Cultivating An Unenclosed Childhood

Friday, April 24, 2015

"An adult has more power over a child in a confined space than in an unconfined one, and children, senses on the qui-vive, know this. (As do bullying or abusive adults.) Children can bitterly resent their loss of power when they are detained, interned, enclosed indoors, and many respond to being caged as any self-respecting animal does: with a rise in aggression and a wish to escape. What crime of ebullience or offence of exuberance have children committed which is so terrible that they must be in prison? The crime of being young." - A Country Called Childhood, by Jay Griffiths (p. 209). 

If the increasing enclosure and standardization of childhood is one of the biggest moral issues of our time, as I suggest, then what can we as parents do about it? It turns out, a lot. Whether or not a child goes to school, there are many ways that a parent can cultivate an unenclosed childhood.

An Unenclosed State-of-Mind

The first step is to prioritize free, open, unstructured play for children, preferably outside in the natural world. Supervised or not, allowing children the freedom to explore their world, to dig and discover and dream without adult interference, is a gift to our children. As we come to value granting our children an unenclosed childhood, then our actions follow and we seek ways to provide this freedom.

Wide-Open Weekends

An easy next step to creating a more unenclosed childhood for our children is to clear schedules, beginning with the weekend. If structured activities and classes are currently scheduled for the weekend, end them. Preserve weekends as wide-open expanses of time and space for children to lead their own play, pursue their own passions, without adult direction.

Simplified Schedules

Once weekends are free and clear, begin to work on weekdays, reducing structured, adult-led activities to allow far more abundant blocks of free time for children. As Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting, states: "With simplification we can bring an infusion of inspiration to our daily lives; set a tone that honors our families' needs before the world's demands. Allow our hopes for our children to outweigh our fears. Realign our lives with our dreams for our family, and our hopes for what childhood could and should be."

Unenclosed Summers

Summer is the season of childhood. Design a summer for children that is entirely unenclosed, limiting or avoiding entirely any classes, camps, or structured activities. Grant them time outside, in nature, to wander and explore. Let go of expectations and demands. Allow them to simply be in the natural world, in the summer sun, playing and growing.

Neighborhood Activism

Once we have prioritized unenclosed, unstructured time and space for our children to naturally learn and grow, the final step is to think beyond our children, our family, to identify simple actions to once again fill our neighborhoods with freely-playing children. Plan a block party. Become involved, or create, a neighborhood association with a stated mission of welcoming children into our public spaces. Seek other like-minded families who value unenclosed, free play for children and meet regularly to showcase free play in your community. Gather with neighborhood families to designate a day or afternoon (or several!) each week as neighborhood free-play time. Be a leader: advocate for the importance of an unenclosed childhood and become a model for others to follow.

If the increasing enclosure and standardization of childhood is one of the biggest moral issues of our time, then it is our responsibility to take action: to halt the growing confinement of children and seek ways to preserve their wide-open, unstructured, unenclosed play.

The School-To-Prison Pipeline

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Those are preschoolers, in case you were wondering
A friend forwarded me a recent WBUR article on the school-to-prison pipeline and its consequences here in Massachusetts.

It's a topic I have been wanting to write about for some time, as I think it ties directly to the fact that antiquated compulsory schooling statutes, and associated high-stakes testing and core competencies, disproportionately harm the poor and minority children they are supposedly intended to help.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a ubiquitous phenomenon where poor and minority children, beginning at very early ages, are more often cited for behavioral problems and punishments, and later suspensions and expulsions, than their peers.

Many schools have adopted strict Zero Tolerance policies that require students to be immediately expelled for certain infractions, pushing them out of school and into the criminal justice system (with zero resources and support), leading to higher crime and incarceration rates. As the WBUR article states: "The use of exclusionary school discipline-- out-of-school suspension, expulsion, referral to law enforcement or school-related arrest-- can have lasting effects that push students toward the criminal justice system later in life, a process that has been termed the 'school-to-prison' pipeline."

This is a complex issue and one that I argue will only worsen if we continue to push compulsory government schooling to ever earlier ages. Subjecting younger and younger children to the kind of institutionalized restraint and non-developmentally-appropriate academic expectations touted in plans for universal government preschool, for example, can lead to more labeling, more punishing, and--most significantly--more internalizing of failure and incompetence. Three-year-old failures. Oh my!

In his must-watch 2009 documentary, The War On Kids, director Cevin Soling explores the school-to-prison pipeline in more depth, illustrating the similarities of today's government schools to government prisons. In fact, he makes the case that prisoners often have much more freedom than many public school students. Soling writes: "Children are subjected to endure prison-like security, arbitrary punishments, and pharmacological abuse through the forced prescription of dangerous drugs. Even with these measures, schools not only fail to educate students, but the drive to teach has become secondary to the need to control children."

Again, I will make the point that all of this occurs because compulsory schooling was designed and instituted precisely to control children--and, specifically, to squelch difference and diversity in favor of conformity and compliance.

According to the WBUR article, some school districts are moving away from Zero Tolerance policies toward "restorative justice" policies to help stall the school-to-prison pipeline. That may be a small and positive step, but the larger problem is the compulsory schooling system itself: a system that disproportionately harms poor and minority children who are thrust into highly-restrictive, control-oriented classroom environments at ever earlier ages and subsequently labeled, punished, and expelled at much higher rates.

As Dr. Peter Gray writes in his Salon article, "School Is A Prison -- And Damaging Our Kids:"
"When schools were taken over by the state and made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of schooling remained unchanged. Subsequent attempts at reform have failed because, though they have tinkered some with the structure, they haven’t altered the basic blueprint. The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real, felt desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else. It’s no wonder that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison), or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein)."

With increasingly restrictive classroom environments, higher-stakes testing, and forced schooling imposed at ever earlier ages, the school-to-prison pipeline is unlikely to go anywhere. If we care about social justice and civil rights and the benefits of a pluralistic society, we should begin to look beyond the outdated compulsory schooling model to new models of education and learning that value freedom over control.

Homeschooling and Entrepreneurship

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Please enjoy today's guest post by local unschooling mom and entrepreneur, Nina Litovsky.

When I read articles and discussions about teaching entrepreneurship to kids, I often see entrepreneurship regarded as just another childhood activity. Many parents don’t try to engage their kids in more serious entrepreneurial pursuits beyond the lemonade stand and car wash. Other parents think that entrepreneurship is simply another discipline which may not necessarily appeal to all children. Those parents would say, “I don’t want to force my child to become an entrepreneur” or “I don’t know if my child has the abilities to become an entrepreneur.”

But to my ear, this sounds similar to saying “my child doesn’t have the ability to read.” Reading is a milestone in child development, and it is a skill that most children are able to grasp, regardless of their natural inclinations and talents. That skill helps kids discover themselves and the world, and it helps them move forward in life no matter what profession they choose. Similarly, entrepreneurship is not just another talent or another career choice or another childhood activity. It’s a state of mind, a way of living and thinking that a young person gradually grows to embrace and appreciate. It’s a lifestyle and a set of values that shape one’s general attitude towards one’s interests, passions, and goals in life.

My husband and I are both entrepreneurs. Inspired by our experience, we have established an entrepreneurial model of homeschooling in our family. We don’t homeschool our kids to prepare them for going to college and then getting a job. Of course, if our kids decide that a college or a job could be the stepping stones to help them along on their entrepreneurial path, they can take college courses or get a job to support themselves while they are working on their entrepreneurial aspirations. But going to college and getting a job is not the ultimate goal we’re preparing our kids for. Instead, we want them to become entrepreneurs.

Following the passion

It’s a popular sentiment among parents to say, “I want my kids to follow their passion.” We share and support that sentiment. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, kids and teenagers pursue multiple interests, some of which grow into a passion, a strong desire to improve in the area of their interest and to explore further. Following a passion is an important part in a child’s life. However, my family takes that sentiment a bit further. We want to teach our kids to distinguish which passions can be left as hobbies and which can be turned into a business venture.

At some point, as kids grow older, they need to view things in the context of their responsibilities and their desired goals in life. Not every passion can be realized in that context. A child may have a keen interest in bugs or stones or animals, or they may love art. But as they grow into older teenagers and young adults, they should consider whether their passion allows them to make money to become financially independent. If all they do is follow their passion without any entrepreneurial vision and without any regard for whether they can make money with it or not, and if they rely on their parents or others to support them in the meantime, that does not align with the entrepreneurial idea of following one’s passions. Instead, they can keep it as a hobby and pursue another passion which can be made into a career or a business. We want to encourage appreciation, responsibility, and self-reliance, not entitlement.

With the right approach, all or most passions can be made profitable. There doesn’t have to be such a thing as a “starving artist.” For example, the entrepreneurial approach to a passion in art would be to diversify it in ways that allow to both follow one’s interests and pursue an entrepreneurial goal at the same time. One can start a graphic design business, which is what I did when I wanted to make money while pursuing my interest in art. They can set up a shop or partner with other artists to establish a co-op for selling their art. For younger kids and teenagers, an entrepreneurial approach would involve learning how to network with other artists and how to set up an online gallery to display their art portfolio. Once their artwork becomes more sophisticated, they would learn how to set up an eBay shop to reach out to potential customers.

How we do it

How can we help kids learn to distinguish which passions can be made into a business and which should be left as hobbies? It’s important for them to go out into the world and see what the market needs, what their potential clients could be, and how it feels to manage a business. We’ve adjusted our homeschooling style to emphasize these aspects.

While our kids are young, we talk to them about entrepreneurship and try to explain to them, as much as they can understand, the principles of economics, business, and the free market. We show them how we run our own businesses. We tell them about famous inventors and entrepreneurs. We ask those friends and family members who have a business or who work at a company to take our kids on a site visit and show them around, to introduce them to coworkers, and expose them to the daily operations of the company. We bring our kids to meet musicians, artists, programmers, and other creative and technical professionals. Whenever possible, we take them to our client meetings and other professional events. Our goal is to expose the kids to a wide pool of professionals and have them hear people’s stories and observe people at work.

Once our kids get older, we’ll continue doing that and we’ll try hard to arrange for as many internships and small jobs as possible. We will want them to try their hand at working for a variety of businesses in multiple industries. We will encourage them to network and connect with people who can mentor and share their insights and experience.

While the kids are young and have all the time and freedom without much responsibility,  it is crucial for them to network as much as possible. It’s important for them to be exposed to a variety of people, professions, industries, and technologies. It’s essential that they have a chance to experiment, to start some ventures and possibly fail, and to start again. Yes, failure provides a significant learning experience. Kids should learn that failure and repeat failures are ok, as long as they learn from their experience, try again, and diversify their efforts.

Nothing wrong with pursuing wealth

There is a common stigma about teaching kids to make money. I often meet people who feel uneasy about it, who regard the pursuit of wealth almost as something beneath consideration. An entrepreneurial model of homeschooling is based on the idea that it’s right and moral to teach even young kids to engage in business and to pursue wealth. We believe in the morality and dignity of business if it’s conducted lawfully and honestly.

Of course, money is not everything. Money can not replace love, friendship, happiness, and other human values and high ideals. Our kids do learn that there are other important things in life besides money. However, we don’t view money as evil. Our entrepreneurial pursuits give us the flexibility and freedom to spend time with our kids and to homeschool them. Making money is both a prerequisite and a means for us to provide employment to our hired helpers and to provide services that are useful to our clients. Being entrepreneurs adds value to our lives and the lives of our kids, our employees, and our customers.

Entrepreneurship and pursuit of wealth have always been the primary driving forces behind innovations and discoveries which improved people’s lives. We want our kids to contribute to that process while they also provide for themselves, become financially stable and self-sufficient, and, hopefully, prosper.

Passion and money go together

Another common view is that passion is the true expression of one’s soul and that it should be kept separate from making money. Many people keep their passions as hobbies, something they engage in on evenings or weekends, while their days are spent at work. People often dislike their day job and view it only as a means of making money, whereas a hobby is viewed as the way to relax, to feel happy and fulfilled.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. The beauty of entrepreneurship is that one’s passion can indeed be combined with one’s work, and this is the ultimate ideal that many professionals I know desire and strive for. Loving your work and working on what you love are steps to happiness, accomplishment, and professional success.

Let them be kids

Some may say, just let them be kids, don’t take away their childhood by teaching them serious things, wait until they get older and sort it out for themselves. The fact is, our children do have plenty of opportunities to enjoy their childhood through play, fun activities, museums, nature walks, reading, sports, and the rest of the things that kids of their age enjoy.

However, parents teach kids serious things at a young age.  Most parents want their kids to learn such traits as responsibility, good manners, respect, and other values that will help their kids in life and that will make them better people. Entrepreneurship is one of these values. It therefore makes sense to start teaching it as early as possible, so kids have more time and opportunities to explore. Learning entrepreneurship can be lots of fun, especially if done in a friendly, relaxing manner and within the context of freedom and flexibility that homeschooling provides.

Life, starting with childhood, is not just about basking in the present. It also involves some forward thinking and planning for the future. The key to personal development is to try to plan ahead and have at least some vision of how we want to build our lives and what kind of things we would like to pursue and accomplish. We want our kids to fully enjoy their childhood, but we also want them to think about what they would like to do next, what kind of lives they want to shape for themselves, and to start developing their own vision for the future.


Nina Litovsky is a homeschooling mom and a small business owner, living with her husband and three young children in Newton, Massachusetts.

Where have all the children gone?

Monday, April 20, 2015

The trouble is that children have virtually disappeared from our public spaces.

The disturbing Meitiv case is only the tip of the iceberg. As today's children spend the majority of their time enclosed, in structured, adult-led activities, the scene of unaccompanied children outside, walking through their communities, can be startling--especially to those "concerned" citizens who may also have come to believe the media-driven myth that the world is unsafe for children. Compelling data show that, in fact, the world is much safer for children today than it was when we were kids.

And then we have the "pack" problem. As a reader on my blog's Facebook page noted, the pack of children with which most of us grew up has also disappeared, with children increasingly off at enclosed and supervised activities. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv laments the growing disconnect between children and the natural world. Now, we seem to have a more gripping problem: The Last Child in the Neighborhood. 

The societal ramifications of an increasingly enclosed childhood are many and span the gamut from declining childhood mental and physical health, to sterile, static neighborhoods, to the growing marginalization and distrust of children.

As Jay Griffiths writes in her eloquent book, A Country Called Childhood:
"To sum up: children have been exiled from their kith, their square mile, a land right of the human spirit. Naturally kindled in green, they need nature, woodlands, mountains, rivers and seas both physically and emotionally, no matter how small a patch; children's spirits can survive on very little, but not on nothing… Society owes it to children to repeal all acts of enclosure, literal and metaphoric, which have fenced in childhood with barbed wire." (p. 342).

We need to reclaim an unenclosed childhood for our children. We need to welcome children back into our public spaces, into our neighborhoods and parks and sidewalks. We need to recognize the unfounded roots of our fears for them, and grant our children the freedom to grow outside of the confines of buildings and fences. The same freedom we all had. The health and well-being of our children and our communities depend on us. 

We can make a difference, for the sake of our children. It starts with us.

When Free-Range Was Just Parenting

Thursday, April 16, 2015

It turns out all our moms and dads were "free-range" parents. They let us walk to the bus stop or to school, unaccompanied. They let us wander the neighborhood, ride our bikes (without helmets), build tree-forts in the woods, play flashlight tag in the lingering summer light. I walked by myself to Jon's house and Jessica's house, never worrying that a concerned citizen would call 911, startled at the sight of an unaccompanied kid walking around the neighborhood, maybe to or from a park, on a warm weekend afternoon.

But that's what happened--again--to the Meitiv family in Silver Spring, Maryland. They have been in the news over the past several months for allowing their children (10 and 6) to walk home together from a playground unaccompanied by an adult. Apparently seeing children playing together, without grown-ups, has become such a rarity in our society that it now requires a 911 call, a police response, and a CPS file.

For the Meitiv family, that file is growing bigger as the parents--he a theoretical physicist at the NIH and she a climate-science consultant--continue to let their children walk together to and from their neighborhood parks. As The Washington Post and other news outlets report, the children were taken in by police and CPS workers over the weekend because an anonymous caller reported that they were unattended as they walked home together from a neighborhood park. Just listen to the 911 call. This never, ever would have happened when we were kids. Ever.

How did we get here? In the span of two or three decades, how did we go from encouraging--in fact expecting--children to play outside, in our neighborhoods, without always being watched, to 911 calls and CPS files? How?

I find this case so disturbing, and am delighted that a prominent DC law firm has now taken on the case and plans to sue the county for its egregious acts. Perhaps this case will be an agent for change and a wake-up call to the American people that despite what they see on Law and Order and the nightly news, today's world is much safer for children than it was when we were growing up.

I don't even consider myself that free-range-y. But as my children get bigger, I would like them to be able to walk around our neighborhood, go to the library, to the corner store, ring a friend's doorbell without me always watching. I would like them to have at least a touch of the childhood freedom that I grew up with.

I am heartened that so many of my blog's Facebook followers are as outraged as I am over this story. But I am also disappointed at some of the criticisms I have read elsewhere, with parents saying that the Meitivs--knowing that they were under the watchful eye of CPS--should not have continued to let their children walk unaccompanied. Really? We should bow to injustice? Imagine all of the wrongs that would not have been righted if we bowed to our fears and to authority rule. Brown vs. The Board of Education, Topeka is a good place to start. In his most recent blog post, Peter Gray calls the Meitivs "civil rights leaders." He is absolutely correct.

Let's support this family and in the process protect our civil rights and the promise of childhood freedom. I wrote recently that I think the increasing enclosure and standardization of childhood is one of the biggest moral issues of our time. This story is a perfect case in point.

Institutionalizing Sameness

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Yesterday at Boston Common
Tyra is a first-grader who has many interests and talents. She loves music, science, art and literature. She excels in math. But her real passion is history: she knows almost everything there is to know about the Revolutionary War and will rattle off battles and generals, key dates and important victories at the drop of a hat. She devours anything and everything having to do with the Revolutionary era, begging her parents to read books to her and take her to historic sites and museums so she can learn more.

Tyra is seven and is not yet reading at "grade level" (whatever that means). She has now been recommended for reading intervention and an IEP (individualized education plan), so that she will more swiftly achieve seven-year-old-sameness. Did I mention that she's 7? Seven! She's just at the peak of the natural reading bell-curve.

As Carol Black, director of the acclaimed documentary, Schooling The Worldwrites in her must-read article, "A Thousand Rivers":

"Interestingly, the Finnish school system, which has some of the highest reading scores in the world, does not begin direct instruction in reading until age seven, closer to the peak of a natural unforced bell curve than the American system, which keeps pushing instruction ever earlier. study in New Zealand compared Waldorf schools, which begin reading instruction at age seven, to public schools, which begin at age five, and found no long-term benefit to earlier instruction. In fact, many of the studies which show an advantage to early reading instruction compare children’s proficiency at around age eight or nine.  What they don’t show is that by age ten or eleven, the advantage disappears, and that by twelve or thirteen, it reverses, with children taught later showing greater comprehension and enjoyment of reading than those taught earlier."

Dr. Peter Gray has written extensively about how children, when given the time and freedom to do so, naturally teach themselves to read, and why natural learning fails in classrooms. In the latter he argues:

"The classroom is a setting where you have a rather large group of children, all about the same age, and a teacher whose primary tasks are to keep order and impart a curriculum—the same curriculum for everyone...The classroom is all about training.  Training is the process of getting reluctant organisms to do or learn what the trainer wants them to do or learn."

Tyra will learn to read in school. There's no doubt about that. Training works. But the more significant question is, at what cost? Because the thing is Tyra would learn to read anyway, on her own time, probably through her passion for history and unquenchable desire to learn more about the Revolutionary period. Will that passion be snuffed out as more of her time is dedicated to reading intervention? Maybe. Will she begin to internalize a falsehood that she is not "good enough," or that she is "behind her peers?" Possibly. Will she learn to read but not love to read? Sadly, there's a very good chance.

Institutionalizing sameness may work, but the costs are many and can be severe. The trouble with institutions is that the institutionalized have very few choices. Generally, you can go along or opt-out. In this case, opting-out means leaving the institution of schooling behind and recognizing a different way to learn: a gentler, more natural way where a child's passions are cultivated and where differences are treasured.

Being With Our Children

Sunday, April 12, 2015

During my series of posts last week on compulsory schooling and education policy, one insightful reader commented on the blog's Facebook page: "Schools are a symptom to a culture that doesn't enjoy their children and is choosing ineffective strategies to meet their needs."

This is a powerful statement. And sadly so very true.

In an often-cited 2004 study by Nobel prize-winner, Daniel Kahneman, working mothers ranked "taking care of my children" as the second most-negative activity on a list of 16.

Where does this cultural antipathy toward caring for our children come from?

I think there are a lot of contributing factors, not the least of which is schooling. As John Taylor Gatto, former New York State Teacher of the Year and author of several influential books including, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, writes: "Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents."

The trouble is that by monopolizing the "best times of childhood," and increasingly doing so at earlier ages and for longer portions of the day, it becomes a vicious circle: parents get limited time with their children which can make it more difficult to parent, and the time they do get are the bookends of a busy day when everyone is tired or grouchy or stressed or preoccupied. Children--and parents--may not be at their finest when rushing out in the morning or returning home after a long day, and it can make parenting seem like a chore to be outsourced.

It may appear counterintuitive but the antidote to parenting that seems more like a chore than a joy is more time with our children, not less. Bringing our children closer, spending more time with them, getting to know their quirks and peccadilloes, can make being with our children more enjoyable and rewarding than we ever thought possible. It's a truth many homeschooling families shout from the rooftops: the more you're with your children, the more you enjoy being with your children.

I think the other related issue to a lack of joy in modern parenting is stress. There seems to be a lot of cultural pressure to do more, be more, provide more for children than ever before. Parents may actually want to spend more time with their children but feel the pressure to enroll their children in all sorts of extra-curricular activities--on top of already packed weeks--to make sure their children are given every possible advantage. While our intentions may be good, the result of these over-scheduled, institutionalized little lives can be seen in declining childhood mental health.

As Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, writes:
"In the late 19th and early 20th century, many people became concerned about the ill effects of child labor on children’s development and wellbeing, and laws were passed to ban it.  But now we have school, expanded to such a degree that it is equivalent to a full-time job—a psychologically stressful, sedentary full-time job, for which the child is not paid and does not gain the sense of independence and pride that can come from a real job."
Gray goes on to write that "increased schooling, coupled with decreased freedom outside of school, correlates, over decades, with sharply increased rates of psychiatric disorders in young people, including major depression and anxiety disorders."

This critical correlation is also addressed in Jay Griffiths's eloquent new book, A Country Called Childhood, where she writes:
"Children need wild, unlimited hours but this unenclosed time is in short supply for many, who are diarized into wall-to-wall activities, scheduled from the moment they wake until the minute they sleep, every hour accounted for by parents whose actions are prompted by the fear that their child may fall behind in the rat-race which begins in the nursery… Society instills a fear of the future which can only be appeased by sacrificing present play and idleness, and children feel the effects in stress and depression." (p. 109). (Here is a link to a positive New York Times book review on Griffiths's must-read book.)

Perhaps the remedy to all of this stress--all of this dislike of parenting and childcare, and the associated decline in children's mental health--is simple: Be with our children. Just be with them. Bring them closer, bring them home, lessen their loads, grant them unenclosed time and space, let them play, let them dream.

We may be surprised to discover that our children are much happier. And so are we.