An Infantilized Society

Comedian John Heffron often compares the independence he had as a child to the way we raise our children today. I told this to a fellow mom at a park as we watched one of our peers go scurrying off in search of her 7-year-old son in the very suburban park. She told me that as a child on a rural farm, she’d often saddled up her horse and gone off for the day before her parents were even awake, and often returned at dusk, with her parents unworried. Now her 10-year-old niece has a horse of her own, but her mother will groom and saddle it for her, and only let her ride for 1/2 hour or so at a time, constantly under supervision.

It makes me wonder what our protectiveness is doing to our society. I confess to being a paranoid mother myself. We bought an iPhone for our son Neil on his 15th birthday largely because I wanted to be able to stalk him on his way to and from classes at San Jose State. No kidding. Before that, he once was late returning from a calculus class, and I went nearly mad, running over to the campus myself, only to find out he’d been talking to the professor, who’d been charmed to have such a young and diligent student in her class. My fiercely independent 9-year-old daughter has worked hard to help me break the habit, only to leave me scorned by other parents who are shocked I let her walk the one block to the nearby elementary school all by herself, or that I let her pack her own lunches, with all the consequences thereof (mmm, leftover Peep casserole!).

But I’ve noticed a lot of people just don’t know how to be independent, at all. If you’re watched over and guided your each and every day from birth through high school, and possibly even through college, what chance do you have to do things without instruction, much less learn how to make a mistake and fix it?

I homeschool my son, and I’m one of the more structured homeschoolers, giving him specific assignments and deadlines for a variety of subjects. As I soon found out, he’s adept at managing his time, and he doesn’t need a schedule to do academic things he’s passionate about. When he’s not writing literature essays for me, he’s writing computer games or working on sliding-block puzzle algorithms (don’t ask me, look here.) And if there’s a day we want to pay our respects at a funeral or attend a robot block party, the economics lesson or chaos lecture can wait for another day.

Having gone in this direction for years, I was disconcerted when we went to a high school campus to sign Neil up for an AP test. All the classes, for all the subjects, are exactly the same length of time? Really?! And the students obediently respond to bells and must be in their seats on a timer? Really!? However, the students will be really good at taking tests, where Neil has become weak. I give him practice SAT and AP tests, and inevitably, he’ll argue with the questions. I struggle to teach him that the trick is not to think about the question, but to figure out which answer the test-makers want you to put down. And it doesn’t help that I think a lot of the questions are obscure and irrelevant to the subject’s real-world usage.

And so I get to the point of my real world, which is filled with well-trained people who were taught to follow instructions correctly, and the correct thing is to say, without thinking about it. I see college students incapable of the personal initiative to market their own passions into their own business, instead opting to work for free at internships in the hopes of eventually getting a minimum-wage entry level job. I get emails from people having genuine problems, but when I tell them how to work on getting it resolved, I often get a furious passive-aggressive response because doing so involves some personal initiative, like picking up a telephone, or leaving feedback. People will languish for years at jobs which make them miserable, giving credit to petty reasons for their own imprisonment, like good health insurance, while independent contractors (like me) know crappy health insurance is a better option than a crappy day job.

And an obedient populace is a scary thing to me. I’ve also been surprised how often people just want to be told what to do, and if you can muster the right authority, they will just do whatever you tell them to do. I’m shocked when it works, but I’m not immoral enough to make people do something against their own interest, but there are those who will, unless more people learn what it’s like to be free — really free, with all the risks it involves. And the fact is, we’re not letting our children run free, and maybe we should.

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