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Published: 04 May 2013
In “The Aging of Childhood (Part I),”  we saw how childhood is being stretched out by parents, teachers, coaches and others whose well-meaning interference keeps children from learning to deal productively with failure, disappointment and inconvenience. This time we’ll see how childhood immaturity is extended when children don’t develop skills in independent play, learning, finishing tasks, and other aspects of educational “form.”
I grew up as a privileged child. This claim might make readers think that I had all the material things I wanted and attended the best schools, etc. Hardly that. My parents were nobody in particular, and we had very little of material goods. When I was a boy, Pop was a young mechanic still learning his craft, just a few years after serving in the war. We got by, but our style of living would be considered “poor” by today’s standards. Pop drove a 12-year-old car and our house was very modest. I was age five when I was playing in the trenches Pop had dug for installing the septic tank that would let us have an indoor bathroom for the first time.
It was where we lived that made my childhood special – an old suburb of Allentown, PA, dating from early in the century. It was a “garden suburb” called Farmington. Plots of land were big enough for gardens, and some properties were actually small farms. Its communication with the city was a trolley-car line within walking distance of our place. What made it idyllic for a boy was space to run and play for hours without bothering anyone. Someone owned all those vacant fields and lots, but they didn’t mind that we were hunting buffalo and fighting the Iroquois with bows and arrows. My mother’s rule was that I must come home for supper when the sun touched the top of the trees in the distance. Otherwise, I was on my own. I recall coming in, ruddy with cold, carrying my homemade bow and arrows, and sitting down to my mother’s steaming supper after being outside all day. (I had escaped the Iroquois again, but no buffalo.)
No adults intervened in our play. My parents had little idea where I was. Older kids rarely noticed us. No deviants lurked about. Neighbors knew us, but we were entirely on our own – organizing our games, running, arguing, yelling, and sometimes tussling. On and on went the war against the dreaded Iroquois. (We were Indians, too, but it was never clear which tribe.) Later, when we moved to a larger house in the city’s center, my new playmates and I fought raging cap-pistol battles in the back-streets and alleys. At age nine I planned to become a gunfighter, but when we started playing ball my career plans switched. Of course, it was a different time. Today, I could have aspired to be both ballplayer and gunman. (Just kidding – well, not entirely.)
Mine was a childhood of independent play. I was in the boy scouts and the junior choir, but these were exceptions. Most of my activities were completely unsupervised (and unknown) by my parents or any other adults. At age six, I could ride the trolley car into town to attend a Saturday church activity. Afterward, I rode the trolley farther downtown, walked to my father’s garage, and waited for him to finish his work-day. From age nine, I biked all over the city to swim and play ball. My parents had no qualms about my complete safety or trustworthiness in these things.
Today, things are so different. Parents correctly perceive that children are far less safe than during my time or even my children’s time. As I wrote this original article, a missing boy was found in Missouri, along with a second boy who had been missing four years. Both were evidently kidnapped by the same man – a convicted sexual offender. (Reports delicately omit any mention of sexual abuse, but it almost certainly was involved.) Every week seems to bring a new report of a child being kidnapped or even murdered.
Few modern parents would dream of allowing the kind of independence I had. Indeed, they might be hauled before the magistrate, accused of child-neglect, if they did. Consequently, most children’s activities are organized and supervised by adults. Soccer moms ferry kids to team practices, school activities and play sessions at the homes of selected friends. Activities are carefully screened for sensitivity to a child’s feelings and ego.
My buddies and I spent hundreds of hours playing games that we organized and “officiated” ourselves, with no adult intervention. We learned the skills of the various sports – not to mention those of armed conflict – as well as argument, compromise, defiance, resistance, justice, and reasoned consensus. Not one of us grew up always having his way. Sometimes we resisted and fought bullies. No one was armed with an actual weapon. We won and we lost (sometimes ignominiously) both games and scraps, but no adult evened things out or soothed hurt feelings.
I cherish a memory of a muddy football game when I was 12. Several players on our team had to leave at various points in the game, but the other side churlishly refused to rebalance the teams. Down to just two of us, my buddy and I refused to yield. With gritty runs and fierce tackles we held off our opponents until they lost interest in continuing. The two of us walked home, battered and muddy, in a kind of comradeship-in-arms that I have never forgotten. It was a character-building experience. Had adults been in charge, it could never have occurred.
Learning is another area in which lack of independence hampers the maturing of children. One often hears educators scold parents for spoiling kids’ education by not helping them enough with homework. This seems odd to me, as beyond age eight I cannot recall my parents ever helping me with my homework, or asking if I had any, or checking if I had done it. I spent many hours doing homework, but I knew it was my responsibility. From fourth grade onward, I always completed schoolwork entirely on my own.
No doubt I was a self-motivated student. Not every child is, but helping a child with homework beyond the earliest grades – a nightly regimen for millions of parents – is like a crutch that keeps a child from walking the road of independent learning on his own.
How many parents have heard these dreaded words? – “Mom! My term paper is due tomorrow, and I forgot all about it. I don’t know what to do…” Most parents will spend half the night doing research on the Internet and in encyclopedias so the child can hand in something that isn’t his work. In the parent’s mind, it is unthinkable that the child should receive a poor grade which might affect his whole education – even his vocational future. Better to let him receive a false grade now, and help him pull himself together later. But is that a good tradeoff?
Unfortunately, in many cases, “later” never comes. Unless the parent eschews the crutch-role, the child might not develop the ability to learn independently. This really will affect his future. He can cruise through elementary school, middle school and even high school with good grades, but those grades are artificial. On his own at college, without his “crutch,” he will fail to note assignments, hand work in late (or not at all), forget to record dates and expected content of exams. He will have no idea how to study and organize material. When he does poorly, or flunks out, his parents will be shocked. They will think poor teaching must be to blame. Many will never realize that their son (or daughter) didn’t develop strong educational “legs” because of the crutch of their own intervention. Millions of children never grow out of the childishness of “Mom, I can’t do my homework.” Their childhood goes on far too long.
Readers who think I am advocating a sink-or-swim approach to educating children are missing the point. Everything should be within reasonable bounds. A child in grades K-3 needs help from parents so he can learn how to be responsible for his homework. He is gradually weaned from parental help until he is working independently. This should happen by the fourth grade. Coincidentally (or is it?), experts say student performance declines substantially in our schools from grades four through eight. You can’t learn to “run” if you’re still hobbling around with a crutch.
Like many things, learning is both form and substance. The facts, concepts and algorithms of a discipline are the “substance.” The “form” is the mechanics of learning – i.e., how to show up, pay attention, take notes, organize material, weave concepts and facts together, and complete assignments on time and in good order.
With some subjects, form is actually the objective, even though specific subject matter is presented. Plane geometry is like that. One learns all about lines, angles, and polygons, but the true purpose of the subject is teaching the student how to prove new truth by logically applying axioms, propositions and previously proven theorems. In adult life, it’s rarely important to know that “when two parallel lines are cut by a transversal, the alternate interior angles are equal.” But logical reasoning and proof are skills of formidable lifelong value. Some senior educators now say the “proof-based teaching” of geometry should be scrapped because it “alienates too many students.” (That is a direct quotation from a senior New Jersey math educator!) Either these radicals don’t understand geometry’s true purpose, or they think it is too hard for modern students. If they prevail, they will cripple the educational future of a generation.
Teaching students how to finish assigned tasks is another of education’s important “form” tasks. Few aspects of schooling transfer so directly to the workplace, in particular, and to adult life, in general. In some ways, learning to complete tasks promptly is more important than brilliance. A brilliant result can sometimes be completely useless if it is produced late.
When a teacher moves a deadline back, or lessens consequences for tardiness because some have not finished an assignment on time, the class loses an important aspect of their education. (Those who finished on time learn the perverse lesson that their responsible effort was wasted.) The same goes for a parent who intervenes and buys a child more time to complete a late project. Removing penalties for lateness is as damaging to learning as misinformation is to truth.
Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive treatise, but I want to mention one other aspect of “form” out of my own experience. I learned ninth-grade algebra from Miss Raeber at Central Junior High School. An old fuss-budget as ever was, Miss Raeber was a stickler for form in solving problems. She insisted that the starting facts (usually equations) of the problem be written with = signs exactly aligned, one line below another. As the solution progressed, the equation had to be restated completely on each line, with = signs always aligned, until the solution was reached. You could lose points for improper form, even if you got the right answer. It sounds silly now, but Miss Raber knew that orderliness of thought and clarity of presentation are valuable skills. I cannot estimate how many times I thought of her emphasis on them in my long technical career.
In a final article we’ll look at additional ways in which childhood is stretched out so young people fail to gain maturity in other important aspects of adult life.