What’s in a Village?

Lots of children.

So says Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and the author of an article in Psychology Today entitled “The Culture of Childhood: We’ve Almost Destroyed It.”

“Children learn the most valuable lessons from other children, away from adults,” Gray says.

In fact, he turns the much-used African proverb around to suggest that the village raises the child because of the presence of many children within its boundaries. He quotes J.R. Harris (1998):

The reason it takes a village is not because it requires a quorum of adults to nudge erring youngsters back onto the paths of righteousness. It takes a village because in a village there are always enough kids to form a play group.

Gray says that children are biologically designed to pay attention to the other children in their lives, to try to fit in with them, to be able to do what they to, to know what they know.

Throughout most of human history, that’s how children become educated and that’s still largely how children become educated today, despite our misguided attempts to stop it and turn the educating job over to adults.

There are many lessons, he says, that children learn or can learn from other children that they cannot or are not likely to learn from adults.

  1. Authentic communication

For example:  an adult points to a red ball and asks “What color is that?” Gray argues that this is not an honest question, since the adult knows the answer. It is not really a question at all; it is a test.  A child would never ask such a question, nor would a child give false praise to another child, the way that adults praise a child’s artwork, for example.

2. Independence and courage

According to Gray, the ultimate goal of childhood is to move away from dependence on parents and establish oneself as one’s own person. Part of gaining independence is gaining courage to face the challenges and deal with the emergencies that are part of every day life. Children must learn to manage fear.

3. Creating and understanding the purpose and modifiability of rules.

Adults follow the rules when they play a game. Children make up their own. When playing with other children, they feel free to challenge ideas about the rules. They learn to negotiate. They learn that rules are not ‘fixed in heaven’, but made by humans to make the game more fair.

This is an important lesson, Gray says. It is a cornerstone of democracy.

4. Practicing and building on the skills and values of adult culture

Children incorporate into their play many of the skills and values that they observe among adults. That is way farmers’ children play at farming, for example.

5. Getting along with others as equals

The adult-child relationship is not equal. The adult has all the power. By playing with other children, children learn how to get along with peers: how to pay attention to the needs of others, how to share, how to negotiate, how to assert their own needs and desires.

And here’s something else that Gray turns inside out and asks us to re-think. We bemoan the ‘screen time’ that our children have; we want to ban or limit that time. But Gray says that children are using the Internet to connect because adults have prevented them from getting together anywhere else. They have creatively found a way to do what they have always done.

If we did ban or limit screen time, Gray says, while still banning children from public spaces without adult supervision, we would finally succeed in destroying the culture of childhood.

We would prevent children from educating themselves in the ways they always have, and we would see the rise of a generation of adults who don’t know how to be adults because they never had a chance to practice it.

Gray’s entire article can be found at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201610/the-culture-childhood-we-ve-almost-destroyed-it.

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