In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness

In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness by Chris Mercogliano (Beacon Press, 205 pages, $24.95)

Chris Mercogliano’s most recent book, In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness is a welcome antidote to our current culture of fear. It is a powerful reminder of not only what children, but all of us, need to be productive, happy individuals: authentic, meaningful work and play; solitude; opportunities to take risks and learn from mistakes; and connections with people and nature. Mercogliano describes current cultural trends and forces that make it more difficult for us to meet these needs, gives some historical perspective on how we got here, and includes sobering research studies that emphasize the importance of protecting our children and ourselves from the forces that can keep children – and all of us – from finding and growing into ourselves. Fortunately, he also has some effective ideas for achieving these essential goals.

As I read this book, several people noticed the title and, picking up on the word “wildness,” made negative comments about poorly behaved children. As Mercogliano makes clear in different ways in the various chapters, inner wildness is not a euphemism for bad behavior and protecting it is not a euphemism for permissive parenting (or teaching). It is a thoughtfully chosen phrase that describes a person’s essential being: one’s fundamental human needs shaped by one’s very particular individuality. If we don’t see children for who they are – if we don’t honor this essential being, if we don’t provide time, space, and appropriate challenges – their development is seriously affected.

Though these ideas are not new, some of the research Mercogliano includes is, such as studies on television, video games, and the brain. It seems, too, that in our materialistic, fearful, competitive culture, we need all the reminders we can get to slow down and trust our children and ourselves. This readable, comprehensive book makes the case that we can and must do so. Teachers and parents will find it informative and inspiring.

For the past 18 years, Connie Biewald has been both a librarian and a Growth Education resource person at the Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In her Growth Ed role, Connie works with children, parents, and other teachers exploring the essential topics of human development such as self esteem, the use and misuse of power, altruism and community service, sexuality, and appreciation and understanding of differences.