It's the American way, and even more so the Japanese way, and apparently the Swiss way also: the professionalism of parenthood. School is no longer so much the place where one learns specialized skills that can't be picked up at home or on one's own, but a place expected to teach children nearly everything a society deems important. The Four R's: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic ... and all the Rest. Because, well, you know, the professionals can do it so much better, and who has the time, anyway?
Society is beginning to take notice that our children are getting to the once-upon-a-time age of adulthood without many of the life skills we take for granted, skills that enable them to live independently and hold down a job. Employers have noticed this for years, but the rest of us are finally beginning to catch up, if only in our derisive sneers at "Millennials." Is it the job of public education to teach these skills? Of course not—though I agree with those who insist that any institution that takes away most of a child's life, practically from the cradle, should be expected to return a lot more benefit from such a huge cost. But when a social need is found, it's likely to get dumped on the schools.
Enter the Let Grow Project for Schools, created to address this need. This is actually something different from the norm, in that the schools are only the vehicle for spurring action by parents and children. It begins with this basic homework assignment: Go home and do something your parents did at your age. The suggested activities are shocking: cooking, cleaning, buying something from the store, playing outside unsupervised, riding a bike in the neighborhood, briefly watching a sibling, walking to school. Shocking, apparently, for parents who have been conditioned to believe that such activities are too dangerous to think about; shocking, definitely, for those of us who grew up doing them in a world statistically more dangerous than the one we live in today.
Parents aren't stupid. They want their children to grow up to be independent, competent people. But it's hard to live against the grain, when the media, friends and colleagues, and sometimes even the laws of the land are telling you that overprotecting, even coddling children is simply good parenting. What the schools are doing here is giving parents permission to take that first step.
My only concern is that some parents will approach the project without common sense; the best way to learn to swim is rarely to be thrown out of the boat into deep water. (I know someone who was taught to swim that way, but she doesn't recommend it.) If our grandchildren are extraordinarily competent—and they are—it's because they've been taking baby steps toward independence all their lives. A child at age 11 can go through the steps faster if he wants to, but it still takes time and training.
I haven't seen it mentioned in the literature on this subject, but my theory is that a major contributor to over-dependent children is the modern trend toward small families. When parents have only one or two children, it's all too easy to do for them things they should be doing for themselves. (Mea culpa.) Larger families simply cannot. Training children to do their own laundry, to wash dishes, to shovel snow, to cook meals, and to entertain themselves is a matter of survival. And it pays big dividends, for parents as well as children. As my daughter (mother of six) proclaimed, referring to her then thirteen-year-old son, It was worth all the work (and that work did include tears, it's not like I'm forgetting) in training him in the kitchen from a young age to be able to say now, "Please make dinner on Thursday night. Quiche would be nice."
There's no reason why this can't happen in smaller families, of course. But it's like exercise. Once upon a time, people got plenty of good exercise without having to think about it, because their daily lives were so active; now, our sedentary lives mean that this essential element of health and happiness requires deliberate action.
May the Let Grow Project help more families find the "child competence exercise program" that fits them best.