Saturday, July 7, 2012

Domesticating our Kids

I heard today on the radio about how more and more pet owners are abandoning their pets on moving day.  This is negligent, because domesticated animals are ill-prepared to fend for themselves in the wild.  While such negligence may be punishable under the criminal code, and is, of course, morally wrong, it seems to me that there is a more general issue at play here. 

On some level, there is an inherent disservice in the practice of domesticating animals at all.  By sheltering them and feeding them, we undermine all of the instincts they have developed over the long adaptive road of evolution.  This article will not explore this debate any further, but will use it as a backdrop for a discussion on how we raise our kids.

I am about to become a parent for a second time, so, naturally, the question of what constitutes effective parenting is on my mind.  If one were to summarize the role of a parent in one sentence, it might look like this: "To ensure the safety of your child, while empowering him or her to take on life independently upon reaching adulthood".  Though parenting is anything but a bland activity, it can be viewed through an engineer's lens, as an optimization problem.

If one hovers too close (helicopter parent), one's child will never attain the level of independence that is needed to tackle life on his or her own.  On the other hand, a completely 'laissez-faire' parenting attitude at too young an age can place a child in an unneccessarily risky situation.  Thus, the parent must find the sweet spot, where their child is free to explore the world, but with reasonable boundaries imposed on them.

In North American cultures, it appears that many parents err on the side of overly protective.  I recently overheard the term, "lawnmower parent"; it is a befitting label for a parent who seeks to move all obstacles out of the path of their child.  Such an approach effectively cripples the child, and ensures that the parents will be called upon to support them beyond childhood and adolescence, much like one would a pet.  Denying children the opportunity to fail condemns them to a life of helplessness - a life where true adulthood is never attained.

Such is the struggle of modern day parenting.  We have the tools to fully orchestrate the lives of our children, and we also experience pain whenever they fail.  We may then find ourselves doing what is required to avoid experiencing such pain.  Elementary school teachers contend with lawnmower parents first-hand.  Some parents correct their own kid's homework before it is submitted to the teacher to ensure high grades.  Others defend the actions of their children regardless of how deplorable they are.  I suppose the central issue here is the incorrect view such parents have of failure...they see it as a flaw, as opposed to what it truly is: an opportunity for growth.

Sometimes great teaching is knowing when to get out of the way and let the learning take place.  When I am at the park with my three-year-old, I have the desire to stand close by and place her little feet and hands in the right place as she climbs up a series of taught ropes.  I must fight this desire, and I find that when I do, she learns how to climb much more effectively.  If the price to pay here is the occasional bruise, it is far outweighed by the gift of learning that I am allowing her to have.  In science, we learn through experimentation, and one can generalize this notion for learning of any kind.

Where parents really get their kids into trouble is when they bail them out.  It is a short-term gain that often leads to a long-term struggle.  Parents need to stand beside teachers when their young kids are punished for poor behaviour.  It may bruise their child's ego, but we all eventually must learn that no one goes through life unscathed.  In truth, a life unscathed is a life unlived.

The best metaphor for parenting that I have ever come across is in the early pages of Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet".  Here, the parent is depicted as the bow, and the child, the arrow.  You can affect the path that your children will take, but in order for them to truly live, you must be willing to let them go.

For the benefit of our children, and humanity as a whole, let us stop domesticating our kids.  They must learn to fend for themselves.  Parents must learn to let go.

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