Saturday, February 25, 2012

In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness by Chris Mercogliano

In this short book, Mercogliono launches an attack on the modern forces of conformity and societal control over children by labeling these threats “the systematic domestication of childhood itself.” What would warrant such an accusation against the quality of our care of life’s most precious resource? Criticizing parenting and children’s education can be a slippery endeavor, for what life-form doesn’t want to take care of its progeny? None as it turns out, but Mercogliano offers a helpful equation at the end of the book (why the end? me) that helps to account for the total misplacement of values: Fear leads to control, and control leads to domestication. When we allow fear to consume us, our reflex is to completely systematize our lives and super-refine our processes. We sanitize everything. We pad every corner. We child-proof every door leading to other worlds. In short, even great parents and educators fall into the trap of insulating our children from dangerous, magical, beautiful life. This over-protection is cloaked domestication, and we raise children like livestock, growing their minds in petri-dishes. As a result, childhood—real, pure, virgin childhood with all of its risks, margins of free time, and un-manipulated play—is becoming endangered in our society.

Mercogliano (hitherto lovingly referred to as Merc) starts out with citing many of the fears that motivate parents to over-protect their kids’ lives. He believes it all starts at childbirth, where a mother is practically hooked up to machines to birth the baby for her, and parent-child bonding is inhibited. He speaks on this at length, and, frankly, belabors the subject. I’m not sure I buy into all the hysteria about the artificiality and depersonalization of hospitals and modern medicine, but I do see the far-reaching risks of indiscriminately giving our bodies over to be completely regulated by machines. We also risk trusting life less, risk trusting our bodily defenses and self-healing less, and risk losing trust in the level of our pain-tolerance and in our sense of the meaning of pain. But I also see that we are subtly making a sacrifice of relationship—mutual reliance between human beings—for safety. We are entrusting, maybe selling, our souls to machines.

From childbirth he moves to the fears we all face as we try to raise a child in a hazardous world. Here we develop more rules and less freedom for kids to hurt themselves or screw something up. He cites the scare over Halloween candy that had cautious parents thinking that every piece of candy was laced with poison or concealed a razor blade. I was surprised to learn that this scare was blown WAY out of proportion in the 70’s, and two sociologists studying all reported cases of Halloween candy deaths dating back to 1958 found not a single incident of a death from trick-or-treating at strangers’ homes. But the fear of something bad happening greatly changed the way we thought of Halloween for decades.

This paranoia over our children’s safety encroaches upon our dreams for their success. Schools have become ‘factory learning’ centers that are over-scheduled, send home too much homework, and focus on an extrinsic reward system of adult approval (grades) rather than intrinsic motivation that takes into account each student’s unique interests and strengths. The author cracks schools and modern academia against the skull with words that ring like an aluminum baseball bat: “Classrooms are becoming places where kids spend their days like cloned sheep, grazing passively in a pasture of uniform right answers.” He believes our school system neither understands, nor do they care, for children. Children are herded through curriculum and grade levels and diplomas and degrees, and one find day find themselves at the end with a high approval ratings from adults, but no real life experience to share in the adult world. It is ‘arrested adulthood’, and people in their 30’s are finding themselves trapped in it because of the “maddening double message” that has been fed to them all their lives: “grow up fast, but you don’t have to grow up at all”.

So, what are Merc’s solutions?

1) Have your baby at home.

Again, I have the hardest time with the dogmatism of this one. I’m just not convinced that babies and mothers are as estranged, and their relationship as mechanized, as the author suggests. Doesn’t getting a midwife imply that one needs expert attention and assistance? Then why not a doctor with expert nurses all around? I understand the whole idea of avoiding ultra-insulation in medical practices, but I’m not sure I’m with him all the way here. Oh…and his wife is a midwife. Author’s bias anyone?

2) Read

Not just to your kids. Read for yourself. One day your kids will catch on to the areas in which their parents are unable to demonstrate a conviction, despite how much they pretend to want their kids to buy into it.

But yes, as we all know, we must also read to our kids. The author suggests we read a lot of fairy tales/myths in particular. Why? “Embedded in fairy tales…are rich, archetypal symbols and themes that enable children to integrate rather than suppress the turbulent dimensions of their personalities.” In other words, fairy tales and ancient myths are raw and gritty with earthy emotions and expressions of genuine desires that are often repressed by the social contract—Law. It would be wise to remember that Freud warned that the ego, Merc’s ‘inner wildness’, can only endure a certain amount of unsatisfied libido before it channels its energies into a neurosis. Rugged myth is indeed absent from our Sesame Streets and Little Einsteins on which ‘adventures’ are tame exploits into the alphabet or subtle lessons on safety and basic math. You can tell we don’t trust children…maybe we’re afraid they might possibly grow into US!!

3) Work to help children develop intrinsic motivation instead of mere extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation goes beyond ‘the carrot and the stick’, and keeps in mind that “the archenemy of intrinsic motivation is control.” To illustrate his point, Merc offers the contrast of encouraging a child and positively praising them by saying “You must have worked very hard to accomplish that”, versus dangling the flattery, “You must be really smart.” One turns the child’s focus towards their own sense of fulfillment from the task, while the latter turns the focus on how they stacked up against others who compete for their place of acceptance. The first is the child doing something for themselves, and the second for the approval of those around them. A healthy individual must at some point must steer away from dependence on the approval of others, to a more independent sort of fulfillment and morality if they are ever to progress towards an interdependent, collective good.

This intrinsic motivation is further developed by the theory of ‘autopoiesis’. Autopoiesis is the ability of living systems to continually maintain themselves and generate their own organization (theory posited by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela). Human beings are autopoietic (“self making”) in their learning process, and depend on internal structures and organization to adjust to the outside world as a result of contact with external information being processed by internal a priori categories. Thus education is about waking internal truth, bringing to maturity an autonomous being, and not merely the unilateral result of external programming. Immanual Kant said that with ‘the question’ of philosophical inquiry, “no object is obtained, but our being is transformed”. Our educational pursuits become as meaningless as their sought objects if the quest for understanding and expansion is “denatured into scientific objectivity”. And yet, this ‘data-gorging’ is mostly what we offer our kids by way of teaching. The abortive and increasingly un-compelling goal is a social label, a grade, being on the honor roll, having a high gpa, or getting into a prestigious university.

The author takes one final swing at shattering our dreams of a future in which formal academics save humanity: “95% of all learning occurs spontaneously, through play, fantasy, and experimentation—what I call ‘wild learning.’ Only the remaining 5 percent of our knowledge—in our lifetimes—is acquired through formal instruction, and of that 5 percent, we remember only 3-5 percent for any significant length of time.” Psychologist Jean Piaget affirmed this loudly when he wrote, “Teaching at its best requires creating situations where structures can be discovered; it does not mean transmitting structures…Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves.”

4) Give children margins for development.

This means kids need time to think. “Solitude and reflection are lost in the constant shuffle from place to place and from structured activity to structured activity.” Kid’s also need time for unstructured, unrestricted, creative play. They need to feel free to be themselves. Don’t smother them, and that also applies to not seeking their approval for everything you do as a parent. Dependency is parasitism, and that also applies to the co-dependency of needy parents. Too many parents are reining their children as alter-egos, turning them into their ‘status symbols’.

The author borrows from Paul MacLean’s model of the ‘triune brain’ to demonstrate how aggressively pushing kids to succeed can be every bit as harmful as over-protection. Our brains have evolved and have become more sophisticated over time, and their current structure reflects the order of that growth. The oldest and most fundamental of our brain structure is called the reptilian brain (“R-complex”) and is responsible for basic sensory information and the central nervous system. Next is the mammalian brain (“limbic system”) which surrounds the reptilian brain and is responsible for emotions and intuition. The final layer is the newest brain (“neo-cortex”) and it is the center of logic, memory, cognition and self-awareness. When a person feels insecure, a ‘downshifting’ occurs which defaults brain functioning to the primal R-complex, and abstract and nuanced intellection is sacrificed in a regress to basic survival instincts. “The learning kids are now expected to accomplish occurs mainly in the neocortex, and yet the neocortex is the first part of the brain to shut down when a child feels threatened [by lack of approval if they fail].”

5) Get out in nature.

This involves getting kids away from the passive experience of the television, away from the sugary comforts of couch potato-ism, and remembering that learning is not simply about ‘going to school’. Kids nowadays suffer from what Richard Louv called “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Playing beneath the unbounded ceiling of the sunny sky alone can teach us more than can be gleaned in the dark, low-ceilinged classrooms. The poet Walt Whitment stated it well when he swore, “I will never again mention love or death inside a house, And I swear I will never translate myself at all, only to him or her who privately stays with me in the open air…No shutter’d room or school can commune with me, but roughs and little children better than they.” Nature has a way of steeping us in truth, and waking the truth inside us; because nature is life, and life is eternal. It would behoove us to remember that a live tree gave its dead leaves for us to write our dead logic upon.

The conclusion: we have to trust our children’s inner wildness to some extent. Now, I would never believe that we can trust raw, earthy nature as much as the author says we can. To be sure, the author is clearly biased in favor of the basic goodness of people, and declares that “children are inherently civil” and “at their core are loving, responsible, and sociable beings.” He even claims that the kids in the Lord Of the Flies scenario would not be acting that way if they were from HIS school. What?? He can’t be serious. Anyone need only sit in the play area of Chic-fil-a for two minutes, their kids out of sight in the play tunnels, before some rougher kid charges rough-shod over the others while hitting and yelling epithets. In my experience, whenever kids are in control all hell breaks loose and someone gets hurt. Each wild bi-ped, even but a few years out of the womb, feverishly yearns to wreak havoc on the world. Let’s remember that ‘wild’ is not always a cute connotation, and Nature is…well…wild. For God’s sake, there’s a species of shark that eats their siblings in the womb!! In…the…friggin’…womb!!

To Merc’s credit, he does acknowledge that a parent must be ‘in control’ but not ‘controlling’, and that is some consolation I suppose, but in my opinion he trusts to the goodness of inner wildness far too idealistically. However—here’s another whiplash reversal—I love him for his idealism, and I think he demonstrates well the benefit of trusting a bit more to this inner wildness than we often do, especially in our regimented society and academics. I believe humanity’s most salutary position is somewhere in the middle on the gamut between beast and machine, instinct and intellect, wildness and culture. So yes, I think it’s high time someone sounds the alarm that our children are being systematically programmed and manufactured for intelligence and behavior that devalue their individuality and spiritual freedom. Merc is doing the right thing in asserting that kids are much more capable than we give them credit for. It’s time for us to stop raising them like livestock to to feed our egos and fend off our fear of being forgotton.

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