Monday, November 09, 2009

Let children be children?

I have serious issues with people who try to make their kids into wunderkinder. I think I have a notion of at least some of the reasons why people might want to do it, but none of them elicit any sympathy.

I also have serious issues with many of those on my side of the fence on this issue. These are the people who say the right things to some degree, but then justify them with all the wrong arguments. Which means that, were they to have their way, I'm not sure the damage they'd be doing wouldn't be even greater than what those overzealous parents who try to turn little Johnny into Einstein, so he gets 'the best chance in life', or little Jane into Elle McPherson, so that she will be in the enviable position of being both beautiful and rich. Thus the children will hopefully become nest eggs for mum and dad in their dotage; and if that isn't what it's all about, then maybe it's about trying to correct one's own failure to lead the life of one's dreams, or even to give it a decent 'dotry' (see here and here), and trying to make the kids live those same dreams, and never mind what theirs might be.

The catch-cry "let children be children" or "don't take away their childhood" or something along those lines has some justifiable basis. There are elements of childhood cognitive development that are critical to creating an optimally functioning adult brain. That's, if you want to phrase it in biological terms. Another way of saying this is that children's intelligence and social and emotional skills for adult life develop best, if they are allowed to do the kinds of things and indulge in the kinds of activities that millions of years of evolution have configured and optimized them for.

I know, that last way of putting it still sounds very biological, and it is. But I'm not aiming for some religious or airy-fairy way of looking at things. Besides, the main supporting argument nowadays for the "let children be children" rallying-cry comes from bio-science. Google 'teenage brain' and you're bombarded with biology—and pseudo-biology, of course. Everybody and sundry is on the teenage-brain bandwagon these days, and everything appears to be explained by reference to the associated science.

Now, I don't disagree with the science; not the basics of it anyway. The developing brain is different to the developed brain, and development doesn't stop for most people until their mid-20s. Though, yes, for many it definitely seems to stop there, with sclerosis beginning its long dismal path of destruction. And this time I'm not just talking 'biology'.

The 'teen brain' has been dragged in to explain just about everything about teens, from their propensity to take serious risks to the comparatively high rate of suicide at that age. What hasn't bee studied, of course, is how much these mostly-negative things are actually direct consequences of biology, of whether it's actually got much more to do with the interaction of the developing brain with the kinds of societies that now exist around the world. And the epidemiology of what you might call the 'computerization' of the brains of the young is in its infancy at best, and as yet very much groping around in the dark. As usual it's about the right questions, which people seem to be unwilling or unable to ask.

It's also about terminology. The word 'childhood' is being applied nowadays to everyone from from the age of zero to, as a lot of people seem to think, going into the early twenties. Some years back there rose another term, 'Young Adult', which is still being used, but doesn't have half the prominence it should have.

Words matter. Terminology matters. They're called 'teens' and they see themselves as teens, and through the very terminology and what comes with it they consider themselves as isolated from adults. They think of themselves as 'teenagers' and so do adults. As a result, they are looked on and treated as 'teenagers'. Say 'Young Adults' instead, think 'Young Adults', and it's all quite different. But we're almost at the stage where 'Young Adult' is considered 'quaint', except maybe as an age-group to use for labeling the age group for certain types and genres of novels—and even here it seem to be going out of fashion, because, as 'educational authorities' will tell you, it's really about 'childhood'.

It is a fact that we have to live with the existence of structured education system. Well, then we may divide the lives of most people in western societies into three phases:
  • pre-school
  • school (including basic university or some other 'tertiary education')
  • post-school
Right now, the way it goes in Australia, for example, it's like this:
  • pre-school: AGE 0-5 (even less if including pre-'pre-school' schooling)
  • school: AGE 5-21
  • post-school: AGE 21-whatever
A system that would be better adapted to what people-in-development—commonly called 'children'—need would have the following structure:
  • pre-school: AGE 0-7 (no pre-schooling!)
  • school: AGE 7-18 (including 3 basic tertiary years)
  • post-school: AGE 18-whatever
School, from the point of view of 'essential curriculum', by and large proceeds at a snail's pace. Much of the time at school is spent with what amounts to 'fillers': subjects that aren't only useless but acutely fatuous and basically none of 'school' business to teach. But they are 'teaching' them, thus giving parents even more excuses not to pay sufficient quality-attention to their children's development.

The main objection to a rearrangement of early-life structure will come mainly from those who see school not so much in the context of 'education', but of either child-minding or of keeping young adults out of the workforce, thus tweaking unemployment figures and helping governments to waste money on things that line the pockets of those whose support said governments find essential. In any decent society that kind of thing would be called 'corruption', but it's covered up so well and made to appear so respectable that it's regarded perfectly legal and ethically unobjectionable; basically a non-issue.

Let "children be children" all right. But do it at the right time, which is before we pack them off to school and teach them, in the words of Jethro Tull, "how not to play the game". And get them out of school in time to stop them from feeling that they are a breed apart from 'adults', as is the case now.

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