April 8, 1994

Do Your Own Thing

Hobson's choice: After Thomas Hobson(1544-1631), an English livery stable owner who said that a customer could rent any horse that he wanted as long as it was the one in the first stall.

Telling a kid to do your own thing is essentially saying that I am not going to tell you what to do; you are expected to guess what I want you to do and then to do it. It's a superb way of producing a crazy mixed up kid. It is an especially potent crazy-maker if it is combined with a parent wanting a child to be several incompatible things at the same time. If both parents share that attitude, it's very possible that they are going to produce a flaky kid.

An infant has certain built in programs. He will not have to be taught to walk, make sounds, cry, be hungry, urinate, defecate, or to like warmth and cuddling. Laughter, pleasure, pain and sexuality are also part of his built-in programming. I've probably overlooked a few things, but basically everything else is learned either by direct inculcation or experience.

The first half-dozen years are almost entirely under the control of the parents, usually the mother. It is during this period that many of the traits that we refer to as "character" are formed.

Invariably kids want to please their parents and if you ask a child what he is supposed to do, what he tells you will be what he thinks his parents want him to do.

Teachers are considered to be in loco parentis. No, that latin phrase doesn't refer to crazy parents, it refers to teachers being in the roll of parents; sort-of substitute parents. Even if the state mandates this, it will only work if the parents accept that role for the teachers and communicate that to the child. If, as sometimes happens, the message given to a child is "Don't listen to what the teacher tells you; she's only trying to screw up your mind," that kid automatically becomes an educational lost cause. I don't mean that the kid won't learn, but it will be extremely difficult, if listening to the teacher is involved.

Producing a mixed-up kid isn't all bad. If that mixed-up kid can manage to figure out what's wrong, he will have gained a good deal of insight into his own behavior and feelings and possibly of those around him. Many a productive scientist or artist has been the product of that kind of upbringing.There is an old saying in both art and science that "you don't have to be crazy --but it helps."

By the same token, the kid who is given very clear and straight instructions can get into trouble if those instructions are wrong. Sometimes parental instructions are fine, but they are for a process that has become obsolete. The case of the carriage maker who had his son follow in his footsteps is a good one. The advent of the automobile made the carriage obsolete. Sure, a few carriage makers could still earn a good living, but not many. Most carriage makers went into the business of making car bodies and they did quite well. It was much harder for the coal miner's son in Appalachia when the mines closed. He became an evolutionary dead end. Those who were instructed that they are allowed to change, did OK. The rest withered on the vine. The farm boys who went to the manufacturing centers did fine because they had been taught to work hard and to be punctual. The habits developed on the farm were very valuable in factories and businesses.

So, before you tell your kids to do your own thing, reflect on what he his likely to do with those instructions.

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