I can venture more with Davie than with another:  he obeys in a moment.

Thus the tutor in one of George MacDonald's novels explains how he dares take his young pupil on dangerous explorations to the roof of an old, crumbling Scottish castle.  Davie was allowed the exciting and perilous adventuring because his tutor knew that when he said, "Stay here until I return," Davie wouldn't go wandering and possibly falling off the edge.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Lift Up Your Hearts! knows I am a fan of Free-Range Kids and Lenore Skenazy's movement to restore for today's children some of the freedoms enjoyed by previous generations.  Parents are hovering over their children as never before:  they're afraid to let them out of sight, to walk to school, to ride bikes with their friends; afraid to let them risk getting hurt, even a little, whether they be infants negotiating stairs, children using knives, or teens travelling to a foreign country.  (Yet we expect teens to be sexually active, drive a car, and serve in the military.  Go figure.)  However, manageable risks and small hurts are necessary to growth.  Without them, our children don't learn to tell a reasonable risk from a ridiculous one, and we find that sparing them the lesser pain has made them exceptionally vulnerable to serious, even fatal, wounds.

Why do we bubble-wrap our young people?  The reasons are many and complex, but one of the greatest surely is that we no longer trust our children.  And why don't we trust our children?  Primarily, I would say, because they have not learned to be trustworthy.

They are not trustworthy because we have not given them the opportunity to learn obedience.

Obedience is an unpopular concept these days, perhaps because it conjures up images of harsh punishment, restricted lives, and children who go wild at college when released from their parents' strict rules and constant monitoring.  Or of totalitarian societies and blind adherence to evil laws.  ("I was only following orders.")  But no matter what ugliness it has been deformed into, obedience to a trustworthy and legitimate authority is a beautiful thing.  It's what makes society work.  From traffic to taxes, from banking to environmental protection—when enough people decide that the rules don't apply to them, disaster is not far off.

The Connecticut Science Center has ruled that children under the age of 16 must be supervised by an accompanying adult at all times during their visit.  Why such a ridiculous restriction?  You can blame the lawyers, of course, but what it boils down to is that the museum has learned that it cannot trust that demographic to obey the rules of the house, let alone the rules of common courtesy.  When that happens, peopleand expensive equipment—get hurt.

Similar restrictions have sprung up all over, ostensibly for the safety of the children.  I'm not sure I entirely believe that excuse.  When our children were young and energetic, people would sometimes tell them not to do such-and-such a thing, explaining, "I'm afraid you'll get hurt."  Well, maybe; it was pretty clear to me that what they were really afraid of was that the children would break, not their legs, but some material possession.  Be that as it may, young people—at an age when some of their ancestors were supporting themselves, raising their own families, fighting in wars, and even commanding ships—cannot, apparently, be relied on to walk through a museum without damaging something.

Thus the free-range childhood movement has two major fronts on which to fight:  (1) Convincing society that our children can and should be trusted to handle themselves at least as well as children did a generation or two ago, and (2) Preparing our children to be worthy of that trust.

As we explored Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, I noted that there were no age restrictions on the trails; it was up to parents to decide how much to involve their children.  The trails themselves were safe enough, but often a sheer drop or a boiling spring was only a few feet away.  A child of any age who could be counted on to stay on the trail, and to freeze at a parent's, "Wait for us!" command, would have the freedom to enjoy an unforgettable experience; one who was accustomed to thinking of rules and restrictions as flexible could easily end up dead.  Too many of the latter will cause doors to slam shut for the former also.

"The world has changed," is the spell invoked to justify increasing restrictions on young people.  By this is mostly meant external changes, such as more sexual predators, more kidnappers, more terrorists.  (I'm absolutely convinced that the problem actually is more news coverage of these very rare crimes, but that's another issue.)  The world has changed, indeed, but what has changed most is closer to home:  our children are no longer growing up knowing and following the rules of proper use of stoves, knives, guns, hammers, saws, ropes, candles, campfires, boats, and other items they used to encounter—and be required to use—in everyday life.  Parents are also more reluctant—perhaps in fear of the evils that have become associated with distorted ideas of obedience—to teach their children respect for authority, and the importance of following legitimate rules.  If we want our communities to accept that our children are competent and trustworthy, it's up to us to make sure that they are.

(There is, I acknowledge, the opposite failing—teaching our children never to question authority, never to ask if the rules are legitimate.  But that is a different issue.)

Political action can pry open society's closed doors for our children, good publicity can pry open parental fingers from a death-grip on their children's leashes, but only deliberate parental effort can prepare those children for freedom.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 7:51 am | Edit
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But once you've conceded that children shouldn't mindlessly obey every authority figure, then you can't avoid the conclusion that what they need is to develop good judgment about whom to obey. Saying that kids need to think for themselves and develop good judgment is a very different thing from saying that they need to be obedient.



Posted by Chris Liebig on Saturday, May 04, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Thanks for the comment, Chris. You're absolutely right that children need to develop good judgement about when rules should be broken and what makes authority legitimate. That's why models of childrearing in which obedience is the only or highest good are so damaging. Such judgement is a learned skill, however, and I'm saying that obedience to the rules is the first step in learning to discern when and how the rules can be set aside. Creativity in any field—art, music, life itself—blossoms best on a solid foundation of basic skills.

In any case, my point stands: children who don't behave well in public will continue to shut doors for everyone. When the art museum staff spends too much time chasing after kids who duck under ropes, touch paintings, and run through the galleries, they will take the most immediately effective course of action: ban unsupervised children. It's not fair—but our case will be much stronger if we can show that children are no more likely to misbehave in a museum than adults.

Free-range parenting means preparing our kids for the world, not just turning them loose in it. Our four-year-old granddaughter is as good with a kitchen knife as most adults, but that's because she spent the last two years learning the requisite skills, not because she was turned loose in the knife drawer as a two-year-old.



Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, May 05, 2013 at 6:20 am
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