“Wait for me, Victoria,” I called to the girl walking ahead of me to school.
I was six, heading out to my school three or four blocks away. We didn’t have kindergarten, let alone pre-school back then in the small town where I grew up. I was setting out into a new world for the first time.
Victoria was my neighbour, and sometimes babysitter. She waited for me. Often, thereafter, we walked to school together.
But we didn’t have to. It was never arranged. I was simply let out the door to make my way to school. If it happened to coincide with Victoria’s walk, great! If not, I walked alone.
Nowadays, a parent wouldn’t think of that. They’d either fear what might happen to their children between home and school or they’d fear the strong arm of the law for child abandonment.
Many parents wouldn’t even send their kids to the neighbourhood playground without supervision.
We’re much worse off as a society for it, says Jonathan Haidt.
After considerable reflection, I agree with him.
Jonathan Haidt is a respected and prolific American social psychologist, probably most famous for his book The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by religion and politics (and in 2022, he might have added Covid.)
In a major essay, “Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid,” published last month in The Atlantic, Haidt decries the state that America has come to, where “red America and blue America are becoming two different countries claiming the same territory.”
While the divide is not as stark in Canada, the forces of division, whether in politics, religion, race, social class, economic disparity or covid, are just as rampant. And, in many cases, gaining momentum.
Haidt’s essay is strictly regarding the American scene, but it is equally applicable anywhere there is division. The causes (largely, but not solely, the second generation of social media) are the same everywhere, the results similar: neighbour pitted against neighbour, with vastly different views of the world.
Those same forces play out to devastating consequences in the Ukraine, in Iraq, in Palestine, in Sri Lanka, in Hong Kong, to name just a few obvious ones.
“I can’t be friends with you anymore (if you don’t embrace the full conspiracy theory of covid),” I was informed this winter. Happily, not all my friends had such limiting views.
Without going into the details of Haidt’s essay (you can read it here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/), he concludes that, without major changes, society “may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.”
What are the major changes required? He proposes three categories of reforms, and it’s the last one, “Prepare the next generation,” that got me thinking.
It’s not the fact that we need to prepare the next generation—that seems obvious–but his prescription for how to do it, that had me saying “Huh?” at first.
Our men’s group was assigned the reading for discussion at our next gathering. That prescription had the group saying their “Amens,” but had me, at first, bewildered.
We have failed members of Members of Gen Z (those born after 1997), says Haidt, by tightly circumscribing their childhood.
By contrast, says Haidt, citing other thinkers (including Steven Horwitz and Alex de Tocqueville), the prescription for children to learn the skills of co-operation is to allow them free, unstructured, unsupervised play in mixed-age groups of children with minimal adult supervision.
He’s not alone in that message. Apparently, several states have enacted “free-range parenting laws” that ensure that parents won’t be investigated for neglect of their children if they are found in neighbourhood parks unsupervised. Haidt urges others to follow.
“With such laws in place,” he says, “schools, educators, and public-health authorities should then encourage parents to let their kids walk to school and play in groups outside, just as more kids used to do.”
I wouldn’t conclude that that alone is the answer to world peace.
But, after much reflection, I think it would be a positive step in the right direction.
I did okay (I think) by walking to school myself, and playing with my friends, unsupervised.
At least, that’s how I see it . . .