Three Boys and a Hole in a Fence

by Daniel A. Kaufman

These last few days, I have been in NY – Long Island to be precise – staying with my mother, while my father is traveling.  This has become something of a ritual.  My parents are elderly – my father will be ninety in June and my mother just turned eighty-six, last August – and have reacted very differently to their respective diminishing conditions.  My father, ever defiant, wants to do as much as he can, so long as he can, which means a seemingly never-ending series of tours around the country, promoting books he has written, on a wide variety of topics.  (After half a century as a businessman and entrepreneur, he has reinvented himself as an author.)  My mother, who has “had enough,” no longer wants anything to do with the responsibilities and chores associated with maintaining the house and household in which I grew up and she and my father still live and would like to move into a managed facility.  She stopped driving several years ago and is loath to travel, which means that she is periodically left alone and effectively helpless.  So, every time my father goes on one of his trips, I come to Long Island to take care of my mother and keep her company.

Just two days ago, we were grocery shopping, when I saw something that struck me.  The grocery store is in a small shopping center that sits right behind my old junior high school (now a so-called “middle school,” in which sixth graders have been added to the mix of seventh and eighth graders that once comprised the entire student body).  It was Friday, around noon, and as we were loading the car with the groceries we had just bought, I saw three boys, no older than eleven or twelve, push through a hole in the fence separating the shopping center from the school grounds, and make their way to the pizzeria that is right next to the grocery store.

Either that hole in the fence has been there since I was in junior high, thirty-seven years ago, or successive generations of eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds have re-opened it.  My friends and I also would leave school through that hole to go to lunch, but in 1980 the place wasn’t a pizzeria, but Andel’s Kosher Delicatessen, where we would shove our faces full of Hebrew National hot dogs, potato knishes, and half-sour pickles, washing it all down with Dr. Brown’s cherry, cream, or celery soda.  God, do I miss that place … and that time.

It’s no secret that I’ve been rather down on the world lately and especially the world of young people, which is as shitty as its been, since the days when teachers and administrators were allowed to whack students with rulers and other assorted disciplinary implements.  Seeing these boys and their brazen act of juvenile delinquency gave me a sudden, wild rush of hope, for it seemed to indicate several things, all of which strike me as good. For one thing, it meant either that school security was incompetent enough for kids to find a way around it or that administrators didn’t care enough about making pubescence even more miserable than it already is to enforce the rules too strictly.  (Kids that young are not permitted to leave campus today, nor were they when I was in junior high.) For another, it indicated that at least some eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds have enough guts to try and escape for lunch, not to mention the brains to figure out how to do it.  And finally, it meant that there is a pizzeria owner cool enough to sell a few slices and drinks to three kids, in the middle of a school day, rather than be a fucking dick and report them to the Principal or worse, the police.

Of course, this is New York and particularly, the North Shore of Long Island; the “Gold Coast”; Gatsby country; land of the Vanderbilts, Fricks, and Roosevelts.  Sagamore Hill is a fifteen minute drive from our family house.  Our public library dates back to and is named after William Cullen Bryant, who is buried nearby.  In short, not your typical place, though in a certain way, quintessentially American.  My high school is just down the road from the junior high (I’m sorry, I just can’t say “middle school” again), and as my mother and I drove home, I watched teenagers streaming from the back steps to the various eateries within walking distance.  Mine is one of a handful of high schools left in the country that still has an open campus, all of which seem to be clustered either on Long Island or in California

Regrettably, my wife, daughter and I don’t live in California or on Long Island, but in southern Missouri, and the public schools my daughter has attended have all been essentially variations on prison. The rules are many and ruthlessly enforced, with zero tolerance.  Police have offices on campus – usually right next to the Principal’s office – and are employed in matters of ordinary discipline, in a way that would be unthinkable back in my day, something to which kids are acclimated at a very young age.  Police stand outside the doors of the city’s elementary schools every morning, “greeting” the students, so they will come to accept being under constant warrantless surveillance, as a matter of course.  Cameras are everywhere, and punishments are severe to the point of a wild lack of proportion: my daughter once received detention for failing to bring colored pencils for an in-class activity.  No, that’s not a joke.

The result is that there are essentially two types of young people here: the meek, obedient, pathologically apologetic and those who are abject criminals.  Add a ubiquitous, noxious form of evangelical Christianity to the mix, which inculcates in everyone the view that guilt and shame are endemic and inescapable, and you have a recipe for listlessness, low ambition, and resignation, on the one  hand, and a shocking level of self-destructiveness on the other.  Thank goodness we are part of a tiny Jewish sub-community and virtually everyone in our inner-circle originally hails from New York, Chicago, or LA, which means that none of my daughter’s closest friends have been raised in the local ethos.  We also spend virtually every summer traveling, from New York to Miami to Rome to Tel Aviv, so our  daughter has never developed the idea that local mores and practices are in any way normal or representative of anything beyond the American lower-Midwest and South.

Of course, one way in which these areas are normal and representative is in terms of the schools and how youth are treated more generally, and the majority of American young people attend schools like my daughter’s and not like those on the North Shore of Long Island, past or present.  It is a catastrophic development, the effects of which are evident in the late teens and early twenty-somethings who populate my classes in the hundreds, semester after semester.  Beyond their disturbing emotional fragility, which is well-documented and is the reason for all the “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and the like that we keep hearing about – indeed, there now is an entire industry, whose sole purpose is to consult with companies on how to manage Millennials in a work environment, given their brittleness – they exhibit an almost endemic discomfort with their own autonomy.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has suggested that this is due to significant changes in child-rearing practices (by which he means both parenting and schooling) that developed right around 1980, which is the cutoff point between the Millennials and Generation X. (1) For those raised prior to 1980 – I was born in 1968 – spending large amounts of time engaged in non-structured, un-supervised activity, often away from home, was the norm even for young children, and not only would the idea that police should be permanently encamped in ordinary suburban high schools never have occurred to anyone, the absence of advanced surveillance technology meant that it was possible to get away with petty rule-infractions like skipping class or smoking behind the building, without having a SWAT team descend upon you.  Hence the 1980’s teen archetype of the clever, slick machinator, immortalized in John Hughes’ immensely popular movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Such kids barely exist today – our entire system of child development, including our philosophy of schooling, is designed to prevent it – and it’s no wonder that the John Hughes brand of teen film has almost entirely disappeared.  What teenager today could possibly pull off the sort of suspension of disbelief necessary to go on the ride with Ferris Bueller, insofar as one cannot imagine any student being able even to get out of his or her high school, let alone spend a day all over town, without being snatched up by some adult authority?  If made today, it would be Ferris Bueller’s Day in San Quentin, with a running time of about fifteen minutes.

What simultaneously mystifies and infuriates me is that this regime has been put in place by the two generations who enjoyed the most free, least supervised, most independent childhoods of anyone in the last century: the Baby Boomers and Generation X. Haidt explains this in terms of a national panic, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, induced by a handful of child abduction cases and the magnifying effects of the 24/7 news cycle that came with the advent of cable television, but while this may provide an explanation of our current model of child rearing, it serves as no excuse for it.  We should know better, if only from our own goddamned experience, and I sometimes wonder what sorts of adults we think we are going to produce this way and how we would expect them to run anything, let alone a country as large and complex and demanding as the United States. But then I stop myself, realizing that we are all so myopic and self-absorbed that it is quite unlikely that anyone is thinking that far ahead.

Notes

  1. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

42 Comments »

  1. Gosh, such a delightful essay that raises such deep issues. The childhood issues require much thought but, for now, I just want to remark how much I admire your father’s sheer gumption, to which I will add a note of sadness for your mother’s frailty. The most important message that comes through is the way you care for your parents. I admire that. I hope the younger generations will turn out the same way. It is not a given.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My mother’s frailty, alas, is almost entirely in her head. Still, it has the same effect.

    Thanks for your kind words. As always, it is a pleasure to have you as a reader and friend.

    Like

  3. Police stationed in a high school sounds horrible, another reason to be glad I live in Australia.

    Still we are in a somewhat similar position in that parents are disinclined to allow their children to simply go outside and wander as they please.

    When I was a kid we didn’t even have to crawl through a hole to get out at lunchtime, schoolkids were allowed to go as we pleased and strike as we pleased in those days.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Does such a system of raising children (I hesitate do use the word “education” here) produce people who have an authoritarian mindset? I am asking this question as an outsider (I am from and in Germany, and schools here are not the way you describe them, at least as far as I could observe during the school days of my daughter (she just finished school this year)). Does this contribute to such phenomena as people voting for somebody like Mr. T,, the current POTUS? (How) can democracy survive if young people are brought up this way?

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  5. One thing that strikes me is how being bullied, once considered a regrettable, but normal evil of growing up, is now seen as a serious social ill. I recall being bullied, talking to my parents and being instructed to fight back, which I did. Today if a kid is bullied, his or her parents are likely to call for a SWAT team to escort him or her to school and to demand that the bully be treated as an enemy combatant.

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  6. Robin.
    Still we are in a somewhat similar position in that parents are disinclined to allow their children to simply go outside and wander as they please.

    This is an ancient concern as the story of Little Red Riding Hood illustrates so graphically,

    Liked by 1 person

  7. s.wallerstein,
    One thing that strikes me is how being bullied, once considered a regrettable, but normal evil of growing up

    Being bullied is the most seriously miserable, detestable experience that one can imagine. Bullying is a serious social ill and the bullied deserve every possible protection.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Labnut,

    I write as someone who was bullied, not as a bully. I recall in high school one of the so-called hoody kids would push me every time he saw me. Finally, a wave of anger seized me, I grabbed him by the shirt and began to bang his head against the wall. One of the black kids, who no one else dared to bully and who were so tough that they didn’t even bother to bully a wimp like me,
    broke it up finally. After that, no one ever bothered me.

    What can I say? The human animal is a cruel one and we have to learn that sooner or later. If you go to school where no one bullies anyone else, you’ll learn about cruelty during your first job, maybe not physical cruelty but the cruelty of those who compete with you or your boss. Take the subway, and surely, you’ll see how people push each other around.

    I don’t see that any amount of moralizing is going to remove the element of cruelty from human nature. Obviously, the more serious forms of cruelty should be dealt with by the police, but outside of some 1984 type world where the police watch and punish everything that strays from the norm, I don’t see any alternative to learning to live with petty forms of evil like bullying.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dan K, “it’s no wonder that the John Hughes brand of teen film has almost entirely disappeared.” Funny, even though I enjoyed most of Hughes’s stuff as commercial entertainment, I always imagined that Ferris became Gordon Gekko. 🙂 My favorite characters in the movie were played by Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Gray. Hughes best film for me is ” Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” mostly because of Martin and Candy’s performances, though it skirts being maudlin at the end.

    Otherwise, I find this OP to be an excellently written memoir of sorts, though perhaps by necessity of format limited in scope. I like your metaphor of the “hole in the fence,” but have to admit to being clueless as to whether it supports any insightful depiction of generational strengths and weaknesses, i.e., it works as memoir, not so much as a critique of Millennials, their “brittleness” and autonomous shortcomings.

    In contrast, I’m told I’m a member of the first Boomers, being born in January 1946. My school experiences are not unlike yours in terms of accidental matters of socio-economic stratification, despite the temporal and actual distance of nawlens and longeyeland. My early film experiences then were decidedly uncomedic, for example, “The Blackboard Jungle” or “Rebel without a Cause,” “West Side Story,” and the overrated “To Sir, With Love.”

    Lest you truly believe you are in some wasteland in Springfield, let me point out that at least there will be a showing this November of “Jane.” Not so yet in New Orleans. BTW, should you be headed this way in the future, please give me a call. I’d love to see you and will do my best to show you around. New Orleans has lots of fences with holes in them.

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  10. “The result is that there are essentially two types of young people here: the meek, obedient, pathologically apologetic and those who are abject criminals. Add a ubiquitous, noxious form of evangelical Christianity to the mix, which inculcates in everyone the view that guilt and shame are endemic and inescapable, and you have a recipe for listlessness, low ambition, and resignation, on the one hand, and a shocking level of self-destructiveness on the other.”

    Came here from bloggingheads. Could you say more about how that type of evangelical Christianity causes resignation and listlessness? I don’t see how guilt would cause that. I could see how the hope of everlasting life in the world to come could cause someone to resign himself to this world, but what does that have to do with guilt and shame? Anyway, I really liked reading this.

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  11. I actually am a teacher in one of these modern day high schools and some of this rings true, but other parts of it do not. Bullies have not been slowed down. It is less physical than it once was, but that just means that the explosive “I’veHadEnough” moment has been taken off the table and the bullies are able to wage a longer-term, more psychological campaign in which the potential of violence looms and the sense of vulnerability deepens.

    The police are present in my school, cameras are everywhere, and no, kids don’t really get up to hijinks. They just tune out, live in their phones, and ramp up their verbal game. I literally hear the “N-word” and the “F-bomb” a hundred times a day, mostly between classes, but not exclusively. That is their rebellion, the one thing we can’t touch because if we tried it would be like trying to keep back the ocean.

    You never see a kid with a book. And the librarian has gotten the message and when school began this year, she sought to convince us all (the teachers) that Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter were reading too.

    Lunch is 30 minutes. Even should they want to sneak away, and some do, there is no way they are going to do so without missing some class somewhere. So, they cram down whatever they have, or just buy hot chips from one of the many fund raisers and don’t have time to talk with their friends, develop relationships, or discuss anything important.

    It is all a far cry from my days going to school in the late 1980s. Guns were in the gunracks of student pickups. Lunch was an hour and if you had a car, you could get out and make it back. The stoners hung out in the west parking lot, everyone knew, nobody much cared so long as they only smoked cigarettes while they were at school. We had textbooks and lockers and homework, three things that are no longer in school. We didn’t have phones and if anyone got a phone call in the middle of the day, it wasn’t good. I never heard the N-word and rarely heard the other curse words. And I sat with friends my first couple of years until they graduated and left me alone with my paperback, which was just fine by me.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. s.wallerstein
    … write as someone who was bullied, not as a bully. … After that, no one ever bothered me.

    You are so lucky.

    People have different experiences of bullying. Some, unlike you, endure years of the most awful physical and emotional bullying. They are often small, weed-like wimps with no chance of fighting back and zero chance of winning the fight. Worse still, no-one bothers to defend them. They are stuck in a paralysing hell of hopelessness.

    What can I say? The human animal is a cruel one and we have to learn that sooner or later.

    But why must some learn that through the experience of terrible cruelty? We should be restraining and taming human cruelty, not justifying it by looking the other way with self-congratulatory statements.

    I don’t see that any amount of moralizing is going to remove the element of cruelty from human nature.

    No one is suggesting “any amount of moralizing and no one is suggesting “remov[ing] the element of cruelty from human nature” “.

    I don’t see any alternative to learning to live with petty forms of evil like bullying.

    Failure of imagination. As it happens there are solutions that go beyond “any amount of moralizing.

    You should ask the victims if they think these are “petty forms of evil“. You might get a very different reply.

    Now here is the problem, and it is worth considering very seriously:

    1) the victim bears emotional scars that taint the rest of his/her life.
    Do we not feel great sorrow for such people?

    2) for every victim there are a great number of onlookers.
    They are learning that bullying is a successful strategy.

    3) witnessing bullying that is not stopped normalises it.
    They also learn that it is an acceptable strategy.

    4) their sense of empathy and compassion becomes lessened.
    They are learning to stop feeling for the victims.

    5) the normalising of bullying later enables it when the witnesses acquire positions of power.
    Having learnt that it is a successful and acceptable strategy, and having learnt to feel less for the victims, they quickly adopt it when they acquire power.

    6) thus bullying becomes endemic in every unequal position of power:
    – boss – employee relationship.
    – master – servant relationship.
    – husband – wife relationship.
    and many more.

    7) sexual harassment is a form of bullying.

    8) paedophilia is a particularly perverse manifestation of a bullying mentality.

    9) in its most extreme form it becomes genocide.

    Finally I must ask,
    Where is our empathy and sense of compassion for the victims of bullying?
    Where is our sense of fairness and justice?
    Should we not feel for the weak and powerless?
    Should we not desire to protect them?
    Where is our sense of shame that we stand by and do nothing?
    Do we not become better, nobler people when we fight to protect the weak and powerless?

    Yes, I feel strongly because I have seen the great harm done by bullying.
    I have seen a healthy, strong young man commit suicide because he was subjected to intolerable bullying in the workplace.
    The heavens cry in outrage against this terrible injustice.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. You mean my alma maters of Sunshine School and Jarrett Junior High School are as you describe the local schools? I went with friends to diners and corner groceries near both with the full knowledge of the school authorities. (Years 1949-53 snd 1955-57)

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  14. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been confused by some of the themes evident here, and this greatly improves my understanding.

    My sons grew up in a similar environment, but I got them involved in Scouting at an early age. On my youngest son’s first backpacking trip, I was shouted down by one of the senior scouts, “Stop worrying about him. He’s not a Cub Scout any more!”

    OK.

    I also learned, years later, that while he was playing Minecraft every night he had developed a psychological support group of twenty-somethings all around the world (Germany, Canada, Australia, etc.).

    It was a positive influence on his life, but so much social interaction is now in cyberspace, and totally unmonitored. They may be brittle because they are off on their own “Lord of the Flies” adventure. My son had to cultivate the opportunity to be invited onto servers with people that respected creativity – on many of the public servers, the game play is corrupted by roving bands of raiders.

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  15. I don’t deny that some of the boundaries here are tricky to navigate. Virtually all of the things I’ve described are justified by broad appeals to considerations of the safety and well-being of children. Now, surely, there *are* things from which children and young people need to be protected; which it would be a mistake to expect them to handle on their own. But there are also things on the other side; things with regard to which we do young people no favors by protecting them and even undermine their capacity to develop as independent, autonomous adults. In my view, we’ve moved much too far in the latter direction, with every acknowledgment that nonetheless, things remain on the first side of things.

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  16. The novel, Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes, has had a far reaching effect on the popular conception of bullying and modern attitudes are traceable to this book. Tom Brown is mercilessly bullied until one day he turns on his bully, Flashman, and triumphs. Later he helps Arthur, a new boy who is being bullied.

    It is a noble story that has shaped generations of Englishmen, but it is wrong.

    1) Bullies are usually bigger and stronger. They usually win. Challenging the bully is a ticket to punishment and humiliation.
    2) It places the blame on the victim for being a victim. This is so iniquitous. The blame always belongs with the bully.
    3) It inculcates the myth that there are generous, noble-hearted people who will come to your defence. That seldom happens because the victims of bullying are usually disliked, social outcasts. Bullies are smart and know well who they can target with impunity.

    So who cares if the weakling nerd, the misfit or the social outcast, has a rough time? He should toughen up and learn to look after himself, we whisper under out breath. After all it is a cruel world and we have to learn to look after ourselves. Right?

    Apart from being an unbelievably callous attitude, it comes with a host of unintended and unanticipated consequences. I listed them in my previous comment. Bullying is witnessed by many people and shapes their attitudes. These people go into adult life and many acquire power over others to discover for themselves the pleasure of bullying. After all power is not rewarding unless it is used. Consequently schoolyard bullying has a large multiplicative effect as its reach is extended into adult life. This is where the real evil of bullying is experienced.

    I have won fights against bullies but I have lost more fights against bullies. The memories are painful. My best memory is also my worst memory. I went to the defence of someone who was being bullied and was savagely beaten up by the large, strong and fit bully. That was my worst memory. It became my best memory because I did what I should do, no matter what the cost. If I had failed to act the shame of my cowardice would have made this a shameful memory. As it is, I turned it into a glorious memory of courage and I did, in short order, recover from my injuries.

    And this is the answer to bullying. Bullying takes place out of sight of authority figures, for good reason. Institutional measures will not protect the victim. Only we, the victim’s peers, can protect the victim. Consequently we need to develop an ethos of coming to the aid of the victims of bullying. This will stop bullying in its tracks. This won’t be easy, but I firmly believe it can be done if we really want to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Labnut,

    I agree with you when you say “only we, the victim’s peers can protect the victim”. I’m not so sure, however, that well-intentioned adults can help in the same way.

    The problem is one that you mention above, that victims of bullying are often social outcasts and thus, their peers don’t care much about the fact that they are being bullied.

    If we could learn to care about social outcasts, the world would be a better and very different place.

    I say that as someone who has generally been a social outcast or heretic, but I confess that at times when I’ve been socially accepted or even “in”, I’ve done nothing when bullies attacked other social outcasts, either verbally or physically.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned solidarity with social outcasts in general, but it took me a long while to learn that. Let’s hope that the rest of humanity are faster learners than I was.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. We should certainly help our peers who are bullied, but in schools there should be an institutionsl response to it and someone thst bullied children or their parents can approach.

    Just not a police presence.

    It drives me crazy when there is a kid who is bullying multiple children and this is well attested but the school won’t take action.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. > What simultaneously mystifies and infuriates me is that this regime has been put in place by the two generations who enjoyed the most free, least supervised, most independent childhoods of anyone in the last century: the Baby Boomers and Generation X.

    In his recent book, The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen argues that people in rich developed countries have become extremely risk averse. I would say this is part of that story.

    Another hypothesis: most of the people who had mostly unsupervised childhoods are not particularly fond of it, even though it might have benefitted them.

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  20. Really? I can’t think of a single person who would say, “I wish my parents wouldn’t have let me go down to the candy store on my bike” or “I wish my high school campus had been closed, so I couldn’t have gone out for lunch.”

    Liked by 2 people

  21. But you might find a lot of people who would say that they wished that their parents hadn’t insisted that they stand up to the neighborhood bullies by fighting back, instead of reporting the bully to the school authorities or calling the police.

    I’m sure that my parents’ insistence that I fight the bullies was well-intentioned (in terms of the 1950’s) and based on their conceptions of manhood and autonomy.

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  22. Yes, of course.

    And they weren’t entirely wrong. As I said in an earlier comment, there is a point beyond which I think it appropriate that children and young people be protected, but below which, one actually does them no favors by doing so.

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  23. > Really? I can’t think of a single person who would say, “I wish my parents wouldn’t have let me go down to the candy store on my bike” or “I wish my high school campus had been closed, so I couldn’t have gone out for lunch.”

    Some might have perceived the lack of supervision as parents not caring or they might have thought it was being done because mom and dad wanted to relieve themselves from the burdens of parenting.

    Also the people could think something along the lines of: “Jesus, that was so irresponsible, there was nobody around we were so lucky lots of horrible things could have happened to us.”

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  24. I like the metaphor of the hole in the fence. Some 20 yrs. ago we had a politician who argued that “the hole in the fence” – his words – is an essential part of a society in which it’s good to live. I thought, and still think, he was right.

    When I read your essay, I got an unpleasant and even frightening vision of people who are retreating from society. People who can’t handle its liberty, uncertainty, contradictions and real or imagined evils, people who rather prefer their children to live in the clarity and ruthlessness of authority.

    “My daughter once received detention for failing to bring colored pencils for an in-class activity.”

    I read this sentence aloud to my wife, who is a teacher. It left her speechless. In any decent school, the teacher would have made an appeal to the solidarity of your daughter’s classmates, and asked them to lend her the pencils she needed for the “in-class activity”.

    To be honest, I don’t understand. How is it possible that parents accept that “police have offices on campus – usually right next to the Principal’s office”? The brutality is overwhelming. What makes them think it’s acceptable that a school is turned into a war zone? What happened to them, what happened to the society they live in, what happened to the “American lower-Midwest and South”?

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  25. “Police have offices on campus – usually right next to the Principal’s office – and are employed in matters of ordinary discipline, in a way that would be unthinkable back in my day, something to which kids are acclimated at a very young age. Police stand outside the doors of the city’s elementary schools every morning, “greeting” the students, so they will come to accept being under constant warrantless surveillance, as a matter of course.”

    To me this is the most surprising point in this discussion. Police in schools? Every day, all day? Administering ordinary discipline? How widespread is this? Don’t the police themselves regard that role as demeaning of them? Do the major parties accept this policy?

    Liked by 1 person

  26. I wish the police were stationed in some of our schools where rapes, stabbings and violent assaults have become more frequent. That won’t happen because our police force are stretched far too thin on the ground dealing with community crime.

    This prompts me to ask, Dan-K, what were the factors that led to your situation? I can’t imagine for one moment that it was an arbitrary decision based on malicious whim. Policing is expensive and police resources are always insufficient. Clearly someone, somewhere, decided there was a need compelling enough to divert resources from normal police work. How did that happen? What was that need? You must think, unlike them, that the need is not compelling. Why?

    When schools, with their boards of governors, start to react like this, it indicates deep levels of concern. What were these concerns? How did they arise? You think they are unjustified concerns? Why?

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  27. I remember my unsupervised childhood with a great deal of fondness. Me and my friends would wander around, perch ourselves near the top of a large tree overlooking Glasgow and talk for hours, or nip across the golf course or head down to the local shops. We would catch tadpoles in the artificial lake in Rouken Glen and bring them home to watch them grow legs in the jar (and release them when they had become larger).

    From the age of 5 I walked alone the 5 or so miles to school and back.

    Me and my brother aged 8 and 10 respectively, used to catch the suburban train into the centre of Glasgow to go to our slot car racing club in a dark space under one of the bridges over the Clyde. When we emigrated to Australia the freedom was the same, we could wander down to the lake to swim and catch yabbies, climb one of the nearby hills (they call the hills “mountains” in Canberra).

    Certainly my parents cared. I always knew to be back by the time they were expecting me. I would not have had any friends if I had not been free to go out with them unsupervised. A “play date” is a concept we would have treated with derision.

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  28. This raises another question. We(the law abiding among us, at least) see the police as friendly protectors. When a police patrol goes by I give them a friendly wave and they wave right back with a smile. We are glad to see them and desire high police visibility as the best deterrence against violent crime.

    You, on the other hand, speak as if the police are not regarded as friendly protectors. Is that the case? How did that happen?

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  29. Fun to read this article!

    One of Bill Byson’s many delightful books talks about his childhood in small-town Iowa, in glowing terms, admiring how ‘lovingly’ the surrounding culture treated children, making an enormous variety of differently shaped and flavored bob-bons available to them for pennies, and even for free, since shopkeepers didn’t mind much if you just grabbed some. There was also the natural freedom to play and wander within a landscape of buildings and ignored property boundaries and fields and forests within a place too
    innocent to think of any other way to manage things. The community was for everyone and sharing was pretty much unconscious. It even stood out when the rare curmudgeon bizarrely didn’t want you on their lawn and tried unsuccessfully to impose a boundary
    against the uninhibited imaginations of playing youths. This simply increased the fun — creating a new target of ridicule and a sense of adventure about avoiding capture.

    Bryson was only a few years older than me, and though I grew up mostly in smalltown not-quite-yet-suburban NJ, the complexion was pretty much the same. 95% of mothers stayed home during the days, and we thought nothing of this. No one had conceived of
    feminism; two job families were either peculiar or non-existent, thus affording a natural buffer of adults around the neighborhood in case somebody needed a band-aid or lemonade. By age 6 or 7 we’d bravely trek the mile or so from our couple of blocks up the hill to the center of town where several shops (grocery stores, pharmacies) competed for our pocket change: Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, toy water pistols, superballs, or cinnamon flavored jawbreakers, maybe a Mountain Dew a few years later. Or we’d head to the nearby fields and woods inventing wild expeditions, searching for baby duck nests or figuring out how to cross a small river on a fallen tree. By age 9 we were careening everywhere on bicycles in squadrons, collecting and releasing pet turtles, and sometimes stopping in fascination to play ‘cooties’ with neighborhood girls, not quite yet comprehending what the fascination was all about. There was no such thing as supervision. Or organized activity, except as we ourselves organized it. One day my father painted three bases and a home plate in the middle of the street in front of my house and we magically became the center of activity for kids teaching themselves stickball in the street. If a car came, which was rare on the side street, we quickly changed formation so as to toss the ball over the passing car to friends on the other side of the street. Danger was just something theoretical in the distance, revealed through newspapers or occasional mother’s remarks. An airplane crash here, a kidnapping there, three states away. During the summers, this group freedom improv went on all day from breakfast cereal until the five-o’clock-whistle when everyone knew to head home for supper. Just about everybody’s fathers got home very close to 5PM from work. You could feel the hour approaching. (What’s the chances of that happening today?) Traffic was something that happened only in NYC and maybe only for 10 minutes. During school year, we just waited until 3PM and did more of the same until dinner time. If it was warm enough, the evenings were just as much fun after supper.

    And it wasn’t as though we viewed school as purely anathema. For all this fun and play, I was still more or less a kind of romantic intellectual at heart, even then. There was always plenty of time to read books, almost always of my own choosing and finding. For the first eight years I attended a parochial school and my only crummy subject was religion, which degenerated into pure memorization by 5th grade or so. No one was capable of or really interested in approaching ‘theology’ from a stance which would awaken the sense of mystery inherent within it. And so we mostly tuned out. Luckily my parents figured out I should switch to public schooling for 8th grade because they happened to notice that the local high school had like 400% of the curricula offering that the nearby Catholic high school could muster.

    I do not know how typical (across the US) the police office within the school is, but it sounds absolutely bizarre. I would even call it anti-American, to the extent that ideal persists. Maybe it is more of small city/large town phenomena. But you can see the issues which have effected the change from my description. Interestingly they are some of the same issues driving the right/left split which has been so exacerbated by social media. The question now is: how do we create a protected safe zone of creative childhood chaos within the framework of multiple jobs, absurd commuting, many broken families, easy invasive intrusion into the home via the web, a market (even domestically) for child slavery or abuse, and a loss of sexual innocence by age ten? You can grasp the sources of reactionary frustration behind the yearning for regression into past morays. But we do not want that, most of us, yet. We only might begrudgingly accept it out of numbness if things worsen enough (although even so, it still would not work). So how do we go forward?

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  30. stolzy: I think the alleged problems in returning to a much freer, less scheduled, less supervised childhood are entirely illusory. Crime rates are the lowest they’ve been since the 1960’s, so the idea that it’s less safe for kids to be out on their own now than it was in 1976 is just wrong. The latchkey kid phenomenon is by now decades old so it too hardly provides an excuse. And while it is true that mothers were at home, I can’t really recall kids running to appeal to them, when some conflict or controversy or issue arose, while out and about. We took care of things ourselves.

    The bogus panic that Haidt references, in the late 70’s and early 80’s definitely had a lot to do with it, as did the very rare but spectacular Columbine type events. I still think none of it comes even remotely close to justifying the ruining of childhood and youth for entire generations of people, and of course, it entirely ignores the point that the result of this sort of excessive adult intervention are young people who are not capable of coping with the demands of independent, adult life.

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  31. Dan K: Well, interesting that you think this.

    We could expand this discussion in two directions, at least. First, it could simply be asked: if you do not think any of the mentioned factors (or others I did not mention) are real obstructions, then what is stopping us in your opinion? What’s the corrective recipe?

    But beyond that, we could try to deepen our grasp of the relevant factors which have changed in 50 years (or maybe 40 in your case). To begin with I want to stress the difference between high school aged kids and what I consider actual childhood, ages 5-11 or 12. Ferris was a high schooler; the mold is shaped much earlier. The images of self-structured free play described all took place
    during childhood. So we have to focus at that age group. You mention that Haidt includes schooling factors as an important ingredient within the negative childrearing change that took hold. What are they, explicitly as affects elementary school ages?

    I’m not a Haidt-fan (he’s too beholden to evolutionary psychology plus he forever seems in search of a specific small number of facile ‘killer’ unrecognized factors for psychosocial phenomena — at least in his popularizer author role), but I can accept the basic idea that maybe there has been an excess of pessimism in our national estimation of how safe the environment is for children. I don’t really buy the ‘national panic’ pinpointed to a moment around 1980 as the expainer for a national childrearing shift though. The real story must be much more subtle than that. I also don’t think an improvement in crime rate statistics tells us much about the suitability
    of typical childhood circumstances in the U.S. today. And the latchkey problem, or as I’d describe it, a drastic degradation in the quality/quantity of family nurturing time, is not an ‘excuse’. It’s a real problem regardless of how long it’s been brewing. In the same way that it’s a wishful delusion that education can be replaced by online modules (at all age levels increasingly), socialization and intimate models for adult behavior cannot be replaced by video games or mobile devices. Of course I agree with the sentiment expressed in your final two sentences (justification…) but when you imply we’ve made some kind of adult design decision to limit childhood freedom I’d counter it has been much less intentional or voluntary than that.

    The acceleration in the commoditization of human labor, even intellectual labor, has been sickening during my lifetime. The social effects upon adults of this needs to be included in this analysis. The stresses introduced by rampant suburbinization of the
    landscape also cannot be dismissed. (I assume you live in some kind of small city in southern Missouri? What is the schooling situation in really rural Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, etc?)

    The last point to reiterate now is the loss or lessening of childhood innocence. Again, a completely non-engineered cultural result, for which the redress would require great imagination, effort, and sacrifice. I can see without deep examination at least three
    components here. Loss of sexual innocence via media, advertising, and now the web. Loss of faith/inspiration in the security of one’s general existential situation (even as children), caused by similar factors, but perhaps also exacerbated by increases in levels of adult stress. When I grew up living in the US was viewed as the pinnacle of blind luck in the cosmos; the propaganda was that we’d always remain #1 and that technology, sold by at least two World Fairs, would soon create an impossibly delightful not far off future for all. That was crazy and a physicalist delusion but it conferred a veneer of shiny optimism all across the neighborhood(s). We could posit that today’s forecast narrative, confused as it is, at least causes a sense of reality to seep into children’s worldviews, but one can understand the gloom inherent within reduced expectations. (As Jaron Lanier put it in an interview 7 or 8 years back, he’s amazed that young people embarking into the work world nowadays seem so willing to trade away a future in any sort of inspiring vocation for the convenient access to being able to screw around in different ways online.) Finally, a loss or lessening of what I’d call natural innocence which simply was once supplied by many children’s relationship to nature, to the natural world. Access has diminished and so has interest. I think all of these factors correlate with a tendency away from the development of true individuation.

    What would I do? Don’t know — needs a lot of thought. But…

    I have a 5-year old nowadays, so I’ve unexpectedly, in my 60s, become very interested in these matters from a less theoretical standpoint. The main thing I’ve decided to work upon in my childrearing thus far is the consistent encouraging and fostering of
    imagination, if need be at the expense of factual things. I dearly loved math back in the day, but the current increasing obsession with STEM even at very young ages amounts to child abuse and cuiltural suicide in my view.

    Anyway… worth discussing further and more deeply!

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