Monday, June 17, 2013

Repost: Libertarian parenting

Creepy thing happened today.  I followed a link to one of my favorite posts on this blog, the one on libertarian parenting from February 2012.  Only the post was not there.  I looked every which way; it's just been deleted without a trace.

At first I thought the NSA did it because they don't like my dislike for authority.  On second thought, it's probably because it had a picture of Marko with no pants.  But I'd hate for the post to be lost for good, so I rustled it up on the Wayback Machine, and here it is.

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John and I are both fervent libertarians. We are willing to forgo most government "help" in order to get something we want more -- freedom. The prime directive of libertarianism, as I express it, is that we possess all rights that don't interfere with anyone else's rights. So I believe in your right to smoke, for instance, but not in your right to share your second-hand smoke with me.

So it's no wonder that we tend toward a more hands-off parenting style. Of course, children don't have exactly the same rights adults do. They have more right to be taken care of, and they do not have the right to harm themselves. In this way, I see us as keeping our son's body in trust for him for when he's older -- I'd like to deliver him a healthy body at 18. I can't do that if, in the name of "freedom," I let him get himself killed by a passing car. Obviously.
However, I would consider our family to be fairly libertarian in its governing style. Not anarchist, mind you! Anarchists don't believe in government at all. Libertarians believe in government, but believe that it should restrict its actions to defending individual rights and organizing things that could not be done individually, like the building of roads. In the same way, like I said the other day, John and I are the boss of our family. There is no question of that, and I think it's impossible to avoid being the boss of your kids at least in some ways. It's just that, as the leaders of our tiny "state," we decide not to legislate most stuff.

We have a bunch of hard-and-fast rules. No hitting. No destroying property. No really unsafe stuff, like standing on our bed. All of these are rules we had to make for the common good. But rules like "say please" or "wear clothes in the house" or "play with the toys this way, not that way" just don't make much sense to me. I'm just not interested in micromanaging my kid. And I'm not convinced that two years old is the time to "civilize" him into a miniature adult. As he grows older, he will pick this stuff up, but for now, he's kind of like a little chimp (I mean that in the nicest possible way) and I don't really mind him running a little bit wild.

I keep reading sciencey studies lately about parenting. They tend to say, "Attachment parents are stunting their children because they 'helicopter' around them and micromanage their lives." Every time I see that nonsense, I want to ask: what "attachment parents" are they talking to? Most of us are pretty laissez-faire, in my experience. We provide snuggles and food upon request, but we don't stop our kids from playing the way they want to.

The one thing most studies seem to agree on is that we shouldn't micromanage our kids. And that makes sense to me. For all the complaining I hear about "lax parenting" being the reason kids are "so bad nowadays," the universal trend in parenting over the past 50 years has not been laxity. It's been control. We in the modern world pay an unprecedented amount of attention to our kids -- not affection, mind you, but attention. No mother before 1900 ever thought it worth her while to time her child's feedings by a clock or keep a diary of bowel movements. They all just fed their children when they were hungry, picked them up when they cried, and when they were happy, they plopped them on the floor or in a sling and ignored them. At night, there was no way they were going to lie awake all night listening to their child "cry it out" in a one-room cabin or yurt. That kid went right in bed with them, and nobody kept track of how many times it woke up.

Once a child was older, they'd give it a few simple toys and let it go. By four or five, kids didn't really need much, and would play in the yard all day. A few years later, and they'd roam far and wide, just messin' around, being kids. Think of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Tom Sawyer. They weren't constantly getting schlepped from one structured extra-curricular to another. They just took off. When they were with their parents, they had to learn to work. Once they'd done their work, they just played. Their parents didn't make up their games for them.

This is one of an excellent series of articles on child psychology. The author, Peter Gray, is my new hero lately. He gives a survey of child raising among hunter-gatherer cultures which I find just fascinating. In every one of these cultures, children spent most of their time in a big gang of other children, either unsupervised or at least without adult interference. The rest of the time, they spent watching adults and joining in adult work.

Today, parents spend a lot more time supervising and organizing their children's play, adjusting (whether through reasoning or punishments) social behavior, and doing "learning activities" than ever before. When I go to the library, I usually plant myself in a comfortable spot in the children's area and open a book. Some parents do the same. Others feel the need to sit down on the floor with their children, show them how the puzzles work, put letter chains together for them, and so on. Now I do keep an eye on my kid, and intervene if he starts smacking somebody or knocking over their block towers. But I see no reason to show him how to play with the puzzles. Either he'll figure it out ... or he'll make a new game from the same pieces. Either is fine with me. 
I admit that what they say about discipline is true: parents in the "old days" (say, 1850-1950 -- I can't speak for earlier, because I'm not an expert) did beat their children. But they weren't shadowing their toddlers around the house, smacking them a dozen times a day. No, the stories I hear are about older kids who are pretty independent and know the rules. Laura Ingalls' grandpa, for instance, gets whipped for going sledding on the Sabbath. Not for leaving the house, grabbing a sled, and sledding without telling anyone -- they did that all the time. Just for doing it on the Sabbath. Laura herself is free to wander wherever she wants around Plum Creek -- except by the creek itself, because she could drown. Her parents don't watch her, because they trust her. (I believe she is six or seven.) When she disobeys and goes in the creek, she gets the ultimate punishment: she has to stay in sight of home.

Gee, if that's punishment, most kids under 16 are getting punished every day!

And the idea of drilling your kids for future success was absolutely unheard of before the modern age. I can't really account for it, though I'm sure there are a lot of reasons -- fear of children not being able to get a job when they grow up if they aren't smarter than all the other kids, advertising, having fewer kids to focus on, guilt from various causes, etc. In any event, it's now not too unusual to have parents doing "Your Baby Can Read" or "Baby Einstein" with their children in the hopes of making them smarter. I once slogged through hundreds of comments about the former program, most of them from moms who used it. They swore up and down that not only could their babies read, they were smarter than any other baby ever -- read sooner, counted sooner, read bigger books, etc.

I wasn't raised like this, so I was shocked when I started my first job. I was a nanny, but I was supposed to do some tutoring too. The children were four-year-old twins. "I want you to do pre-literacy work with them," the mom said, "because they'll be starting kindergarten in a year and I don't want them to start out behind the other kids." Now I learned to read at four, because I happened to want to. But even so, my eyes kind of bugged out. Flash cards? At four? What the heck does your class rank matter in kindergarten?

Back to me, and my libertarian parenting style. I've always tried to meet Marko's needs, as he expresses them. When he was tiny, I mostly left him on a blanket on the floor as long as he was happy -- which he would be for an hour at a time, as long as I looked at him often. When he made a peep, I'd pick him up and feed him. (Yes, up to about three months old he was a ridiculously easy baby. The next baby, easy or not, is getting more sling time, because I'm on the go more now.) Now it's about the same, except he does more and wants more. He plays by himself, glances up at me or talks to me to check in with me, and periodically comes over for lap time, a drink, a snack, whatever. When he's not feeling so independent, he likes to be read to. I usually do say yes, but at the same time, I try to encourage him to play instead if he's willing.

He does require kind of a lot of attention on most days. He gets bored with his toys, or he makes a mess, or whatever. But if the weather is good, we go outside, and seriously, he wants for nothing. Today he played in the dirt for a solid hour without needing me for anything. I roamed around the yard, picking up sticks and raking, and he just stayed there, squatting in the dirt, running it through his fingers and pushing it into piles.

I got to thinking that a child is like a plant. I can't grow potted plants to save my life. They need so much attention indoors! They need to be watered all the time, they never get enough sun, and even if you do everything right they get sometimes get wilty. But the plants outside are no trouble at all. Marko's the same. Take him outdoors and let him go, with or without the dog, and he'll run around all day with no complaints.

My goal, I guess, is to give him as much of that as I can. Freedom to explore, room to play, and as little interference as possible. Yes, that does mean sometimes he's doing that exploration stark naked. (Outdoors, I do require him to wear a shirt, and pants and shoes too if it's under 60 or so. Please do not report me to CPS.) Sometimes he doesn't want to come in and eat, so I let him wander around with pieces of cheese or roast beef. Sometimes a bit of dirt ends up in his mouth. He's happy, and I'm happy.

The one thing he does enjoy doing with me is work. He will happily sit on the counter and work the faucet while I do dishes, or help me sponge down the cabinets, or clean up spills on the floor with a rag. He loves to fetch things for me, or put things where I ask him to put them. This is one area where what I believe is the "right thing" isn't the easy thing. It's usually easier to do the work myself. But his instincts demand to learn to do what the adults are doing, and I have to respond to this if I want him to learn to be an adult. So I try to do at least some chores with him every day. If ever he isn't interested, I don't push it, but he's almost always interested.

I hope school will be like this. School is the biggest enemy to libertarian parenting I know of. One day the child is playing in the dirt naked -- the next day he's shoved into "appropriate attire" and forced to sit still all day while information in which he is not interested gets shoveled into his head. It would be impossible to let everyone in a classroom have free choice about anything. (Though even as a teacher, I tried not to micromanage. Once a parent asked me, "My son always tries to do his homework while he's sprawling all over the floor instead of sitting up in a chair. What should I do?" I just couldn't fathom why this was a problem. Wasn't he doing his homework? So, despite the wishes of some of the parents, I did not try to stop their children from fidgeting in my class. It wouldn't have worked anyway.)

But if school is more like, "Hey, you were interested in that one plant, let's go find a book about it," or, "Here is your patch of dirt, what would you like to plant here?" or "I have paper and markers, do you want to write and illustrate a story?" ... well, that I could get behind. I am prepared to do what I'm doing now -- negotiate on all the negotiables. Can we have school outside? Yes! Can we have a day off when we're tired? Sure! Can we go to the fabric store and figure out prices per yard, and call that math? Why the heck not!

But then there's that one, undying, constant objection: how will the children learn they're not in charge unless you're always bossing them around? How will they learn self-discipline if they aren't doing any schoolwork that doesn't interest them? In short, am I setting them up for a lifetime of disappointment because the rest of the world isn't as accommodating as I am?

The short answer: I don't know for sure. I am pretty sure my son knows I'm the boss because I force him into his pajamas at night, force him out of them in the morning to get at his wet diaper, buckle him into his carseat ... and because there is no story-reading, no snacktime, no lap-sitting, no library trips, unless I say so, and I don't always say yes. He already deals with disappointment and frustrated desires at least a half-dozen times a day. Sometimes there are tears. He's learning that he does not control the world.
Meanwhile, I think he learns self-discipline better if I'm not always doing the job for him. I don't force him or threaten him very much; however, he has to sacrifice what he wants sometimes to reach a higher goal. Yesterday, he wanted to go outside. I told him, "Yes, but you will have to put clothes on." "No!" I collected the clothes and sat back down. Periodically, he would come up to me and say, "Outside?" "If you let me put your clothes on." "No!" He'd run away and go play with something else. About the fifth time, half an hour later, he walked up to me and said, "Ready for clothes." And he quietly let me put them on before charging outside. There were no tears. There was no force. He just realized that to get what he wanted, he had to put up with something he didn't want. I let him come to that decision on his own, because I had nowhere to be, and I had the time to let him work through it.

It's moments like that where I really feel this whole thing is going to be a success. Sometimes, the common good comes first, and he has to get wrestled into church clothes whether he wants to go or not. But when I am working on "training" him, when I have time to do what is actually best for him, giving him freedom seems to be working okay.

Am I totally off my nut here? I am beginning to feel like I sound a little ... out there. I'd love to hear if anyone agrees with me.

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