This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Do Your Kids a Favor: Send Them to Daycare

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The American Psychological Association’s recent announcement that working mothers experience greater levels of happiness and lower rates of depression than their stay-home counterparts is not exactly a revelation. Nor is it surprising that a number of Internet commenters have reacted to the “news” with a faux concern that working mothers make children unhappy, and that there is nothing worse for our kids than this new and dangerous trend of being left with (gasp!) paid strangers for most of the day. Such comments are based on one of the most enduring myths about parenting — that historically, children (at least in the Western world) were raised as nature intended, by their closest family. History, however, is quite different.

In fact, the goal of parenting for much of Western history seems to have been to minimize the time children spent with their parents. Children of aristocrats and wealthy merchants were separated from their mothers virtually at birth and given over to the care of wetnurses — even though such mothers arguably had the most leisure to dedicate themselves entirely to child care. As soon as children were weaned, they passed into the care of private tutors and clergy. From the age of about seven, aristocratic boys were sent away to serve as pages with other powerful families. Girls too, were often sent away to serve as ladies-in-waiting, though perhaps when they were a bit older (but only a bit). In an age when travel was time-consuming, perilous and expensive, children who left their homes to learn how to be lords and ladies elsewhere would not see their parents again for several years. Meanwhile the parents would also employ pages and ladies in their household — namely, other people’s children.

This curious exchange of children was not limited to the upper class. Sons of middling merchants and artisans departed at a young age to be apprenticed in their trade — with a different family (usually of non-relatives), often in a different city, not to be reunited with mom and dad for at least seven years, and likely much longer than that. Sons of farmers were sent away to work as farmhands on other people’s farms, while their parents hired other people’s boys to work for them. Girls were sent to other families to learn domestic service.

Later, with the waning of baronial power and the rise of private colleges, children of the elite would be sent to schools — boys to receive formal education, girls to be raised at convents or (in the case of Protestant countries) boarding schools geared towards their needs.

Only children of the truly poor — small-time peasants and the urban working class — were traditionally raised by their parents, but even here, sending at least the sons away was something to aspire to. In the golden age of medieval warfare, for example, menial jobs for boys in army baggage trains were highly coveted. Despite the awesome hardships of medieval military life, for a boy from a modest background, a job as a baggage varlet represented an opportunity to see the world, learn a foreign language, ingratiate himself into the service of an important person, pick up some polish and perhaps even acquire some formal education.

Now, this culture of separating small children from parents was not universal; Renaissance Italy is a notable exception that comes to mind. But, it certainly predominated in Western Europe, and while it would be wrong to conclude that parents throughout those centuries did not love or miss their children, physical proximity to mom and dad was not considered a positive factor in education. In fact, most European education through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and right on down to the Enlightenment seemed to have been based on two principles:

1. Children learn best from people who are not their parents. (This explains why most artisans did not apprentice their own sons, despite the expectation that their sons would go into the same trade.)

2. Learning how to establish connections and cultivate relationships, instead of relying on those already established for them, is essential to quality upbringing.

Upon a close reading of history, the idea that being cared for and educated by “paid strangers” is bad appears to be quite recent, and today’s working mothers probably have more face-time with their kids than traditional housewives did for most of history.

While there is a lot to be said for boarding schools, I am not advocating that parents today should start sending their kids away as soon as they are old enough to hold a spoon — or indeed, at all. We have different sensibilities now than people did five centuries ago, and there is no reason we should ignore the feelings instilled in us by our own culture. Still, history provides a very useful, different and refreshing perspective when people start talking about the evils of daycare.

After all, short of parents being abusive, it is understood that they will ultimately forgive any flaw or transgression in their own children, while exaggerating their good qualities. But when children live and learn in the company of non-relatives, however competent and benevolent, the benefits of human interaction have to be negotiated and earned. Consistently fail at your tasks, and people will write you off as worthless. Have a nasty attitude, and you’ll find yourself alone and friendless around the holidays. Withhold friendly favors, and no one will have your back when you get in trouble. Misplace your things, and you’ll have to do without them, because your mommy isn’t here to wipe your bottom and keep an eye on your stuff.

Having to navigate one’s way among different people from an early age trains children’s minds to be flexible and better capable at negotiation and working through conflicts. In my own interactions, one of the most remarkable things I’ve noticed about people who are homeschooled, is that while they can possess a wealth of knowledge and think really complex thoughts, they are incapable of handling conflict between different opinions. I am not even talking about politics here. A disagreement about what Shakespeare meant in this or that line can drive a homeschooled person into a complete dead end, because that’s the logical outcome of being shielded from the thoughts, feelings and demands of others. They can regurgitate, but they are incapable of persuasion or co-existing in respectful disagreement.

At the same time, the idea that people outside of one’s immediate family or religious circle are immoral, indifferent, dangerous or otherwise harmful cultivates socially incompetent adults who fear the outside world and are incapable of functioning in it. In the case of ambitious homeschoolers, like the Patrick Henry College crowd, they are also tone-deaf to the wants and needs of the very people they intend to lead.

To be sure, there are dangers “out there”, but keeping children at home for as long as possible is no way to teach them to cope with those dangers. Ultimately, when some of us decide to have children, it is understood that we are bringing them into a complicated and often perilous world. The least we can do for them is let them learn how to navigate this crazy life.

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