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“Pick When Ripe” or “Pick When Green”?

February 1, 2015

Today’s NYTimes op ed page features a fascinating article by Micael Erhard titled “The Only Baby Book You’ll Ever Need”. The book Erhard recommends is “The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings,” by David F. Lancy, which he wryly notes is unlikely to be “…found in the baby section of your local bookstore.”

The  book describes two broad approaches to child rearing defined by culture as opposed to technique: “Pick When Ripe” and “Pick When Green”, which are described as follows:

In the “pick when ripe” culture, babies and toddlers are largely ignored by adults, and may not be named until they’re weaned. They undergo… a “village curriculum”: running errands, delivering messages and doing small-scale versions of adult tasks. Only later are they “picked,” or fully recognized as individuals. In contrast, in “pick when green” cultures, including our own, it’s never too early to socialize babies or recognize their personhood.

He provides a historic context for the “pick when green” culture, dating it to the 17th Century in the Netherlands where John Locke visited and subsequently imported it to England “…where Protestant radicals like the Puritans and Quakers picked them up. We, and our “godlike cherubs,” as Professor Lancy calls them, are their heirs.” As Erhard concludes his essay providing an overview of Lancy’s book he writes:

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “The Anthropology of Childhood” was how it taught me to value things that, in a cross-cultural perspective, might suddenly seem arbitrary: how we approach hygiene, for example, or teach etiquette. As a parent, I realized, my job is to transmit my culture. It helps to think of your child as a stranger in a strange land, like a study-abroad student you are hosting long term and to whom you must, patiently and constantly, explain the land they’re visiting.

These two sentences made me realize that our schools struggle with this cultural difference day in and day out. Many parents (and some progressive educators) operate on a “pick when ripe” philosophy while our cultural norm— and that of public education in general– is “pick when green”. Moreover, we increasingly moving toward a “pick when green” culture as evidenced by the limited amount of free play our children experience and the notion that every minute spent outside of school or outside of adult supervision is “wasted time”.

As one who spent my free time in childhood wandering through the woods, railroad tracks, and empty lots that bordered the suburban subdivisions I was raised in…. one who played far more games on sandlots and playgrounds than in organized leagues where uniforms and travel were required… and one who spent hours “reading”encyclopedias and dictionaries I am distressed by the lack of similar opportunities for most children today. Indeed, I read an on-line article recently that a parent was charged with neglect because they allowed their child to walk on the street in their neighborhood unaccompanied.

In looking back on my schooling and my childhood, I also find that my “pick when ripe” experiences were far more valuable than my “pick when green” experiences. My part-time jobs delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, and landscaping and my co-op jobs as an undergraduate in college taught me more about our “culture” than any course I took in school. I learned more about myself in completing hands-on assignments than I learned from tests that were used to determine my grades.

In looking at the ideas I’ve advocated in this blog it is clear: we need to shift away from the one-size-fits-all “pick-when-green” culture and adapt more to the “pick-when-ripe” way of thinking… or at the very least acknowledge that children, like various kinds of fruits and vegetables, ripen at varied times and under varied conditions.

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