Archive | April 2015

Snips, Snails, and Puppy Dog Tails

What are little boys made of? Snips, and snails, and puppy dog tails. That’s what little boys are made of.

Recently an article came over my Facebook feed from a fellow homeschooling mother. (You can find it here.) It was a mock poem from a little boy begging his teachers to let him keep his recess because he was jittery enough in class and had a hard time focusing. Needless to say, this boy was one that had been diagnosed with ADHD.

He is, sadly, one of thousands. And the number of boys medicated into “submission” is growing by the day.

It is another blight on our public school system that no one talks about nor do they truly wish to fix. The result – we are losing generations of not only boys, but young men.  And we wonder why they play video games in their 30s, don’t get jobs, nor do they marry.classroom-510228_640

A lot of this problem is because of a rupture between our modern world (I mean 1965ish and backward) and the thousands of years before that to the beginning of time. Our grandparents back and beyond would be shocked senseless at the pressure placed on boys today to sit still and listen for hours on end. The idea would have been ridiculous to them and considered, frankly, a form of child abuse.

By their nature, boys are “busier” than girls. Their energy level is not only higher for longer periods of time, but they are more “physical” with that energy in a way that girls are not. They are harder on themselves physically, they do things that elicit small amounts of pain but label their perseverance as “manly,” they wrestle each other, the family dog, and even the fence post. They are wired for competition, and they push themselves to excel physically today beyond what they did yesterday or even a moment ago. Because of their energy level and their need to subdue the world around him, boys roamed the woods, worked on the farm with the animals, practiced shooting rifles and bows and arrows, worked the crops in the fields, and fished in the streams. More recently they climbed trees, built treehouses our of scrap lumber, fought pirates in cardboard ships, and played ball with the neighborhood kids in the empty lot down the street.

And the whole time they are conquering the world around them, their minds are wandering, planning, pondering. Want to get a boy, even a teen, to talk to you? To think through a problem? Shoot hoops with him. Shove a walking stick in his hand, a dog’s leash in the other, and go for a walk. Don’t try to sit him on the couch in his fuzzy pajamas, a cup of cocoa between you, and try to “chat.” Boys think best while they are doing, and most cannot even think straight or clear when they are forced to sit still unless they have tired their bodies so they can focus their minds. That’s why, in a classroom, the pencils tap the desk and the feet slide along the floor.boysingrass

All of this physical activity while working and playing was, of course, preparing them for manhood. After all, until fairly recently, men were hunters and gatherers. They needed to stalk the elk, deer, or buffalo. They entered into a competition with nature for the survival of their families. They had to work hours in the field tilling and harvesting the crops, or endure the heat of the forge if they were a blacksmith, or ride for hours in a saddle roping cattle.

Many grew up and went to war, and the foes they fought changed.

To our destruction, and theirs, the world today tries to pigeonhole boys into a sort of modern day box that says they have to sit still for hours every day and listen to someone else talk about stuff that is not really interesting and that they will forget the next day. And when they cannot do it, what do we do? We don’t provide them with meaningful outdoor exercises or excursions to tire their bodies. We don’t schedule more recess during the day. We don’t shorten the school day so they can have more outdoor play time.

No, we medicate them into being quiet and still.  pillbottle

The travesty is that so many of these boys do not have ADHD. They are just being boys as they were meant to be, and they have become victims of a school system run largely by women who would prefer to teach girls because, to put it bluntly, and honestly, girls are easier to teach.

I was there. I know.

Generations before us understood the calling of a man to protect and provide for his family, so they allowed their boys their rough and tumble pursuits in order to prepare them for the physically demanding work of leading and tending families. And sure, today most boys are not going to grow up and hunt to put meat on the table, nor fight Indians, nor work in the fields. But many men still work at physically exacting jobs, and even those who do not have to learn to “harness” all that energy into a desk job.  A boy cannot learn to harness anything while medicated. That is something that takes time and patience, and lots of physically exhausting play.

It is a common mantra among college educated, working females that they cannot find suitable marriage partners. They complain the men have no drive nor desire for responsibility. They play video games all day even as they age through their 20s and 30s. The raw truth, which is not being faced by schools or society, is that boys who are “medicated” into “being good” are going to grow up with severe self-esteem issues. And these boys are not only NOT going to go to college, they are not going to seek marriages, especially with driven, college-educated females.

I will close with a story. When I first started teaching twenty five years go (that dates me, and I haven’t taught in public schools in 18 years), an older teacher told me that when she first taught school years before and the boys would get antsy, the teachers would point to the back door (in those days schools had been built in the 50s and had two doors that opened into a walkway on each side of the building) and tell the boys “see that oak tree way down there?” The boys would squint their eyes and point and say “yes mam” (because a tired boy is a respectful one). The teacher would then say “run to it, around it, and back to here.” And the boys would smile wide and take off. By the time they came back (because that oak was a pasture length from the school) they were ready to sit still and listen again. This was in addition to two recesses a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Now, some schools do not have recess at all, and physical education class is not recess. It is controlled play that is graded by the teacher.

Of course, not all schools were located by pastures, nor did they have the ability to send their boys on quick runs. The story does, however, point to the fact that teachers, including women teachers, understood the need a boy had to “run off” his energy if he was going to listen and ultimately learn.

As with so much of our modern world, this knowledge has been lost.

I am not sure how we will ever gain it back.

I fear for our boys, and men, if we do not.

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To School or Not to School

I am waiting for the day I get a review that disputes the education level of both David and Annie in my book Keeping Secrets, as well as the historical context of the school they attend. The fact of the matter is, members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) placed a higher value on education in the 18th century than the average colonial citizen. They had more schools, with more teachers, than the average colonial community. What is even more remarkable, is that they educated their girls, at least in the early years, with as much vigor as they educated their boys. Still, while education was important, it was not what defined a person. It was merely a means to an end.

It amazes me how much stock people put in education these days, and how the government, especially, thinks that education will solve the nation’s problems. The fact is that America was founded during a time when education took a back seat to putting food on the table, putting clothes on children’s backs, and forming children to be honest, hardworking, self-reliant citizens. These, folks, were the people who started and finished a war against the most powerful nation in the world.

The fact is, that most adults in the pre-Revolutionary war period were barely literate themselves. They had to send their children to school to learn to read, write, and cipher. As for the Chesapeake planters, before the middle of the 18th century there were very few free schools in Virginia. Private schoolmasters were paid by the parents who pooled their money together to pay his salary. Even then, teachers were in short supply. For example, in 1724, there was only one schoolteacher for every 100 white families covering an eight parish area. In two Piedmont parishes, there were only four teachers responsible for 400 families. That means very few children in 18th century Virginia were formally schooled for even a short length of time.

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Old Schoolhouse, courtesy of http://www.pixabay.com

Americans today spend loads of money building new schools, training teachers in new programs (which are really old programs repackaged), and upgrading the technology to give children the “best” advantage. In colonial America, funds were scarce and luxuries few. A few lucky communities allowed their churches to double as their schools, but this was not usually the case, especially in Virginia. In the early part of the colonial period, they were oftentimes situated on ground that was not good for anything else. Thus, there was usually no shade in the summer and no tree break in the winter, so summers were hot and winters cold and drafty. As in Keeping Secrets, families were expected to donate a load of firewood to keep the school warm in the winter. Those that did not were expelled or sent to the coldest part of the room.

Schoolmaster Cayle stepped into the aisle, not stopping until he was towering over David. “Since you are so concerned about Sister Annie, you can sit back there with her. And for your disobedience and disrespect, your father will be fined an extra load of wood for the winter. I want it by next first day.”

David jerked his slate and reader off the desk and grabbed his heavy winter coat from the back of the chair. He was only halfway across the room when a wall of cold air smacked him. He pushed through it, went towards the window, and dropped his books to the table. He slung the coat over Annie’s shoulders, then nudged her arm while motioning to the other girls to scoot down.  At least that way he could act as a shield against the cold wind oozing through the window, albeit a poor one. He flung himself onto the bench causing it to rock violently. The other girls glanced at him, but didn’t say a word. 

Not only were construction materials scarce, and the facilities crude, but the furnishings were sparse as well. Desks didn’t exist at this early period. Children sat at crude tables usually arranged around the outside walls of the classroom. Schools where parents valued education may have had books, but most had only hornbooks, maybe a few Bibles, and a primer (reader). The children learned things by chanting and committing them to memory. What educators today (gasp!) call “rote learning” and decry as “useless”.

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Old Books, picture courtesy of http://www.pixabay.com

 The quality of education, of course, differed between the various social classes. Planters oftentimes hired private tutors in their homes for the children, then sent the boys, at the age of 13 or 14, to college, or even back to England to boarding school. Girls, in these well-to-do families, had the same education as their brothers until they reached the age of 11 or 12. At that time, as the boys learned Greek, History and Geography, girls were taught sewing, household management, and perhaps given piano or music lessons.

Children of middling planters, like the Cayle and the McKechnies, oftentimes only attended school for small periods of time during the year. The Friends, however, valued education more highly than the average colonial. They believed girls needed to study the same thing as boys, and they believed all the children needed to read, write, and cipher. It was part of their deep religious convictions. While colonial schools were far and few between, finding a Quaker community without a school would have been difficult.

But neither the Quakers, nor anyone else at the time, believed educating society would solve its ills. It was a firm belief that citizens needed to embrace hard work, self-reliance, and stable families in order to survive. That was not something that could be learned through reading, writing, and ciphering, but was done by hard work and example. Citizens who did not pursue these morals and instead chose drunkenness, lewd behaviors, and theft were punished accordingly by having their ears cut off, being placed in the stocks, or even hung for serious offenses.

As parents it is sometimes easy to simply focus on grades and test scores, and to push that all proverbial phrase “you are going to college.” But really, our sights for our children should be on something larger, and if we are Christians they should be aimed towards the eternal.  To hear most people talk, education will get children good jobs,  give them money to purchase the things they want, and make them productive citizens. And yet, everyone of us can name children who have college degrees but can’t keep a job, have money but can’t seem to stay out of debt, and are anything but productive citizens.

We would do well to look to the past as parents and try to remember that we are ultimately responsible for educating our children, and that it is more than book learning, test scores, and college scholarships. Only then we will have an America turned back on its time with productive citizens and a society where the poor are few and common sense reigns.

Now that I have reminded myself, I think it is time to put some boys to work – and not the reading, writing, and ciphering kind.