Our educational system has gotten so thoroughly into enrichment and emotional development that conscientious parents may get a little tired of hearing what a wonderful school day their children have had seeing movies or discussing their feelings.
The crisis usually comes when a parent discovers that these same children are totally innocent of such things as multiplication tables, how the U.S. government works or English grammar. Personally, Miss Manners thinks that the parents of America should offer the school systems a bargain: You teach them English, history, mathematics and science, and we will take them to the movies and museums and to sample foreign food, and look after their souls.
Schools first started doing parental tasks because they thought parents were neglecting them; and now there are parents desperately trying to make up for the neglect of academic subjects on the part of teachers.
The neglect, on both parts, is rarely mere callousness. On the contrary, it is often connected with the idealistic belief that the object of anyone entrusted with a child is to make that child happy, and that the happiest child is one free of constraint. Miss Manners loathes that theory, and doesn't notice that it has much of a record of success. It is her belief that happiness is a byproduct, and that the happy child is one who has been carefully trained to use his abilities to take on challenges and overcome them.
The happiness theory is full of self-defeating characteristics. It directs the child's attention back into himself, instead of taking the natural self-absorption with which we were all born and which we are in no danger of losing, and turning it outward, so that the ability to take delight in a varied and curious world may be developed. It also coddles our natural laziness, so that energies that could be put into growth are put into finding excuses and examining reasons for the lack of it.
The parent who is doing remedial academic work, like the teacher doing parental work, is at a disadvantage. Home time is supposed to be, when duties and homework are done, leisure time. The trick, then, is to demonstrate to the child that learning is one of the great joys of life. As an educator of Miss Manners' acquaintance puts it, "Life is full of wonderful passions that come and go over the years, but the only one that will never let you down is reading."
That is not to say that the parent should adopt the school's misplaced emphasis on field trips and dramatizations, and away from what are inevitably now called "dull, dry facts." As a matter of fact, children adore dry facts, and if you don't make them learn historical dates, they will memorize timetables or batting averages. It is adults, whose memories are going, who are rightly afraid of being tripped up by smarty little kids if they admit that facts are a necessary framework for supporting thought.
The excursions are all very well, but they are more often in real danger of being dull and dry. A child who is taken through a museum without preparation will show enthusiasm only for the cafeteria and souvenir shop, and one who is fed history through unexplained movies will retain only the irrelevancies. An interesting briefing beforehand, an idea of what to look for, and a debriefing, in which the child can shine by showing what he has learned (it is particular fun, as we all know, to catch filmmakers in historical error), is what makes sightseeing fun.
While children soak up facts easily, they should not be asked to take in opinions without a struggle. Family discussions in which the facts are discussed so that the conclusion is open for argument are tremendously entertaining. You do not, for example, deliver a lecture on the benefits of democracy. You let the child argue for them, or argue against them, in the role of the framers of the Constitution, or in that of, say, George III. Part of the pleasure is in making people think within the terms of the discipline -- no anachronistic thinking allowed in historical discussions, for example.
After all, not only is the active use of the mind one of life's greatest forms of recreation, but testing one's parents, and occasionally outarguing them with a case so solid that they must yield, is surely one of the greatest pleasures of family life.