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The capable child
In America, parents seem to think that protecting childhood mean protecting kids from any sort of discomfort, boredom, frustration or sense of struggle. We are doing them a huge disservice. - photo by Tiffany Gee Lewis
Earlier this year, my youngest son, a third-grader, had to memorize a portion of the famous speech Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death by Patrick Henry.

He attends a classical school where rote memorization takes up a bulk of learning in the younger grades. Thus, poetry and recitation are a large part of their curriculum. In the past year, hes memorized sections of poetry by Alexander Pushkin, Alfred Tennyson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

However, the Patrick Henry speech was in a league of its own. When I first saw the recitation, I blanched. The heady language of the 18th century included phrases such as, We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament.

Quite a mouthful for a 9-year-old.

My first thought: there is no way my son can do this. Its simply too hard.

Childhood used to be punishingly hard. Kids worked long hours on farms and in factories. My sister once visited the Museum of Childhood in Scotland, reporting back that it was one of the most depressing things shes seen.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, she told me, there really was no childhood. It wasnt until 1938, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, that Congress put the minimum work age at 16 and altered the allowable number of working hours.

Todays childhood is unrecognizable from that bygone era. It has swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. In America, there are parents who seem to think that protecting childhood mean protecting kids from any sort of discomfort, boredom, frustration or sense of struggle. Its all bubbles and ice cream and play dates.

As Ive worked and volunteered in schools, Ive met parents who believed their children should play with Legos instead of learn to read. Ive seen curriculum watered down to the lowest possible standards.

Reading and math groups are disguised by clever names like Flying Fish so kids dont know who is in the top group (even though they all know who is in the top group). Across the board, readings are easier. Rote memorization and grammar have been removed because they are difficult and dry. From what I've seen and read, the demands of school, especially in the elementary years, have been entirely stripped away.

Consider this: the childrens author Beatrix Potter learned to read by plowing her way through Sir Walter Scotts Ivanhoe. Today, most adults couldnt wrap their heads around the old English language.

I talked with a frustrated mother whose children were twiddling their thumbs in boredom at an expensive private school. When she looked up the schools mission statement, she noticed something odd. After 20 years, the school had quietly removed the word rigor from its core values.

To be clear, I dont blame schools and teachers. I believe they are answering to the demands of coddling parents.

I am a big believer in a carefree childhood. For certain, kids dont need the manufactured stress that comes from repeated standardized tests. But the positive outcome of rigor is something called pride, and Im not referring to the bad kind of pride. We all know what it feels like to work terribly hard at something, to bump right up against our limits and stretch beyond what we think are our capabilities. Kids needs to feel that, and they need it at a young age.

I blanched at the Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech, but you better believe my son memorized it. Not only that, it became his favorite speech. The following month, when a 5-year-old at the school recited the entirety of The Charge of the Light Brigade, a formidable, three-page poem by Tennyson, the whole school stood and cheered.

Years ago, one of my sons was struggling in several areas of his life. He was failing his classes, acting out at home and disengaging from his peers. I envisioned a future in which he would never learn to tie his shoes, sit still or behave himself in church. If it meant buying Velcro shoes and fidget toys, orchestrating his social life and pulling him out for all sorts of special accommodations, I was ready to do it.

In desperation, we took him to a child psychologist. He listened to our concerns and asked to spend a few minutes alone with our son. At the end of the session, he pronounced the words that would completely alter my parenting style.

He is entirely capable, he said. You just remember that. Your son is capable.

Overnight, we transformed our home life. There were some terrible growing pains for all of us, but over several months we began to see astonishing results. Our son was capable, incredibly capable. He still had challenges, but as our demands rose, so did his abilities. All that changed was our expectations.

In todays world of coddling and cajoling, we need a big spoonful of that old-fashioned sensibility. Our children are remarkable. They are capable. They will amaze us and themselves in the process. As Patrick Henry said, We are apt to shut our eyes against the painful truth, but its time we allowed our children to rise to a higher bar.