I was trekking through the Andes about 6 years ago. What I learned on that trip made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about raising a child.
I ventured to Peru with a girlfriend of mine and of course, this included the must-do trek to Machu Picchu. Instead of the highly traveled Inca Trail, we elected to travel the Lares Trail. This highly scenic trail led us up snowy mountains, past babbling brooks, and around glass-like lakes. We saw breath-taking views one right after the other. Each day of the trek was more spectacular than the day before.
But what remains with me many years later is not the scenery but one chance encounter with a family living in the Andes mountains. The young couple lived on a small farm. Their daughter was 6 years old and attended a local school in the mountains. That school educated students until Grade 3. When she graduated school that would mark the end of her education. She was a girl.
Her brother, on the other hand, would be allowed to continue his education in a nearby village. He was doing just that. At the age of 9, he lived in a village approximately 2 hours away. He would walk home on weekends to help on the farm and return to the village on Sunday evening.
He lived in the village away from his parents. His parents rented a room for him. It was his responsibility to attend school, cook for himself, and generally care for himself. He lived there alone.
This floored me. By North American standards, this would be considered child abuse or child neglect. In North America, we believe that children require the care and constant supervision of an adult. A 9 year old would not be capable of taking care of themselves. This is our belief and our children generally meet this expectation. We would condemn any parent who would even think of letting their 9 year old venture out on his own let alone live on his own.
But which is worse? A 9 year old living on their own or an education that finishes at the age of 8? Both unacceptable by North American standards but if given the choice, which would you pick?
I have also had the pleasure of picking up 11 year old hitch hikers while travelling in Mexico. They were going to school. There was no school bus and it was too far to walk. They relied on hitch hiking to get to and from school everyday.
I’m not sharing these stories suggesting that children should hitch hike or live by themselves. What I took away from these experiences is that children are capable of far more than we give them credit. We assume they are incapable because they are small and inexperienced. Yet, they are adaptable and incredibly speedy learners. They can learn to do anything. And probably quicker than any adult.
I think of these encounters when I listen to parents complaining that their child can’t walk a few blocks to school or when I hear a parent telling their son or daughter that they can’t do something yet because they’re too young. It is our attempt to preserve their safety that keeps them inexperienced and incapable.
Look at the World’s Worst Mom who let her 9 year old son ride the New York City subway alone. He was successful. Or the children who yield knives and handle deep fryers with ease on Master Chef Junior. They cook gourmet meals and are between the ages of 8 and 13.
Whether you agree with how these children are raised or not, you can’t deny that they have successfully acquired a skill.
I know my experiences in the Andes and Mexico has forever changed me. As I continue to watch and hear examples of proficient children it is increasing my belief that my own kids may too be capable of extraordinary things.
My role isn’t to protect them from harm or keep them safe. My role is to guide them. I will teach them how to do things to the best of my knowledge and how to problem solve if something goes wrong. That’s all I can do as a parent. At some point I need to trust that they know enough. They may not know everything, but they will know enough.