It astonishes and dismays me that so little has changed since John Holt wrote Escape from Childhood in 1974. Perhaps especially when discussing the opinion, held by many adults and parents, that children are a burden. An expected one, a necessary one, perhaps even a desirable one (if a burden can be desirable), but a burden nonetheless. Holt maintains that this comes about in part because adults build a “walled garden” for children, the purpose of which is to keep them in the institution of childhood for as long as possible (that safe, innocent & artificial place). The problem of course is that at some point we all must leave the garden. In Holt’s words:
“How many times must adults, comparing the lives of their children and themselves, think bitterly, ‘Why should they have it so easy when I have it so tough?’ Often they say it out loud. It leads to this, that the people who built the garden to protect the children from the harsh reality outside begin in the name of that same harsh reality to put weeds, and stones, and broken glass, and barbed wire into the garden. ‘They’d better learn,’ they say furiously, ‘what the world out there is really like.'”
This is exactly what many parents tell me when discussing why kids should go to school. “They need to learn to do things they don’t like,” or “They need to learn that in the real world, sometimes things won’t go the way they want them to.” Translation? Learn to be miserable now so that you won’t be surprised by the inevitable misery of life that awaits you.
The very people who over-shelter their children, who insist they cannot handle ‘adult’ things, are often the same people who resent the very child-like nature they say they are trying to preserve and protect in their kids. As Holt says:
“…I have noticed that most adults around children do not act as people do when they are with people they like, but very much the opposite. They are anxious, irritable, impatient, looking for fault and usually finding it. There is no ease, let alone joy. and this is true of people on vacation, or celebrating, or going to the park, or coming out of one of the big shows, or doing things that one might have supposed and hoped might be fun. There is always this air of strain, tension conflict, and a frightening kind of patience that is not good-humored acceptance but anger barely held back by an effort of will.”
Are you sitting there nodding your head in agreement as I was when I read this? Are you appalled that almost 40 years after this book was written, parents STILL treat their kids this way (and that if anything, it has gotten worse)? And not just parents – the majority of adults react with suspicion when they see a child in a public place.
“Children alone in public places…draw many hostile looks, as if to say ‘What are you doing here? What are you up to? Where are your parents? Why aren’t you with them? Why isn’t someone looking after you — i.e. telling you what to do?'”
Children are not unwelcome house guests who descend without warning and then refuse to leave. Parents – for the most part – plan for their arrival and anticipate it with joy. Even if people do not have children of their own, they were children once and therefore should not be in totally uncharted territory.
So why are kids such a burden?
I believe that the issue of control lies at the root of much of what Holt talks about in EFC. In a world where so much is out of our control, parents have come to feel (and maybe always did, to some degree) that in THIS, at least, they are in control. The kid belongs to the parent and what the parent says goes. They keep the child on a tight leash in order to protect but also to discipline the child when and as they see fit. This attitude is supported by the laws in our society. The parent who gets in trouble these days is often not the parent who hits his child but the parent who is perceived as giving his child too much freedom. The freedom to walk down the street alone, or even stay in the car while the parent goes inside to shop.
It is the parent’s misguided belief in their own unquestionable sovereignty that is at the heart of many parent/child conflicts, including so-called “teen rebellion”. Can the 16 year old who is treated like a toddler be faulted for resisting such treatment?
It is high time all the “grown-ups” realize that children are not a burden; they are fully realized human beings with their own ideas and personalities and they do not enjoy being treated as something less than second class citizens. They are not servants or chattel to be ordered around at will. Adults brought children into this world but that does not mean we own them.
Quotes from Escape From Childhood copyright 2013 by HoltGWS LLC are used with permission.