Is adventure one way of being a kid again?

February 9th, 2011

In today’s Wall Street Journal’s article “In Defense of Being a Kid”, James Bernard Murphy (professor of government at Dartmouth College) looks at the recent debate around childhood discipline and preparation for adulthood. As a father of two teenage children I have followed this debate with interest for some time. It struck me that what he lists as blessings of childhood also come close to describing many of the joys of adventure. Below I intersperse some of my thoughts on those in between parts quoted from this article.

    Amy Chua, the “tiger mother,??? is clearly hitting a nerve—especially among the anxious class (it used to be called the upper class), which understands how much skill and discipline are necessary for success in the new economy.

    What Ms. Chua and her critics agree on is that childhood is all about preparation for adulthood. Ms. Chua claims that her parenting methods will produce ambitious, successful and happy adults—while her critics argue that her methods will produce neurotic, self- absorbed and unhappy ones.

    It took economist Larry Summers, in a debate with Ms. Chua at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to point out that part of the point of childhood is childhood itself. Childhood takes up a quarter of one’s life, Mr. Summers observed, and it would be nice if children enjoyed it.

    Children are not merely adults in training. They are also people with distinctive powers and joys. A happy childhood is measured not only by the standards of adult success, but also by the enjoyment of the gifts given to children alone.

Now the author goes on to ask what the unique blessings of childhood are:

    First is the gift of moral innocence: Young children are liberated from the burdens of the knowledge of the full extent of human evil—a knowledge that casts a pall over adult life. Childhood innocence permits children to trust others fully. How wonderful to live (even briefly) with such confidence in human goodness. Childhood innocence teaches us what the world ought to be.

When you are touring other countries by bicycle you do meet a lot of people along the road or in small towns. You experience basic joys – like the freedom of the road, discovery and wanderlust – and you have basic needs and desires – like finding food, shelter from the elements or a safe place to stay overnight. Other people recognize this intuitively and connect with that. Such basic motifs and needs unite people across different cultural, religious, economic and ethnic backgrounds. Many of the people you meet may give you directions, water and food – some may even invite you to stay at their place. They show human goodness and you trust them fully. I think such innocent connections remind us again of what the world ought to be.

    Second is the gift of openness to the future. We adults are hamstrung by our own plans and expectations. Children alone are free to welcome the most improbable new adventures.

The most improbable new adventures – I felt free to welcome those during my journey, and while I did have some expectations, I never felt hamstrung by them. Not quite knowing what the new day will bring is part of the allure of heading out on the open road…

    Third, children are liberated from the grim economy of time. Children become so absorbed in fantasy play and projects that they lose all sense of time. For them, time is not scarce and thus cannot be wasted.

Becoming absorbed in a project to the point where one loses all sense of time – that’s part of the experience of Flow, a concept in positive psychology I have written about previously. When you’re out in remote wilderness – such as the ice-fields around Mount Logan or the salt flats on the Bolivian altiplano – time takes on a different meaning. While the time of day still matters for practical reasons (daylight, temperature, etc.), the day of the week loses all importance, and one is indeed liberated from the grim economy of time.

    Finally, we parents are so focused on adult superiority that we forget that most of us produced our best art, asked our deepest philosophical questions, and most readily mastered new gadgets when we were mere children.

Asking deep philosophical questions requires us to take time for introspection, step back from the routine of everyday tasks and schedules, focus on the big picture. More than at any other time I found myself contemplating the purpose and the intrinsic joys of my actions. On the recumbent bicycle the daily pursuit of the horizon seemed like a perfect metaphor for the ephemeral pursuit of happiness.

    Tragically, there is a real conflict within childhood between preparation for adulthood and the enjoyment of the gifts of youth. Preparation for adulthood requires the adoption of adult prudence, discipline and planning that undermine the spontaneous adventure of childhood.

Here I’d prefer to use the word change over conflict. For example, even though I’m not young anymore – at least not by childhood standards – I enjoyed the gift of health, mobility and energy. I’m not so sure that prudence, discipline and planning necessarily always undermine adventure. It’s a balancing act: Venturing out into remote places is an adventure. At the same time, you want to be prudent and prepared enough that you don’t get yourself into serious trouble. I wouldn’t want to head out into the middle of the Salar de Uyuni without enough water or at least some tools to fix possible mechanical defects. But you also don’t want to plan ahead every detail of your journey either; many of the most wonderful meetings with local people resulted precisely from the need to improvise in unforeseen situations.

    Parents are deeply conflicted about how to balance these two basic demands: raising good little ladies and gentlemen, while also permitting children to escape into the irresponsible joys of Neverland.

    … But as parents we are stuck with trying to balance the paradoxical demands of both preparing our children for adulthood and protecting them from it.

    As the current dustup shows, many parents today would benefit hugely by taking a reflective time-out from teaching our children to discover how much we might learn from them.

Well said. – While kids can’t stay young forever, adventure is a good way of staying fit, remaining young at heart and experiencing childlike joys transcending the many confines of adulthood.

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