“Too many parents make life hard for their children by trying, too zealously, to make it easy for them.”
German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), quoted in “The Case Against Adolescence” by Robert Epstein
I started Farm School two years ago in part because I blathered on for much too long on the subject of children and independence at L’s blog Schola. Independence, self-reliance, and responsibility are among the values Tom and I talked about teaching children when we thought about getting married. And these values are a good part of the reason I decided that it would probably be better to raise children on the Canadian prairie than Manhattan’s Upper West Side; I’m not saying it’s impossible (I think my parents did a fabulous job), but 40 years on it seems rather easier in this neck of the woods.
While we didn’t start homeschooling with the idea that it would be a good way of further inculcating those values, it didn’t take Tom and me long to realize that this educational experiment is as ideal for our child-rearing purposes as it is for our academic ones. And I’m always keen to read anything that supports our rather old-fashioned notions when it comes to raising kids.
So I was more than interested to learn a couple of months ago, at Susan’s blog Corn & Oil, about the new book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Quill Driver Books, 2007) by Robert Epstein, a psychologist and former editor-in-chief of Pyschology Today magazine. The idea behind the book is that (from the front flap)
teen turmoil is caused by outmoded systems put in place a century ago which destroyed the continuum between childhood and adulthood.
Where this continuum still exists in other countries, there is no adolescence. Isolated from adults, American teens learn everything they know from their media-dominated peers — “the last people on earth they should be learning from,” says Epstein.
Which, in my case at least, means the good doctor is preaching to the converted. While I tend to think that part of the problem with the way kids are being raised is that they are being raised by advice from books rather than from parents’ hearts or instincts or the way they themselves were raised by their own parents (somehow that all seems too easy…), at least there seem to be some better parenting books to choose from nowadays, including Dr. Epstein’s. And as you can see from the bit above, The Case Against Adolescence contains echoes of Hold On to Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Mate, another book I like, though I don’t find mention of the title or authors in the index.
But I’ve already found, just partway through chapter three, mention of the two home education gurus, former New York public school teacher John Taylor Gatto and the late John Holt; a peek at the index shows three mentions of “Home Schooling” toward the end of the book. Dr. Epstein notes that Gatto addresses “quite explicitly, … the artificial extension of childhood” in his latest book, The Underground History of American Education (an excerpt of which was published in Harper’s Magazine in September 2003, and which I saw the very week I hit upon the alternative of home schooling for Laura. Yes, I took it as a good omen).
The Case Against Adolescence owes a considerable debt to Jean Liedloff’s 1977 classic, The Continuum Concept: In Search of Lost Happiness, which I read while pregnant with Laura, after coming across a secondhand copy at a library book sale. Indeed, the CC website’s main page features glowing quotes about the book from both Dr. Epstein (“This book is the work of a genius” in Psychology Today) and John Holt (“I don’t know whether the world can be saved by a book, but if it could be, this might just be the book.”)
Just last night, I read Dr. Epstein’s handy summary of Liedloff’s two years with the Yequana Indians of Venezuela:
There is no distinct separation between childhood and adulthood in the tribe; instead, there is a continuum of activities, behaviors, and expectations. Expectations are modest when children are young and increase gradually and smoothly over the years, but the goals are always clear: the development of self-reliance and the full integration of the child into the world of responsible adulthood. Responsibility and authority are never forced on anyone, but they’re given freely as soon as a child shows an interest in taking them on. Independent decision making is encouraged, because “leaving the choice to the child from the earliest age keeps his judgment at peak efficiency,” and the child’s “self protecting ability” is trusted to keep him or her from serious harm.
In contrast, she says, we weaken and damage our children by overprotecting them; we even impair their ability to make reasonable decisions and to protect themselves.
And then, still mulling over the development of this “self-protecting ability” this morning, I happened upon today’s New York Times article on claims of possible child abuse in connection with Kid Nation, a new show to air in September:
The ads promoting “Kid Nation,” a new reality show coming to CBS next month, extol the incredible experience of a group of 40 children, ages 8 to 15, who built a sort of idealistic society in a New Mexico ghost town, free of adults. For 40 days the children cooked their own meals, cleaned their own outhouses, formed a government and ran their own businesses, all without adult intervention or participation.
To at least one parent of a participant, who wrote a letter of complaint to New Mexico state officials after the show had completed production, the experience bordered on abuse and neglect. Several children required medical attention after drinking bleach that had been left in an unmarked soda bottle, according to both the parent and CBS. One 11-year-old girl burned her face with splattered grease while cooking.
The children were made to haul wagons loaded with supplies for more than a mile through the New Mexico countryside, and they worked long hours — “from the crack of dawn when the rooster started crowing” until at least 9:30 p.m., according to Taylor, a 10-year-old from Sylvester, Ga., who was made available by CBS to respond to questions about conditions on the set.
I also came across a Los Angeles Times article from last week, “Kid Nation” parents: What were they thinking?, where three women were interviewed to “respond to the critics condemning them for allowing their children to participate in the CBS show”. Said one mother, about her 10-year-old, an only child,
He does live in what I call a sheltered environment. He goes to a small school. Most of the schoolmates and friends that he knows he’s known almost his entire life. I thought that this was a good opportunity for Zachary to experience some independence and learn some self-reliance. And if he was able to do this, I thought that was a very good way for him to build confidence in himself.
I worry that in today’s world kids don’t realize things they might have to face in life that might be difficult because, I think, as baby boomers we tend to be very protective of them. And I want him to know that he has the capability to be out in the world and be independent and self-reliant.
All this of course after I’ve spent the past few weeks on and off delightedly wallowing in Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s charming memoir, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. Unvarnished and homespun, these are the stories, words, and advice of a real grandmother eager to share her own part of a disappearing world, and to let later generations know the lasting value of pulling up your socks and putting your nose to the grindstone. As I read through each of the chapters, from her earliest reminiscences to the recipes to her later life as detailed in Epilogue, I realized that Mrs. Kalish has written about a happiness and freedom in childhood, and a contentment in adulthood, that today are sadly rare. From Little Heathens,
The summer after I graduated from eighth grade I … was delighted to go to work as a hired girl on a large farm south of [the town of] Garrison. The family consisted of Cecil, Anna, and their two girls and four boys, ranging in age from one and a half to eleven. Cecil hired one or two extra men in the summer. That meant that Ann and I cooked, set the table, and did the dishes for at least ten people, three times a day.
Anna paid me four dollars a week for my work on the farm, and I was especially proud of that for my closest girlfriends and all of my other friends were being paid only three and a half dollars. Of course, we all received room and board, too.
Here I should report that we were also accepted as full-fledged members of the family, for hired girls were not treated as maids. In fact, I was the only one in this family who had a private room. Located at the top of the crooked stairs, it was about five feet wide by ten feet long, and it had a window overlooking the huge vegetable garden. To me it was a palace.
During those summer months we rose at five-thirty A.M., unless it was haying or threshing time on the farm; then we got up at four-thirty. Anna and I timed it so that we got up just after the men, who immediately disappeared to the barns to do the morning chores. Anna built a fire in the iron kitchen range, while I put the copper teakettle on along with the gray, graniteware coffee boiler and got the bacon started. As the kitchen filled with the delicious fragrance of the bacon crisping and browning, I carried jam, a whole pound of butter, sliced bread, a large pitcher of milk, and a smaller pitcher of heavy cream to the table, which was already set for ten people. Then I carefully broke twenty eggs into a mixing bowl and waited for one of the boys to report that the men were ready for breakfast. At that point I poured the blow of eggs into the gigantic iron skillet and fried them to perfection in bacon fat, sunny-side up.
If there was a delay, or if the men had an especially busy day before them, I might make an applesauce cake — the very one I described in an earlier chapter. Here again, the family training in thinking ahead and always doing more than was required stood me in good stead. I could whip up that cake in just a few minutes since I kept a ready supply of homemade applesauce in the pantry; it would bake while we were eating breakfast and would be ready to eat with our second cups of coffee.
I could handle almost every task in Anna’s household; I could even make gravy without lumps, for heaven’s sake. There was always something to do on that farm: cakes, cookies, and pies to bake; potatoes, radishes, beets, carrots, peas, lettuce, tomatoes, and beans to pick, wash, clean, and peel; chickens to kill, scald, pluck, singe, draw, and disjoint; dishes to wash and dry; clothing to wash; laundry to be hung on the line, then taken down from the line, folded, and ironed. And every day, we made beds for ten people. Everything I had learned in my early years [up until eighth grade] I put to use as a hired girl for this family.
The children all helped in as many ways as they could. They would make their own beds, wash vegetables, carry wood and water, set the table, dry dishes, and gather eggs and apples. Like the children I grew up with, they understood that hey played a part in making the family work.
We had fun with one another. There was a lot of joking, laughing, and good-natured teasing. And often in the evening, on those occasions when we had somehow managed to finish our chores as well as our supper before dark, the kids would hep me with the dishes if I would agree to come outside afterward and play with them. We played hide-and-go-seek, touched-you-last, and may-I. Some evenings we would have water fights, tossing pails of water on one another. Or we might just sit out on the front porch and sing.
Or, as The New York Times article on alleged child abuse concluded,
“Everyone usually had a job,” said Mike, an 11-year-old from Bellevue, Wash., who participated in the show. Among them were cooking, cleaning, hauling water and running the stores, where, he said: “It was hard work, but it was really good. It taught us all that life is not all play and no work.”
Taylor, from Georgia, agreed. “I learned I have to work for what I want,” she said.
I’m sure both Mrs. Kalish and Dr. Epstein would approve. Pass the applesauce cake, please.
(Very likely more thoughts to come on The Case Against Adolescence, and Little Heathens, in upcoming posts.)
Filed under: Books, Childhood, Courting Danger, Family, Farm Life, Raising Children | Tagged: consequences, family matters | Leave a Comment »