Friday, August 08, 2008

Neglect the kids ... it will stop them getting bored

Modern parents over-organise children's playtime. Just let them get on with it, urges our writer

Just days into the long holiday and the summer soundtrack isn't so much the sleepy drone of busy bees as the whine of listless children. The thrills of liberty and long lie-ins have worn thin, everyone else seems to have fled the country to enjoy holidays abroad and the "I'm bored..." mantra is driving parents to breaking point.

The reaction of many well-meaning adults is to swiftly organise weeks of activity aimed at keeping every minute of every hour so crammed with events that their offspring's ennui will be eased before it gets a chance to set in. But should we bother? Isn't it time we recognised the benefits of boredom and gave children the chance to use their own initiative and learn how to entertain themselves?

Guilt simply comes with the territory for most parents, especially as so many people now work full-time and perform amazing juggling acts to ferry their children around, with timetables crammed not just with education but also with huge amounts of extracurricular activities. Holidays too are now packed with sports/art/drama camps, every minute timetabled.

Paddy O'Donnell, professor of social psychology at the University of Glasgow, has been studying the long-term effects of structured play and the way it has impacted at university level over the past ten to 15 years. "Children have a natural inclination to play and explore and until they reach around the age of 3 this is directed by the parents, hopefully helping them to deepen their curiosity and learn to use language to explore the world. "Once they reach 3 they are interested in social play, which becomes a major feature of their activities. Boredom shouldn't last long if children are in the right environment where they're dragged off either by curiosity or the desire to socialise. It continues only if there's no one to play with or the environment's too restrictive."

The age of 5 or 6 has always been a crucial stage at which youngsters naturally tend to stop spending so much time with their parents and seek the company of their peers. Children like playing with their own age group and find siblings less interesting, though they'll make do with them when there's no alternative, such as during family holidays.

Adults who feel morally obliged to spend every waking hour entertaining their children and doing everything "as a family" might want to take stock at this point, especially as O'Donnell also points out that "parents should not be pals. Their role is as a parent, not as a friend, and children need to make their own friends."

According to O'Donnell, the shift in play over the past couple of decades is reflected in the attitudes of today's students. "Schools, clubs and other activities are now very much leader-related," he says. "Unstructured play is becoming rarer with no moving as a pack or just getting on with activities - children always expect and want to relate individually to whomever is in charge and we now have 18, 19, 20-year-olds who can only function effectively like that. Students are far less confident than they were 15 years ago, far less likely to make a decision by themselves and with little aspiration to get things moving without someone else being in charge and directing them."

What are parents so scared of when it comes to leaving their children to get on with it? Desiring nothing more than freedom to do nothing is incomprehensible to modern parents, who steadfastly believe that structuring supervised activities is the best they can do for their ofspring. Escape and creativity are vital for development, but supervision now tempers a vast amount of activity.

Dr Richard Ralley, a senior psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Lancashire, is now quantifying a research project he carried out with 300 participants to assess the wider implications and benefits of boredom: "People often report that when they are bored they do nothing. Seen this way, boredom is useful - we conserve energy, but do not find this pleasant, so are ready to engage with the next useful activity that comes along. "The brain sucks up a fifth of our energy and our children are the most heavily assessed in Europe. Some genuine downtime seems due."

One of the hardest parts of parenting is letting children develop independence to learn to think for themselves, but if sent off cheerfully to try something different few children will demur. However, add a nervous or weepy parent, over-the-top exhortations to take care and a terrifying list of what can go wrong - and failure seems the most likely outcome. We would all like our children to grow into well-rounded and capable human beings in the safety of our own living rooms, but it doesn't work like that.

Ralley says that parents should leave their children to feel fed-up, rather than keeping them constantly occupied, as boredom could also allow children to get sufficient rest. "One of the features that has arisen in people's reports so far is a loneliness that comes with boredom, as well as the inadequacy of grasping on to any kind of activity to relieve it. I'm starting to believe that being bored is a signal to stop doing other things and to re-engage socially. I've always suggested that social activity is best: a family beach trip, playing football, having a picnic." Once you've embraced the idea of benign neglect having a valid position in parenting, you're still left with the problem of actually finding the places where children can entertain themselves safely. Aim for physical activity, especially as that will ensure real sleep at the end of the day and remove the time constraints, irrespective of whether you're at a beach, country park or in a forest. Give children basic safety instructions, make sure they know where to find you and then tell them that you'll see them when they're hungry or bored with messing around.

The real test then will actually be for the parents, as very few of us can sit peacefully for two or three hours and not leap fretfully towards every sound, or lack of sound. Build up the time if you lack confidence in yourself or your children, watch over them unseen if you really cannot bear to let them out of your sight and then let them get on with it - the Lord of the Flies-style confrontations excepted.

Letting kids run screaming into the wind on an empty beach, leaving them to get filthy building a den in the woods, or just spending a whole day slouching in their pyjamas without one parental exhortation to get dressed, might be hard for parents who are used to driving their children everywhere - in every sense. But when it comes to journeying into their own imagination, children are best left to travel solo.


Enlightened spirit of inquiry under threat

SITTING on a stage at the Sydney Opera House on Monday evening, her hair swept up, a cream scarf wrapped around her shoulders, a beautiful young black woman tells the audience she is often accused of being a puppet of white middle-aged men. With a twinkle in her eye, Somalian-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali flashes a wry smile as she looks down the table at the four older white men who have been brought together by the Centre for Independent Studies to discuss why the ideas of the Enlightenment need a 21st-century revival. Puppet? Not a chance.

Anyone who knows Hirsi Ali's story knows she is no one's pawn. As a girl she suffered genital mutilation; then, as a young woman, escaped an arranged marriage, incurring the wrath of Islam by rejecting her faith. Last time she was in Sydney, huge crowds listened to her journey, where she crossed back and forth between the superstitions, tribal taboos and conspiracy theories of her people to the world of inquiry and measured, rational discourse in the West. It was evident to her that one system was better than the other. People are equal but ideas and values are not. The crowds have come again on another wintry Sydney night. But this time Hirsi Ali is more interested in our story. She says we in the West, who have inherited the values of the Enlightenment, have developed contempt for values that drive progress and freedom.

There is no doubt the West is suffering from a dangerous moral disorientation. It is not clear that we value the very idea of the West any more. Enlightenment values such as genuine inquiry and reason, which ought to flow like blood delivering a vibrant pulse to the Western project, have been dislodged by the noxious intruders of unreason and fear. If talk about the Enlightenment sounds like some quaint historical curiosity debated by poseurs in the ethereal world of academe, think again. The determination to quash inquiry and reason infiltrates just about every aspect of our lives.

Hirsi Ali knows something about this. Shadowed by a security detail, she lives with death threats because she has chosen to debate Islam. Sweet-sounding words such as multiculturalism and tolerance are used to repress open debate. She has no problem with people who worship the prophet Mohammed. "But I want to be able to say that Mohammed had some reprehensible qualities without being thrown in jail, without being demonised," she says. This must be allowed in a society committed to Enlightenment values of inquiry and reason because people progress by using reason to challenge ideas.

Panel member Frank Furedi also knows something about our pusillanimous surrender of Enlightenment values. Debate is closed down by claiming that words, ideas and arguments cause offence to people, sometimes censored by the strong arm of the state or, more often, regulated by informal gatekeepers and our own timidity. Furedi, a professor of sociology from Britain and a prolific author of books about modern culture, was advised by a publisher recently that the term mentally ill was inappropriate. Instead, he should say "mental health service user". He was warned against the word civilisation because it presupposes that there are uncivilised people. His young son was told recently not to use the word retard because it had offensive connotations. His son knew that, which is why he used the term. "But words are now viewed as psychological weapons," Furedi said.

And it is the modern world's notion of human beings that explains why we have become so fearful of words. The conception of freedom that fuelled the Enlightenment was based on a radical view of humans as autonomous, resilient beings with the capacity to exercise their power in a rational, reasoned manner. Rational, reasoned human beings deserved the widest freedoms.

This very positive rendition of human beings has been replaced in the 21st century with a notion that people are weak (the buzzword is vulnerable) or destructive. Hence, freedoms that underpinned the Enlightenment period have been curtailed. Furedi notes that the phrase "human impact" would have been celebrated during the Enlightenment. Today, it is a negative term because humans are viewed as destructive; so destructive, we obsess about our carbon footprint to the point where, he says, "the best thing people can do is stay at home and never get out of bed". A modern world has lost confidence in what it means to be human and therefore lost confidence in basic values of freedom, such as free speech.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the embrace of global warming, where anyone who questions the orthodoxy is labelled a denier, a heretic who should not be heard. Genuine inquiry is not encouraged; it is jettisoned. Arthur Herman, another panel member, predicts that in five years there will be a spate of books and articles wondering how politicians, the media and the people were all so comprehensively conned by global warming alarmism.

But Herman, a historian, is not surprised. History tells us there will always be fanatics who peddle invisible fears and doomsday scenarios and, equally, there will always be people drawn to a priestly class - think Al Gore - who claim to know the answers. And so springs up a modern-day theology given over to supplications and modern sacrifices such as banning the innocuous plastic bag.

The debate over global warming stopped being a scientific debate long ago, Herman says. Scientific consensus, not dispassionate inquiry, is the name of the game. And governments and politicians have long since stopped bothering with the evolving science. Here again, Herman says, we need to revive the Enlightenment values of scepticism, inquiry and reason. He quotes pre-eminent English scientist and experimentalist Michael Faraday, who said that one should hold theories in one's fingertips so that the least breeze of fact might blow them away.

Yet, in so many areas, inquiry and reason have been abandoned, drowned out by group-think orthodoxies. I see the lack of inquiry in a Year 8 geography curriculum that tells students that globalisation is a bogyman to be feared. It is in the mindset of many indigenous leaders still wedded to policies that produced 30 years of dysfunction. As Hirsi Ali told the audience on Monday evening, we ought to be confident enough about the values of the Enlightenment to defend them and use them. After all, we sharpen our minds and bring clarity to ideas through open, reasoned debate.

A man in the audience asks her how she responds to accusations by some of her critics that she is an Enlightenment fundamentalist. "I think it's cute," she says with a laugh. "It's just so absurd to put the two words together. The Enlightenment is all about asking questions." Her departing advice is that we confront, through robust debate, those who would threaten our most cherished values, whether the threat comes from our own complacency, or the malevolent anti-Westernism of moral relativists or the Islamic fanatics.


Much wealth has been destroyed by foolish Congressional policies and nothing will bring it back soon

Former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm got in trouble when he said Americans are mired not in an economic contraction, but a "mental recession." He soon had to step down as co-chairman of John McCain's campaign for committing the ultimate political sin: telling the truth about a misperception that happens to be very popular. In politics, after all, it doesn't matter who's right-it only matters who has the most votes.

Americans feel as though the economy is in a recession and want the government to do something about it. In reality, it is expanding. In the second quarter, it grew at a respectable inflation-adjusted rate of 1.9 percent, double the pace of the first quarter. Unemployment was up, but it's still a pretty mild 5.7 percent.

The recession cures being bandied about by the presidential candidates and others miss the real source of our current pain and what can be done about it-which is not much. "There's a great misunderstanding of what's happened," says economist Allan Meltzer. The main trouble, in his view, is not that Americans are suffering from weak or negative economic growth. It's that they have suffered a loss of wealth, a very different ailment.

Meltzer, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, explains that the loss stems from two major factors. The first is high oil prices, which are the equivalent of a huge tax increase. The second is the housing bust, which has vaporized more than a trillion dollars worth of assets.

What does all this mean? Our standard of living has declined. Or to put it bluntly, as Meltzer does, "We're poorer than we were, and it's unpleasant, but it's a fact." We can no longer afford all the things we used to, because so much of our income is now going to pay for gasoline. In the past, we might have cashed in our rising home equity to keep consuming at the same rate as before, but you can't do that when your home equity is shrinking. Plus, we are under pressure to save more, since we can't count on real estate profits to finance a comfortable retirement.

When the economy contracts, the government may use sound monetary and fiscal policy to help revive growth. But when wealth goes up in smoke, the government can't necessarily bring it back. If it tries, the effect is likely to resemble what happens when you give a recovering alcoholic a drink: deceptively pleasant at first, but ultimately calamitous.

In the 1970s, the Federal Reserve reacted to soaring oil prices by creating more money and spreading it around. When you have more money, it doesn't hurt so much to fill your tank. But when everyone suddenly finds themselves with more money, the consequence is inflation. In the 1970s, instead of seeing just the price of gas climb, we saw the price of everything climb.

Today's Fed faces the same temptation. It could ease today's discomfort by rapidly expanding the money supply, and some experts (including Meltzer) think it has already made that mistake. This course is particularly tempting because it could also keep home prices from falling further.

But the remedy is illusory. Homes are not worth what they used to be, and for the Fed to attempt to disguise the fact would create even more uncertainty in a turbulent market. That, in turn, would merely postpone the day when prices hit the inevitable bottom.

When you have a loss of wealth, the best way to cope is to accept it and adapt to a lower standard of living, sooner rather than later. Sending out rebates, eliminating gas taxes, bailing out homeowners and accelerating monetary growth, among the proposed remedies, do exactly the opposite. They spare us the obligation of dealing with reality by making us feel richer so we can keep on as we were before.

But they don't change the stark fact that we are poorer now and will remain that way for some time. And they ultimately backfire by wasting money, igniting inflation or both.

In the long run, we will adapt to the new realities, the economic impact will moderate, and the pain will fade. Till then, our least destructive option is to do something no politician would dare suggest: Suck it up.


China's One-Child Disaster

By Wendy McElroy

Let's grant for the moment and for the sake of argument that the world is overpopulated. Can social engineering cure the "problem"? Social engineering occurs when a centralized power tries to manipulate or override people's preferences to make them behave according to an artificial social blueprint. It is the opposite of allowing a culture to evolve naturally according to the preferences of individuals, which are often based on economic factors, such as what they can afford. Social engineering imposes rules, sometimes by dangling carrots, sometimes by wielding sticks.

In pursuing conflicting population policies, China has mixed carrots and sticks for over half a century now. In a 1949 speech titled "The Bankruptcy of the Idealist Concept of History," the then-leader of Communist China, Mao Zedong, declared, "It is a very good thing that China has a big population. Even if China's population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production. The absurd argument of bourgeois Western economists like Malthus that increases in food cannot keep up with increases in population was not only refuted long ago by Marxists, but has also been completely exploded by the realities in the Soviet Union and the liberated areas of China after the revolution." ....

During the 1950s and '60s, Chinese women were encouraged to reproduce and given awards for doing so. Advocates of population control were sometimes imprisoned although family planning became more acceptable as the '60s evolved. Thus China experienced a massive increase in population. As a result, by the 1970s family planning had displaced the admonition to reproduce, but the policy was not coercively enforced except on the authority and discretion of local officials.

In 1979, three years after Mao's death, the new leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, announced the "one-child policy." Vice Premier Chen Muhua described the policy as one "of encouragement and punishment for maternity, with encouragement as the main feature. . . . Parents having one child will be encouraged, and strict measures will be enforced to control the birth of two or more babies. Everything should be done to insure that the natural population growth rate in China falls to zero by 2000." The policy was enforced nationwide in 1981 and has remained the law of the land since, although significant changes have occurred. What hasn't changed, however, is that China regulates and controls the procreation of its citizens more strictly and universally than any nation except, perhaps, communist Romania under Ceausescu.

From its outset, the one-child policy has been criticized for violating the basic human right to reproduce and for the brutal manner in which it was implemented. Moreover, it has been called a form of "genocide against minorities," especially against the Uyghur peoples in the Eastern Turkistan regions, who are politically unpopular because they seek an independent homeland.

More pragmatic criticisms of the policy revolve around its unintended negative consequences. One of the consequences was well expressed by Richard Jackson, a demographer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jackson explained, "You have the prospect of 400 million Chinese elders, age 60 and over, by 2040, 80 percent of whom, do not have any formal retirement pension, either public or private, most of whom won't have access to government-financed health care. They're depending on the extended family, but the government told them not to have children, or not to have more than one-or, in some cases, two."

In short, each "only child" might become solely responsible for two aging parents and as many as four grandparents; known as the "4-2-1" problem, it is a responsibility that many or most of the "one-child" generation may be unable to meet.

The most publicized negative consequence, however, is the severe skewing of the population toward males. The Chinese are known for having a high preference for sons. This preference has resulted in a high rate of female infanticide (and, later, sex-selective abortions) to remove first-born daughters and, so, to clear the legal path to have a son. According to China's official news agency, 119 boys are now born for every 100 girls; the ratio in natural circumstances is 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls. By 2020 China may contain 30 to 40 million restless bachelors-known in China as "bare branches"-and worried observers predict everything from a steep increase in rape to wars aimed at securing brides.

In recognition of the problem, China adopted a significant change to the one-child policy in the mid-1980s. In the rural areas, where survival often requires hard labor and males are thus especially valued, China allowed a second child if the first born was either female or disabled. This evolved into what some now claim is a de facto two-child policy for the countryside. Nevertheless, the sex skewing seems to continue relatively unabated.

The gender imbalance in China is what the social theorist F. A. Hayek called an "unintended consequence." Every act has unforeseen and unintended results that may determine its impact far more than the act's intended goal.

Hayek saw at least two practical problems with social engineering, both of which involve such unintended consequences. The first problem speaks to the nature of a healthy society. If left to the ingenuity and preferences of individual members, society tends over time to naturally evolve answers to the problems confronting it. For example, if there is a shortage of food, families tend to limit themselves to a supportable number. But when government begins to dictate choices, it prevents individuals from adapting and evolving solutions. Society loses the resilience it requires to solve problems.

The second practical difficulty with social engineering was "the knowledge problem." In accepting the 1974 Nobel Prize for economics, Hayek explained, "The recognition of the insuperable limits to his [the bureaucrat's] knowledge ought [to guard] the student of society . . . against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society-a striving, which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals."

A centralized bureaucracy cannot control the outcomes of choices made by hundreds of millions of people, nor can it know all the results of its policies. All a bureaucracy can do is impose policies. The more important the area of life being controlled is-such as reproduction-the more draconian the imposition must be to render even minimal compliance. The longer social control is imposed and the more policies are introduced, the greater the number of unintended consequences, such as the skewing of the gender ratio.

As noted, the proposed remedy for sex skewing in China is the introduction of yet another social-engineering policy, exemplified by the Care For Girls (CFG) program. The administration of CFG in East China's Anhui province is probably typical. There, CFG was initiated in 2000 and includes lecturing the populace against sex bias, offering loans to families with daughters, training women to become wage earners, and checking girls for signs of abuse. The unintended consequences of the relatively new CFG program are not yet apparent. The ultimate folly, however, is that the stated goal may require nothing more than leaving the situation alone. Simply by becoming scarce, girls have become more highly valued and, with a new appreciation of their importance to society, the role of women in China seems poised for redefinition. The Chinese government could best help by simply getting out of the way. This is not likely to happen. The Chinese government continues to insist that it must control reproduction because the nation's resources, especially its food and water, cannot sustain a large increase in the population.

Although the claim is not self-evidently true, it is rarely questioned because it conforms to the widely held and politically popular belief that the planet is overpopulated. Over the past decade polls have indicated that most Americans blame over-population for contributing to or causing an impressive range of social ills from pollution to illiteracy, from poverty to famine.

Overpopulation theory is often dated back to Thomas Malthus and his work An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) in which he argued that resources grow linearly while population grows exponentially. Unless human reproduction was controlled, he believed, the population would be too large for the earth's resources to support. Ironically, Malthus predicted that a tipping point and famine would occur in the mid-nineteenth century; this prediction came on the cusp of the world's experiencing a vast expansion in the food supply due to the Industrial Revolution and advances in agriculture. Since Malthus, many overpopulation zealots have made equally false predictions about the exhaustion of the planet. For example, Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), wrote, "The population of the U.S. will shrink from 250 million to about 22.5 million before 1999 because of famine and global warming."

Current fears of overpopulation may be equally groundless. One of the difficulties in judging the matter, however, is that no one seems to have a good definition of what is the "proper" population; that is, how many people can the earth support without calamities like mass starvation? Even a good guess at an answer would require information that is difficult or impossible to secure. For example, it would be necessary to calculate what percentage of massive human tragedies, such as famine, are due to entirely artificial and imposed factors like war. The current shortage of rice in Asia, for example, is not due to natural factors but to a constellation of artificial ones such as the diversion of food crops like corn into the production of ethanol. This diversion has driven up the global price of the crops that serve as alternatives, such as rice. Whatever percentage of hunger is due to artificial factors should not be blamed on limitations of the earth.

Moreover, recent developments in agriculture, like the previous Green Revolution in the twentieth century, may dramatically increase food resources. For example, recently developed biotech crops both increase productivity and reduce the need for insecticides.

Thus the one-child policy has not only been disastrous both in terms of human rights and practical consequences for generations to come; it is far from clear that its rationale is even valid. In 1999, analyst Stephen Moore, formerly of the Cato Institute, wrote in "Defusing the Population Bomb": "[W]e are nowhere near running out of room on the planet. If every one of the 6 billion of us resided in Texas, there would be room enough for every family of four to have a house and an 1/8th of acre of land-and the rest of the globe would be vacant. . . . The dreaded population bomb that emerged as a worldwide obsession in the 1960s and 1970s has been all but defused. The birthrate in developing countries has plummeted from just more than six children per couple in 1950 to just more than 3 per couple today. The major explanation for smaller family sizes, even in China, has been economic growth, not condom distributions or coercive birth control measures."

Moore commented on China specifically in another article, "Don't Fund UNFPA Population Control" (2000), "To this day no one knows precisely how many babies and women have died at the hands of the population control fanatics in China. What we do know is that this program will go down in history as one of the greatest abuses of human rights in the 20th century." Moore concluded, "[T]he cause of world hunger and environmental disasters in the world today is not too many people. It is too much statism."

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Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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