Saturday, September 19, 2009

free-range kids?

Will we ever learn?

Jon Haidt scorns the old, long-rejected behaviorist dogma that "Unconditional love-- holding, nuzzling, and cuddling children for no reason... was the surest way to make [them] lazy, spoiled, and weak... John Watson wrote of his dream that one day babies would be raised in baby farms, away from the corrupting influences of parents. But until that day arrived, parents were urged to use behaviorist techniques to rear strong children: Don't pick them up when they cry, don't cuddle or coddle them, just dole out benefits and punishments for each good and bad action." (Happiness Hypothesis ch.6)

Might as well throw them to the wolves.

Recently, more humane voices had squelched the behaviorist din (and rescued infant organisms from the den): "children need love as well as milk," and touch, and secure, reliable, attached, nurturing parents who demonstrate no-strings affection.

But the hydra has been rearing its head again. One of its faces belongs to the ubiquitous Dr. Phil (no relation), who "tells us in his book Family First that what children need or enjoy should be offered contingently, turned into rewards to be doled out or withheld so they 'behave according to your wishes.' And 'one of the most powerful currencies for a child is the parents’ acceptance and approval.'"

And TV's Supernanny (or is it -ninny?) says, “The best rewards are attention, praise and love,” and these should be held back “when the child behaves badly until she says she is sorry,” at which point the love is turned back on.

I'm with Haidt on this one, and with Alfie Kohn when he writes that he'd be "glad to see less demand for skillful therapists if that meant more people were growing into adulthood having already felt unconditionally accepted." (Hap Hyp ch7)

Unconditional love doesn't mean total comfort and ease. The character-building benefits of (some) adversity in a child's life are evident and attractive, just as the squishy softness of privilege's children is repellent. I heard actor Wallace Shawn on Bob Edwards last Thursday, reading his autobiographical essay on the subject. Ick! (There's just something about the lives of New Yorker children... recalling Mr. Gill of Starbucks' fame).

But this new "free range" movement, letting small children walk (or ride the subway!) to school unaccompanied by a trusted adult? No. This is not Gilligan's Island, and we're supposed to be raising humans here. But yes, give them permission to eat a cookie without calling. That seems safe enough.

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