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Extended Family, Extended Parenting

Don Lobo Tiggre

When Robert A. Heinlein wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he described something he called a "line marriage". It wasn't just polygamy, but a group marriage people could marry into, have children with, and grow old in. Being a teenager when I read the book, the most exciting thing about the idea was that the hero had all those wives to "bundle", and plenty of husbands to help take care of the family while he went off and led the revolution. Later (when arguing with conservatives that the "demise of the nuclear family" couldn't be the root of all evil because the nuclear family was an historical aberration, and with liberals that many of today's "social services" and "social problems" were once addressed fairly well by extended families), it dawned on me that Heinlein's line marriages might be the 21st century's extended families. They could be a new vehicle for working people to come together in voluntary cooperation to care for the young and the elderly and needy, without intervention by the coercive machinery of the state. Only recently did I think about how an extended family, linear or otherwise, might handle parenting tasks, but when I did, the possibilities rocked me.

I had been pondering some challenges I'd been having home schooling my older cubs. It seemed to me that we had slipped from the fun and excitement of earlier days, and learning was becoming an unhappy chore for the boys. Now, it would be easy to blame them, their "laziness", their disinterest in doing anything that wasn't directly related to Pokémon... But my partner and I are their parents and their teachers; if the boys weren't motivated we should first be looking in the mirror and asking ourselves how we might be failing to motivate them. I thought about it and I realized that push was coming to shove, and we were shoving pretty hard. When they were "not motivated", we were trying motivate them to do what we wanted them to do, to bend them to our will. Sure, we didn't use force, but some of the incentives we came up with were pretty strong. The more TV time, video games, and other incentives we piled up (or withheld), the more erratic their interest and performance became, and for a while, learning almost came to a standstill. The bottom line is that even though we were not punishing them bodily, nor savaging them verbally, nor suspending any of their rights (rights, after all, are unalienable), we were trying to get them to do what we wanted, and not what they wanted.

Now, I don't like it when anyone leans on me to do things their way. So why should it surprise me that leaning on my older sons should have--at the very least--dampened the fun of learning? Perhaps because our methods were not that harsh, open rebellion didn't break out, but it seems clear to me that we were making a mistake.

But... If I didn't incent them to do their daily lessons, they would often choose not to. It might take them thirty years to acquire the equivalent of a high school education! Or they might never do so.

And that's bad, right?


"Check your premises," as Dr. Atkinson told Dagny Taggart. Let's suspend judgment on that for a second and consider the matter. There are certainly plenty of stories about millionaires who never finished grade school, not to mention self-educated inventors and other successful people. Schooling, after all, is not the same thing as education. But, isn't "slow" pretty much equated to "bad" (not to say "handicapped") when it comes to learning? Well... I consider myself to be a student of the human condition, and hope I never stop learning.

That's different, though. (Is it?) Hmmm...

There are some cultures in which it is common for young people to stay at home long after completing their formal education--even after getting advanced and professional degrees from universities. They stay until they get married, working and saving up to start their own household, even if they are pushing 40! Nobody in such places regards such people as stupid, bad, lazy, or retarded; they're just wisely conserving resources so that when they get married they have some start-up capital to fund their dreams.

So, what's the big rush in the US to make sure every kid learns a certain "core curriculum" by the time they are 18? Or 22?

Is it because everyone else does? Is it because it would be an embarrassing failure if the Jones' (the ones we're always trying to keep up with) kids finished school first? Those are hardly good reasons for a rights-respecting person to lean on happy and free young people to do something as unnatural as working for hours on math drills when they'd rather be doing something else.

But that's crazy! I don't want my kids hanging around the house until I'm 70!

Or do I? Isn't that what used to happen all the time a century or two ago (assuming you were lucky enough not to outlive all your children)? Whether you were born in a nobleman's chateau in France or a homesteader's cabin on the western prairie, you were not expecting your children to get a job and their own apartment after finishing school. Even if you did go away to study for a while, you were likely to come back to the family and work the land (or the peasants). You took care of the older folks, and they watched over your kids while you worked--the whole extended family model took care of everyone. Growing up on the frontier, you didn't want your kids to move away when they grew up; you wanted them to stay, build a house nearby when they married, and keep growing the family so more land could be put under cultivation.

As I thought of this, images of an old rancher with his drooling, ignorant sons shooting up the town came to mind. That's just Hollywood, but still--is that what I wanted? On the other paw, there are different made-for-TV images, such as Ben Cartwright and his resourceful and intelligent sons running the Ponderosa Ranch. That's still just Hollywood, but such situations did exist.

So... Why this all-fired hurry to rush children through their "education"? Is doing it fast more important than doing it well? Of course not, but that's really what it boils down to, since learning always happens best when a mind is ready and eager to take in and think about new knowledge, ideas, and discoveries. Some would argue that there is a hurry to make best use of the greater "absorbency" of young minds, but I wonder if it's really that much harder for older minds to learn new tricks, or if it's not more likely that older minds have had the pleasure of learning crushed out of them (by the very urgency to make young people learn, even if they aren't ready to/don't want to).

Reality check: what if my cubs get to be 50 years old and still don't know calculus? Or how to balance chemical equations? Or write a computer program? Well, I know how to do those things, but I've never once had to do any of them since leaving school. As exercises, learning those things did teach me a lot about the way the world works and how to solve problems and how to use math as a tool. But if that's the crucial learning, might I not have done just as well learning those basic skills and then expanding my capabilities to calculus only if I needed it?

When I think about it, other than providing context, 99% of what I learned in school is completely useless in my daily life. And by the time I graduated from high school, I was busy cramming my mind with contexts that interested me, via a subscription to Scientific American and lots of cool physics books and journals I found in libraries. I didn't even learn to write in school--I was still in school when I really grokked expressing myself through written English, but I learned it on my own, having absolutely hated just about every English class I ever took, or was forced to take. Context can be absorbed through simply living life in the world and reading about the things one doesn't experience, and the basic skills I finally mastered by the time I graduated from college can, and I believe should, be taught to much younger minds at times those minds are ready and eager to learn the skills. My major point is not that education should take longer, but that it works best when it's not coerced, however long--or short--that takes.

But what if one of my sons never wanted to learn anything, never "felt like" even learning a basic skill or tool?

Stop and think about that for a minute: that's silly. Any two year old knows that knowledge is power, even if s/he can't express it that way. Wolf cubs are no different than other kids; they want to know how things work, how to do things, how to exercise some control over their environment. Ah, the ecstatic face of victory, when a toddler learns how to do his or her own buttons! Oh, the endless hours of fun my children enjoy, reading book after book! It's usually when it comes to things with no immediate application for most kids--like balancing chemical equations--that we see what merely looks like disinterest in learning. Curiosity and the desire for security and the need for self confidence are present in all healthy children, though curiosity is often beaten out of them over time.

Whoa--let me not look down my long lupine nose at those lousy parents and brainwashing schools that beat the curiosity out of their children! We were leaning on my cubs to learn things the way we wanted them to, so, for a while at least, we were in the same trap. I can understand the desire to try to make them learn; I felt it myself. And when we slipped and let that desire take the driver's seat, we saw their curiosity dim!

Is it any wonder?

No, the wonder is that it took us so long to see the inconsistency between our methods and our values. Have we not often and loudly proclaimed that freedom is essential to human beings? That they and their social aggregates work best when they are left to pursue their own values as individuals? Have we not said for years that a person is a person, no matter how small?

Okay, okay, this all sounds grand, but what if some kids just want to sit and play video games all day, for the rest of their lives?

Well, no two year old would--after a while, they'd be just dying to go outside and play with mud or something else for a while... And perhaps a child who is unschooled wouldn't either, if they made it to an age in two digits without their curiosity and eagerness to learn dimmed. If you've never met one, you'd be surprised how reasonable children who've always been treated like real people with full rights can be. In my experience, I have been able to negotiate with such children, even on some very difficult issues, to find some kind of win-win scenario. However, I am fallible, and I know that sometimes negotiations fail. In that case, the thing to remember might be that no person, no matter how small, has a right to force those they depend on to subsidize behaviors the providers regards as unhealthy or self-destructive. The flip side of not forcing them to do things our way is that they don't get to force us to do everything their way (or, at least they don't get to force parents to pay for things they don't approve of). Might not a junior couch potato learn a thing or two by having to go out and mow lawns or come up with some way to buy his or her own TV and gaming equipment? If they are not going to bother investing in themselves, they could at least "do chores" or find some other way to return some value to the family upon which they depend.

Of course, I would never force children to do chores, but I see no reason to pay for electricity for them to numb their minds on the boob-tube while I wash their clothes and dishes. Interestingly enough, at about the same age where book learning and lessons with instructors (whether parents, teachers, or tutors) become important, children are also old enough to clean up after themselves and to do simple chores that help the family of which they are members. The way I'm starting to see it, a baby has a right to live off his or her parents completely since the parents created the baby and the baby is completely incapable of doing anything for itself. However, in proportion to a child's ability to do for him or her self, he or she should. That means that toddlers should pick up their toys (perhaps with a lot of help at first), older children can help with household chores, and young adults can actually work or take on duties in the household which free up their parents to do more work. Certainly an adult still living with his or her parents could and should be expected to contribute to the household.

One result of children being encouraged and empowered to assume more and more of the responsibilities of adulthood until they are capable of fully independent living would be a smoother "growing up" process. This could have all kinds of psychological benefits over the abrupt and arbitrary jolt into adulthood so common today (and so commonly unsuccessful!). The vast majority of teenagers hunger for respect from their elders; would it not be healthier and more likely to succeed to let them earn it as they are able than to deny it until they reach a certain age and then expect them to be worthy of it?

Okay, so we have children learning at their own paces, we have young people taking on responsibilities for themselves (including most entertainment expenses ;-), we have adults leaving home as soon or as late as they want to... This is starting to resemble one of Robert Heinlein's strange family arrangements. Now, how would something like coughing up $25,000 a year for a 15-year-old prodigy or a 25-year-old recent medieval philosophy enthusiast work in such model?

Well, my partner and I aren't planning on forking over large sums of cash for college, just because everyone else does. In part because it might benefit us to have successful children around when we get old, but mostly because we love our children and value their success regardless of any returns to ourselves, we'd be happy to subsidize real education to the extent we can. "Investing" in education, we would agree, is investing in a child's future. We don't see a college education as a "moral blank check" over our heads that we have to fund no matter what. Instead, we see it as something worth investing in, if we have the liquidity to do so. (We do, however, think it's healthy for college students to pay for their schooling, at least in part; it's human nature to value things more when you have to work for them.)

It might be different for other families. Some parents of de facto adults who want to continue their educations in ways they can't pay for themselves might take out a loan with the family--or even float a personal bond issue if it's a really big extended family. The details don't matter. Family members support one another. The forms of that support might be different in an extended parenting/growing up model, but it's still a family--one committed to help the young learn and mature in healthy and uncoerced ways.

Is such a purely voluntary scheme of parenting/education/family life truly possible?

Let's turn that around: is coercion worth the price?

What mental anguish do today's procrustean educational and parenting practices impose on hundreds of millions of children? Is it really all that surprising that in rigid, bureaucratic "schools" where children's rights are routinely violated--as are their bodies and minds with searches, psychotropic drugs, and "behavior modification" meddling--some kids go postal? If the sanitized, "parents know best" home is run in an equally authoritarian way, is it any wonder that so many young people feel so trapped and powerless that suicide becomes an attractive option? The routinized, systematized, mechanized coercion of young minds may only occasionally produce corpses, but it destroys the joy of learning. One crushing human experience at a time, a billion times a day, every day, most parenting and educational philosophies are reducing the health and future creative output of our entire species.

In the context of an extended family, in which all members choose to participate and add value according to their ability to do so (educating oneself being a sort of addition of delayed value), it seems to make sense to allow learning to occur when it is most effective; when the learning mind is open to it. As the old Zen saying goes: when the student is ready, the master will appear.

Like the old extended families on the western frontier, the new extended families of the 21st century could benefit the old, the young, and those in the middle. No day care centers, no old folks' homes. As long as individuals are free to exit the family structure as soon as they are able to support themselves, those remaining in are there by choice. Whether or not this is augmented in ways Heinlein experimented with in his novels, what results is a non-coercive environment that can maximize healthy growing, uncoerced learning, low-stress (non-confrontational) parenting, and loving care for those who have not yet gained, and those who have lost, the ability to care for themselves.

Such a complex set or relationships might take a lot of work to maintain, but it would be worth it--and would sure beat the heck out of the nanny state!

(c) 2001


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