Sometimes Exceptions are the Rule
by Sheila ColeI confess that though I'm an adult, I still enjoy contradicting authority figures. When I read expert pronouncements, I can rarely keep myself from thinking "Yes, but..." Like a teenager contradicting her parents, I take delight in coming up with an exception to the rule. I admit its a bad habit. But it's a habit that sometimes leads me in interesting directions.
In recent years I have been exposed to an unusually heavy dose of expert opinions. There was no way to avoid it. I was being paid to help write a textbook on children's development and in the textbook business you have to base what you write on the evidence of experts. So, like it or not, I found myself spending hours every day reading academic journals devoted to research on children's development.
Some of these articles interested me more than others, but one shared characteristic stood out. Whether the topic was how infants learn their native language or how girls cope with the onset of menstruation, the experts seemed to assume that whatever they found to be true of the children they studied had always been true for children and always would be. For example, reading about the way that American parents try to balance indulgence and responsibility in deciding how big an allowance to give their 6th grade child, I would think, "Yes, but... when I was growing up I had to take care of my little sister while my mom worked, and no one gave me an allowance. Or I would read research on how to decide if a child was mature enough to start the first grade and think, "Yes, but when my father was growing up in Poland he was expected to carry water for five people from the river to the house everyday when he was six years old. What sort of maturity are they writing about?"
Once I started thinking this way, I began looking at the children around me who believe that the way they live now-going to school six hours a day, being given an allowance, playing soccer with friends and computer games at home, is "normal." I realized that they might also be interested in finding out how different their lives might have been had they been born in another time.
I started reading memoirs, diaries, autobiographies and history books for information. I am a "word" person, so I was surprised to find that one of the best ways to convey the changing nature of family life and childhood was through old pictures and photographs. A picture of a dead baby lovingly photographed before burial and another of a pile of tiny caskets beside an open graves gives reality to child and infant mortality statistics. A photograph of black boys and girls running to a ramshackle wooden school speaks volumes about school segregation and the unequal resources given to black and white schools. A photograph of a young spinner-no older than twelve-in her torn and dirty apron standing before the spinning frame in a cotton mill tells us that working in a cotton mill was not child's play for the thousands of children who worked in mills. A boy in a messenger's uniform standing in a bar at midnight reminds that there weren't always laws preventing children from drinking alcohol.
Young in America grew out of my habit of saying "Yes, but..." It suggests to me that sometimes exceptions are the rule, and that pursuing them can lead you to make some interesting discoveries.
**Sheila Cole is the author of several books for children and young adults and is the co-author of a college-level developmental psychology book. She lives in San Diego, California.