Monday, September 28, 2015

The Only Way To Get There Is To Follow

When our daughter Josephine was a four and five-year-old, she and her friends played chase; usually boys chasing girls, but sometimes switched up. The girls she ran with were often in conflict with one another, experimenting with one another's feelings, sometimes even intentionally hurting one another, but they were always allied when they played chase, a collective power with which to be reckoned.

Sometimes the girls would decide they didn't want to be chased and turned on the boys, shoulder-to-shoulder, telling them to "Stop!" And the boys would stop, although sometimes they would show their regret for the end of the game by not stopping right away, so the girls learned they must insist that no means no. It's not hard to see how games like this prepare the children for our world; not some kind of ideal world, but the real world in which we live where males still tend to pursue the females. The children were preparing themselves for the world as they perceived it, not some utopic future of radical, genderless individualism.

Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, explains that children, when left to their own devices, invariably prepare themselves for the real world. He writes of Jewish children in concentration camps playing games of despair and survival, because, indeed, this is the real future for which they knew they must prepare themselves:

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called "tickling the corpse." At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played "gas chamber," a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying. One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp's daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with the blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who hat hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing . . . Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.

Thankfully, our children don't have such grim prospects, but politicians and corporate data miners will tell you that we must take control of childhood in order to prepare our children for their mythological "jobs of tomorrow," as if they can somehow know the future better than the children themselves who, when given the opportunity, are always brutally honest about what that means. When my daughter and her classmates playacted heterosexual gender relations as a crude metaphor, they were so much more clear sighted about their world, and what awaited them, than any of us adult social engineering do-gooders, including myself, who tried to force Josephine into overalls and ball caps before she, as a two-year-old, yelled at me, "Papa, you don't know about girls!"

When we watch children freely play, we see the future. Those girls playing "princess" beauty games are preparing for the future they know is before them. They perceive, like all women in our culture, that they must somehow come to terms with the notion of "beauty." You may accept it, reject it, or make it your own, but our preschool girls know without a doubt that they must deal with it and it's so important they must start practicing right now. When boys play at "hero," they are playing with our culture's messages about masculinity. Just think how it must feel to know that you must grow up be an unsmiling tough guy, expected to rescue others -- you sure as hell better get to work on that. When children play games of cooperation and conflict, debate and agreement, exclusion and inclusion, they are preparing themselves for their real future, the real jobs of tomorrow.

From time to time, well-meaning folks will initiate some program or other designed to "break down" gender or race or cultural stereotypes by somehow changing the children. Among those nobel experiments were forced busing in the name of desegregation or the Swedish effort to replace gender specific pronouns with a gender neutral one. I'll leave you to decide if busing lead to a more racially egalitarian society and I seriously doubt the language experiment will impact gender inequality one way or another. Among those ignoble experiments are the Mercer Island school district's recent decision to ban the playground game of "tag" in the name of ensuring the "physical and emotional safety of all students." (Thankfully, the backlash to this initiative was such that the district quickly reversed itself.) And while I favor the goals of these initiatives, they've got it backwards: if we want to change the games children play, we must first change the society in which they live.

When we over-regulate and micro-manage childhood, robbing our kids of their free play, we prevent them from preparing themselves for the real world in favor of our fantasy world. When we get out of the way, they prepare for the future that they, themselves, will create. We have very little chance of improving civilization if we keep stubbornly seeking to train our children for those mythical "jobs of tomorrow." The only hope we have is to turn the kids free to practice for the real future that they see much more clearly than we do. And the only way for us to get there is to follow them.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...
not sure if you heard this/read the transcript but the information on the effects of busing and integration is dramatic and might make you question at the very least that example to support your argument. it seems from the show, that while it didn't change society, it did change the lives of many black children who were bused.

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