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free-range children

We’ve done it for cattle and for chickens— it’s time we unleashed this generation of kids, argues Carl Honoré

KEN MACQUEEN April 14 2008
HOME

free-range children

We’ve done it for cattle and for chickens— it’s time we unleashed this generation of kids, argues Carl Honoré

KEN MACQUEEN April 14 2008

free-range children

HOME

We’ve done it for cattle and for chickens— it’s time we unleashed this generation of kids, argues Carl Honoré

author, journalist and perplexed parent Carl Honoré recently returned to his old Edmonton neighbourhood, the scene of his formative years and boyhood adventures. He found the streets—still echoing in his memory with the whoops of street hockey battles— were now disconcertingly devoid of play. There were children, it’s just that most were indoors, presumably safe from pedophiles and marauding automobiles. Maybe they were watching TV, or cruising the Internet. Maybe they were huddled with tutors, being mathematically enriched. He found it sad, but hardly surprising, that aimless amusements like bouncing balls, riding bikes or climbing trees are considered unworthy, nonproductive and potentially fatal pastimes for the offspring of the ambitious middle class. 64

Misplaced paranoia and hyper-parenting have kidnapped childhood, he laments.

Honoré, 40, now lives in an affluent London neighbourhood, with his wife, author and journalist Miranda France, their nineyear-old son and six-year-old daughter. Their English neighbours are just as protective and drive their kids, literally and figuratively, to the clubs and the courses that define success—in their eyes. Madness, thought Honoré, who saw the same tendencies in himself. So did his son, at age 7, after Honoré pounced on his gift for drawing and wanted to dispatch him to art classes. “I just want to draw,” he said. “Why do grown-ups have to take over everything?”

Good question, that. Two years and a world tour later, the issue is canvassed in his latest book, Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting (Knopf

Canada). “Wherever you look these days, the message is the same,” Honoré writes in the introduction, “childhood is too precious to be left to children and children are too precious to be left alone.” It’s an engaging and alarming exploration of children as vanity projects. It may plant, in impressionable young minds, subversive notions of slipping their velvet-lined shackles. True, post-boomer babies get better toys and boundless opportunity. They also get parents with the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover, the ambition of Svengali and the sense that freedom’s just another word for avoiding homework. All is not lost. Honoré detects faint signs of a return to organic common sense. We’ve done it for cattle and for chickens—it’s time for a generation of free-range kids.

Honoré enumerates the sad lot of today’s “managed child”: pregnant women serenading their bumps with WombSong to stimulate neural growth. Shanghai’s “early M.B.A” program for team building and assertiveness—“early” defined as just out of diapers. It’s estimated American children lost 12 hours

KEN MACQUEEN

of free time a week between the late 1970s and 1997 In Britain (and no doubt Canada), the average distance kids are allowed to stray unaccompanied from home decreased almost 90 per cent since the 1970s. Even then, they are umbilically leashed by cellphone. A Canadian Council on Learning survey last year found more than one million Canadian students now have tutors, even though 73 per cent of parents who hire tutors said their kids were already earning A or B level marks.

Over time a kind of Stockholm syndrome sets in, where leaving the parental orbit, even in adulthood, is a frightening prospect. University of Ottawa sociologist Diane Pacom, who has made a career studying youth culture, calls it “codependency.” She sees it increasingly in her research, and on campus in the incessant email and cellphone traffic between child and parent. “I don’t see the young people complaining about this too much,” she says over the phone from Ottawa, although she is disturbed by high levels of student stress. “These parents we’re talking about, they don’t really see themselves as

parents. They see themselves as friends.”

Virtually since boomers started reproducing (and assumed they invented child-rearing as they assume they invented sex), children, at least those born to the middle classes of the developed world, have been reared on all the essential vitamins, and megadoses of irony. Parents want to raise risk-takers (without exposing them to risk), to give them the freedom (to follow parental dreams), to be spontaneous and imaginative (pencil that in between judo and piano, if the homework is done). “I feel like a project that my parents are always working on,” 14-year-old Susan Wong of Vancouver complained to Honoré. “When adults hijack childhood, children miss out on the things that give texture and meaning to a human life,” he writes, “the small adventures, the secret journeys, the setbacks and mishaps, the glorious anarchy, the moments of solitude and even of boredom.”

The spirit of hyper-parenting was brilliantly parodied in a recent advertising blitz sponsored by Colleges Ontario, representing 24 applied arts and technology schools. The ads touted a mythic mind-control drug called Obay, “from the makers of WhyBecauselSaidSo.” They show happy parents and blissedout kids above such tag lines as: “My son used to have his own hopes and aspirations. Now he has mine. Thanks, Obay!” A video spot shows a nurse handing a glowing mom her newborn. “Honey,” she tells her husband, “It’s a lawyer!”

The campaign decries the “academic snobbery” that has parents mindlessly steering kids to university at a time when there is a huge need for trades and college-level careers. A survey for the association found 30 per cent of parents would be “disappointed or embarrassed” if their child went to college. “It’s pretty pervasive,” says Linda Franklin, president and CEO of Colleges Ontario. “Students tell us their parents will pay every cent of a university education, but not a dime to go to college.” Students themselves rarely share

this anti-college prejudice, she says. “They’re looking for a different work-life balance than their parents, so they’re much more focused on a career that delivers that. They do say to us that their parents’ views are very difficult for them to overcome.”

Honoré believes that modern parents know, at some level, they’ve overstepped their mandate. “There is so much sound and fury surrounding childhood,” he says in an interview. “We lose sense of that little inner voice we should be listening to.” Parents feel compelled to ignore the stuff that gave their own childhood joy because, well, things are different today. Aren’t they? Like every aspect of parenting, the answer hides in a thicket of paradox and contradiction. The inner voice is drowned out by the protective pressures of other parents. “Good God, you let your children walk to school?” The 24/7 news cycle wipes out all proportion in a global tsunami of abduction, seduction, accident and disaster. Expert advice abounds. “We can end up being advice junkies,” he says. “It ends up eroding your confidence as a parent, not least because the advice is often conflicting.” Dads and now moms, skilled in workplace warfare, can flow-chart, timetable and benchmark their kid. “The small, simple things that really are the most useful and really are the building blocks of a childhood just seem kind of trivial, I think, to people who have spent so long at the coal face of the corporate world,” he says. Thus their child’s every setback or slight must be dealt with at source. “The one place where we tend to go a bit wobbly,” he says, “is when we have to say no.” The “discipline stuff,” he says, “reeks of old-fashioned, and nobody wants to be that.” Pacom, at the University of Ottawa, has been studying the sociology of children for some three decades. “I believe it began falling apart after the Second World War,” she says. The “natural generation gap” that characterized the gulf between parents marked by war, and the prosperous peace enjoyed by their boomer children, began an inexorable

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will today’s kids draw on? Mandarin class? Tutors? The joys of bypassing parent controls on the Internet?

erosion. Families got smaller, they move about, they break apart, children shuttle from one parent to the other or into blended families. Guilt abounds. Parents have more money, less time, greater expectations and lower levels of trust, she says.

Pacom, a boomer, was raised by her widowed mother, who used the strict-teaching nuns at the nearby school as part of a childrearing tag team. “It was working, I was terrified of both of them,” she jokes. There used to be a “coherence and a consensus of what a child should be and what were the parameters of a successful education and a successful childhood. This doesn’t exist any more.” With later marriages and fewer children came the phenomenon of “the child king,” she says, the heir, frequently without a spare. Parents invest everything—well, frequently more paranoia than time—into grooming the successor. She has special sympathy for the expectations heaped on daughters. “They have to be virtuoso pianists or violinists, athletes, and good-looking. They have to have big breasts, they have to have a Ph.D. in neuroscience and they have to be married with three kids.” Simple, really.

James Côté, a sociologist at the University

of Western Ontario, has also spent decades studying youth culture. His 1960s-era childhood would be incomprehensible to most of his students. His was a Huck Finn upbringing in the scenic St. Lawrence River community of Gananoque, Ont. “My parents took the attitude, make mistakes, go ride the bike, fall down, get back up and do it again,” he says. “I had a BB gun, a hunting knife, matches. They’d send us off with a can of beans, some wieners and say, ‘be home before dark.’ I can’t see many parents doing that now.”

It helped that Côté’s parents—his father a member of the Canadian Air Force, his mother an English war bride—knew real danger: the Second World War. Today’s parents blanch at setting their progeny loose in a park, let alone a forest. Yet most think nothing of keeping them safe inside, free to roam the back alleys of the Internet. “This is a real paradox,” Côté says. “They leave their kids exposed to a lot of potential dangers psychological and otherwise on the Internet.”

It’s not all bad. Life for most kids in the developed world has never been safer, softer or more stimulating. They aren’t working in mines, they aren’t contracting smallpox. There never has been a golden age of childhood, as Honoré stresses in the book. Still, he encapsulates beautifully what has been lost, in an introductory quote by Virginia Woolf: “That great Cathedral space which was childhood.” Was is the keyword.

Space is exactly what Honoré recalls, and time for road hockey, shooting hoops and running battles with homemade weapons. “I wasn’t cooped inside like a battery chicken,” he says. For Franklin of Colleges Ontario it was the simple joy of Hallowe’en night. “We roamed about the streets for all hours in neighbourhoods we didn’t recognize,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve seen more than a handful of kids in my neighbourhood in the 20 years we’ve lived here who haven’t had a parent at the end of the driveway.” Pacom describes to disbelieving students the luxury of vegging. “It was my responsibility to manage my boredom and my free time, ” she says. “I was creating my own toys, inventing stories.” The common thread is freedom. What memories will today’s students draw on? Mandarin class? The joys of slipping parental controls on the computer and roaming the Internet? Happy hours with the tutor? Ah, good times... good times.

Still, there are healthy signs of a backlash. In England, Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler magazine, has a subversive new column in the Telegraph newspaper on the joys of Idle Parenting. “An unhealthy dose of the work ethic is threatening to wreck childhood,” he laments. Parents are driving kids to distraction, and overworking themselves in the process. This explains the column’s guiding mantra, “leave them alone,” and its subtext: a lazy parent is a good parent. “My idea of childcare is a large field,” Hodgkinson writes. “At one side is a marquee serving local ales. This is where the parents gather. On the other side, somewhere in the distance, the children play. I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me.” Sloth has its advantages.

Honoré’s research brought him back to Vernon Barford, his old junior high in Edmonton. Homework wasn’t much of a factor when Honoré attended, but by 2006, levels had escalated to the point where even straight-A students were regularly in the principal’s office for failing to complete the latest crush of assignments. The staff rethought priorities. They cut the homework load to a maximum 45 minutes a day for senior, Grade 9 students. The results: happier students and, paradoxically, a four per cent jump in grades.

One of Honoré’s favourite finds was Secret Garden, an outdoor nursery school in Scotland. The preschool children spend all day, every day, outdoors, chill winds and rain notwithstanding, splashing through puddles, checking out chicken coops and livestock pens, building campfires, peeing in the woods. Honoré tagged along for a day and realized, as a protective parent, he was well out of his comfort zone. Germs and danger abounded— from the handling of a dead bird to the gathering of mushrooms. Yet, this school and others like it in Norway report fewer illnesses, not to mention more-worldly children. He contrasts this to his daughter’s ex-nursery school, where her lax pencil control was an issue. “Pencil control? She was three!”

Discomfort, he’s learned, is a parent’s lot. It shouldn’t be a child’s burden. “It’s a constant dance,” he says of the search for balance. “It seems to me feeling uneasy and feeling unsure of what you’re doing is a natural part of being a mother or father. It just is.”

It’s a part of growing up. Parents should try it sometime, and leave the kids be. M