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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Gardeners and Carpenters

An interview with psychologist and author Alison Gopnik in the August 22 issue of Macleans magazine is worth the read.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She was one of the founders of the study of “theory of mind”, illuminating how children come to understand the minds of others, and she formulated the “theory theory”, the idea that children learn in the same way that scientists do. In other words, they formulate a theory and then test it to see if it works.

Caring deeply about our children is part of what makes us human. Yet the thing we call “parenting” is a surprisingly new invention. In the past thirty years, the concept of parenting and the multibillion-dollar industry surrounding it have transformed child care into obsessive, controlling, goal-oriented labor intended to create a particular kind of child and thereby a particular kind of adult. In The Gardener and the Carpenter, the pioneering developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik argues that the familiar twenty-first-century picture of parents and children is profoundly wrong – it’s not just based on bad science, it’s also bad for kids and parents.

Drawing on the study of human evolution and on her own cutting-edge scientific research into how children learn, Gopnik shows that although caring for children is immensely important, the goal shouldn’t be to shape them so they turn out a certain way. Children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative, and very different both from their parents and from one another. The variability and flexibility of childhood allow them to innovate, create, and survive in an unpredictable world. “Parenting” won’t make children learn – rather, caring parents let children learn by creating a secure, loving environment.

– from the front jacket flap, “The Gardener and the Carpenter”, Alison Gopnik 2016

Gopnik uses the carpenter as a metaphor for the 21st century parent. The carpenter knows from the outset what he wants to create; he has a plan. Using the tools at his disposal, he whittles and joins and sometimes hammers. The end product is his. If there are faults with it, they lie in his execution of the work.

The gardener, on the other hand, plants the seed and has no idea what will grow. But he gives the seed the best chance he can. He waters as necessary. He culls the weeds that come up around the plant. He keeps an eye out for pests. His job is to watch over the plant as it grows, but he has little control over what the adult plant will look like. It may look nothing like the picture on the seed package.

A carpenter actively participate in the creation of his project. When it is done, he gets to keep it. A gardener on the other hand oversees the process, but possession is temporary.

A person could play with the analogy for a very long time, finding much to think about.

 The concept of parenting as a verb is interesting and relatively new. As Gobnik says in her interview in Macleans, we don’t ‘child’ our parents or ‘wife’ our husbands or ‘husband’ our wives. So why do we ‘parent’ our children?

If you would like to learn more about Gopnik’s theory, read the Maclean’s article. Better yet, read the book.

When it’s summertime…

“Green was the silence, wet was the light,
the month of June trembled like a butterfly.”
Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

There was nothing like a Saturday – unless it was the Saturday leading up to the last week of school and into summer vacation. That of course was all the Saturdays of your life rolled into one big shiny ball.”
Nora Roberts

There is indeed nothing quite as full of promise as the month of June. It is the month of lady slippers, cowslips, tiger lilies and wild roses. It is the month of dragon flies, fireflies and croaking frogs. It is the month of end-of-year parties, field trips and school’s end. It is the countdown to summer solstice.

Then followed that beautiful season… Summer….
Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape
Lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unselfconsciously to the soughing of the trees.”  

-Valerie Andrews, A Passion for this Earth

Feel the grass beneath your feet.

Lie under a tree and watch the leaves.

Lie on your stomach and watch the ants march by.

Collect sticks and build a house for the fairies.

Listen to the wind.

Dig for worms.

Grow some vegetables in a pot.

Go on a nature hunt.

Head for the park.

Collect shells at the beach.

Pick berries. Eat berries.

Make a nature bracelet by wrapping duct tape around your wrist, sticky side up. Go for a walk and put things you see on your bracelet – small sticks, leaves, flowers, pebbles.

“A dark night, lightened up by thousands of glowing fireflies… It’s magical…”
Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Catch fireflies in a jar – and then let them go.

Singing in the rain,

I’m singing in the rain.

What a beautiful feeling,

I’m happy again!

Play in a puddle.

Catch the rain on your tongue.

Put a bowl outside and guess how much water there will be in the bowl when the rain is done.

The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.”
Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

Bake cookies and make ice cream sandwiches.

Build a fort in the living room out of a big cardboard box.

Eat your ice cream sandwiches inside your fort.

Rainbow 1984

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky.

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man.

William Wordsworth

Count the colours in a rainbow. Draw your own using whatever colours you like.

One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by. ~Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

Read outside. Read inside. Go to a library.

Make a book about the animals you have seen on your outdoor trips. A is for ant. B is for bird or bee or BEAR! C is for caterpillar or cow. D is for duck or deer.

And maybe when September comes, you will be able to say:

“All in all, it was a never-to-be-forgotten summer — one of those summers which come seldom into any life, but leave a rich heritage of beautiful memories in their going — one of those summers which, in a fortunate combination of delightful weather, delightful friends and delightful doing, come as near to perfection as anything can come in this world.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams

What a wonderful wish for parents and children everywhere.

Four pillars

At Healthy Child Coalition – Central Region we are, of course, familiar with the four pillars set out by Healthy Child Manitoba:

  • literacy
  • physical education and nutrition
  • parenting, and
  • building community capacity.

Until recently I had never heard of the “four pillars of excess”. Then I read an online article titled “Simplifying Childhood May Protect Against Mental Health Issues”.

What are the four pillars of excess?

  • having too much stuff
  • too many choices
  • too much information, and
  • too much speed.

The author refers to Kim John Payne’s book Simplicity Parenting. Early in his career, Payne volunteered in refugee camps where children were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Years later when he ran a private practice in England, he realized that many affluent children were displaying the same behaviour as those refugee children had. Why?

Because, Payne says, we have overwhelmed our children with more and more toys, more and more activities, more and more information.

Children need down-time, he says, in order to increase creativity and self-directed learning.

“Our children have their whole lives to be adults and to deal with the complexities of life, but only a fleetingly short time in which they can be kids. Silly, fun loving kids.”

To read the article go to: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/tracy-gillett/children-mental-health_b_9400848.html

Has parenting collapsed?

A Pennsylvania family physician and  psychologist believes that what he calls a recent collapse of parenting is at least partly to blame for kids becoming overweight, over-medicated, anxious and disrespectful of themselves and those around them.

Leonard Sax has written four books on parenting. His most recent work “The Collapse of Parenting: How we Hurt Our Kids When we Treat them like Grown Ups” was the focus of a headlined article in the January 18, 2016 edition of Maclean’s magazine.

There was a time when you called your dad “Sir” and the minute he walked in the house, you jumped out of ‘his’ chair.

Not any more.

Nowadays we want to be emotionally available to our kids; we want them to feel heard and respected from an early age. We want children to be able to express their emotions, even if that shows itself in tantrums.

Children are treated like they are one more minority group to honour and empower, Sax says.

But as a result, many kids are actually overpowering their parents.

“We need to put parents back in the driver’s seat. Otherwise, the consequences are far-reaching.” the author says.

Sax writes that the current emphasis on academics means in effect that we are  treating our children like little hard drives.

“It actually undermines both self-confidence and fluid reasoning, or the ability to think.”

Many people are familiar with “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum. Things like:

  • Don’t take things that are not yours.
  • Share everything.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t hit people.

There was a time, the magazine article says, when kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers focused just as much on Fulghum’s Rules as they did on the alphabet and numbers. But not any more.

We know that recent EDI scores, both provincially and nationally, show that many five-year-olds score low in social and emotional categories. Does Dr. Sax make a valid point?

The entire story can be read in the January 18 edition of Maclean’s or on their website at http://www.macleans.ca/society/the-collapse-of-parenting-why-its-time-for-parents-to-grow-up.

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What children want

I first saw this commercial in 2014 and have seen it several times again this year. It’s worth sharing.

Ikea Spain invited ten families to participate in the filming of a new commercial for the Christmas season.

First of all, the children were separated from their parents and asked to write letters to the Three Kings, making their requests for Christmas gifts. In Spain, the Three Kings, not Santa, bring gifts and they bring them January 6, not on Christmas Day.

The children’s requests varied from the expected (a Wii) to the musical (a guitar and a piano) to the downright impossible (a unicorn).

Their letters were folded and put into individual envelopes;  the envelopes were then sealed and placed in a mail box for delivery to the Three Kings.

Next the children were asked to write letters to their parents. What would you like from your parents this Christmas, they were asked.

The answers?

“I’d like my parents to spend more time with me.”

“I’d like my mom to tickle me.”

“I’d like my parents to spend one whole day with me.”

“I’d like my mom to play soccer with me.”

None of these were a surprise to the parents.

What they did not know was that their children had been asked a third and final question:

If you could  send only one of those letters, which one would it be? The letter to the Three Kings? Or the letter to your parents?

If you haven’t seen the commercial already and would like to see its conclusion, go to:

http://aplus.com/a/ikea-christmas-letter-commercial.

But I bet you’ve already guessed which letter the children chose to send.

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Let’s go play in the barnyard!

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I am a farmer’s daughter. My grandparents were also farmers. On top of that I married a farmer and in time became a farm mother. I have an intimate knowledge of farm dirt. But I have never been worried that it was bad for me or my children.

So recent headlines that farm dirt is good for us are no surprise to me. Just saying….

City cousins used to come visit us on the farm every summer. The two sons in one family were asthmatic; they would come armed with an arsenal of protection and their mother would map out the areas in the yard they could and could not venture into. They never listened to her; they were having too much fun.

Back in the city afterwards they would inevitably have asthmatic attacks and I remember a summer when one of them was actually hospitalized as a result. It was the first time that my siblings and I had ever thought of  farm earth and air as potentially dangerous.

(It never stopped our cousins from wanting to come again the next summer. Fun on the farm was apparently worth the price .)

What is asthma, we wanted to know. Why does the farm make our cousins sick?

Because they’re not used to the farm, mom said. If they lived here, they would be used to dust and mold and pollen.

Last week I read in several different publications – with varying degrees of scientific complexity – the news that studies in Europe and elsewhere have shown that children raised on farms have relatively low rates of allergies and asthma. Something like 25% compared to 45% in the general population.

Boiled down to their simplest components, the findings are that exposure to the common bacteria and microbes found on farms leads to the development of a special protein in the lungs that protects against allergy development.

The scientists warn that it is not quite as simple as that, however. There are other factors at play. For example, drinking unprocessed milk also seems to ward off asthma in children and there will be more studies done about that.

But it does seem that dirt, especially farm dirt,  may play an important and positive role in the good health of our young children.

Something to think about.

FURTHER DISCLOSURE: I love it when I get to say, “I told you so.”

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