A Serious Interlude: Issues of Security and Privilege for Interested Children

The Interested Child proceeds from a number of assumptions, but then so does the way we speak of childhood in our society. “We believe that children are our future,” we sing, and we like to believe that this belief is common across the spectrum of humanity, especially in the industrial democracies that have defined the world we live in and shaped the way in which we envision childhood. Children are special, are learners, are to be protected and nurtured and looked after as they make their way through an educational system designed to prepare them for the world they will inherit as adults.

But the fact is that not every child in our society is on this path. Millions live in poverty and attend schools that are underfunded and underappreciated in every way. Segregation has returned to the American public school system, holding hands with an over-reliance on standardized testing and an under-reliance on the good will and dedication of teachers. We are gripped by reports of events in which young people, in particular young men of color, are gunned down by forces allegedly representing law and order while going about their business, unarmed and unprepared for the swift violence that escalates in the blink of an eye to end their lives.

Some of my friends on Facebook tell the story: How as parents of color they feel increasingly insecure allowing their children out in the world, how every parent of an African American male must have “the talk” with their son about how to comport himself when confronted by official suspicion, how to channel, nearly 60 years after Number 42 took the field for the Dodgers, the patience and resilience of Jackie Robinson when stalked or harassed or accused. While self-deluded reactionaries congratulate themselves on living in a “post-racial” society (whatever that even means), people on the front lines of building a multi-racial society—parents, teachers, children—know that the struggle for equal opportunity and equal rights continues undiminished.

At the heart of this struggle lies the matter of privilege—call it race privilege, skin privilege, whatever. It may be distressing to have this brought up on a blog site devoted to developing the curiosity and intellectual and creative passion of children, but events this week in Missouri, whatever the “facts,” are a reminder that interested children, even if they may be created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, are not always treated equally. It’s far too complex a topic to address here in great detail, but parents of the economically and socially dominant races and classes owe it to themselves and their interested children to take up the question of the unearned privilege that comes with race and class, privilege that some us of gain only by accident of birth and lineage.

Part of the recognition of what this unearned privilege means is an acknowledgment that not everyone has it, and that the assumptions and presumptions that we make about the world and how it works do not apply to everyone. To teach a child this, to help him or her develop the humility and circumspection to move through the world fully invested in and open to their own experience as well as the experience and perspectives of others, is to give a gift of inestimable proportion.

Some readers will take offense at this suggestion, I am sure, but what better way to help a child develop the habits of mind and soul to navigate and appreciate the many cultures and possibilities of this earth than by opening his or her mind to the idea that not everyone does or can expect the same things of life, regardless of their intelligence or interests or will? What better way to help a child develop the empathy and understanding that can help him or her contribute humbly and fully through a lifetime toward making this world a better, safer, and even more wondrous place?

#72. Climb a mountain (or a hill) or hike a trail

IDEA #72. Climb a mountain (or a hill) or hike a trail. You may be able to find a nearby trail by consulting a local hiking or mountain club. If you can get to the Rockies, or the Alps, so much the better. Whenever you’re hiking, be sure to take a map and whatever else you need to stay safe and on-track—and don’t go hiking alone!

Hiking is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the experience of completing a trail or summiting a significant peak—significance being relative; for beginners even a good-sized hill is a notable accomplishment—is hard to beat. Along with the physical elements of the hike, there is also the matter of navigation that may require good observation skills and perhaps some map-reading. In addition, there are things to see: plants, landscape, rocks, or even elements of the built (man-made) environment if the trail is in a developed area.IMG_1071

Hiking trails are everywhere, and if you haven’t been aware of those in your general area, a few inquiries should bring you to a trailhead. Local jurisdictions, local hiking clubs, and even the federal government maintain tens of thousands of miles of trails, including the Appalachian Trail that extends from North Carolina to Maine and the Pacific Crest Trail that covers the length of California, Oregon, and Washington State; there is even a coast-to-coast trail being developed.

Trail safety is sometimes more than common sense. Many hiking clubs or outdoor-gear retailers have tips on their websites regarding basic equipment (maps, good shoes, a light, water bottle, a first-aid kit) for hiking.

The hiking experience can be enriched in any number of ways. Go with friends, for one, and take along a good (and current) trail guide; the best of these not only explain routes but also remark on notable natural and historical sights to be seen along the way. A field guide to plants, trees, or birds can be useful, as can a pair of binoculars or a lightweight telescope. The literature of the outdoor life is extensive, with almost anything by Henry David Thoreau being good trail reading; Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums may be the classic hiking novel for high school-age readers, familiar to anyone with a commitment to mountain climbing in particular.

Ever since European literati and painters began poking around in the wilderness for fun in the nineteenth century, hiking has been something of an intellectual endeavor. Whether the trail is in the Alps or an urban industrial corridor, the act and the reflection will provide plenty of food for thought.

In case the youngster or a member of the hiking party has limited mobility, there are an increasing number of adaptive trails in various parts of the country that accommodate hikers in wheelchairs or who have severe sensory impairments.

#68. Go to an arts or music camp for a week; fine-tune some skills and make some new friends

IDEA #68. Go to an arts or music camp for a week; fine-tune some skills and make some new friends

This is one of the suggestions that sounds as though it might cost some real money, but many communities and non-profit organizations sponsor arts programs for young people at little or no cost, and even the more expensive may offer some form of financial aid.

Here is an opportunity for the young person to immerse him or herself in the creative process for a period of time, and to do so in the uninhibited presence of others. Local museums, art schools, and even colleges often run these programs, either as summer programs as implied in the suggestion or as Saturday morning classes; many programs will accept older children or teenagers into adult sessions. It makes little difference who runs the program or what the focus is, as long as the student is interested and excited about being a part of it.

“Music camp” often presupposes some knowledge of an instrument, but this is not always the case. In any event, most human beings are possessed of at least one natural instrument, the voice, and skilled teachers can turn even the froggiest of children into passable singers in a surprisingly short period of time; the will to sing can conquer all but total tone-deafness. The drum can also be picked up by aspiring musicians on the spot, although not every family will welcome their young drummer home again.

Programs in the visual arts usually focus on a particular medium, with courses leveled based on experience. Of these, courses involving technology—photography, film-making—may have associated expense, and a developed interest in ceramics may involve access to a potter’s wheel and a kiln. But cross such bridges as you come to them.

Our Cure for Your “Summer Reading” Dilemma

The Interested Child was born as a list of activities put together by a couple of us working at a school in response to a heated discussion about what to assign for summer reading and how to hold students accountable.

Our thought was, Why not ask kids to have other kinds of learning experiences? Even if we’re not going to “check up on” them, we could just create a menu of ideas that might be fun and interesting–and educational in all the ways that we think are important.

So if your school is about to start the annual discussion of summer reading, or if you’re ready for a change, just download The Interested Child‘s list below and adapt it for your needs.

Or if you are the parent or guardian of an interested child, or if you work with interested children and want some ideas to keep them engaged and learning this summer, the The Interested Child‘s list might give you some inspiration.

You have seen some of these ideas in more detail here, and in the future you will see more of them–but this is the short version, suitable for distribution from your school, library, or organization website–or the front desk..

All we ask is that you mention us if you publish or adapt the document–but spread the word, and share the wealth!


#36. Explore a place that is part of your heritage—it could be a neighborhood, or it could be a country

IDEA #36. Explore a place that is part of your heritage—it could be a neighborhood, or it could be a country. Imagine what it was like to live there “back in the day,” and imagine what your life would be like if you lived there now.

It is common in schools for students to engage in exercises relating to their heritage, and questions among students such as, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” (meaning, What is your ethnic background?) are a regular part of young people’s experience. And although a child may know in some vague way that his or her ancestors are from Scotland or West Africa or Greece, he or she may not be truly able to imagine what it would be like to live and work in an ancestral homeland. Furthermore, the child may also be unaware of specific information about his or her heritage, information that could be gathered either from existing family records or memories or from some library or Internet research.

This activity may be among the most challenging, and most fun, of any. Beside the obvious financial difficulties involved in putting a heritage trip together, there is the matter of planning an itinerary that somehow authentically relates to known aspects of the child’s family background. Where to go, what to see—these questions require choices and sometimes best guesses.

For children who may be refugees, or adopted, or whose families may have been brought to America by force (as slaves, say), the challenges are more profound and potentially more troubling. Clearly some destinations are simply out of bounds—war zones or prohibited travel zones—while others may only be approximations of a family’s place of origin; although more resources are becoming available for the study of genealogy of slave families, many lead only to regions and not to specific localities. For some adopted children, the question of heritage may touch on emotional vulnerabilities that may be better left alone until the child is older, in which case this activity should be ignored.

For those with limited resources or Native American ancestry, domestic travel is an answer. With Americans so mobile a people (families in this country move on the average of once every five years), it does not take long for many miles to accumulate between generations; few youngsters can tell you, much less have visited, where all their grandparents were born. A trip to one of these birthplaces, even if it just another town in the same state, will help connect the young person with his or her heritage in a way that mere words can never do.

#27. Spend some time in a place where English (or whatever your native language might be) is not in common use

IDEA #27. Spend some time in a place where English (or whatever your native language might be) is not in common use.

This may be a suggestion for older (probably high school-age) children, but family vacations and even group service trips or tours could involve younger children.

Although this suggestion may sound as though it involves exotic and expensive international travel, it might also be possible to accomplish this through low- or no-cost domestic service or service-learning programs into the Southwest, into immigrant communities, or even onto Native American reservations. And Canada has several regions in which English is not residents’ usual first language.

A fact of North American life is that in many areas—some large, some small—English is spoken only as a second language. Whole communities of Spanish speakers abound in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Texas, while in a few Native American Indian communities indigenous languages are making a strong stand or even in resurgence. Particularly in urban areas, growing populations of recently arrived immigrants maintain their own languages as a barrier against cultural loss. Even if it may be difficult to find residential experiences in the non-English-speaking U.S.A., there may be abundant local opportunities to spend significant amounts of time among communities that function with little or no use of English. Some volunteer experiences in such communities involve teaching English, but others focus on even more elemental needs; many such programs are faith-based. Family experiences in culturally novel regions of one’s home country can be of great value.

If finances allow and interests inspire ways to seek non-English-speaking experiences outside the country, a number of programs—some focusing on language instruction, others on service, and some on cultural exchange—exist. In addition, family travel is a great and supportive introduction to unfamiliar cultures, and it may be that the younger family members adapt to linguistic and cultural challenges more readily than adults, providing a shot of confidence in addition to the learning. Let language not be seen as a barrier but rather as an opportunity; some basics can be acquired via on-line or media-based programs, but one of the exciting aspects of travel is to learn to communicate across language barriers. (And do not forget that virtually the entire province of Quebec in easily accessible eastern Canada is aggressively involved in maintaining its heritage as a French-speaking region.)

Formal cross-cultural experiential programs that serve high-school students are growing in number, including even a few that involve the student living away for a full school term or year. Of course, any program should be thoroughly investigated, and no student should ever be enrolled in any program about which any unanswered questions exist. Reputable programs like the American Field Service, School Year Abroad, and the Experiment in International Living have been engaged in this work for decades, but about less well-known operators the family will need to do research, perhaps with the help of a school counselor or language teacher. The most established programs, incidentally, offer some financial aid.

The point of cross-cultural experience is to be intellectually challenged and inspired and not merely to have one’s ticket punched as part of a résumé-building experience. If the prospect of such an experience is truly exciting to the student, then find it and do it, and the results will be far more profound than a line-item on a college application.

#18. Take a course on a college campus

IDEA #18. Take a course on a college campus

While this could indeed involve finding a suitable course and setting off for a far-off destination, this suggestion could also involve something as modest—and as relatively affordable—as enrolling in a course in a nearby community college. This is probably a suggestion suitable to high school students, but some colleges have ongoing programs or even special events–MIT’s SPLASH program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, draws kids from all over the country–specifically aimed at students as young as upper elementary

This should not be done for any other reason than that the student is interested in or curious about the subject matter. If indeed the course is part of a summer residential program, then it requires a serious commitment of time, energy, and intellectual curiosity—as well as money. He student needs to be ready to work hard to make the most of the opportunity.

This is the time for a strong, even stentorian, caveat: The world is full of ambitious high schoolers busily padding and polishing their c.v.’s by amassing college courses and summer programs set on college campuses. While such activities may have educational value for participants along with whatever luster they might add to a college application (and college admission offices are quite good at distinguishing expensive résumé-building from authentic learning), they are generally regarded by participants only as mildly—or more—distasteful rites of passage, a summer or nights spent fulfilling an obligation.

The kind of college course that the provocative parent offers to a child will be one in which the child is genuinely interested without its having any particular instrumental value in making the student look good; if a record of the course makes the curious student look curious, that is all right. Let the student really look for something that he or she regards as intellectually fun, even if it bears no relation to any category needing fulfillment in a list of graduation requirements. And let the student work hard because the material is engaging and not to earn yet another accolade. The thinking child will acquire plenty of those in time, and they will be accolades with real significance.

#9. Imagine renting an RV and driving across the country

Although we pledged at the outset to provide suggestions that could be taken up by those with limited means, there are some ideas so compelling that it might be well worth the effort and sacrifice of even two or three years’ saving and planning to implement. Many of these involve travel, sometimes overseas, and some might best involve multiple family members to be truly successful as they are presented; many of these also involve considerable time that could mean stretching vacation allotments to the maximum or sacrificing work income.

Thus, some of the suggestions in this section will appear to be for the affluent alone. We would strongly suggest, however, that community resources and even financial aid might well be found that could reduce the burden. In addition, a thoughtful student and an energetic family might be able to develop some specific fundraising schemes focused on making one or more of these suggestions feasible. This will not be easy, but the payoff in terms of a powerful, life-changing thinking and learning experience could be enormous.

Perhaps some of the suggestions among the Big Ideas Requiring Serious Planning and Resources will inspire a child to begin dreaming and, more importantly, to begin developing a plan to realize a dream. Not every suggestion will appeal to that degree, but a couple of them should at least pique some curiosity and generate some thought.

IDEA #9. Imagine getting hold of an RV and driving across the country. Send each of your teachers a postcard from someplace interesting. Keep a journal. If the RV is too much, take a car and a tent. If cross-country is too much, visit a state or two that you’ve never been to. Don’t forget the postcards

Not for the faint of heart or the short on resources, this was once the ne plus ultra of educational vacation ideas. Cross-country travel has been the iconic American experience since the days of the Forty-Niners, but in recent years the ease of air travel has induced more and more vacationers to eschew the highway and turn much of our nation into “fly-over” territory.

But the recreational vehicle (RV—those bus- and trailer-like vehicles with brand names like Winnebago that provide many of the comforts of home for families on the move) has also grown, and more and more families are electing to pile aboard to explore the highways and sights of America. Not only are there things to be seen along the open road—especially if the travelers avoid the interstates—but there are also big lessons to be learned about living in close quarters when underway for a few weeks at a time. (By contrast, the squeamish or claustrophobic might consider the journey of the Mayflower, into which a hundred travelers were packed for weeks without access to laundry or any but the most crude bathroom facilities. And the Mayflower was just a bit larger than a really big RV.)

If the notion of RVing from sea to shining sea is too much—and those who would have to drive need a stout heart and a strong commitment to the enterprise—it is also possible to travel around a single region. Car camping with tents and sleeping bags from campground to campground is also a time-honored way for Americans to get around, removing the need for a driver to be comfortable manhandling thirty or more feet of vehicle but also compressing the travelers into an interior only slightly larger than that of a Wells Fargo stagecoach; the enforced intimacy is not to everyone’s liking, but a pile of books on CD or, in the worst case, personal music players with headphones, can make the hours pass smoothly.

How you travel is a great deal less important than where you go, what you see, and above all how you look at and talk about what is observed. It is possible for a car full of people to travel many miles with its occupants contained within a cultural bubble impervious to outside influence, but a truly valuable journey must be made with eyes turned outward and minds wide open. Begin by carefully and practically planning the journey, which should be a relatively democratic process, and make sure that dialogue continues as the trip takes place; journal-keeping is also encouraged. Rather than merely sightseeing, a trip of this sort should truly be an odyssey of the mind.

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