Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Blind Eye

A number of people have posted on social media and elsewhere that whatever else people were expressing when they voted for Donald Trump--anger, fear over economics, etc.--they were also endorsing his racism, sexism, etc. Trump’s extreme bigotry, according to this view, was not a deal breaker. I understand this way of thinking, and I abhor Trump’s bigotry, but I also view it in a context that I want to share. Here it is: I think it’s possible that a few of those people--or many--allowed themselves to vote for Trump because they were dissociated from his extremism. Some of what he said, or how he said it, or his apparent estrangement from business as usual, appealed and made sense to them. The other stuff? Well, it was over there.

“Over there” is the term I use for the things we don’t want to deal with. Or acknowledge the existence of. And you know what? We all have an “over there.” Most of us have a whole slew of “over theres.” Some people have so many that they have to take psychotropic drugs in order to spend a few moments tethered to reality. I know parents who were so dissociated from their children’s problems (usually having been the cause of them) that they could have killed them, and would have if those kids had been unlucky enough to spend more than a few hours alone with them. This is no exaggeration at all, yet most of those parents would be appalled by Trump and his outsized nastiness. Though most of us are not dangerously detached from our children, all of us use dissociation to some extent to cope with a world too confusing and tragic to meaningfully cope with while getting through the day. This kind of divided mind is a reality of our lives and our conduct in our families and in the world.

This explanation for Trump’s support may strike some as farfetched, but these expressions of dissociation--including the kind in which you are capable of killing your offspring--are all of a piece, and one can be dissociated from plenty of people and problems and still appear to be a responsible adult. This is not exotica but rather a very pedestrian shortcoming, not to mention a very human and necessary capacity; if you are completely free of dissociation then you are a rare individual indeed.

I have experience of my own with dissociation, past and present. When I was a teenager, I needed it because of being alone with problems that were much, much bigger than I. As an adult, I used to be carless because I understood that every minute you drive a car you produce pollution that fouls the air and contributes to global warming, and I didn’t want to be responsible for that. Today, as a car owner, I still know this to be true, but I put it....well, over there. Dissociation. I know intellectually that when I drive my car I help hasten the end of the planet as we know it, but I don’t allow myself to feel that understanding like I used to. (Millions of people and I are helped in this detachment by our awareness that everybody else drives. How harmful can it, or how guilty can I really be if everyone does it? This kind of illogic is pervasive.) Clearly Trump supporters are far from the only people permitted by dissociation to ignore ugly facts. Even Sanders supporters had to deny or suppress their aversion to one or more aspect of his record, and our capacity for political denial has had a good workout since long before this election cycle. Here’s a case in point:

“Despite internal warnings that U.S. weapons would almost certainly be used to commit war crimes against Yemeni citizens, the Obama administration since 2015 has approved US$1.3 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”...”The U.S. has also confirmed that it had previously sold white phosphorus, a napalm-like chemical, to the Saudis.”
War crimes. Napalm-like chemical. Used to kill children and destroy homes and bought with our tax dollars. Paid for by you. And me. And how’d you sleep last night? Pretty well, I’d guess. I know I did. Is this less appalling than Donald Trump making fun of a disabled person, as breathtakingly callous as that was? Of course not. It’s simply...over there. We haven’t had to look at pictures of Yemenis blown apart by bombs supplied by us and dropped by the Saudis, our longtime allies. (Are you familiar with how the dissociation from the Vietnam War was disrupted by news footage of body bags coming home? That coverage was the graphic information people needed to make the war real, and it initiated the beginning of large-scale protests against the war.)
We all dissociate plenty, it’s just that some of us do it while exercising great power. And while it is easy to hate a man like Donald Trump, who takes no pains to disguise his primitive, mean-spirited view of his fellow humans, it’s also easy, when convenient for us, to put equally ugly or even uglier behavior “over there,” out of our awareness. We can do this because we have so much practice doing it, and one could argue that we must do it because circumstances sometimes seem to demand that we choose between various uglinesses, as much as it would be preferable to reject all of them. When we do such choosing between the “lesser” of two evils, we often do it by minimizing the ugliness that is over there (literally), not the one which is closer to home; by distancing ourselves from the more complex, long-term ugliness but not the simpler, more easily understood one; by repressing our awareness of the ugliness that, deep down, we know we are implicated in, instead of the one that allows us to believe that the fault lies entirely with someone else.
These criteria are used every day by all of us to choose which horrors of modern life to invest outrage and limited energy in and which not to. I believe these criteria explain why so many people not only supported Hillary Clinton but held her up as a progressive. They found it easy to be outraged by Trump supporter David Duke while glossing over or ignoring altogether Henry Kissinger’s support for and association with Clinton. (Perhaps some of these people have even been involved in protests against Kissinger when he has planned talks at universities, but now he is...over there.) Many people find themselves already missing President Obama while recoiling in horror at the ascension of Trump, even while Obama is responsible for American participation in the slaughter of Yemenis touched on above, among other kinds of behavior they will give Trump exactly zero slack for. There are people who are genuinely incensed that the Russians may have had a hand in bringing Trump to the White House, while being unable to muster any feeling at all about Hillary Clinton helping to depose the elected leader of Honduras or orchestrating the killing of Muammar Khadafi, both of which places are engulfed in violence and chaos. Dissociation.
I appreciate that people are horrified by the sexism, racism and general bigotry of Donald Trump; we’re going to need all the outrage we can muster in the next few years. But I am unmoved by the righteousness of those who rail against the bigotry of Trump and his supporters while ignoring Hillary Clinton’s deadly policies as Secretary of State; who sound the alarm about Trump’s obvious eagerness to further slant the playing field in favor of billionaires while putting Hillary Clinton’s support for mass incarceration of black people and the repeal of Glass-Steagall...over there.
Dissociation helps us feel better and avoid paralysis under absurd and appalling conditions, but it does so by allowing us to turn a blind eye--and heart--to selective atrocities and injustice, even while vilifying people who cannot bring themselves to accept any of a number of retrograde choices. I don’t know what the solution is, for dissociation is a mechanism deeply ingrained in our nature and our daily lives, and indeed it is a critically necessary mechanism, being utterly essential for abused and neglected children, for example. I would only ask that people bring awareness to their own capacity for minimizing or ignoring horror and work against their tendency toward dissociation, while having more understanding of it in others. 

Not a single person who follows American politics or is awake to any aspect of reality, should really be able to sleep well at night. We must appreciate that we can do so only by ignoring big chunks of those realities, and that everyone around us is doing likewise.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

No Child is an Island

If you’re like me, 2015 was a hard year for you to be up on the news. As barely a week went by without word of yet another public shooting, I became a bit media-shy. It was painful to hear about. And as I contemplated the brutalization of so many African-Americans by the police last year, I thought about how the rest of the world must see us. It was not the first time I imagined the U.S. as a troubled branch of the human family being pitied by our more high-functioning cousins, who don’t know what it’s like to wonder where next week’s massacre will take place.

Like many people, I have often wondered why our rate of violent crime is so much higher than the rates in, for example, western Europe, Canada, and Mexico before the drug war erupted. The role of easy access to guns in this violence is debated after every mass shooting, and there is a compelling argument to be made that our weak gun control makes it easy for those who would take their extreme alienation out on others to do so. But what about other symptoms of alienation and breakdown that also seem to vex the United States? Easy access to guns doesn’t cause those.

In a globalizing world, it is perhaps unsurprising that many societies find themselves contending with drug addiction, depression and weakening family bonds. Certainly Mexico is experiencing rising rates of family breakdown and upwardly creeping rates of violence above and beyond the drug war, not to mention increasing domestic demand for the drugs the traffickers spill so much blood supplying to the north. European, Canadian and other welfare states are no strangers to dysfunction either; no human society is. These are not trivial concerns, either statistically or in human terms, but I have never shaken my impression, first gained in college, that people from other countries are more...grounded than we are. Without looking for it, I have always felt a very different, more secure and healthy vibe coming from the people of other countries than from my fellow Americans. These impressions have come not only from the foreigners I’ve met at home but also from the time I’ve spent traveling abroad: 30 years of visiting Mexico, four trips to Europe and multiple trips to Canada, as well as visits to other countries, for a total of 19 on three continents. As the wife of a Mexican national, I have met hundreds of Mexicans in our time spent there--perhaps as many  as a hundred of them are members of his extended family!

I had the same impression again when my family and I welcomed a teenaged French exchange student into our home last September. At 17, he is self-assured, evidently secure both emotionally and socially. Beyond occasional moodiness, which may be due to homesickness, there does not appear to be any of the neurosis that so many of my fellow Americans and I have grappled with: anxiety, low self-esteem, insecurity in social situations, narcissism, a tentativeness and self-doubt in facing the world and deciding what to do.

I have never consistently encountered this kind of chronic insecurity, poor self-image or angst among people raised outside the United States. That’s not to say that every single American is neurotic--I know a few who seem quite grounded--nor that those from elsewhere have no hang ups or blockages. It has simply been my observation that we Americans are among the most emotionally insecure people in the world, or at least the parts I’ve visited. At home, this observation seems to mesh with the large numbers of us with stories of dysfunction from our growing up years, as well as those who are in therapy or on antidepressants.

I know I can barely name anyone from my young years or among my friends today who doesn’t have a childhood story somewhere on the spectrum from sad to horrifying: abandonment, abuse of one kind or another, neglect, addicted or otherwise emotionally absent parents. There’s no doubt in my mind that American childhood experiences of dysfunction outnumber those of smooth sailing, and, having ruminated on the possible reasons for many years, I’ve concluded that the explanation lies in our lack of what Alice Miller called the “helping witness.”

Miller was a psychoanalyst and later an author whose numerous books about the mistreatment of children represent what many believe to be the most powerful understanding we have of the experience and consequences of child abuse. Miller tells us that the abused or neglected child who has someone in his or her life acting as a “helping witness” will suffer less severe damage from that abuse than the child who lacks a witness. The helping witness may or may not be aware of the actual abuse suffered by a child, but he or she fills an important need by sympathizing with the child’s feelings in reaction to that abuse, or by at least allowing the child to express them. These witnesses are usually unaware of the role they play; many of them are grandparents or other members of the larger family, but they may also be coaches or teachers, family friends, or anyone the child knows.

Here’s why having a witness matters. A child’s natural and legitimate reaction to being abused or neglected is feelings of rage, terror and despair. By allowing the child his or her expression of these feelings, the witness implicitly affirms their correctness in the situation, thereby enabling the child to maintain contact with her psychic reality instead of psychologically splitting it off. Without this help, a child has every incentive to see himself as being responsible for his mistreatment, a distortion of reality that helps protect the child at the time but which feeds into dissociation, which proves dysfunctional in adulthood. (Common sense tells us this is correct. Who will carry more damage into adulthood, the child who believes that her mother beats her because she loves her, or the child who sees being beaten as the betrayal it is?)

Miller explains depression as the absence of vitality that comes from “owning” all of one’s emotions, the opposite of dissociation. In avoiding dissociation, the child avoids depression and the compulsion to violently or masochistically act out an experience that, for lack of a witness, had to be driven underground, out of his or her conscious awareness.

Is it possible that the welfare state and the extended family act as helping witnesses to the children of the countries that enjoy these institutions? Surely it’s not farfetched that an abused or neglected child living in a place like France would have a sense that “someone” cares about him, thereby making him less vulnerable to his abuser? It can only be a great psychological advantage to a child to have a government that views her as worthwhile enough to care for her health and keep her and her family from the streets in case of unemployment or poverty. Such acts of caring would stand in direct contrast to the behavior of an abusive caregiver, and it seems reasonable to conclude that they provide victims some validation of their worth, helping them to take their feelings seriously and avoid the tragedy of dissociation. Though a child will suffer damage at the hands of an abuser under any circumstances, it may be that in the context of an effective welfare state the worst effects are avoided by the child and therefore his society.

In the case of Mexico, which lacks a social safety net, the extended family provides sheer numbers of potential witnesses to abused and neglected children. Even if both parents are disturbed, the odds are good that at least one other person--a grandparent, aunt, uncle or older cousin--will serve as a helping witness to a child. Based on my time spent in Mexico, I am convinced of these protective benefits to living within an extended family. Indeed it appears to be the healthiest context for human beings to grow and develop within, and to mature and grow old in for that matter, given that it’s been the norm throughout human history. So firm is my conviction about this that I hope to see a time when growing up in a nuclear family is understood to be a risk factor for psychological problems.

This brings us back to the United States, which enjoys neither a comprehensive safety net nor the extended family. Here the vast majority of children are dependent upon two caregivers, and for the large numbers of children of divorce, this already precarious number is cut in half. The axiom “It takes a village to raise a child” is not a new-agey invention but an anthropological fact. It does take a village, or at least an extended family, to raise a well-adjusted child, and the prevalence of psychological problems among American children and adults alike speaks, I believe, to the cost of children growing up without numerous and diverse caregivers, or at least the psychological benefits of an effective social safety net. There simply is no consistent, effective witness to the suffering of most abused or neglected children in the United States, a fact that condemns most of them to suffer in what Miller called “boundless isolation.” It seems reasonable to expect that this isolation would increase the chances of a mistreated child dissociating from his abuse and the intolerable memory of it. When this happens, a potent mix of unexamined fear and anger festers, sometimes for years, until an often pathological outlet for it is found.

This thinking may not sit well with those committed to the rhetoric that sees the nuclear family as “traditional.” Having grown up with two badly overextended parents who had no support, a thousand miles from extended family, I do not have the luxury of believing in that particular bit of rhetoric or its warm and fuzzy connotations; there simply wasn’t enough energy, attention or concern to go around to my four siblings and me, all born within seven years. As I got to know Mexico many years later, and the importance of the extended family to its cohesion, I began to understand how deeply unnatural the way I grew up was. Many hands make not only light work--and therefore less resentment--but also many outlets for children when the parent-child relationship periodically becomes too intense, as well as sources of love and validation of a child’s feelings. Intensity of dependence in a relationship breeds stress, guilt and resentment. The multigenerational home is a safety valve, and no child anywhere is immune to the need for it. I certainly wasn’t.

When I think about the origins of my alienation growing up and as an adult, I understand how much it has had to do with my lack of dependable, caring adults in my young years. By the time I was 11, both my parents were emotionally absent (like so many parents in the 1970s), and I was left to my own devices to not only navigate life but to cope with a life-threatening illness. There were no social workers in my affluent town and no other adults available to me, and the result, after becoming an adult, was several years of severe depression, alcohol dependence and deep alienation. Not understanding what I had missed out on, it has very slowly and gradually dawned on me what a recipe for disaster it was to grow up in such a vacuum. It’s no mystery to me why my husband, who grew up surrounded daily by his extended family, has none of the deep unease that comes from the absence of strong, stable adults to guide and protect one as a child. He had not just one or two of these essential people, but half a dozen!

Abstract as it is, I can also imagine the sense of security one derives from living where one receives health care simply because one is alive. Though it would seem ideal that one’s helping witness be an actual person, I’m convinced that welfare states like France provide the children of inadequate parents a sanity-saving substitute in the form of help and protection that communicate to them the existence of an organized, dependable, caring presence. For these kids, it must make all the difference. As Jennifer Freyd explains in “Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse,” the more a dependent a child is on his or her abuser, the greater the damage. It stands to reason that French children are less psychologically dependent upon their parents than American children are, and therefore relatively less vulnerable to any abuse; my chats with our French guest about his growing up years appear to confirm this greater independence and sense of security. I’m convinced that growing up in such a place would have made all the difference to me, providing me with a sense of safety and trust that I have never had, to this day, not to mention a solid foundation for my self-esteem. These qualities are meant to be established in childhood, and are very difficult to achieve in adulthood, a fact I think helps explain the prevalence of neurosis among American adults.

For all these reasons I believe the American “model”--lacking both the extended family and an effective social safety net--is a recipe for dysfunction, and that the nuclear family must be replaced with a return to multigenerational arrangements, unless we move toward, at the least, single-payer universal healthcare. I’m convinced that one of these institutions is needed if we are to give children the greatest chance of avoiding neurosis, and the country its best chance of moving away from violence and costly alienation. (An alternative to extended biological family, and an excellent one, is the small co-housing movement, which so far has more adherents in Europe than in the U.S.)

A lovely quote I saw on Facebook seems apt here: If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others. Don’t we acknowledge this principle in many arenas? The best government is not achieved by one institution but by a balance among various entities. Writing on its way to publication requires scrutiny by many people to be worth reading, and scientific research duplicated by many investigators is always the most trustworthy. Why should children’s optimal development put the lie to such a proven idea as the need for checks and balances?  

Returning to the win-win institution of the extended family or implementing a national health care system may well be one of our best hopes for fortifying American children, and the adults they will become. In this way we may have a chance of lifting our culture from a prolonged period of widespread disaffection that too frequently ends in violence and broken lives.

This is not rocket science. It’s wisdom that has been here all along.


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Taming of the American Child

Over the past 40 years, many Americans have seen real advancement in their enjoyment of freedom (some more than others). These include women, gay people, African Americans, and the disabled, among others. Our society has come to see independence and self-determination as more and more important to quality of life.

But over the same time period, incredibly, one very large group of Americans has gone completely in the opposite direction, experiencing a dramatic decline in its enjoyment of independence and self-determination. That group is children.

To help illustrate what kids have lost since the late 1970s, here is a partial list of things that the young of my generation did that kids can’t do anymore:

  • Climb trees
  • Take off on our bikes for hours
  • Use adult implements and tools instead of dumbed down versions like kid scissors, sippy cups, lunchboxes, dishes, furniture, etc.
  • Spend time outdoors, hours of it, much of it alone or with other kids; even go camping without adults
  • Cook, use regular or power tools, build things, play with fire, tinker with electrical appliances and gadgets, without adults standing over us
  • Walk real distances and use public transit, go into stores, restaurants and other public places and buy things, eat or hang out, without adults around at all, much less child-proofing the place or making a “teachable” moment out of it
  • Come home from school and decide what we would do. No soccer practice, no music lessons, no supervised arts and crafts. This was unscheduled time, alone or with friends, which allowed children to actually do something that has been entirely, 100% usurped by adults: make decisions.

Kids have had whatever independence they enjoyed 40 years ago taken from them. Stolen. They’ve had their environment--home, school, the playground--made so safe, so risk-free you’d think they’re mentally defective or suicidal. They’re followed by a security detail everywhere they go. Every minute of their day is scheduled by adults who are “looking out for their future,” and literally none of that time permits them to be away from the watchful eyes of adults unless they’re sleeping. None. (Exceptions may be made for age 13 or so up, but on a cellular leash.) They’re told what to do, how to do it, and when. (I’ve seen a dad tell his young daughter how to climb a set of easy steps: “Hands and feet!”) They’re expected to believe that a “family concert” with balloon animals is a fair replacement for hours spent exploring and learning about the world on their own terms, unmediated and unsupervised.

In short, American children have been tamed. Domesticated and brought into captivity. They have had their wildness and sovereignty taken from them and been given light-up shoes and junk food as compensation. (Children today, like our young neighbor, don’t proudly tell you what they can do, like previous generations--”I can draw, and tie my shoes, and tell time”--but rather what they own--”These are my magic markers, my new shoes, my clock.”) This was a very lousy deal indeed.

Society-wide there is an ignorant and reckless disregard for children’s abundant native intelligence, resourcefulness and drive for independence, not to mention capacity for mature behavior when not treated like fragile morons.

In the contemporary U.S. we have eliminated a child’s right to move from place to place unaccompanied because of a ridiculous paranoia about “stranger danger,” even though riding in the family car is more dangerous for kids than playing at the park without an adult hovering nearby. (When children are molested, it’s usually by someone known to them as well.) It’s bizarre and irresponsible that we’ve replaced allowing kids to take time-honored risks with paranoid smothering on the basis of a deeply distorted assessment of what the risks are in their lives.

While it’s reasonable to believe that the killing of Etan Patz in New York City in 1979 helped usher in this absurd and damaging era of treating children as hopelessly vulnerable, other factors have conspired to promote it as well. One of these factors is the shift from an economy in which workers might expect loyalty from their employers to the nickel-and-diming they now face at every turn, causing large numbers of us to be stressed out and defeated. Part of our compensation for it is an explosion of choices in our selection of stuff--food, sneakers, cell phones--compensation for less and less choice in where we work, how we survive on shrinking wages, and how our taxes and political system are used (or violated), which is somehow never to our benefit the way taxes are used to the benefit of the French, Swedes, Canadians, etc. (as if they deserve something we don’t). Like children, working and middle-class Americans have been distracted from the erosion of our self-determination by the dangling of trinkets in front of us, but these trinkets, the fruits of made-in-China consumerism, are tacky and ephemeral. They leave us needing something more, something to help us feel important and useful again.

So our other compensation is being mom and dad superheroes. With our ongoing disenfranchisement, Americans of today are much more likely to derive part or all of our self-worth from parenting, from being knights in shining armor to our children. But strong, confident people don’t need rescuing, so we now (unconsciously) require children to be helpless long past the age they have historically been so.

The result is an era in which we do not raise or teach our children so as to promote mastery and differentiation from us, as humans have always done; rather, we raise and teach them to need us and to look in our direction before making a move, to deeply internalize our approval and guidance so that they will go on needing us.

This has not been done without justification. In eliminating children’s freedom and rehearsals for independence, adults have embraced an antiquated and otherwise discredited doctrine: an adults’ version of “White Man’s Burden.” Grown-ups’ Burden is the attitude toward the young that sees them as so delicate and mentally limited that they cannot be trusted with real scissors, time alone or intellectual challenge, necessitating extensive adult help and praise for even banal tasks (“Good job!”). But the real, unconscious goal of much of our “help” is the proving of how necessary we helpers are. Like past rationales for colonialism, this is paternalism, and if you doubt that paternalism has much to teach us about adult-child relations, you have not observed contemporary parenting or studied the education industry.

We’ve created a society where kids have a hard time getting hurt, but our paranoid eradication of even the hint of danger (and liability?) has also stolen from them many of the timeless rites of young passage. This has changed the experience of growing up from an irreplaceable adventure--historically an excellent preparation for life--to a workaday plod through a maze built by others with tall walls and nary a peek at the outside world (i.e., anything outside the daycare to high school/college pipeline).

We have turned childhood into a job that, if not joyless, has certainly been robbed of the thrill and terror of straying from the script, taking risks, standing on shaky ground, and finding out, under pressure, what one is made of. That thrill and terror are not lamentable accidents of growing up, to be rightly eliminated by lawyers, teachers and social workers; rather, they are indelible features of a stage of life that loses richness and wisdom in direct proportion to the loss of risk-taking. People who know history understand that taking chances and facing fears are what the young years are all about, and that childhood devoid of risk is a hollow experience that leaves a young person not only unready to negotiate the world, but developmentally stunted. It is deeply unnatural.

This abolition of childhood risk explains much of the helplessness we see in the American classroom. Young people prevented from climbing trees are not likely to feel up to the task of doing calculus or understanding great literature, much less producing any. Children who’ve been told exactly how to go up steps or been given calculators for arithmetic are unlikely to blaze creative or intellectual trails. (Indeed, lack of trust goes a long way toward explaining what’s wrong with our schools.)

We’ve contributed immeasurably to the dumbing down of American education and culture by child-proofing childhood, for much of children’s learning always occurred through their free play, exploration of nature and time spent alone, which have--insanely--been all but eliminated, sometimes even criminalized, in the contemporary U.S. These activities were for children the factories of self-knowledge and self-confidence that made possible their mature and creative behavior throughout history until the helicopter gang flew into town.

By contrast, young people raised indoors, on electronic stimulation and adult-chosen activities, and in the constant presence of those adults, lack the independence, openness to challenge, and resilience that had always been their birthright. They are bored and psychologically dependent on us and on electronics. They lack initiative (which is the last thing they’ve ever been encouraged to take), and they make decisions awkwardly because they so rarely get to do it. (God help them in an emergency with no adults able to help.) This is, of course, the fault of adults who, at some mediocre and particularly unimaginative point in our recent history, began to see the risks of young people’s natural wildness as a problem to be solved. (It should surprise no one that any such solution would bring money and jobs to the adult world.) And solve it we did, by eliminating any and all activities, and anything children touched, that might lead to injury, failure, or a circuitous path to maturity. While this was not done conspiratorially or maliciously, it should not be believed that it was done altruistically, as every step of this process has, conveniently, promoted adult systems of management and control of children; with these systems have come jobs and financial rewards to adults, and even more significantly, permission to see themselves as heroes who are “rescuing” children from the big bad world, an attitude that is commonly seen as the racism and classism it is when applied to many efforts “on behalf” of black people and the poor.

We have made children strangers to adventure, which is extraordinary, but we don’t feel guilty because we’re deluded about our responsibility for it. Instead of admitting that we get a nice ego massage from “guiding” children through life and doing for them what they can do for themselves; instead of admitting that it’s less complicated and stressful to have them in sight instead of allowing them to explore on their own; and instead of admitting that we want children’s cheerful and constant company because they’re so cute and likable, and our adult relationships so often messy and disappointing; instead of admitting these things, we tell ourselves that we parent this way because we are keeping our children safe and helping them to get ahead in the world. We couch our behavior in terms so correct, so redolent of safekeeping that we’ve thoroughly deluded ourselves about how much our “caretaking” actually diminishes their resourcefulness and increases their vulnerability in the short and long-term.

It is our job to support and guide children only to the extent that they need it in order to fulfill and express their true nature, not to be their best friends or life coaches. We should show children affection and protect them when truly necessary, but should not otherwise put our stamp on every inch of their lives. Yet we continue to engage in patronizing and harmful interference in their daily routines, and part of the reason is because we can.

Indeed, it is unfortunate for American children that there are more adults per kid these days, and so much money, so many kinds of careers, and so many warm and fuzzy feelings attendant with giving kids the attention and other “help” we’ve convinced ourselves they need, the way it was once thought people of color needed and would benefit from the “help” of missionaries and imperialists.

The good news is that many of the millions of parents without a tangible stake in keeping kids in captivity see through at least some of this absurdity. Although they remain vulnerable to paranoid and powerful social workers and nosy neighbors, sensible parents can--and many do--subvert the culture by promoting genuine resourcefulness and self-trust in their own and other children in a dozen ways. These include:

  • Allowing children to engage in free play that is also free of adult intervention and direction. (They don’t come to your office and tell you how to do data entry; don’t tell them how to play, go up stairs, or solve their conflicts with others. They’ve got this.);
  • Allowing young people hours at a time, regularly, to explore their environment independently or with other young people. When this requires crossing streets or taking public transit, these should be taught and practice allowed, just as with any other task like driving a car, but once the skill is acquired, they should be trusted to use it alone;
  • Requiring their kids to walk, bike or take public transit to the places they need and want to go to, unaccompanied (sometimes even without cell phones, so they can learn to find trustworthy older humans and talk to them, just like adults do every day);
  • Encouraging children to make decisions--real ones, like whether or not school is right for them when alternatives exist--and to tackle problems that may arise from them without jumping in to solve them, which will enable them to once again solve problems without help (this is a good thing, folks). This goes hand in hand with allowing failure to once again be an option for young people, but don’t worry; they will learn a great deal more from falling on their faces than they do from being prevented from ever falling;
  • Allowing and encouraging children to do real work, like that of the nine year-old reporter in Pennsylvania who broke the story of a murder in her small town. Allowing children to participate in the building of a house and the running of a household, a business, a local project; asking them how they would solve chronic community problems, then letting them do it! (They may be slow and uncertain at first, but they will be the ones who go on to do it for a living, and win prizes for it.);
  • Declining to schedule every minute of their day, resting assured that, far from ruining their future, this will give them the space and time to develop exactly those qualities that will help them most (aka executive functioning, which many studies document follows naturally from the freedom to make decisions and mistakes and spend time alone. The young years should be much messier than they currently are, much more self-directed and much scarier for parents while being frequently exhilarating for the ones making the journey.);
  • Recognizing the incremental, sometimes subtle advances in competence and pride that follow from being trusted to explore their world and take chances. We will be more sensitive to these advances when we understand that setting children on a linear, no-option-for-detour path for 18 years has lead not to more safety, but more anxiety.

Prevent a child from tackling challenging, scary problems (from real life, not a worksheet) until age 18 and you will guarantee that he becomes an adult who’s not very good at it or eager to do it. There is a whole generation, and another coming up, of which this is true, and the consequences are far-reaching for its quality of life. They range from a dramatically reduced physical and psychological comfort zone to a permanently troubled relationship with food. After all, years ago we replaced whatever independence remained to children with as many empty calories and as much kiddie merchandise as they could lay their hands on, which was plenty. It should not surprise us that, in the continuing absence of a far more satisfying diet of adventure and meaningful challenge, kids have continued to rely on junk food, and now smart phones, to console themselves and drown their boredom. I suggest that obesity among children and teens will not cease to be a problem until their right to strive toward independence and mastery of their world on their own terms is restored. Eliminate their loss and boredom and you will eliminate their need to use food the way millions of adults do.

Until then, the other victim of this hapless experimenting with kids’ lives will be the planet, which will one day need them to tackle real, daunting problems without the help of a previous, more resourceful generation. These problems include global warming, perhaps the mother of all problems, and I for one do not want to be dependent in surviving such a calamity upon a generation that was prevented from figuring out how to climb stairs or trees. Complex problem solving later in life requires the experience and confidence gained from tackling earlier, seemingly simpler difficulties, and we lead children through life, step by tiny step, like halfwits, at our own significant peril.

For this reason, it is past time adults stopped hovering over children, found meaning outside of their relationships with them, and began encouraging the renaissance of accomplishment, purposefulness and  adventure that are inherent features of the youthful years lived out as they were meant to be.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Post #2

Ani mori nuse, ani qaf'-gastare,
Ani a do ruz-e, ani a do par-e?
As nuk dua ruz-e, as nuk dua par-e,
Por e dua dja-djalin, more me cigare.
Ani me cigare, ani me kuti-e,
E me këpucet të zeza, faqe si zotni-e.
Ani mori nuse, moj vetull-gjilpan-e,

Ani dil e shih e moj djal-e, moj xhan-e.