Do we treat our children like washing machines?

NOVEMBER 5 ― Turn the power on. Put the clothes in. Add some detergent and softener. Select the appropriate wash cycle. Press Start.

After some time (usually less than an hour) the clothes are washed, rinsed and spun dry.

Any deviation from this set process represents an error which must be fixed.

So, first, let’s consult the user's manual which hopefully gives us a very specific answer cum solution. Still not working? Let’s call the repair-man. The last resort is to replace the machine with a new one.

All very efficient and predictable. Is that why we often treat our school kids like that?

(Turn the power on, put the clothes and detergent in.) Put them in a school. Get them the books they need (or we think they need).

Make them learn all the “important” stuff. Free time after school? Use it up for tuition, extra classes and what-not (see [1]).

Fill up as much of their time with “learning” as possible; that’s, after all, what they’re good for and meant for at this age, isn’t it?

Give short (very short) breaks and time for “recreation.” Heck, ensure practically every waking moment is filled with “useful” activities; whether they like it or not is irrelevant.

(Check for expected outcomes; consult the user's manual in case of deviation.)

Make sure they are pushed to study, to excel; make sure the teachers are playing their part (or else replace them); make sure they’re spending more (and more) time in classes.

Should they NOT perform up to our expectations, let’s go back to the manual: What could be wrong? Not enough classes? Okay, give them more tuition. Not enough nutrition? Okay, feed them better. Not enough creativity? Okay, send them to a Thinking Skills course.

Nassim Taleb phrases it well: “Modern life that treats humans as washing machines, with simplified mechanical responses — and a detailed user’s manual. It is the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness from things, trying to make matters highly predictable in their smallest details.” (Anti-Fragile, p.64)

We treat our kids like machines whenever we believe that (micro?)-managing their education and life is the best way forward.

We betray our belief in a “mechanistic” universe in which the right input (into a child) will produce the right output (which, usually, conforms to the reigning ideology).

So we break everything down into as much detail as we can, we become obsessed with Timing and Quality, and even play-time is parked under “Re-Creation”, as if our kids are robots which need some downtime lest they malfunction.

And when we read of kids breaking down, what do we do? We write those off as exceptions, and never suspect they could be symptoms.

Oh, it’s because the parent didn’t communicate well or neglected the child (translated: There’s nothing wrong with the way I stress my child).

Oh, the circumstance was unique (translated: There’s no reason for every other parent to stop pushing/stressing their kids to excel).

Oh, we mustn’t jump to conclusions (translated: Let’s not talk about how stressing kids to become straight-A students can lead to depression and even suicide).

And so we continue fawning over and envying friends and relatives whose kids get 8As in SPM or PT3 or whatever. We continue screaming, “Try harder! Try harder!” at our kids.

We never realise that patience is the key to authentic learning, that without love and genuine passion for a subject (or area) ─ all of which requires patience, duh! ─ learning cannot grow naturally. It will always be “forced”, superficial and externally stimulated. Just like a machine.

Here are three indicators that you could be treating your kid like a Siemens 7.5 kg automatic front loader:

― If you seek to ensure that virtually every hour is used “productively” and you’re always wondering “what he or she is doing now” (because the very thought that s/he could be “wasting time” scares you).

― If you insist on or demand that your child delivers a certain high score at each test or exam (failing which there are consequences, and your child knows it).

― If you constantly compare your child’s achievements with other children (especially your own siblings or relatives).

These are pure machine-like patterns. Unless your child is already “into” a certain subject, treating children like that will not only kill their love for learning, it risks producing something worse.

Before Ronaldo became #1 in the footballing world, he had to first fall in love with football, not the other way round.

And falling in love (with anything or anyone) is not something which can be “manufactured” and “managed.” It must be given time. It must be allowed to tarry with uncertainty and randomness i.e. the “encounter” with the object of passion/love cannot be made into a conveyor belt kind of experience.

You can arrange the wedding, but the marriage itself takes time. Now, what about our children and their learning?

[1]: This article is not a diatribe against extra classes or tuition. In fact, if your kid loves science or robotics or rock-climbing or digital drawing or whatever, by all means give him the best tutors you can find. My target is the philosophy whereby tuition becomes an extension of the “try harder” mentality, one which kills the joy of learning and objectifies our children as “achievers” and not much else.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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