How much freedom should a child have? Should a child be allowed to play near the camp fire and handle knives, as Jared Diamond describes one indigenous child-rearing practice in The World until Yesterday? We would say, no, that is abuse and neglect but the tribe says children are autonomous human beings and they will learn.
Do you think a child in the tropical rain forest is marvelously free? No, Diamond says of all the cultures he studied, children in the rain forest are the most carefully supervised, not even being allowed to walk by themselves on the dangerous forest floor until age three, after which they are kept within a few feet of their mother until they are much older.
The subject is of great interest to me because as I was writing and making paintings for The Magic Barn (growing up wild on a New England farm,) I had a sad and startling thought: “I hope I wasn’t the last free child.” We roamed over hundreds of acres at will and all over town under the watchful eyes but the generally non-interfering hands of our neighbors. Other people’s parents were as likely to straighten us out as our own. When it broke down and Bad Men were rumored to be harvesting children, that freedom ended.
It was around the early 1960s when that freedom ended in our town, though my freedom was curtailed somewhat earlier on the basis of the fact that through some quirk of fate, I was the only girl in the neighborhood amongst about sixteen boys. I had to be tamed enough to wear a shirt (why? My chest was flat as my playmates) and have my long hair combed and braided every day, but other than that, I was free to roam, fish and do the same daring things as the boys.
“One word from me and they do whatever they want,” my Pop used to say. He also used to say, “You’ll learn.” I came to stop dead in my tracks when I heard that comment, having done stupid things in the past and reaped the consequences; nothing like consequences to make you internalize a bit of wisdom.
Let me repeat that: There is nothing like consequences to make you internalize a bit of wisdom. Rules are not as effective. “Do this, don’t do that, yada, yada, yada”-the authoritarian style of parenting. If you fail to obey the rules, you will get a whipping. Well, you say, the whipping is the consequence. Perhaps, but it is all external. The rules are external and the consequence is external and children raised like this learn, all right. They learn that if no one sees them, if they can cover their tracks, or lie successfully, there is no consequence.
I noticed as I wrote and painted my various adventures in The Magic Barn, that I was, as a child, making rules for myself. For example, to always tell the truth about what I had done wrong so the Guilt Monster disappeared in a puff of truth instead of tormenting me. How much guilt can a seven year-old have? Plenty, if they accidentally burned their house down, as I did.
We kids roamed and experimented and built things and argued and resolved our conflicts. We worked hard; we lived on farms. But the freedom was fierce and precious. Is there no way kids can roam the woods at will today? Are there any parents who are willing to let kids learn from consequences? To think for them selves? I think it is a harder style of parenting than rules and whippings.
It requires regarding the child as an autonomous human being. I am not sure our culture so regards children. Not respecting the autonomy of children, why would they grow up respecting the autonomy of anyone else? Why would they not grow up with a list of rules and punishments to inflict on the naughty? Is that not the duty of leaders? Why would they not grow up with the idea that force is the first tool to reach for when enforcing conformity?
Why would they not grow up to produce a society of heavily incarcerated citizens, a society that devalues weak people, a society that inflicts pain on those who make life inconvenient, who do not follow the rules? Why would they not grow up to produce a society of liars, of loophole-seekers, of Cover-Your-Arse experts?
In short, why would they not grow up to produce exactly the kind of society we see all around us?
We can do better.