Editor, Bloomberg View at Bloomberg
Editor, Bloomberg View at Bloomberg
Photo has been used for illustrative purposes.
In 1826, Frederick Douglass, a young enslaved orphan, was shipped from a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to a home in Baltimore. Upon crossing the threshold of the new place, his conception of the world, and of himself, changed forever. “I had been treated as a pig on the plantation,” Douglass later wrote. “I was treated as a child now.” Along with this magical new sense of his own humanity, Douglass soon learned a skill that became the foundation of his life: reading.
The transformation of Frederick Douglass from property to statesman is an extreme case. But for millions of kids, other people’s houses contain new worlds, with the potential for new meaning and new lives. A friend’s house is a learning experience unlike any available in school. It’s a chance to examine your own life, and the way your family lives and relates to one another, in the light of a different model. It’s also an experience all but foreclosed by the coronavirus lockdown, compounding the damage done by shuttered classrooms.
Alice Fothergill, a sociologist at the University of Vermont, co-authored a book about children whose lives were disrupted by Hurricane Katrina. In an email, she wrote:
In my research on families in crisis, we definitely saw that children and youth needed that interaction with other adults outside their families. Indeed, those other adults were crucial during Hurricane Katrina recovery — we saw them as a safety net for kids. Also, we found that families really relied on other families for informal support, resources, transportation, company, child care, etc.
Many of those families are those you are talking about — the families of the kids’ friends. We saw that, in the disaster aftermath, not having those other families nearby or available became an incredible challenge.
Friend’s houses can also be departures from the norms on display at home. What I valued from my own childhood was discovering what was different about other kids’ houses and lives, and perhaps adopting some of it as my own.
Exposure to other families “can provide a different template for relationships,” emailed psychologist Katherine Rosenblum of the University of Michigan. “The egocentrism of earlier years gives way to a sense that not all families are ‘like mine’ in their relational patterns, but also potentially in terms of culture, practices/beliefs etc.”
Learning there is more than one way to do things is foundational. My friend Daniel Pink, an author of books on business and human behavior, recalled:
“In my childhood (or at least the childhood that my memory has confected) the revelations were always around food. Whoa ... their tuna salad tastes so different! They put mustard on that? They’re allowed to drink Coke? Also, Jim Goodrich had a refrigerator that made ice in the door — which to 8-year-old was more amazing than space travel.”
To a child, these are not trivial discoveries. After all, if their tuna salad tastes better, perhaps it’s worth considering their religious or political beliefs, or examining more closely their interpersonal dynamics. Pluralism rests on a delicate platform of such minute observation and comprehension.
The pandemic will have devastating consequences for students who fall behind because they lack the structure and support they need to learn at home. For some of those same kids, and for others besides, closing a window onto the lives of others will be equally damaging. I can’t remember much about the classrooms of my youth. But I vividly recall the lessons I learned in other people’s houses.
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Reading is a time-tested method to improve children’s emotional health, enhance their communication skills, and aid their creativity and personality development. Reading allows them a window into a world of fascinating experiences that emerge from imaginative stories. From its characters, children learn how to deal with challenges they may face in life, and finally, reading together is a wonderful way to strengthen the parent-child bond.
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