I remember one day, not long after my first child was born, and I was sitting there basking in the warm, heady glow of Motherlove, when suddenly I was flashed back to my childhood. There on the playground, where I was teased and taunted, often sending me home after school in tears, I endured alot of pain. And I didn’t have it half bad. There were kids who were more teased than I. And I recall feeling bad for them, trying to make them feel a bit better by talking with them, which of course made me the target of more teasing. Let’s face it: we all have memories like this. We all know of the emotional horror show that is Growing Up and I, like many many others, always assumed it was just part of Life. An inevitable yet painful rite of passage that there was just no getting around. And in that moment, my heart ached and tore for my child, my precious little baby. So innocent and just waiting for that time when her innocence would be crushed.
Well, it turns out that not only is this NOT unavoidable, but it’s actually not even NORMAL. At least, according to Gordon Neufeld it isn’t. And frankly, his arguments in support of his theory of “peer orientation” resonate loudly with my own musings about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Which can basically be boiled down to Biology (a bit of an oversimplification, perhaps, but still accurate). When one looks at the environment in which human beings spent most of their time evolving, his arguments make a whole lot of sense.
The short version is this: the kind of social dynamics that exist in the schoolyard are artificial, and are created by the very nature of modern schooling. Placing children in large groups of kids all born within a year or so of each other, with so little adult supervision as to make monitoring of their social interactions virtually impossible, is completely unnatural, as normal as it may seem to us today. Children were never meant to learn social skills from those equally ignorant and immature as themselves. And the consequence of this happening is the modern day Lord of the Flies scenarios that play out every day on school grounds across the Western World.
Instead, if we imagine a tribe or social troupe of early humans, we can intuit the experience of young children, and can also look to modern example of traditional cultures for a boost of supportive data. It probably goes without saying that traditional social groups did not contain enough people such that there were literally hundreds of children of each age. Rather, groups probably contained a couple dozen kids of scattered ages.
We know that humans, like all primates, maintain pretty much constant physical contact with infants, day and night, for several reasons, not the least of which is facilitation of breastfeeding. And the general trend for weaning seems to be that when the mother gets pregnant again, junior gets cut off. Having experienced pregnancy-induced nursing aversion myself, I can attest to its power. Next time I see a mother cat brush her older kittens off her nipples with a swipe I’ll say “Yo, Sister – I know exactly how you feel!”. In humans, fertility in nursing mothers generally returns on average about 1.5 years after birth, so babies tend to be spaced about 2 to 3 years apart. By that age, humans can walk and interact with other kids, and so freed of the bonds of mother’s breast, they generally leave her side and join the rest of the kids during much of their free time.
This then, is the beginnings of how children become “socialized”. How they learn how to act, behave, the cultural expectations of manners, etc and also I believe, how things like empathy and altruism start to flower. Research seems to show (and many will attest to this from personal experience) that older kids tend to be protective of younger kids. And younger kids tend to look up to, and emulate, older kids. So things like bullying among the younger set get frowned upon by the older set, and that influences the younger ones because they want to be like the older ones. This is a bit of a simplification, but you get my drift.
I used to think that the “dominance heirarchies” of “nerd” vs “cool kid” were natural. After all, we are social animals and, like wolves and chimps, there is a distinct pecking order in the group, right? But now I realize I was missing two important points. First, one’s rank is established around puberty, when kids are no longer kids and either leave the group or start to fight for their place among the adults. Second, natural dominance heirarchies don’t form among animals that are all the same age, but rather involve everybody in the group, from the old wise ones to the pubescent newcomers.
If you want to read all about what happens when kids are grouped according to age, just read Neufeld’s book. Suffice it to say, alot of normal and natural processes and instincts get sidelined, misdirected, and skewed because of this grouping. Why do we group kids this way? We all probably assume that kids belong with other kids their age, but when you really stop and think about it, we do it because it’s convenient. Modern schooling involves filling kids’ heads with a list of facts set out by those who set “curricula”. Since each age group has a different set of facts to learn, it’s way easier on teachers to teach one set of facts to 30 kids, then to teach 30 kids several different sets of facts. In short, we group kids together by age because our school system is designed that way. Design it a different way, and we don’t need to do that. But that would require such a fundamental shift in how we look at educating kids that I don’t see it coming any time soon. The alternative is to keep things the way they are, but drastically improve the student:teacher ratio. Honestly, in my own informal “research” watching DD’s preschool group, I’m thinking that one adult is really only capable of closely monitoring maybe 5 kids at a time. And when I say “monitoring”, I mean being there for pretty much all the social interactions that go on, and coaching the kids when things get sticky.
Example: Bob is a follower and tags around Joe all day long. Joe “abuses” his power over Bob, and Bob keeps coming back for more abuse. This kind of dynamic (which is taken right from something I witnessed at DD’s preschool) can go by totally unnoticed, as there is no yelling or crying or anything to draw attention to it. But it is still a crisis. Joe isn’t “evil” or even “mean”. He is simply too young to understand that Bob has feelings too and that how Joe words himself can either crush Bob or help Bob. Joe is probably sick of Bob following him around all day. And Joe, being a normal child, is probably also experimenting with “power”. How far can I push Bob away before he stops coming back? Again, no malice involved, just endless curiosity. An adult could facilitate such exchanges in a way that teaches both of them a lesson in empathy and respect for others. Or, Bob will end up going through school as somebody’s doormat, crushing his spirit and bending his personality to suit whomever he is worshipping at that time. And Joe will end up a bully, sick of those who follow him around, yet unable to make true friends on his own, this becomes the only dynamic he knows.
The more I learn about this, the more convinced I am that my children will never set foot in a traditional classroom. All JMHO, of course. But food for thought, n’est ce pas?