I remember, growing up, having the vague feeling that I wasn’t measuring up, that I should be doing more, achieving more.
Now part of this is the peculiar mind of set of “born owing money.” You don’t think you are worth it just by existing, so you live trying to justify your existence. I always thought this was the result of not being a wanted child, but I don’t think so. My much-wanted and worked-for older son (both are wanted, but older took six years to get) has same issue. He’s forever justifying his existence. Considering my paternal grandmother was the same — she gave you an account of her work that day when she saw you, like she was defending her right to be here — it might be hereditary.
But that’s not all. Perhaps it was because I read books set before world war II and what people could achieve at the ages I was — 5 to 10 — was amazing and I kept wondering why I wasn’t being asked to do the same.
Yes, I do have a theory on this.
I’ve also researched a lot of past times, including Elizabethan England, Medieval Europe and ancient Rome.
The one thing that seems to be common to all of them, compared to us, is that their kids could do amazing things at a very young age.
Yes, stuff like the founding fathers or Kit Marlowe graduating from college in their teens is explained away with “they had so much less to study” but that’s not… precisely true. Did they? No, they had different things. A lot less time was spent on what we’ll call, for lack of a better term, desperate social engineering. Sure, they learned a lot about Christianity, but a lot less on why smoking is bad, you must eat your veggies and meat is murder, for instance. (The idiocies I had to take out of the boys’ heads. For a long time Robert thought glass was a finite and about to run out resource. They also were both trained to approach smokers and tell them they were bad people. Thank G-d those bikers had a sense of humor and, having caught on to what was going on, I told both boys they weren’t the boss of anyone and it wasn’t their job to tell people how to live.)
The thing is that our kids are leaving school barely competent on the basic tasks of writing, reading and arithmetic, and please don’t tell the woman who keeps getting asked if Portugal is in South America (or told that Portugal is) that they’re learning geopolitics, history or anything related to the great world out there. And let’s not — please — talk about their knowledge of science, because if you talk to your average high schooler, you’ll be shocked at how little they know.
Those who remember my blog getting invaded by high school juniors, remember how little of anything they actually know. And one of those girls went on to be the valedictorian of her class and accepted to Harvard a year later, so we can all agree she’s fairly “normal” And also that it was impossible for her to make up her deficiencies in that time.
So, no, it’s not “we have so much more to teach them.” It’s “We require so much less of our kids.”
Despite the fact that I probably went through a more rigorous schooling up to fourth grade than most people here, my age, because it was assumed that was the only schooling most people would get, I knew that I had no Latin, no Greek, and my writing skills weren’t up to those of 10 year olds of the past. Also I feared I wouldn’t have passed that kind of rigorous schooling.
But it wasn’t just schooling. I remember reading of a Colonial American father lamenting the death of his five year old, not just because the boy was starting to get proficient in Greek and Latin (think about it) but because he was such a help in looking after the chickens and the cows (!).
My mother went to school four years, after which she got apprenticed to a seamstress (what she made of it after that was just her own doing). At ten dad entered the equivalent of high school (which was then four years, before college) and walked the three and a half miles into town every morning and every evening, for his schooling. He was incidentally the last one in the family to have real schooling: Latin, the classics, etc.
To an extent we had a clash of worlds when I was growing up. My mom couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t be responsible for cleaning the entire house and doing all the cooking at ten, because that’s what she’d been and done. And she feared (obsessively) I’d never find anyone to marry me because of those deficiencies. My best friends who were wealthier and therefore came from backgrounds closer to our time, thought that my mom was insane, and they did considerably less than I did around the house.
It’s not that people had less to learn. It’s that more was demanded of them at an early age.
Now, is it possible that people were smarter in the past. Anything is possible. But that’s rather a short time for that kind of evolutionary difference, and shouldn’t we be smarter, considering we have way better nutrition?
We do know that in the past human ancestors delayed their maturing more and more, which allowed us to transmit knowledge.
I have this very weird idea.
I know that there are epigenetic genes and things that don’t develop unless they’re needed. I also look at my own sons — who btw were less mollycoddled than most of their generation because crazy libertarian mother and the kind of personalities who want to do things for themselves starting at two or three — and keep thinking they are more or less, in most things, 10 years younger than my husband and I were at their age. Emotionally, intellectually, in personality. They’re very accomplished, they’re just young. And yet when I see them with their friends, both of them are “the old man” of the group, with the wise ideas and more comprehensive understanding of what life is about.
And I wonder: people used to be contributing members of the family or group by ten. Many if not most old cultures considered 10 the age of reason, when you could shoulder responsibilities like an adult and when your character would be judged as though you were a grown up.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare refers to “younger than she” (13?) are happy mothers made. Certainly at thirteen even in my day we were considered responsible for protecting our virtue, or not.
Most thirteen year olds today? Bah, they’re children. And would you apprentice a 10 year old to something like a cobbler? And send him to live in his master’s household? Of course you wouldn’t. NO one would. And if you tried, the full force of the law would fall on you.
So…. A lot of people seem to never grow up. More and more I’m reading stories where 30 year olds act like I did in college (or younger.) and it seems to be the accepted norm now. 30 year olds get treated not like adults at the height of their powers, but as “young adults.”
Where does it end?
If it is hardship that brings about maturation, and responsibility that makes you grow, what do we do? None of us wants our children to go through hardship. Responsibility is easier to apportion, of course, but still hard when the government doesn’t even want them to walk to school by themselves, and in many states (mine) you can’t leave them alone at home till the age of 14. (When many of us babysat other people’s kids overnight younger than that.)
I’m starting to wonder, if there were other human civilizations, if they fell when we got so comfy no one ever grew up, and society slowly came unglued.
It’s probably me being gloomy, but when I look at colleges and college age people throwing elementary school tantrums, I worry.
What can be done to a society so wealthy, so prosperous, so gentle with its young that most people never grow up?