I read a story a while back about an anthropologist who was studying some tribal group in New Guinea. He noticed that everyone had at least one odd shaped, irregular scar. When he asked what the scars were from, he was told that they were from falling into a fire as a very young child.
You see, this tribe believed that all humans, including children, have a right and a responsibility for making their own choices. So when a young child would get too close to the fire, that was their choice and no one had a right to stop them from making it. Of course, the judgment of children is generally less than stellar, so inevitably, each child eventually fell into the fire. At that point, the adults or older children would quickly pull them out. If someone needs help, you help them after all. The end result was that everyone had a scar from the experience and everyone learned at a young age to be careful around the fire.
While allowing a small child to fall into a fire without trying to stop or warn them is inconceivable to probably all of us, it struck me when I read this that there was great wisdom in this story.
We live in a time when the challenge for us as parents is raising our kids to live in a world where they have almost complete freedom. Not so long ago, various institutions held a lot of sway over our lives. People generally trusted the church, community norms, the government, schools, employers and even the media to show them right from wrong. In that kind of world, teaching your children to obey authority, starting with your own, was of primary importance.
Today, authority just aint what it used to be. First of all, authority has been completely discredited for most of us. Our churches, government, schools, employers and media have all been shown to be corrupt, self-dealing, untruthful and untrustworthy. There are those who would like to see the institutions and their authority rebuilt.
However, it seems unlikely that people who have experienced what it is like to make their own choices and create their own norms free from the expectations and pressures of authority will go back to submitting to any institution. And given the problems amply demonstrated by human history of people engaging in the worst sorts of evil at the behest of the powers and social norms that be, this is probably a good thing.
The destruction of authority does, however, create a problem for parents. When all of a person’s life was going to be spent submitting to authority, it made sense for parents to raise their kids to be compliant and obedient. But the reality of the world our children will go into when they leave our homes practically demands that we raise our children differently than we did in the past.
My own goal isn’t to raise good children. My goal is to raise good men and women. In the past, when authority was still omni-present, what it took to be a good kid was pretty much the same as what it took to be a good man or woman. But today, the traits of good men and women are most certainly not the same as the traits of “good” children. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of pressure on parents to raise “good” kids. But in doing so, we run the risk of leaving them unprepared and inexperienced in the ways of being good adults.
Good men and women control themselves, rather than allowing others to control them. They make their own good choices rather than allowing others to make choices for them. They know when to stand up for themselves, how to say “no” and how to think critically about information they are presented with. If we demand that our kids be “good” kids and obey, submit and not question or resist our authority, we are leaving them ill prepared for life as adults.
Which brings us back to the tribe that lets their children fall into fires. Unlike us, they started from the assumption that children needed to be able to exercise and learn from the freedom which was their birth right as human beings. So from the beginning they allowed them to make their own choices and learn from the consequences of them. Play carelessly around a fire, end up with a really nasty, painful burn. Lesson learned.
Now, I personally am going to continue watching my kids closely around a campfire. But since I want my kids to grow into good adults, capable of handling the freedom which is the hallmark of post-modern life, I do allow them to do things good kids don’t. I let them practice controlling themselves, making their own arguments, setting their own boundaries, having their own opinions and other life skills they will need to have as adults.
My hope is that they will be good because they want to be good, not because they have to be good to keep themselves out of trouble. Sometimes it’s a lot more work in the short term to parent them this way. But I figure that if I manage to raise good men and women, the fact that they weren’t always “good” children won’t matter all that much.