Saving the WEIRD Child

Fall is coming, and a hush falls over the neighborhood playground as children trickle back to school. My oldest is old enough for kindergarten. These days I read a lot about education, shoring up my reasons for keeping her out of full-time school this year.

One author worth reading is Carol Black. Black is a writer, filmmaker, parent, and education activist. Her essays are thought-provoking and exhausting — exhausting because they challenge me to make drastic changes to the ways I think and act.

In August, The Washington Post ran one of her articles, “What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning.” In it, she notes,

“[W]e speak of our familiar school experience almost as though it were an integral part of nature itself, a natural and essential part of human childhood, rather than the vast and extremely recent experiment in social engineering that it actually is.”

In an April blog post she titles “On the Wildness of Children,” Black argues that the current educational system stymies a child’s ability to exercise free will. This has long-reaching consequences: anxiety and depression in individuals, political strife on the global level.

Like I said, I find Black’s arguments exhausting, but I think she’s on to something.

School as we know it is a modern experiment of “WEIRD” nations: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic. We segregate children by age and hold each student to the same benchmarks; a child who reads at age 8 rather than 6 comes under scrutiny. We have children sit indoors during a day chopped into neat, often arbitrary periods; a child unable sit still and focus on a given task is a candidate for medication. We value individual performance; each child is measured, graded, compared, and documented. With some variation, this is the status quo.

Set aside our WEIRD cultural and social norms for a moment. It’s hard, so ingrained are the assumptions and expectations of school. To most, school is a necessary, traditional, benign part of growing up—a gateway to the land of functional adulthood. But this was not so for centuries, and it is not so for millions of people in the world today.

But part of me craves benchmarks, standards, and curricula. If I spare the educational rod, will I spoil my child’s future? If we end the experiment as we know it, what do we put in its place?

Consider a passage from Arcana Coelestia:

“In order that truth may be received by the good which is of the will, it is necessary that there be a free state. All that is of the will appears free; the very state of willing is liberty; for that which I will, that I choose, that I long for, because I love it and acknowledge it as good.” (3158.2)

If we wish children to take in truth, be it knowledge about math or the eternal truths of the Ten Commandments, they must receive it in a state of freedom. My reading suggests that this learning ought to be joyful too: “Who can wish to know something or understand something if he does not feel the pleasure of some affection?” (Divine Providence 76)

What if children spent a lot of time in nature? This gets a lot of lip-service, but I rarely see school recesses exceed half an hour. If “the universe is like a stage, upon which demonstrations of the existence of God and His oneness are continually being presented,” shouldn’t we be visiting the Divine theater more often (True Christian Religion 12)?

What if children had a chance to learn at their own pace? Learning happens at different times for different children, just as teething, talking, and puberty do. If a mother wouldn’t feed pieces of meat to an 11-month-old who has yet to sprout canines, perhaps an educator should wait to present concepts until a student has demonstrated readiness.

What if we trusted children to love learning enough to pursue it on their own? The Heavenly Doctrine notes that everyone naturally “takes great delight in knowing, so that it scarcely desires anything better, knowledge being its food by which it is sustained and renewed, as the external man is by earthly food” (Arcana Coelestia 1480). I don’t wish to do away with all structure and curricula. I do wish for sensitive educators attuned to the interests and readiness of each student, who lead and listen.

Black offers her solution, an ancient model we can still see in so-called primitive cultures:

“We see children intimately embedded in the natural world and free to move and use their bodies outdoors. We see children embedded in their communities and free to observe and participate in adult work, leisure, and celebration. We see complex social structures of mixed-age extended family and clan which provide child care and teach respect and hold anti-social behavior in check far more effectively and with less conflict than the institutions we now rely on.”

In New Christian terms, I think we can do more to honor children’s different states, the free souls within them, and the affections unique to each. We can give children more access to free play in the natural world the Lord gives us, to spiritual neighbors older and younger than themselves, to meaningful work, to natural rhythms rather than arbitrary schedules. We can keep academic success in perspective by remembering the Lord’s end goal: heaven. Most schools seem to have the rat race as the end in view. What if we focused more on the Lord’s end in view: a heaven from the human race?

I asked a lot of questions because I still wonder what to do. I’d like to start a conversation about what the New Christianity teaches about raising our children.

4 thoughts on “Saving the WEIRD Child

  1. Truly thought provoking. This is something I’ve been wondering about a lot lately and it’s nice to read some thoughts alongside teachings from the Writings. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Taryn! Good thoughts here and well presented.
    I wonder about school vs unschool or home school too.
    Your remarks and quotes about freedom are well taken. And, of course, there is the balancing body of teaching about the need for things like order and for self-compulsion. Not to say that home schooling could not be full of the real order of the universe–maybe more so than a classroom.
    The value I keep seeing in home schooling would be the child’s sense of self and identity left more intact: life could be less about comparing oneself to 25 others your age.
    Anyway, those are just a few thoughts.
    Thank you for writing.

  3. Keep asking the questions, Taryn. They’re good ones! Great piece. And of course there is more than one “right way” — that is, there are lots of varying GOOD ways to live life!

  4. Ahhhhh, yes. Been here, done that! 🙂 -This pondering, I mean. Shortly before we left North America for Australia, when our boy was… 4? or maybe 5? – I learned about Sandra Dodd and unschooling. Oooh, I caught that bug long and hard! I felt certain that I didn’t want him in full-day kindergarten, however my dear husband wasn’t fond of the idea of unschooling, either. [I’ve never wanted to homeschool, per se, but unschooling – in loose terms, a somewhat structured experience of outings and exploration, not strictly “let the kid do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it” – had real appeal for me.] We were fortunate to be able to keep him home with us throughout our initial visit down under, since we couldn’t have enrolled him in school anyway: those were our four months of ‘unschooling’, complete with occasional meet-ups with other homeschooling families. ANYWAY, short story long, the compromise we reached was Montessori: still structure, still ample opportunities for socialisation (especially important to us, considering our child’s only-child-ness), however the kids are left to pursue their ‘works’ independently, on their own time, to spend however little or much time on them as they want or need, yet all the while being supervised by a ‘directress’ who knows each child intimately and can guide and personalise their learning accordingly.

    …But enough about us. 😀 Thanks for this compelling article! -I support your desire to explore alternative learning opportunities. If ever you want to talk more about this, just say the word! Meanwhile, best wishes on your journey.

    [P.S. It was in fact your dear husband who shared with us a perspective on homeschooling that has stuck with me to this day: a real downer about it was that he couldn’t get away from his teacher. I’m not sure I would’ve thought of that, had he not mentioned it! -And, knowing how my son and I sometimes clash, and how he can be so stubborn about learning anything from me, I think it’s really good that he go to school and have teachers other than me!] [P.P.S. Z has completed four years at his Montessori school, and things seem to be going well! -And, it isn’t for everybody.]

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