The little boy just wanted to “do stuff.”
His parents let him traipse around with his wagon on garbage collection day. He’d take home pieces of wood, carefully pulling out nails to store in a can, so he and his friends would have the necessary materials to build forts or go-carts. Occasionally he found small engines that he’d do his best to fix. No one intervened to tell him his pursuits weren’t safe, although he was expected to clean up any mess as well help around the house.
His neighbors didn’t mind having this kid appear whenever they did something interesting—fix a car, build a shed, tend a greenhouse full of plants, run a garage sale. He was eager to learn and even more eager to help, so they did what adults have done throughout time. They shooed him away occasionally but mostly they shared what they knew.
He made use of what he learned. By the time he was 12 or 13 years old, these neighbors let him take on their home and car repairs, recognizing he was able to do a more exacting job than they might have done themselves. He gained more than skills from the adults in his life. He may have been leaning over a car hood with Clyde, but he was also learning how to understand the function of each system by paying attention. It seemed he was only helping Mr. Christman with the heavy tasks of operated a greenhouse but he was also taking in something important about growing old with dignity. It appeared he was working alongside his grandfather but he was also seeing how reputation, honesty, and treating each person with respect builds a small business.
Because he developed richly rewarding relationships with people of all ages, relatives as well as neighbors, he had plenty of examples to draw on as he matured. He saw how different people handled decisions, disciplined their children, laughed off trouble, solved problems, stayed in love.
His experience was rare. It’s becoming rarer all the time.
Throughout nearly all of their childhood and teen years our kids are segregated in day care, school, sports, and other activities. Even when they benefit from the very best programs, if they’re restricted to the company of same-aged peers doing what adults consider educational and enriching they are deprived of the riches found through fully engaging in the wider world. This subverts the way youth have matured throughout human history, when children learned right in the context of family and community—freely able to watch, imitate, and foster relationships with people of all ages.
We put kids in an oddly uncomfortable position when most adults in their lives are focused on them. Children want to center themselves, not have adult attention centered on them. Kids long to model themselves after adults who are engaged in meaningful, interesting, and useful activities of their own. When their experience of adults is limited to those who are there to care for, educate, or entertain children (important callings but not all that adults can do) the dynamic is shifted. The age-old desire to gain mastery and take on responsibility, eagerly becoming a capable adult, doesn’t have the same pull.
There are plenty of educational initiatives to bridge this gap, particularly for teens. These programs connect students with mentors or bring community members into schools to talk about their careers. While these efforts are admirable, such stopgap measures aren’t the way young people learn best. They need to spend appreciable time with people of all ages—observing, conversing and taking on responsibility. Real responsibilities, real relationships.
How can we remedy this?
- Re-engage kids in the community.
- Foster strong extended family relationships.
- Respect and support the ways young people find their own mentors.
- Encourage potentially rich connections that can be made online and in the work-a-day world.
- Recognize that each person gathers what they need from interactions with others.
That little boy? He grew up to be a remarkably capable, beautifully open-hearted, and endlessly positive person. I married him.