The Guardian newspaper recently reminded me of Mayer Hillman’s classic 1990 study, One False Move. “In a single generation,” Hillman found, “the ‘home habitat’ of a typical eight-year-old – the area which a child was able to travel without adult supervision – had shrunk to one-ninth of its former size.”
Is the world really that much more dangerous than when I was a boy? Or is this a case of parents’ protective instincts run amok? Lately, experts have expressed concern about the way children are being raised “in cotton wool.” Are today’s children, who have lost “the right to roam,” missing out on the most important part of their education?
Having raised ten children in 45 years of marriage, I have often wondered what I would teach a child if all the traditional guidelines of education were stripped away. I remember many formative moments in my life, but none of them happened in a classroom or had anything to do with the three Rs.
Perhaps my earliest memory, somewhere around 1950, is the experience of an acute appendicitis at age four. The sensation of being suffocated and the buzzing in my ears as I struggled against the ether are still a vivid memory.
This was followed a year later by the image of my mother’s tear-stained face as she stepped out of the car on return from the hospital where my father had just died. There was a beautiful bowl of fresh fruit in our house, something that I had never seen before, and my mother gave me a big apple. I managed to pocket it and went happily back to kindergarten. Underneath the surface I must have been worried. At naptime I wet my trousers and the beautiful apple was taken away.
There was the time when I was seven and a man who had been working in a leper colony visited us. I heard enough to know that leprosy meant isolation. For almost a year after that I searched nightly for the dreaded disease on my hands.
In January 1958 my friend James died in a sledding accident. I was the first down the hill to see what the matter was. He was 15, I was 12. I prayed earnestly for God to heal James. God had a different plan. At the wake, James’ younger brother, Daniel, my age, thought it looked as if James was just asleep. But to me James looked ghastly white. I ran out, shaken that death could do that to a person. For years I struggled to understand why God did not do what I, and so many others, had prayed for.
What these events have in common is that they were moments beyond my control. They forced me to cope with thoughts and situations I had never dealt with before. And looking back, I realize they taught me that even at such times, God is in control and can be trusted to carry us through.
No matter how much we shield our children from danger, at some point they will each face challenges for which formal education is no real preparation. How can we instill in our children the mettle they will need to stand firm in the storms that surely lie ahead? Clearly, we need to let them take risks and make mistakes. We need to give them responsibility.
This I believe is the secret of true education: that we relinquish control and give our children freedom. But we cannot merely step back. We first need to lead children to place all areas of their lives under God. Then we really can set them free, trusting that life will teach them and that God will guide them.