A Bit-O History for Parents: Useful background on how we wound up where we are.
PART II: THE FORCES SHAPING MODERN PARENTHOOD
BIG CHANGES IN THE LAST 100 YEARS
I suspect most of us take the job of parenting pretty seriously. We want to do the best we can for our children. How much time we have to invest in figuring out what we feel is best is probably pretty variable. We grab what information we can when we can. If we are lucky we have time to pick up a book or two as we muddle thru our crazy lives.
And we’re always speeding ahead. Looking ahead. It is human nature to accept how things are now as though they have always been that way. Which is probably why I was taken by surprise when I started looking back just the littlest bit in time.
In the last 100 years or so the nature of the relationship between parents and children has undergone a profound change from the form it has taken for most of evolutionary time. Yes, evolutionary time. And this very, very recent change to the parent-child relationship effects everything about how we raise, relate to, and educate our children.
If you understand what existed before, and what has changed and why, then you can see parenting today thru fresher more accurate eyes. This is not some esoteric academic thought discussion. You may soon be picking a preschool or daycare for your child. And what type you pick may be different when you understand how we got to be where we are in parenting and education.
So, don’t skip the next few chapters. They are not a philosophical exercise nor just for parents with older kids.
CHAPTER 18: FEAR BASED CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND PARENTING: HOW WE GOT HERE
Parents today often feel that they need to provide their kids with numerous varied opportunities to "develop" their children’s skills thru activities. This all starts at an absurdly young age, and it can put enormous stress on both parent and child. I think it's worth looking at where some of this pressure to "develop" our kid's skills comes from. Stick with me for a few pages and I think you’ll find some interesting new perspectives on educating your child.
You might be thinking that raising our children has always been about "schooling" their potential. But let's go back in time. First, let's go way back, to when we all lived in hunter-gatherer groups. This is where we have spent most of our evolutionary history. About 200,000 years of homo sapiens time and 2 million years back if you look at earlier hominins!
If we look at the few hunter-gatherer societies that remain in this world, we can get a glimpse into how childhood has been experienced for most of our human time-line. It’s important to understand that hunter-gatherer societies are much more egalitarian than ours is today. Everyone is considered valuable whether male or female, young or old. Children are also considered fully formed individuals whose wants and needs have legitimate worth.
They are not forced to “learn” nor “educated” by the adults. It is expected that the children will learn what they need to learn on their own, and that as they mature, they will contribute to the wellbeing and activities of the group. The children learn almost everything thru their own self-initiated play.
One of the main structures of child growth and development in these types of societies is, the multi-aged play group. Young children of 2 or 3 will be carried around by older children of 8 or 9, who are following around the 10 to 15 year olds, who are play-practicing what they have learned in hours following and hunting with the men or gathering with the women or just watching the grown-ups.
As they grow, the children begin to contribute and take on more and more of the tasks of life. It is certainly vital that each child not only masters but excels at many of these life skills. Hunting, fishing, identifying and gathering plants and herbs, making tools, making medicines...the volume of information and the complexity of skills that are mastered are truly monumental.
They learn this by "doing and playing” not by sitting for a lecture, taking notes, or doing worksheets. Activities are initiated by the children without adult involvement. These children would be picking for themselves what to do on any given day. They would also have a whole village of experts to learn from not just their parents.
Now, let’s jump forward in time to farming societies. This transformation got underway about 12,000 years ago, but it took a while before most humans lived in permanent settlements. With the growth and proliferation of settled villages, we begin to see the slow development of land “owners” with landless “laborers.”
Society became hierarchical and the few “haves” began to rule the many “have nots.” For a looong time the vast, vast majority of the world population were basically landless peasants. Only a very, very few lived in a wealthy house or the castle on the hill. This means we now had social “classes” rather than the egalitarian society of the hunter-gatherers.
Most peasant children grew and learned along-side siblings and parents and neighbors. They still learned by doing but likely with less play. Because now their parents needed the labor of the children in the fields and animal pens. Their parents nurtured in them, taught them, the skills that went with the family work. Farming, animal care, blacksmithing, baking, weaving, knitting, food storage, and more farming.
Generally, children were making significant contributions to the family’s success from a young age. The exception of course were those rich aristocrats on the hill. Their children would be sheltered from the drudgery of work and settled down at a desk for a one-on-one tutored academic education.
Slowly, during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, a small middle class developed amongst wealthy traders and craftsmen. These families might now seek tutors and schooling for their children as the wealthy aristocracy had long done.
Then, just a few hundred years back, the French and American Revolutions would come along and embrace ideals of "the self-made man" and the emerging idea that a person might, thru hard work and brains, actually "move upward" in class! This was truly revolutionary.
Next, only about 150 years ago, comes the industrial revolution. Now, many parents were leaving farms to work in factories. They were reaching and striving for "a better life." And the children of the poor masses followed, learning the skills of their parents while working beside them in the factories.
By the early 1900’s, the labor movement hits. Laborers begin demanding a fair, living wage. The concept that workers have rights, that women have rights, and that children have rights spreads throughout the cities. Social progressives start working to ban child labor in factories and provide expanded education to the masses.
Learning becomes a way UP. And the middle class in America explodes. For the first time, educating your children becomes something achievable by large numbers of families. It's no longer for the rich aristocracy alone. The self-made-man has the right and the opportunity to raise children who may continue to move his family up the social and economic ladder.
Think about it. These are massive social and cultural shifts that are really brand new in our world and still not fully evolved or integrated.
- Lower classes can aspire to move up in wealth and class.
- A primary route for upward mobility is education.
- A child’s job is schooling which allows them to reach higher than their parents.
All brand spanking new ideas. How we attempt to implement these ideas in daily life is also a brand new experiment. How long ago did all this start? Well, it’s only been going on for 150-200 years. Not very long. We are very new to these ideas.
That a family can improve its lot in life. That children can go on to achieve more than their parents. That children need not the skills of their parents but something more. That all children should have access to this opportunity to advance in the world. And... that this guided didactic education, not free learning thru play and not laboring for the family, should be a child's primary focus.
The idea that a childhood’s work IS schooling is really quite new. In an agrarian culture the activities and labor of children supports the parents and family as they work to sustain or expand the farm or shop. Now that relationship is turned on its head. A parent invests energy and time and money in hopes of educating and advancing their children so that they can achieve more than the parents.
In addition, individual formal tutored didactic education of children has been practiced by the wealthy for a long time but generalized education that reaches all children is actually a rather new creation. How then has childhood education evolved?
What many parents today don't realize is that prior to the early 1900's, school, for those who had access to it, often started at age 7! Sometimes called “the age of reason” 7-8 years of age is when children just begin to become capable of more complex thought. This is the earliest age at which it was felt children were developmentally ready for school.
Kindergarten, for younger children, is actually a relatively new idea that began in Germany during the mid 1800's. Friedrich Froebel first coined the term "kindergarten" and felt that young children could learn a great deal thru the playful exploration of the world. He started "pre-schooling" for children 3-7yrs of age.
The original goals of this "children’s garden" were to use supervised play to prepare a child socially, emotionally, and morally… for the academic school environment that would come... later. German immigrants would then bring the idea of kindergarten to America.
In the U.S., the concept was adopted into an English format by the philanthropist Elizabeth Peabody. By the late 1800's many women were working in the factories of the industrial revolution. Young children would often be placed in "day nurseries" were they had little supervision or stimulation. Kindergarten became a better more enriched environment for the children of the working poor.
And as child labor laws pushed kids out of the factories, the burgeoning public school system pulled them in and off the troublesome streets. Over the ensuing years there was debate about what kind of learning should be incorporated in kindergarten. However, kindergarten remained optional and in fact still is in many states.
By the 1950's, cold war anxiety would lead to a push for starting academic teaching at younger ages. Sputnik circled overhead and Americans panicked that we were “falling behind” the Russians. This led to a kind of "fear based" academic policy that continues today. This fear of "falling behind" continued with the rise of a successful Japanese car industry and technology in the 1970's and today with a fear of "falling behind" China. In addition, the age range for kindergarten has also shifted from 3-7y/o to 5 years old.
Now, let’s have a look at the history of the Head Start Program. In 1965, after JFK’s assassination, President Johnson launched his “Great Society” campaign with goals of improving social justice. With the civil rights movement at hand and the hopes of raising disadvantaged children out of poverty, the Head Start Program would begin as a summer program and evolve into a comprehensive plan to address issues of emotional, cognitive, social, and nutritional natures.
This early childhood education program was based on the idea that kids from "disadvantaged backgrounds" (think low income and low levels of parental education) could get a boost in academics if their parents were given resources and skill development. At the same time, the children gained access to an enriched environment.
It has been noted that children from these backgrounds are, on average, exposed to far fewer words per day compared to children from homes with educated parents and better income. This is often called "the word gap" and it can correlate with worse academic outcomes.
By providing the disadvantaged kids and their parents with a more enriched environment in Head Start, the hope was that kids would get a boost to bring them up to speed in school. This would give them a greater chance at academic and economic success. And, basically, though it is a hard thing to measure, it seemed to help. Disadvantaged kids given early Head Start pre-school did seem to do better in school than their disadvantaged peerswho did not get Head Start.
What happened next is interesting. There appears to have been a general extrapolation of the early intervention idea to other groups of kids. If early pre-school was good for disadvantage kids then it must be good for all kids...right? And the world is now competitive so we don't want any other kids getting ahead of our kids...right?
This idea fails to recognize several things. First, young kids are not mini adults. Their brains do not work in the same way. And I mean that literally, their brain structure and function is not like an adult’s. It takes years and years for a brain to mature. In fact, more recent studies with technologies that look at brain function show that the brains of 20 year olds are still evolving!
Children are programed to develop various skills as they grow and as their brain matures. No matter how early you start math, you can't teach calculus to a 5 year old. At 5 they are just starting to wrap their heads around vague concepts of time. Really. Try explaining time to a 3 year old. It's not an easy concept to teach, and they are only going to grasp the bare periphery of the idea. Some things are just learned at their own moment of brain development.
And if your kid is growing up in a family where a pile of chocolate chips is a great opportunity to teach addition and subtraction, then your kid is growing up in that enriched environment already. Many now feel that too much academic pressure early on pushes children to try to learn in ways they are not yet developmentally ready to do. This leads to failure and frustration for the child who may also be demonized as a "behavior problem" or worse yet pathologized and given a diagnosis that may haunt them for far too long. The result is that the kids can turn off to the joy of learning and they will often tune out for the duration of their grade school years.
Other studies have shown that kids who are pushed to read early are reading at the same level as those who are not pushed when measured at age 10. If we then reassess these two groups at age 15, we find that the kids who learned to read LATER are in fact reading significantly more. Huh! Why is that? Seems counter intuitive doesn't it. Perhaps there are other developmental tasks that the later readers get more time to master. Like for instance a capacity for internal motivation. Perhaps the gift of time lets them simply enjoy reading.
We in fact have no evidence...no evidence... that early reading or early academics leads to long-term improved academic outcome. And we certainly have no evidence that it leads to personal or professional success. In fact, we have considerable evidence to the contrary. Too much pressure early on can backfire. Young children have other developmental tasks to master and maturation to complete before they are ready for didactic education.
This is not to say that good child-initiated PLAY-based pre-school can't be a good thing. An open, free, play filled environment with a teacher who facilitates a child's individual development and exploration of the world can be a very good thing. Many early childhood development experts recommend a pre-school that allows child-initiated activities guided by a teacher who focuses on verbal language, social and emotional skills, and the development of thought processes.
On my son's first day of pre-school, age 4, the teacher noticed his keen interest in the hole punch she'd used. She set him up with the puncher and stack of paper with which he proceeded to occupy himself for an hour. Mechanical engineering, fine motor skills, hand eye coordination...and one boy punching holes with complete freedom...his boat was floating HIGH. I know he loved every second with that hole puncher. That's a great teacher (we love you Freya!) and a great environment in which to grow and learn with joy.
So, we have this child with a brain that is not like ours. The wiring is different and the connections between the wires is different. It's certainly not an empty receptacle into which information simply needs to be poured. It is in fact, a complex and rapidly growing, evolving, and changing network of brain connections and revisions. Further, each child's brain is evolving in its own pattern and time frame. It seems reasonable to think that the educational needs of such a beastie might be worth some real research.
That research has been done and more continues to be done. But, many of the decisions about how to teach our children continue to be fear based, often political, reactionary and uninformed. And you may be surprised to learn that these large policy decisions about what a child should learn at a given age are often made without any input from people with education in early childhood development.
Our brains are developing and changing well into our mid twenties. Yet, most school systems in the U.S. only require "early years teachers" (usually 5y/o and under) to have training in early childhood development. Our brains continue to evolve in unique and individual ways all thru our school years, yet the ongoing development and brain changes are not taught to our teachers of kids over six. Isn’t that a bit crazy?
Ok, what’s the point of all this?
Well, we’ve only been at this whole public education thing for about 150 years! Much of the form that our public schools currently take is a reflection of historical, political, cultural, and emotional forces from the last 150 years. It’s not some tried and true format that has been developed by experts in child development. Actually, it’s quite haphazard and in no way reflects the types of environments that human children evolved to live in over most of our history.
Let’s keep an open mind about how this whole experiment might need to evolve. Understand that if your child is not doing well within the system as it exists that it may well be the fault of the system and not your kid.
A few great resources on this topic:
1. From the Atlantic Mag.: s
- "The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grown Ups," by Erika Christakis https://www.amazon.com/Importance-Being-Little-Children-Grownups/dp/0143129988/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2IK66W9YM6KN2&keywords=the+importance+of+being+little&qid=1558734697&s=gateway&sprefix=importance+of+being+little%2Caps%2C222&sr=8-1
- "What if Everybody Understood Child Development," by Rae Pica. https://www.amazon.com/What-Everybody-Understood-Child-Development/dp/1483381846/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?crid=2WR3L56W3PG6F&keywords=what+if+everyone+understood+child+development&qid=1558734582&s=gateway&sprefix=what+if+everyone+und%2Caps%2C211&sr=8-1-spons&psc=1
CONCERTED CULTIVATION v.s. ACCOMPLISHMENT OF NATURAL GROWTH
Another way this new perspective on how to raise kids has been internalized by many parents is the concept of "concerted cultivation." Annette Lareau, author of "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life" used this term when she was studying the effects of race and class on the long-term success of children.
Her study was aimed at identifying ways that success was hindered or facilitated in families of different backgrounds. She found two different approaches to raising children.
In middle class families with educated parents there was an attempt by parents to carefully "develop" their children's skills thru school, sports, classes, languages, etc. This “concerted cultivation” model involved extensive scheduling of children's time in primarily adult supervised activities. These kids developed good skills in navigating the adult world outside the family. They were accustomed to interacting with adult authority in the form of coaches, teachers, and club leaders. They also became familiar with forms and applications, photo id's, deadlines, commitments, and the logistics of dealing with the bureaucratic structures that managed their activities. These skills had value when entering the working world.
On the other hand, their parents were often stressed by constant conflicts between work and transporting and supervising their kid’s highly scheduled time. The kids were often exhausted and stressed and only rarely had any "down time" scheduled into their week. They tended to have much less bonded families as little of their time was spent in family focused activities. The exception to this was in middle class African-American families where children were still "cultivated" but time with extended family was also maintained.
In general, however, the middle-class kids of all races had little opportunity to engage in self-invented play with friends and carried high levels of stress. So, if a balanced work, play, and family life is important to your definition of "success" for your child's life then this approach may need a bit of revision.
The flip side of this type of "concerted cultivation" parenting was termed, "accomplishment of natural growth." Lareau found this attitude towards parenting was more common in lower income homes. These parents typically had little time or money to facilitate sports or dance class or music lessons.
In these homes, kids were allowed to schedule their own free time and create their own forms of play. Much of this time was spent playing with neighborhood kids in spontaneously invented games with extensively negotiated rules. These families often had deep binding ties to extended family and community. Children in these homes typically had a large network of aunties, grandma's, and cousins whom they could rely upon thru much of their lives.
However, these kids often internalized their own parent's mistrust and suspicion of organized authorities. This lack of trust in and exposure to adult organizations could often lead to kids who lacked the confidence and bureaucratic fluency that can be so important in negotiating the professional world.
It’s important to note that Annette Lareau published her study of young teens in 2003. Most likely if you were to interview baby boomers and their parents none of them would have experienced “concerted cultivation.” I suspect (in a non-scientific analysis) that even those with the most advanced degrees spent their childhoods in a manner more in line with the “accomplishment of natural growth” style that Lareau describes.
My siblings and I certainly spent our free time in unsupervised roaming of an ever expanding territory around our suburban home. My parents also tell childhood tales of their neighborhood turf and gang of friends.
I get it that we may want to offer our children an opportunity that was not available to us. A chance at some of those fun things the “rich aristocrat” kids always get to do. My mother got piano lessons and I got dance classes, but there was no “pre-school” nor “cultivation” nor constant parental supervision.
However, almost 2 decades after Lareau’s study, middle class concerted cultivation has reached a fever pitch. A desperate competition has ensued. The youngest of children are scheduled up with foreign language class, dance, gymnastics, karate, art, engineering, music, early coding and on and on. Within this frantic race in an apparently constricting world, we have both students and teachers caught in cheating scandals. Teen suicide rates are way up across ethnic groups. And high schools and colleges alike are struggling to help students who are stressed and lost as they try to jump thru every hoop they can find. Yet they suffer from a lack of any grounding that ties them to family, community, friends, cause, or reason for being.
But where did this parental idea that we need to “cultivate” our children’s skills come from? And why has it reached such a fever pitch? Well, we have to look back at all those recent monumental economic and cultural revolutions of the last century.
In this country, men and for the first time women, have internalized the idea that we can achieve whatever success we want thru hard work. Yet, we are also aware of the unspoken truth that the playing field is most certainly NOT level. That it is easier for the rich to get richer than it is for the poor to get less poor.
Our parents did better than their parents. And so, we too are supposed to do “better” than our parents. But instead 25 year olds are moving back in with mom and dad, debt is way up, wages are down, suicide is up, healthcare is out of control, elders struggle in poverty, and college tuition seems stratospheric.
So, we look at our kids and think, “they need to be the best, the very best to make it in the coming world.” And we’ve been told that education is the way UP. Therefore, we get behind and puuuuush.
There-in lies a tangled web of disordered thinking.
First, is the social-political idea that everything is fine out there. That if people aren’t doing well they just need to start pre-school earlier, or work harder, longer hours…without a raise…or benefits…or regular hours? We have this idea that if we aren’t successful that it is intrinsically always our own fault. That the poor are poor thru their own flaws and failings.
This ignores the very real truth that laws, rules, prejudices, history, societal structures, even bad luck can all deal us massive and even insurmountable obstacles. In fact, many of the laws that set up the growth, development, and protection of middle class Americans have been slowly dismantled over the last 80 years.
We act as if state supported childcare is a luxury not a necessity for working parents. We say “healthcare for all” is the same as communism and that funding education is somehow bad for our country?
When we think that simply pushing our kids to be their best, will let them succeed in the world of the future then we are ignoring all the very real forces that are arrayed against them. And if we ignore those things then we can’t fix them! If we want our kids to have a good life then we need to repair the social, political, economic, and environmental damage that’s been done over the last 80 years.
It’s not early pre-school that will help your kids live a good life. It’s building a better society.
How can EVERY generation to “do better” than the last one? If by “better” you mean have a bigger house, more cars, and more things then at some point we’d eat up the world and all its “resources.” How about we hope for our children a “good” life?
Perhaps we can aim for balance. A place where everyone’s needs and comforts and creative endeavors are nourished and the earth can regenerate in balance. At the very least, we as parents can work to make the playing field more even for our adult children. So that once again, the self-made common man or woman can have a fair chance in the world.
If we can build that world for our kids then we don’t need to stress out about whether the right pre-school will get our child into Harvard Law/ Medical/ Business school and thus onto the one, the only, path to a life without homelessness and despair. We can let our kids be kids again.
If this sounds revolutionary, well, maybe it kinda is. But the voices are out there. Economists, business people, environmentalists, and…parents… are looking to change the very goals and structures by which we run our lives and world.
The Agricultural Revolution, Industrial Revolution, the Sexual Revolution, and the Civil Rights Movement all dramatically changed the structure of society. They brought new goals, new hopes, and new dreams to people across this nation and around the world.
How will the Technology Revolution change our future society? The Fatherhood Revolution? (see my next book) What shape do we want our society to take as our kids move into their future? The dystopian world of Blade Runner? Or the utopian vision of the Netherlands?
Whatever it will be, it’s our job to build it for our children.
Here are a few books to get you started:
- The Year of Living Danishly, by Helen Russell; https://www.amazon.com/Year-Living-Danishly-Uncovering-Happiest/dp/1785780239/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3F0DUW14JHV5I&keywords=the+year+of+living+danishly&qid=1558736108&s=gateway&sprefix=the+year+of+living+danishly%2Caps%2C1080&sr=8-1
2. Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth; https://www.amazon.com/Doughnut-Economics-Seven-21st-Century-Economist/dp/1603587969/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1PTBJ8T7UT0RD&keywords=doughnut+economics+by+kate+raworth&qid=1558736197&s=gateway&sprefix=Doughnut+eco%2Caps%2C539&sr=8-1
Look for more in my "Books" section in the menu.
The other thread in this tangled web of frenzied concerted cultivation is basic child development. I’ll say it again. A child’s brain is not wired like an adult brain. They are not mini me’s. They need and deserve the time to be young and immature. We are the most intelligent creature on the planet because we take foreeeever to grow our young to adulthood. There’s a lot going on in that foreeeeever that needs to happen.
It may seem strange to be discussing issues of concerted cultivation, free-play, and over-scheduling, and restructuring of society in a book aimed at parenting the youngest of children. But these issues have so permeated the conscious anxiety of parents that some grounding in their origins is useful.
The whole concerted cultivation thing is starting at crazy young ages. And it’s easy to get sucked into it even as you try to resist it. Moms who keep their kids out of soccer at 4 years old will be told by other moms that their kids won’t be able to keep up when they are 10 years old. It’s not true. The 10 year old may start out behind but their motor cortex and cerebellum are much more developed than a 4 year olds. They will pick up the skills much faster and catch up. But it’s hard to argue this when all the other moms fearfully agree that you have to start at age 4.
And if you do keep your kids out of activities and try to set up playdates you may find most of the other kids are all booked into daily activities. But don’t give up. You will find other kids that can run free with yours. Children need a chance to be young. They need time for free play. They need a lot of time for free play. They don’t need parents displacing the world’s anxiety about global outsourcing and competitiveness onto their earliest years.
Consciously limiting how many activities we allow our children can facilitate family time and allow for the deepening of important bonds. Placing value on teaching the life skills of making regular meals, cleaning a bathroom, doing the family laundry, and caring for pets can give kids truly vital skills that they can take to any college or job.
Coaching our kids not to perfect scores but instead to finding a balance of school work and fun time, industry and friendships, giving and community involvement may be key to helping them find a more rewarding life balance with meaning and connections.
Before you set your little one’s feet upon life’s path, think about where that path might lead her. Ask yourself if it looks like it goes where you want her to wind up.
Here are two great books to get you thinking before you pick a daycare or preschool for your little one:
“What if Everybody Understood Child Development?,” By Rae Pica
“Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grown-ups,” by Erika Christakis