Imprisonment of Kids, at School and at Home

Nico (5) was not happy about being sent to kindergarten on the first day of school.

Nico (5) was not happy about being sent to kindergarten on the first day of school.

Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, thinks that schools are very much like prisons for children. I must admit that Gray’s contention has some merit.

Let’s face it – kids are forced to stay at school, whether they like it or not. Furthermore, they are told what they must do at every moment, and are punished for not complying. And, they don’t have any say over any of these rules.

My wife and I just sent our middle son, Nico, to his first day of kindergarten two weeks ago. He was not pleased at all on that first day. Nico’s leaving behind a very fun, very free home life, so I’d say he’s quite rational for preferring home over school. Most other kids have less fun and free home lives than Nico does, and are more eager to go to school than he is.

In fact, I’d take Gray’s analysis of schools a step further and say that many children’s homes have some similarities to prison, too. After all, what percentage of children are allowed to walk off their home’s property without an adult accompanying them? I’d say this number is much less than 50%, and has declined sharply in the last few decades.

Of course, the big difference between imprisonment for adults and for children is that adults are capable of surviving independently, while children start out life being completely incapable of surviving on their own. Parents do have very important responsibilities to their children, and in carrying out many of these responsibilities, they must necessarily curtail their children’s freedom – i.e. imprison them, so to speak.

So, yes, some amount of imprisonment is necessary for children, but too much can have two deleterious outcomes: 1) it can inhibit their development into competent, confident adults, and 2) it can damage their senses of agency and self-esteem, and thus damage their emotional health.

This discussion brings up two interesting questions. First, what is the right amount of imprisonment for children, and how does this change as they get older? Second, at which places in their lives should children have relatively more freedom, and at which places should they have less?

I heartily agree with many child development experts like Peter Gray who argue that, in general, we give children too little freedom. Children learn by trying things out on their own, pushing boundaries, and taking real risks, and they don’t do these things when adults are hovering over them. They need to be allowed to fail, to make mistakes, and even to get skinned knees, as Wendy Mogel argues in The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee. It’s amazing how great the developmental advantages are of kids organizing their own pickup ball games versus organized sports. Even babies would benefit greatly from more freedom, as Allison Gopnik discusses so eloquently in her book, The Philosophical Baby.

The second question above, regarding in which places children should be given more freedom, has been discussed far less. I think this is tragic, because it has led to a lack of understanding of the different roles school and home should play in children’s lives.

School represents a relatively small proportion of a child’s waking hours, about 25%. However, its core responsibility of teaching academic skills is very important. Certainly, school can teach children other things like social skills, but teachers are trained first and foremost to impart academic knowledge, and they’re far more skilled at this than most parents. So, children spend a limited amount of time at school to be taught important, specific things by paid specialists who don’t know these children very well. Boy, if I were going to choose where to limit children’s freedom somewhat, that’s the place I’d start.

On the other hand, parents manage the other 75% of their children’s waking hours, their responsibility for their children is far broader than one or two academic subjects, and they remain intimately involved in their children’s lives always. So, they are in the best position to grant their children freedom, a little more at a time, year after year.

I’d trust a mom to figure out whether her 10-year-old son is ready to walk to a local market alone and buy some items, not a teacher who just met him a few months ago and sees him sitting at the same desk every day. I’d also trust the mom to teach her son a lesson if he comes home describing a problem he encountered at checkout.

So far, after two weeks of kindergarten, my son Nico hasn’t embraced his new school completely, but he’s not hating it, either. Some days, he says it’s good, and others, he doesn’t say much. Meanwhile, my wife and I have already noticed significant improvement in his reading ability. He wouldn’t have made this progress staying at home playing with his brothers and friends.

At home, he’s still playing like mad with his brothers and friends, and we’re keeping his afterschool schedule free of activities. Last week, he got a new cut on his arm from a minor trampoline accident in our back yard, and he and his brother Marco created two new games which they’ve been rushing home to play every day: “The Nature Game” in our front yard and a baseball / trampoline game in our back yard.

I’m happy with this balance in Nico’s life, as long as he doesn’t grow to totally hate school. We’ll see.

How about you? Are your kids getting the right mix of freedom and restriction at home?

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