Chapter 2: “Never Leave Children to Themselves”
In this chapter Esolen reflects on his childhood and the huge blocks of time where he and his friends were left to their own devices... and the dangerous learning that necessarily went on.
“How irresponsible we once were, to allow our children such huge blocks of time to be themselves, outdoors with others of their kind, inventing things to do! Think of the trouble they got themselves into. Sometimes they went fishing. Sometimes they set off firecrackers in garbage cans. Sometimes they hopped trains. Sometimes they hiked through woods and mapped out trails. Sometimes they rode their bicycles to nearby towns. Sometimes they climbed trees. Sometimes they declared war on one another. Sometimes they wandered off to a construction site to look at the backhoes and winches....
All such things are to be avoided. Take for example one of the activities that seems most harmless: they got together to play ball. Do we not see how many things they needed to do in order to achieve that goal?
First, they needed players, and that meant rounding up the usual suspects, rousing them from bed, or cajoling them from their chores...already a complex social activity: they had to organize themselves.
Then they needed a field to play in . . . . you had, most of the time, to “make” your field out of a half of a yard and a street, or a clearing beside a hill that wasn't too hilly....That meant seeing how the game could or could not be played there. If you had a big tree behind what would be first base, you might declare anything caught in the tree to be an automatic out. Or if there was a short wall in right field, you might declare anything that hit the wall to be in play, but anything over the wall to be out.....[in short] you are envisioning what a good competitive game might look like, and are fitting your field with ground rules designed to make the game possible...None of this, it should be noted, is in the spirit of self-esteem and nebulous exercise that an adult-organized activity, say youth soccer, provides.
But then how do you choose the teams? . . . . How to play? . . . What happens when there's a disputed play” p.55-59
Esolen carries on this example at length and shows that when left on their own, the kids actually organize themselves and sort out their problems and have a great time, in an empty lot or back yard, with an odd number of kids, some big some small. Along they way they are learning how to be creative with what they have, how to solve problems, work as a group, deal with conflict, etc.
Now, much of our culture is worried about the “Lord of the Flies” effect and think that kids will turn into animals or create violent gangs if left on their own. So every day must be scheduled and filled with "organized" activities.
But Esolen makes an important observation here:
“The boys in Golding's novel are not unsupervised. They are absolutely alone. There is no home to go to, no school, no church. There are no adults to turn to, to allay their fears. Death looms nearby. Under such circumstances they naturally form alliances, and those, so far as they are acts of the imagination, are good and natural things. This same may be said for the city gang. It is not that these boys spend too much time outside of the home. It is that these boys have no genuine home to spend time in.” p.63
But if children have a secure home from which to start and to return to, it is when they are left on their own that they will re-enact, practice, and therefore take on board the values and community life they see modeled in those homes, churches, schools. If every moment or their lives are supervised, organized and managed, where will they learn to appropriate these values and work them out for themselves? Such "responsible" parenting may save us the anxieties of letting children make decisions and take risks today but what will happen further down the road?