In Defense of Childhood, by Chris Mercogliano

In Defense of Childhood

Author Chris Mercogliano has run an alternative school in Albany for several decades, so I expected In Defense of Childhood to be all about his school, and the philosophy behind the school.

In fact it’s much broader than that. It’s about childhood in general, and the way children are raised and influenced by parents, schools, and society as a whole. He uses many examples from his years running his school to illustrate various points, but the book’s not really about the school itself.

It’s kind of an extended essay/rant about the way things are and the way things should be. It’s a very personal statement of philosophy, a “Here are the conclusions I’ve come to about childhood, mostly through decades of personal experience, and to a lesser extent through research.”

And it’s a mixed bag. What references there are to social science research and such often smell very much like cherry picking what fits his worldview. Maybe not, but it has the feel of a polemic marshalling of evidence to fit a certain side. Whereas I would think the social science data is a lot more incomplete, speculative, fuzzy, complex, and open to multiple interpretations in a lot of these areas.

But more often than academic research he speaks of his own experiences. And one must, if anything, be even more wary of that kind of anecdotal appeal. There’s a discomforting amount of “Back when I was a boy…” appeals to the good old days.

A lot of times that kind of thing is really just a longing for the familiar. You remember maybe an idealized version of certain of your own experiences, and it just doesn’t feel right that nowadays people aren’t following the same path. Admittedly I fall into that sometimes myself. But I’m not writing a book.

I’m kind of playing devil’s advocate here, because in fact I agree with more than I disagree with in this book. But it’s mostly stuff that I’m humble and open-minded about, where I sort of think certain things about how child raising has gone astray, but I also recognize that my opinion is not an ideally well-informed one that I should have a high degree of confidence in, and that it might well be overly influenced by what I prefer to believe or what would be more comfortable for me because of my past or my personality type.

So I like having those views affirmed, but I’d feel better if the method of affirmation had more of a rigorous feel to it.

Children nowadays, the author laments, are not allowed to explore, manifest, and develop their natural “wildness.” This term makes it sound like he’s referring to physical roughhousing, climbing trees, taking physical risks, and running and jumping and carrying on of that kind, and in fact the bulk of his examples—Huck Finn and such—are of that type. Which would make this kind of a “boy-centric” philosophy, consistent with what some commentators have alleged, which is that childhood has been feminized, that the behaviors that come more natural to girls are rewarded, and the behaviors that come more natural to boys are deemed as misbehavior and emotional illnesses that need to be treated with drugs.

That’s evidently not his position, though, as he insists that he doesn’t mean it in that narrow a sense, that wildness includes freedom and play and imagination and testing oneself beyond merely physical challenges.

It still sounds a little boy-centric to me, but OK, I’ll go along with the notion that there’s more to his concept than that.

And this is one of the things where I’m mostly with him. A lot of what’s in this book is stuff I’ve been saying or thinking in some form or other for years. (Though again, what the heck do I know? I don’t have kids. I’ve spent precious little time with kids in my adult life. It’s not something I’ve studied extensively academically.)

So, yes, I agree there’s something disturbing about how kids are seemingly permanently busy now, but almost all with activities that are organized and run by adults, and designed to be as physically safe and as emotionally unthreatening—de-emphasis on anything competitive, anything where a kid could feel inadequate or like a loser—as possible.

I see it even in kids I know that I regard as for the most part very well parented and very loved. Virtually from the moment they get up to the moment they go to bed, they are at school, doing homework, going to Little League or soccer practice or gymnastics or some sport run by adults, going out to dinner or some activity with their parents, going to a carnival or some special event run by adults, etc. They have very little idle time, very little time that’s theirs just to be by themselves or with other kids to do their own thing and play in their own way.

I know why that is. I know the argument in favor of that kind of child raising (which seems now to be almost ubiquitous, at least above a certain socioeconomic level). It’s safety. You can’t let kids run the streets, you can’t let them go off and have their own adventures. If there aren’t adults there to supervise what kids do, there are too many risks. Kids get kidnapped, they drown, they get lost, they get their feelings hurt, they take drugs, they get in fights, they fall off their bike. The more you control their environment, and assign them carefully chosen safe and wholesome things to do, and closely supervise them, the more you can shield them from these dangers.

Plus a lot of the safety-first approach to child raising isn’t even individual parenting decisions anymore, but the consequences of a litigious society. Everything must be brought down to the level of the lowest Nervous Nellie common denominator, for liability reasons.

The founders of the author’s school faced this very issue. They very much wanted to let the kids have far more freedom than is now fashionable to live their lives and take chances, and thereby risk making mistakes and getting hurt. But the liability insurance would have been through the roof.

So they decided to forego the insurance entirely. Each month they set aside what they considered a more reasonable amount for insurance in an escrow account. They made sure to explain their philosophy in detail to parents to make sure only parents who were fully on board with it sent their kids to this school. They had them sign releases to that effect (which aren’t formally enforceable in their state, but at least make the parents feel more committed). Then they crossed their fingers that nothing bad would happen in the early going to wipe them out while the escrow account was still small.

The author states that in all the years the school has been in operation, only one parent has ever sued over their kid getting hurt, and they had plenty to cover that suit.

But that’s a rare exception. Most schools, businesses, municipalities, etc. will do what their lawyers tell them to do, which is to always err on the side of safety.

Not that it’s a terrible thing to want to minimize the chances of kids falling down wells, getting mauled by bears, or being molested by neighbors. But you have to think of it in terms of what’s lost when children are so obsessively protected. If they never take risks, never get in conflicts, never lose, never are offended, never get injured, etc., they can’t learn from the setbacks. They don’t learn to be resourceful in getting along with people. They don’t learn what are wise and what are unwise risks. They don’t overcome their fears.

This, the author believes, is why there are so many immature college students, so many kids living at home into their 20s and even 30s. A lot of the skills kids used to acquire in the transitional stage from childhood to adulthood, a lot of the trial and error, they never experienced when they were 8 or 10 or 14 like they should have. Instead they’re awkwardly having to learn those things as adults.

They’ve never made their own decisions, run their own lives, because they were considered too young to be qualified to do so. So now that they have to do it, they’re really not very good at it.

And that’s not to say that the alternative path leads to kids dying and getting maimed in massive numbers. At the author’s school, they’ve had the same or only marginally more injuries than they would have if they were governed by liability fear, because a lot of that stuff is ineffective overkill anyway. And on the very few occasions they do have a kid break an ankle or break an arm falling from a tree they were climbing, say, after the initial pain and crying, the kid sees it as an accomplishment or a rite of passage of sorts. They beam with pride showing off the cast that all their schoolmates have signed, and years later they still awe younger kids with the story of their derring-do.

There has to be substantial time in children’s lives, the author insists, for kids to be kids, to be Huck Finn and have adventures and get in trouble, to follow their own mind and their own imagination, to make even unwise decisions so they can learn from their mistakes.

With one significant exception, he says. It is right and proper for adults to severely limit how much time kids can choose to spend watching television, playing video games, and going online. For these activities, unlike reading, or just about any other kind of play, etc., are addictive, passive activities that deaden certain areas of the brain. (He cites research into brain wave activity and such that purports to show the deleterious effects of these things. I don’t have the background knowledge to judge whether he’s fairly and accurately presenting the current scientific opinion about these matters.)

I’ve already picked up on the fact that this is a hot and heavy debate in the alternative, democratic school movement. If you want to give kids maximum freedom, should that include putting no limits on things like video games? Or is it justified to make that one of the few exceptions where the grown-ups know best and can impose their will for the kids’ own good?

There are plenty of people on each side of the issue. In fact, there are even some defenders of video games who go beyond the kind of libertarian position that as a necessary evil kids should be allowed to make the mistake of overdoing the video games so they can eventually figure out for themselves that it’s a waste of time. They believe instead that spending a lot of time playing video games is a positive good. (Because kids are engaged, excited, having to strategize, developing their reflexes and dexterity, needing to read, etc., etc.)

I don’t know where I come down on this issue. I’m certainly troubled by these largely pointless activities, so I’m probably least in agreement with the position that unlimited video game playing is a positive good for children (though I’m uncertain enough not to rule out even that possibility). My position would probably be that they shouldn’t be coerced away from these activities, so kind of the letting them choose it as a necessary evil position, but with the additional proviso that adults be allowed to non-coercively make the case to them why it’s not good to use a lot of one’s time in childhood on these things.

(All too often, just as an aside, I get the feeling that some of the believers in democratic education, unschooling, etc. don’t make that distinction between coercing kids and non-coercively influencing them. I think it’s fully respectful of people’s autonomy to give them advice, express one’s opinions to them, make the case to them that this choice would be better than that choice, etc. To some alternative education advocates these are all equally unacceptable efforts to control kids. I disagree. I think it respects kids and treats them as adults when you don’t bite your tongue if you have an opinion relevant to something they’re doing. It’s not coercion if they agree with you on the merits and make the choice you prefer.)

Some of the other specifics the author advocates I either disagree with or am at best undecided.

He’s certainly not a predictable leftist, or whatever most people would expect from a radical educator.

For one, he criticizes the ending of child labor as an unjustified limitation on children’s freedom. I’m mostly not with him here. Not only do I not want to return to seven year olds working all day in factories, I hate when little kids come to the door selling magazine subscriptions, with their lowlife parents hovering on the street watching them. That turns my stomach. They have their whole life to do menial, tedious labor. Keep them free of that in childhood, unless it’s some modest little thing they come up with on their own, like running a lemonade stand.

He throws in the occasional attack on modern medicine, especially hospital births. (He’s a big believer in the birthing at home with a midwife thing.) Besides being peripheral to the topic of the book, that seems loopy to me. There are probably things to criticize, things that could be tinkered with about the birthing procedure at some hospitals, but I don’t buy this notion that it’s some kind of oppressive, patriarchal, Western attempt to kill the mother-child bond, or whatever.

As a friend of mine who is a doctor says, that’s all very quaint, feel-good, pro-woman, anti-expert stuff, until the 1 in 50 or 1 in 200 or 1 in 500 case where it would actually make a difference to have someone present who went through all the years of training to be an obstetrician, and who has all the top modern medical equipment available to work with.

I know the midwife defenders sometimes say they’ll go to the hospital in those rare cases, but surely there will be occasions when the loss of time and the necessity of transporting a pregnant woman going through some kind of trauma will make the difference in whether a situation becomes tragic. You want to be at the hospital if things go wrong; you don’t just want to have the option of going there later.

He sounds almost like a fundamentalist in condemning sex on TV and on the Internet. That’s mostly a non-issue for me. I join him in being troubled by all the violence. I hate the message that sends that violence is normal, that it’s how you get your way, that it’s how you ensure the good guys win, etc. But I don’t think sex is bad. I don’t much care if some giggly 11 year olds get a Penthouse and gawk at the beaver shots, or see people pretend they just had sex on some soap opera.

As I say, a lot of this book is just his ranting about how this and that is different from how it was when he grew up. Sometimes it’s very much in tune with things I’ve come to believe, and sometimes it’s not.

If I had kids, I would almost certainly prefer they go to an alternative school of his philosophy than a mainstream school. But on the other hand, I suspect there would be a fair number of alternative school philosophies I would choose over his. I think I overlap a bit more with some others.

But I’m certainly sympathetic to the main thrust of In Defense of Childhood, which is that (middle class and above) children’s lives are far too full and too closely scheduled with adult chosen and adult run activities that will be safe and “good for them.” I too would like to see more respect for their inner wildness.

Or I would just say more respect for their autonomy.


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