Am I Letting My Fourth-Grader Down?

Wed, August 5, 2009

Changing the World, Moms & Politics

Politics aren’t always just about elected officials, legislation and astro-turf. I’ve realized over time that politics are everywhere, including in today’s world of parenting.   Too many of us are quick to judge the decisions of other parents — are you a stay-at-home parent or do you work full-time?  Are you somewhere in the middle or are you a non-custodial parent?  I was reminded the other day that some parents are even critical in the very early days of our child’s lives, saying things like,  “You mean you sent her to daycare and not preschool?!”

There are so many venues for the now infamous “mommy wars.”  But Africa isn’t one of them.  I’m no expert, but I think it’s probably safe to say that most families in most African countries don’t have that luxury.

That reality hit home when I took a look at this amazing picture from Jen Lemen from her Picture Hope journey.  At the moment, she and Stephanie Roberts are in Rwanda taking pictures and collecting stories that will remind those of us who are believe we have a corner on the hope and optimism market here in our comfy homes in our lovely neighborhoods that that really isn’t the case.

Just because life hasn’t dealt you the perfect hand, doesn’t mean hope doesn’t exist in most places in the world.

The photo today at the PBS SuperSisters site is a beautiful portrait of Jen and a 10-year-old Rwandan girl.  And in talking with the girls there — girls who are only a few months older than PunditGirl — Jen reflects:

One of the things that strikes me about children in Africa is how independent and self-sufficient they are. Your average ten year old can navigate the bus system, go to the market to buy food, care for a younger sibling, wash clothes by hand and walk a good mile or two to carry water home for the entire family.

In light of this, she wonders — and now so do I — are we spoiling our children?  Are we as parents too overprotective in our society?  Even if we aren’t “helicopter parents,” are we doing our children a disservice by tending to them as we do and not letting them explore the beginnings of adult responsibility?

As I read her post, I couldn’t help but think of my slight bout of stress as PunditGirl boarded a big bus to travel to an all day outdoor camp this week.  She’s never done this sort of activity before and has never traveled by herself so far without some parent in tow.  I worried about whether there would be enough water and sunscreen, and about whether it was really safe for her to learn how to tip over in a kayak safely and whether I could trust the rope wing over the lake.

I’ve only left her at home alone once at this age, and that was to dash to the store 2 minutes down the street from my house for a box of pasta and only after I had lectured her for five minutes about not answering the door or the telephone and making sure she had my cell number.

When I was her age, I know I was more self-sufficient — I walked from my grandparents’ house to the post office in a rural area without anyone along.  I worked in my family’s vegetable garden, could drive a tractor and pitch bales of hay.   When I was a smidge older, I was helping to clean the house, cook meals and keep an eye on my two younger siblings during the hour or two of time after school when my parents were still both at work.

So Jen, as she always seems to do, has given me a lot of food for thought when it comes to raising daughters and how we can help them become the strong girls we hope they’ll be.

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8 Responses to “Am I Letting My Fourth-Grader Down?”

  1. MammaLoves Says:

    Oh I know. I was doing more chores at my children’s age. Our kids are stronger than we know.

  2. JennK Says:

    We’re doing a poor job of creating functional adults. Along with the nature/volume of chores and contributing to the family, our kids are missing out on mastering organization and reasoning skills. Everything is done by rote — the teacher tells the student exactly what assignments to write in their school-sanctioned planner, we guide our children step-by-step through every chore & task, we even structure their play-dates. Our kids are no longer expected or even given the freedom to figure things out for themselves — how to complete an assignment, learn how to streamline chores through trial & error, what games to play at the park. They aren’t given the opportunity to fail and learn from their mistakes in the low-stake world of childhood. Instead, we create an artificial environment of success. When these kids reach adulthood, they’re expected to have mastered these critical thinking skills simply because they’ve been so structured for so long, but because they haven’t put any of the work into it, they aren’t prepared to do it themselves. I wonder if this has anything to do with the increasing college drop-out rate…?

  3. Diana Says:

    I think we have to stop to consider the circumstances under which we live as well. I’m no expert, but I would say that the living circumstances of the Rwandan people much more closely resemble that of those living rurally in the US than those living in cities and towns. And here — we live rurally — I see kids (in general) having more responsibility and independence than I do in towns and cities.

    My four year old knows how to tend and harvest a garden and can throw hay for the horses like a pro. My seven year old has several meals she is able to make completely solo for dinner, she knows how to do laundry from start to finish (granted we have a washing machine); can load, run and unload the dishwasher; knows how to properly stack a hay loft full; can drive the riding lawn mower and has been in the driver’s seat of a tractor on my lap or her fathers more times than I can count; she can shoot a gun and has improved her aim immensely this summer; she rides her bike down the road to the neighbor’s house when we’re outside (we can see her the whole way); all in all I’m fairly confident if something happened tomorrow and I had to leave her home alone, she’d fare fine. But like I said our living circumstances dictate a different life here. At times when talking with people who live in cities and towns – people we know well – it feels like we live in an entirely different world. And the people of Rwanda do, too.

    I’m not sure where you live Joanne, but if you’re in a well-populated area I think to some extent there’s only so much you can do. You know? My kids have wide open hundred acre fields to learn how to drive a tractor in, if they go the wrong way they’re not going to crash into the neighbor’s garage. In a way it makes exercises in independence/survival skills easier here — and in a much greater way because of necessity in Rwanda as well.

  4. Anita Says:

    I was just thinking about the rural/town difference, as others have already commented on. I think there’s another factor– city kids tend to be really independent as well. They are confident on public transportation and talking with others, speaking up for themselves.

    I’m wondering if this is something we suburban parents have to be extra vigilant about– letting our kids do more themselves, have more free time, fail more, try more, and ultimately gain more confidence in themselves and their abilities.

    My spouse and I have sworn up and down that our kids should get plenty of free time alone to explore and figure things out. The smartest, most capable people we know grew up like that– not with a zillion lessons every week. Lots of good food for thought, Joanne, thank you.

  5. sumana Says:

    i come from a third world country have been to U.S. only for 9yrs now..i have to say my 7yr old is less independent here than i was in my country at that age. i walked to school with my friends, went out in the evening to play in the fields, my mom left me home and went to the stores near by and we didn’t even have telephone, telephone came to our house when i was in 7th grade but i was responsible enough to not to open doors while mom was gone, or touch the cooking burners or matches and not only that i was also sent to the nearby grocery store alone to get small things…but now i cannot even think about doing these things with my child……it’s not because iam in U.S. even in my country the parents are not doing these any more. Part of it is because with everything going around in the world we have become a panickstricken society more or less and our kids to some extent are suffering from these….they are less confident as they are always being told what to do by an adult and always wathched and hovered around. i don’t know what’s the solution as i am too less confident in bringing up my children the way i grew up.

  6. Daisy Says:

    I run up against this conundrum in my teaching. Parents (often!) complain that I expect too much of their little ones. I start from scratch each year, adding responsibility little by little, but there are still parents who will not accept that their children must learn to do it themselves or take the consequences. On the other hand, I see 4th graders who are responsible for getting themselves up, dressed, and to school each morning completely on their own – and that’s often too much.

  7. Cynthia Samuels Says:

    What a wonderful post – and we all know Jen Lemen always inspires. I think it’s a tough call because the world is not as it was when you were a kid. We all need to let our kids be more independent but always with that awareness. What I have learned is that if we act like they need to be too protected they will think we don’t trust them. If we act confident – even quaking on the inside – that they can “do it” they will believe that too, eventually. My son took the bus from the west to the east side for a playdate in 4th grade after only riding to and from school, with no changes, since the beginning of the year. He was fine. I wasn’t — and then I was. You will be too.


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