Who ruined childhood?

Schools Are Ruining Our Kids, writes A.A. Gill in Vanity Fair. Gill has raised one set of children and has a second set just starting school.

In the 100 years since we really got serious about education as a universally good idea, we’ve managed to take the 15 years of children’s lives that should be the most carefree, inquisitive, and memorable and fill them with a motley collection of stress and a neurotic fear of failure. Education is a dress-up box of good intentions, swivel-eyed utopianism, cruel competition, guilt, snobbery, wish fulfillment, special pleading, government intervention, bu­reauc­racy, and social engineering.

Gill blames “the byzantine demands of the education-industrial complex,” but it’s really competitive parents who demand preschool put their kiddies on track for the Ivy League.

Over-achieving Hillary Clinton smugly told us that it took a village to bring up a child. Oh my God. If only. If all it took were some happy, thatched, smocked village, we’d all have bought villages, have bought 10 villages—we’d have adopted a village. But no dusty, higgledy-piggledy, clucking, mooing, sleepy-town hamlet is going to get you into the only pre-school that is the feeder for that other school that is the fast track to the only school that is going to give your child half a chance of getting into that university that will lead to a life worth living.

Oh no, we need far more than the village. We need au pairs who speak three languages and musical nannies and special tutors and counselors and professional athletes with knee problems to coach hand-eye coordination.

Outside of the wealthier parts of Manhattan, how many parents can afford to buy villages worth of nannies, tutors, coaches and counselors? Are parents really so obsessed with their children’s “success” that they forget about happiness?


Just in time for my 60th birthday, my Highland Park, Illinois classmates created a Facebook nostalgia site. One of our former teachers is on there too. I’ve been wallowing in memories.

In elementary school, we walked home for lunch at noon and came back at 1:15 for another two hours. The lucky ones at Ravinia could go to Shelton’s, a nearby diner that everyone remembers. We had gym every day with Mr. Dewey who started us off with military drill: Attention! Right face! Left face! At ease! Once a year, Dr. Zipper and his orchestra performed a concert in the gym. According to rumor, the Nazis had broken his fingers for spite, turning him from a pianist to a conductor. This gave him great cachet. (It’s not in his bio, though he was imprisoned in Dachau for a year and, after fleeing to the Philippines, imprisoned by the Japanese. Lived to 92.)

All the Edgewood alums remember pushing chairs off the risers in music class. We’d persuaded the teacher that “sympathetic vibrations” from the music were causing chairs to jump spontaneously. Or perhaps there was a fault beneath the school and the building was settling. Even when a chair was pushed off with a girl still in it, our veteran teacher, didn’t suspect human agency. She also didn’t realize that sending miscreants to the supply room wasn’t a punishment. They climbed out the window and up on the roof, where they lounged for the rest of the period.

Fifteen years after I earned my diploma, Highland Park High was included in The Good High School, by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard education professor. I was surprised to learn that administrators described our involved, education-valuing parents as pushy.

The latest thread recalls that people didn’t lock their homes in Highland Park. We didn’t think it was necessary.

Our parents — nearly all of us had two — had moved to the suburbs “for the sake of the children.” It was a very secure world in the ’50s and early ’60s.


Mom’s in the kitchen, all’s right with the world

Economist Paul Krugman’s vision of Paradise lost is the middle-class suburb where he grew up in the ’50s and early ’60s, notes a New York Times Magazine profile.

“All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.”

If service workers were unionized, Krugman says, we might return to that broad prosperity.

Jim Manzi, who grew up in a small town a few years later than Krugman, recalls the “almost unbearable sweetness of this kind of American childhood.”

The safety and freedom that Krugman describe are rare now even for the wealthiest Americans – by age 9, I would typically leave the house on a Saturday morning on my bike, tell my parents I was “going out to play,” and not return until dinner; at age 10, would go down to the ocean to swim with friends without supervision all day; and at age 11 would play flashlight tag across dozens of yards for hours after dark. And the sense of equality was real, too. Some people definitely had bigger houses and more things than others, but our lives were remarkably similar. We all went to the same schools together, played on the same teams together, and watched the same TV shows.

Krugman sees that exceptional moment in time “as primarily the product of policies like unionization, entitlements and high taxes,” writes Manzi, who sees it as the product of lucky circumstance.

Megan McArdle, who’s younger and grew up in Manhattan, sees something else: In the Good Old Days, mothers are home.

Families only need one car because Mom, who doesn’t herself work, is available to drive Dad to work every morning before she heads to the grocery store. And the kids can play unsupervised because, of course, in this neighborhood–in all neighborhoods–there is a network of constantly watching eyes. Meanwhile, the poor people and minorities are somewhere comfortably distant . . .

“The income gains of the 1950s and 1960s were real,” she writes. But the suburbs Manzi and Krugman remember were  “completely dependent on other forms of inequality: of the ability to move away from social problems, which is harder now; of generations of women whose sole destiny was the kitchen”

Steve Sailer’s Pussycat Mother had plenty of time for volunteer work, he responds. Middle-class parents could afford a home on one salary in the idyllic San Fernando Valley. There was no need to pay private-school tuition, no reason for Mom to chauffeur the kids to “high-end after-school resume fillers” so they can get into top colleges. Sailer got into UCLA without all that.

Biking all over town, playing on our own, cutting across the neighbors’ yards to get to the park, wives picking up husbands at the train station in the evening, Mom at home, except when volunteering . . . Me too.

Lost wilderness of childhood

Michael Chabon mourns the loss of The Wilderness of Childhood in the New York Review of Books.

A striking feature of literature for children is the number of stories, many of them classics of the genre, that feature the adventures of a child, more often a group of children, acting in a world where adults, particularly parents, are completely or effectively out of the picture. Think of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Railway Children, or Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy presents a chilling version of this world in its depiction of Cittàgazze, a city whose adults have all been stolen away. Then there is the very rich vein of children’s literature featuring ordinary contemporary children navigating and adventuring through a contemporary, nonfantastical world that is nonetheless beyond the direct influence of adults, at least some of the time. I’m thinking of the Encyclopedia Brown books, the Great Brain books, the Henry Reed and Homer Price books, the stories of the Mad Scientists’ Club, a fair share of the early works of Beverly Cleary.

As a kid, I was extremely fond of a series of biographies, largely fictional, I’m sure, that dramatized the lives of famous Americans—Washington, Jefferson, Kit Carson, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Daniel Boone—when they were children. (Boys, for the most part, though I do remember reading one about Clara Barton.) One element that was almost universal in these stories was the vast amounts of time the famous historical boys were alleged to have spent wandering with bosom companions, with friendly Indian boys or a devoted slave, through the once-mighty wilderness, the Wilderness of Childhood, entirely free of adult supervision.

Yes! The Little Orange Books (Childhood of Famous Americans series). I loved it. And I loved exactly what Chabon is talking about. For the most part, the kids were on their own.

I grew up in boring suburbia with two (two!) parents. I thought it was incredibly unadventurous, so I escaped to fiction. But compared to the safety-first way kids are raised now, we were bold wayfarers.

Chabon wonders if children’s imaginations can develop in a parent-protected bubble. His daughter learned to ride a bicycle, but isn’t allowed to ride anywhere on her own. And when she ventures out (with dad tagging behind), they meet no other children.

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted — not taught — to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

It will be boring.

Via Stuart Buck.

The latest Harry Potter movie is under attack from nannies who disapprove of the young wizards drinking “butterbeer,” mead and a “liquid luck” potion.