The under-challenged kid

I found this article The Overprotected Kid to be very interesting.   I appreciated the basic message of this article in my recollection of my own free-ranging childhood.   My life spans the critical period discussed.  My childhood was in the kids will be kids era and pretty much left on their own devices for play.  But the big scares described occurred as I was entering adulthood.   I’d add a little the discussion in that not only were kids affected but so were non-parent adults.  We (and especially unattached adult males) were suddenly turned into clear and present danger to any nearby kids.

Even though I was older, there was still a child within me.  Maybe not return to childish play but just to be able to enjoy the atmosphere of children who are playing and joining when they invited my participation.  I think we lost something when we began to think that strangers equals danger to children.    When growing up, I frequently crossed paths with someone I didn’t know and we were pretty quick to enjoy the opportunity to relate to each other even if briefly.   If there was any risk, it was the risk of picking up some gossip one might not otherwise encounter. 

Ah, gossip.   I grew up in a small town.  My definition of a small town is one where there is a broad recognition of people, if not the precise names but at least their homes, their cars, and some of their habits.   We usually knew names, too.   I don’t think my small town was much into suspicious or malicious snooping, but we learned to recognize voices raised in anger or laughter and we noted when there was something not quite right someplace.

My town had a lot of stories, the kind of stories that intrigue young minds.   There were moonshiners over there, Al Capone’s gang sometimes came to the place over there,  there are bodies in the bottom of this lake,  etc.   There was also the mysteries of the pre-war era when the town was much more prosperous but it seemed no one wanted to talk much about it even though it was only a generation ago.

By the time I was a teenager, the town gave an air of being like the ruins of a lost civilization.  The buildings on main street were still standing but with a couple exceptions housed very different businesses than they were originally built for.

I think a young mind receives gossip differently than older minds.  

For older minds it is an opportunity to keep a conversation going.  Unless there was something to be concerned about, there was little reason to get involved.  The only consequence of a story is to repeat it at the next conversation with someone else.

Younger minds are more inclined to find out if it is true.   Could it be possible that this sleepy dull town had a more exciting history?  Could I find evidence of it?  

Part of the protection today’s parents and schools give kids is to protect them from encountering discounted stories.

It is not just deliberate protection by parents and teachers.  Today’s kids are completely saturated with manufactured stories from entertainment with 24 hour entertainment on TV, never-ending fantasy-world video games, ever more fantastic movies, and even more overwhelming spectacles in live entertainment.   It is fair to say that when I was growing up this kind of manufactured content was far more difficult to obtain (outside of reading books) and thus left more idle time to wonder about what’s going on with overheard gossip.

As stated in the above article, many kids are never allowed outside of adult supervision.  In addition to being protective of physical dangers, the parents are also protective of information dangers.   They are more alert to what their child might have heard and more quick to set the story straight and thus (perhaps unintentionally) discouraging the child to investigate for himself.  

The above entertainment options become the primary ways of receiving unusual ideas.  Even if the ideas are fantasies there are consistently delivered to a entire population and so thoroughly worked out that there is little room for variations of interpretation.  

Schools are also different.   Today’s schools have more demands for higher and more consistent scores on standardized tests and demands for covering more material.   Almost as a counter-reaction of the entertainment industry’s message of everything is possible, schools take the position of eliminating options.   For any topic there is one and only one answer and that must be memorized for its possibility of showing up in an exam question.

I recall in science, we were still visualizing atoms with electrons orbiting like planets around a sun.  I may be old, but our school was also rural, we were using older books, and there were no standardized tests.   However, I do recall at least discussing the idea that they were in different cloud-shapes of probability with quantum mechanics.   At the level of education, we were only asked to remember the count of electrons with respect to protons so perhaps the orbital model was adequate.   But I found the time to at least try to understand the more current ideas and I found an audience with the teacher to discuss it, if only briefly.   I know I put it on my list of things to investigate when I got to college.

Similarly in literature, there were classroom discussions of different works where we were invited to come up with our own ideas about what to think of a story.   The teacher gave her views but any testing was not to see how well we agreed with the teacher but how well we defended our own views, no matter how bizarre.   Personally I tend to read even fiction very literally so that I’m often surprised when someone points out symbolism, metaphor, or veiled criticism.  Consequently, I do recall being surprised and delighted by my classmates thoughts on reading what I had read.   Some were really amazing.  They generally got better grades.

But this kind of tolerance also extended to sciences.   We discussed the ptolemaic model of the solar system and I recall taking it seriously enough to see how well it could work well enough to figure out where things will be in the night sky.   The copernican model was easier to understand but seemed to require more effort to use (no computers then).   I even admit that perhaps even at that time I was mistaken, but I do recall being allowed to explore the possibility.  If it were discussed in front of class, it would receive about the same mix of reactions any other student’s presentation would have received.

Being so distant from young people today, all I know about modern primary and secondary education is what I read about in news.  It does appear there is more restrictions on the child’s mind for considering counterfactuals.   Not only is this considered an unnecessary waste of time that could be better spent on more material, but there is a sense that real harm will occur when kids spend too much time thinking about the credibility of the wrong answers.

Just like the parents afraid of what may happen when their child walks to school alone, we as a society are afraid of what happens if the child considers the possibility that maybe the wrong side lost some particular war, or if maybe Lamarkian evolution makes more sense than Darwinian evolution.

The initial article describing the benefits of letting kids play in riskier environments.   I think the same is true for letting kid’s minds play with riskier ideas.   Let them explore the idea and conclude on his own (or at least let him think he concluded on his own) what the right answer should be.   Just like the play environment may result in some minor injuries, the education environment may result in doubts.

If the doubts turn in to disagreements, then the student is faced with coming to terms with losing arguments with others.

There is as much playfulness in a child’s mind for knowledge as their is in his spirit for physical activities and explorations.   Overly restricting the opportunities for child play denies the child his opportunity to use that unique period of childhood development to  building a stronger self.

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One thought on “The under-challenged kid

  1. Pingback: Cohort Learning | kenneumeister

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