Looking Back on My Youth

I’ve been focused lately on education issues in my blogging, but I feel like giving it a rest and getting back to the main thrust of my passion and advocacy. That thrust is encouraging human development, and particularly the “rules of engagement” in that regard between adults and youth.

I say “youth” rather than “children”, because I think the “C-word” has become a derogatory term in our culture, implying either complete dependence or inability as in “you’re behaving like children!” In my opinion it is that inquisitiveness of a young person and willingness to ignore conventional wisdom that has empowered adults like Steve Jobs and earlier Bill Gates to revolutionize our use of information technology.

Given that prevailing connotation of the C-word, I can barely recall a time in my own remembrance of my youngest years when I felt either dependent or unable, except perhaps at times when I got caught up in the machinations of the schools I attended and the adults in those institutions that I ceded my native self-direction to. It seems like most of the memories from my thousands of hours sitting behind a school desk have faded due to the irrelevance to who I really was then and am today.

Instead I recall the times from age five on as I mostly directed my own life, including…

* Along with my younger brother Peter, creating my own versions of the real and imagined narratives of history and science fiction (I had experienced in a book, in a movie or on TV) playing with toy figures and building materials in the unfinished basement or the back yard of my family’s small house

* Continuing that sort of play with my best friend who lived across the street and happened to be of the other gender, which I found interesting in terms of differences in our naked bodies, but otherwise pretty insignificant

* Playing baseball or “soldiers” with my neighborhood friends in the park across the street from our house, learning how to compete and collaborate and playing out some of the compelling narratives of sports and war (that tended to create mythology among male people in our culture) that abounded in the adult culture around us

* Taking off on my bicycle across town to the toy store, library, or a friend’s house to do additional “R&D”

* Enjoying being invited to sit in the “way back” seat of our old family station wagon with my brother as our dad just seemed to head out in some random direction on weekend day trips, yet another venue for imaginative journeying in this or even an alien world

* Joining or even starting secret clubs and societies with other kids my age, or spying on or even infiltrating the “other” club or society

* Reading the rules for and playing complicated board games simulating historical conflicts, either with others or solitaire, trying to grasp the strategies, tactics and logistics while coming to grips and some times indulging the fantasized megalomania of the conqueror or the more virtuous courage of the underdog

* Participating in every aspect of mounting theatrical productions with a large group of other youth (with minimal oversight and direction by adults), including adapting the famous and provocative novel, Lord of the Flies, to the stage

In all this I did not feel so much like I was preparing for being a full-blown adult person, for a life to come, but rather just leading my life, already a person with my own interests and objectives. And increasingly, as I grew older as a youth, I had to wrestle with the responsibilities of that personhood in terms of supporting particularly my younger brother and my mom as my mom and dad went through divorce, my dad moving out of the house and eventually out of town, and my mom spiraled into depression and even thoughts of ending her life, but finally recovering and reinventing herself and discovering her full agency as an artist and activist.

Certainly in my youth I had a fair amount of naiveté, particularly in not really appreciating how remarkable my parents’ “libertarian” approach to parenting really was. I recall my mom’s parenting mantra, “Bright kids will tell you what they need!” but I did not appreciate how radical that thinking was, given the prevailing paradigm of kids “behaving like children”.

It is through that lens of my own mostly self-directed youth that I witnessed my own kids charting their development, in school and out, and wrestled with my own role as their parent, either facilitating or retarding that development. It was the bias of my own experience, after our son increasingly seemed diminished and even harmed by being required to go to school, that contributed so much to his mom and I becoming comfortable with pulling him out of school and letting him just live his life instead. (And then later giving that same option to our younger daughter.)

Now over fifty myself, and looking back at the decades of my youth and witnessing the decades of my kids’ youth, I realize how much our culture still discounts the capabilities of our young people to direct their own lives. That said, I acknowledge the privilege of being white and male, and (though growing up in a family of modest means) not having to live in poverty or within a dangerous and kid-unfriendly neighborhood. And that said, I will continue to advocate for an approach to parenting and broader “rules of engagement” between youth and adults that includes more mutual respect while we play our legitimate roles of being of assistance to each other.

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