I think even with our first-world lifestyle, there are practical things that we could learn, or teach our children, if we cared to. Just as Eskimo children know how to trim whale blubber, modern American children should know how to use the technologies that enable first-world civilization in a productive. One of the few things from my childhood that I am proud of was meticulously teaching myself to program in order to write text adventure games, when I was 12-14. If I were a parent, I might require my children to learn to manually focus and iris a camera to take pictures without a manual setting, set up the components of desktop computers, use image manipulation software like Photoshop, or make a website from scratch. It probably goes without saying that children should learn how to operate a vehicle; I still have never learned to drive, and I'm almost 22.

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    1. I admire the rare quality that drove you to explore and find ways to be counter-culturally productive. Fortunately, creative types tend to buck the trends prevalent in the "normal world." Thank goodness for that!

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  2. I think much of the problem here in the US is that we (schools an parents) teach theory and skip the basics. Kids are "introduced" to "concepts" but not taught the basic building blocks. Teaching *everything* should be like teaching riding a bike. Model it, explain all the basics, hold the seat while they petal until they get their balance, and then LET GO.

    Not saying I'm never guilty of doing things myself because it's easier, but I have made a concerted effort over the years to push my kids. They do their own laundry, and have for two or three years now--and my youngest is ten, so she started when she was seven or eight. They both know how to sweep, to run the vacuum, to dust, to cook a few basic things on the stove top and in the toaster oven, to rake the yard. My son chops wood with an ax, helps his dad saw and hammer things. My daughter is begging my mom to teach her to sew. (OK, looking at that list I don't feel as slack as I often do! :P)

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    1. Yeah, I'm not a huge fan of the spiral technique in teaching that you're referring to, where everything becomes conceptual too quickly and the knowledge base of the subject is inadequately conveyed. That's why we leaned classical when we homeschooled and why I'm so glad the school my kids now attend is also classical in its methodology. Recall before synthesis, a mastery of recall and synthesis before evaluation.

      And it sounds to me like you are doing a pretty solid job of equipping the beasties to be self-sufficient. Bravo on sticking with the uphill battle. :)

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