Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The "Walled Garden" Of Childhood

Most children, most of the time, are eager to grow up. Adults, on the other hand, tend to not be so keen on the idea. Naturally, we know that it's inevitable, and it's why we put so much of our blood, sweat, and tears into parenting or teaching, but if we had our way, we would extend childhood just a little longer, keeping them in their precious garden for as long as possible. We express this wish in many ways, I most often hear it come out in the well-intended admonishment to "let them have their childhood," an expression I myself have used here on this blog and elsewhere.

We've come to think of childhood as a sort of special, protected place where we put our young humans as they develop into adults. Ideally, we say, childhood should be a time when our youngest citizens needn't worry about the pressures and grind of adulthood, where they are protected from such concerns as paying the bills, political upheaval, and the other angsts of modern life. This isn't, of course, true for many children, as poverty and other disfunction brings the word crashing down upon them, but our fondest wish is for children to all be free to pursue their passions in a safe and beautiful place. In the great scheme of things, the whole idea of "childhood" is a relatively new one, a story about human beings that we've only been telling ourselves for the last few hundred years, with the idea of an extended protected childhood emerging even more recently. And by and large, I'd say that most of us consider this to be a sign of progress, even if we sometimes bemoan the excesses of such phenomenon as helicopter parenting.

Of course, children were not consulted in this process of building what John Holt called, "the walled garden of childhood," and now they know nothing else. We take it as perfectly normal that humans must spend the better part of their first two decades on this planet, mucking about in a place that is not the "real world," but rather a dumbed down facsimile. From their cribs, to their homes, to their schools they go, as we protect them in the cocoon of childhood, and if one of them should seek to break free, we tell them "No, you may not vote in the next election even if you have a strong opinion." We say, "No, you may not get a proper job with proper pay," "No, you may not live where you wish," "No, you may not have adult friends other than the ones we pick for you such as teachers and the ones we already know," "No, you may not own property of your own," "No, you may not walk away from school and find your own way to educate yourself." When they object, we tell them it's for their own good.

And we believe it's true: the world is full of pitfalls and dangers that our children, having always lived in their walled gardens, are unaware and to which, in their innocence, they may fall victim. How do we know about these pitfalls and dangers? Well, because we, as adults, no longer live in a walled garden and have ourselves, or known others, who have fallen victim to the pitfalls and dangers, forgetting that our own parents likewise tried to protect us within the walled gardens of youth to no avail.

I'm not the first person to point out this dynamic. Indeed, most reflective parents and teachers have thought similar things, wondering where the balance is. Often, we see that the walled garden as overly-protective, but instead of releasing our children from it, we arbitrarily make it more unpleasant. From John Holt:

. . . (T)he people who built the garden to protect the children from the harsh reality outside begin in the name of that same harsh reality to put weeds, and stones, and broken glass, and barbed wire into the garden. "They'd better learn . . . what the world out there is really like" . . . But if our concern is to teach them, not protect them from the bad of the world, why not let them out into it where they can see and learn for themselves?"

The human newborn is the most helpless of any newborn in the animal kingdom. They need adults to protect them, and we do, but it seems to me that we've gone too far. The destiny of every child is to leave our protection and fend for themselves in the big, bad world. And children still need their childhoods, but if the goal is to prepare them for life outside the garden, perhaps we need to consider that the real world is a better teacher, and leave the garden gate open more often.

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