Round two of this theme has me wishing I had the choir here in front of me, so I could preach right to them. Those who agree will likely be on their feet in a matter of moments with an “amen” and an “oh yes!”. Those who don’t, may well feel like lynching me before I’m done. And those who feel stuck in the middle may well turn away feeling misunderstood, trapped, or even disdainful of my whining. All of that notwithstanding, today, I want to spend a little time discussing the parenting complications created by institutional childcare and education.
(Remember this theme looks at things we parents do, or have to deal with, that invariably disrupt our success in effectively parenting our children — i.e. connecting with them, teaching them, eliciting their cooperation, etc.)
To begin with, let me make clear that I have loads of empathy for those of us who believe there is no choice but to rely on institutional childcare and school to help raise our children. The current economic paradigm has us fixed in a dual-earner system such that for most families, both parents must work in order to afford the cost of even a modest living. This, of course, was not the case for most of our parents, who were able to comfortably enjoy a single-earner system, but it is undeniably the case for the vast majority of parents today. And if there is only one parent in the household — well, you can do the math. Furthermore, with the added complication of our isolated, “nuclear family” model, which has one or two parents as the only regular familial care-givers in most homes, many of us cannot help but feel forced into farming out our little ones to be raised by the institutions culturally derived for such purposes. I get that. I understand and can easily identify with those parents who don’t think they have any other choice. I still think that what we are being asked to rely on is clearly not working for our families, for our kids, or for our society.
When I say our current methods aren’t working, I am referring to three areas of the function of child rearing institutions, specifically: socialization, education, and employment training. Our current systems for raising and educating children regularly fail at all three of these basic functions:
- Socialization — I haven’t yet discovered who first associated this word with daycare and the current predominant model of education, but — what a joker. If we consider the word itself, we get the idea that we are talking about getting someone (i.e. the kid) to behave like the rest of society (i.e. the adults). Now how is locking all the kids away in kidland all day going to teach them to behave like adults? This is truer the younger the children are. In fact, a room full of 3 year olds has little or nothing constructive to offer anyone’s actual socialization. If we want to socialize children, it would seem more logical to have them in society, interacting with all kinds of people, mostly adults, all living by adult rules of interaction and conduct. If daycare, preschool, and school are supposed to be socializing our children, I say they are failing utterly, by virtue of the model itself. If that isn’t what all the education pundits mean by “Socialization”, then maybe we could change the word we use — I suggest Social-disorientation, or Social-atrophication.
- Education — I don’t need to tell you, we are failing to properly educate our children, as in not actually teaching them what they need to know. We all know it’s true. And we don’t need more standardized tests, or more hoops for teachers to leap through or make their students leap through, in order to make it better, either. We’d be better off abandoning the model itself. We’d be better off raising children in village groups. But for the moment, I’ll settle for agreeing that our child rearing institutions aren’t empowering our children’s highest potentials, aren’t giving them enough access to information, and aren’t modeling how best to interact with the information available. They are also stunting our children’s natural intellectual and emotional development instead of aiding or enriching the same.
- Employment Training — I’ll actually acquiesce that this is where our current cultural design doesn’t fail, per se, but what it achieves is questionable. Malcolm Gladwell, famed author of Outliers and writer for The New Yorker, asserts in his book The Tipping Point, that our current model of education works not to inform and empower our intellects, but rather to train our minds and bodies to produce, regardless of our feelings or thoughts about the validity of the work, and irrespective of the necessity of production. That is the primary lesson of all education from kindergarten through college: produce, produce, produce. Unfortunately, that lesson isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to just train our children to mindlessly produce for whomever requests it from them. “Employment training” has a lot more to do with giving our children real information about the world around us, and real opportunities to problem-solve, to develop creativity and to grow their emotional intelligence. So overall, still an F for the present version.
I think our current child rearing institutions have failed in the above ways (which are generally considered their functions), but I also think those are just the beginning, and the more uncomfortable and immediate situation for most of us is that the predominant daycare, preschool, and school models all detrimentally a/effect our relationships and home-life with our children. Here’s a few of my least favorite institutional child rearing side effects:
- Herd/Horde Mentality — Care-givers and teachers are always vastly outnumbered. They spend most of their time doing crowd control. They all have systems designed to control masses of flailing bodies while moving to and fro through various locations and subjects of study, minimizing injury, and maximizing compliance. Children respond to the mass grouping of a similar age group (themselves) and the relative mental, emotional, and sometimes physical grip of the teacher(s) trying to control them in both of two ways: at turns they are like sheep and then like hyenas, and sometimes like both. Even our seven year old daughter, who now goes to montessori for the first time in her life, comes home from school talking baby talk all afternoon just like she does with her three new girl friends at school… Why are they so much more willing to copy each other than their parents — even when they share a stellar bond with their parents?
- Heightened Stress — Whether it is elevated Cortisol levels in toddlers and preschoolers, or peer pressure and performance stress in teenagers, the current institutions are fraught with emotional and psychological insecurity. This is neither a good mental state for our children to learn in, nor a healthy environment for normal development. And where does this stress get vented? Usually at us or at a sibling after school.
- Value Conflicts — Let’s be honest, do you think any of us like the ideas about the world or themselves that our kids are picking up from their friends at school? If you’re reading this at all, I have to assume that you have at least once had (or will have) a disagreement with something your child’s friend(s), or even teacher, has passed on to your child. I’ll never forget, after the first week of daycare my eldest daughter, then almost two, came home and for the first time in her life, scooped up every toy in arm’s reach, piled them close around her and said firmly, “Miiiine.” The bottom line is these institutions engender painful competition and comparison, and erroneously teach our children that their worth lies in how well they do in a particular subset of human activities and pursuits, not in who they are.
- Poor Modeling — In addition to the above, there are social methods and schema, such as dramatically fleeing an intense discussion or systematically mistreating an outsider, for example, that kids teach each other that regularly don’t work that well in the real world. Such methods are often more Lord of the Flies in nature than we would like to admit, and are cause for a heck of a lot of emotional suffering.
- Shadow Learning — Even further, because of the ratio of care-givers to children, especially the younger ones learn a host of things their teachers didn’t intend, like how to manage connection with adult(s) by dramatizing trivial situations, or by casting blame (which is currency in these institutions), by lying, by elevating the energy of their voices and motions, by faking injury or illness, and even by physical violence. The research is powerful about the link between hours spent in daycare and later tendencies toward violence.
- Parental Interference — It’s bad enough our children spend all day away from us at daycare, or school, but then we are distracted from them during the few remaining hours by things like PTA meetings, parent conferences, extracurricular activities, school friends, and homework. Seriously — on the matter of homework in particular — in a minimum 6.5 hour school day, five days each week, we are expected to believe that they really can’t do all the work they need to do, or learn all the material they need to learn? Do we really need students to come home and spend multiple hours each night doing homework? If so, then I say that is further evidence that our education system is defunct, or at the very least, embarrassingly inefficient. At any rate, all the “necessary” after-school distractions to family connection mean an equivalent reduction in the scope of parental involvement in child rearing, a scope already problematically marginalized by the hours of school itself.
I recognize that much of the discussion over how our culture raises her children presses or trespasses the border between that which is a parenting concern and that which is a political concern. I will stay on this side of that line at present, because I am at present more concerned with how this system impedes healthy development in our children and healthy relationships between us than I am in how government might alter it. Right now, I am not interested in the revolution. I am interested in recognizing how hard institutional child rearing makes parenting for all of us. I am interested in pointing at the fact that the current system is reducing us to mere breeders, and our children to mere cattle. I am interested in looking together at how we as parents may cope with what we face in the friendly foe of the child rearing institution.
Here’s hoping we all become skilled at helping our children process what they go through in their days.
PS If you want more on this subject, and the subject of homework specifically, check out Alfie Kohn’s bibliography, he loves this topic.