One of the consequences of living in a rich culture is that we sometimes get confused about what really matters. A good example of this is a situation I came upon recently. I got to chatting with a local Mennonite couple that we know slightly (mostly because since we're religious Jews, we stick out as the other people in the neighborhood wearing funny hats), and they told me that they'd contacted their local social services office because they'd like to adopt children. Their five kids are getting older - two are now nearly grown, and they thought it would be nice to share their home with some kids who need one. They were interested in adopting hard-to-adopt kids, including kids with disabilities.
The thing is, not only did they end up not signing up for adoption training, but they were scared to death that a social worker would come investigate their own kids. Because when they told the woman they spoke to on the phone that they had no electricity or running water, the woman started asking pointed questions and demanded their address. When they tried to explain that this was for religious reasons, they were told, "oh yes, we've heard that before." Given that New York state has a plentiful Amish population, I'm sure they have.
And, in fact, in 2004 there was a case in North Carolina of parents of a family losing custody because of neglect. How had they neglected their children? The family was poor, and refused to take handouts or subsidies, and so lived without electricity or running water. By all accounts the children were loved and well fed, simply lived the way our great-grandparents all did.
In 2006, here in New York, the state labor board began invesigating Amish families for their labor practices. The Amish send their children to school only through eighth grade, after which the children are apprenticed out. The state began investigating them for child labor violations - even though the children were being educated in a trade. Apprenticeship has a long history. It can be abused, but there was no evidence that the children involved were having unusual or unjust demands made of them. The problem was that the children, instead of spending their time learning calculus, were learning to work with their hands, work we don't think of as "educational."
Or to use another example, my oldest son is disabled and not yet toilet trained. We would prefer to use cloth diapers with him, but the school legally will not permit my son to use cloth. It doesn't matter that they wouldn't have to do anything more than send the dirty diapers home at the end of the day, instead of throwing them in the trash. The law is the law, so we buy disposables. Fortunately, we can afford them. But if we couldn't it wouldn't matter.
Or even simpler. I still remember the neighbor of my MIL in New York City who asked, "what activities do you do with your child." The child in question was about 15 months old. So when I said we really didn't do any - that we played outside and went to the library occasionally, she didn't quite know how to respond. Parenting a toddler, for her, was taking them to music and art classes. To me, it was having him help to hang the laundry, but I knew what she was asking - was I giving my child a good start?
We've become so accustomed to our wealth and comfort that even childhood has been industrialized. You can now literally lose custody of your children for being poor, or living the way your grandmother did. Good parenting, to a large degree, is defined as taking your kids places so that other people can teach them things, and buying them things - whether toys or experiences. We want our children to have "every opportunity," and most opportunities we value are things you can purchase - that trip to Disneyland, the week at space camp, the computer, the beautiful children's books.
There are two problems with this. The first is that we're raising consumptive children who are being taught that what they can buy matters more than anything. This has been exhaustively documented in books like _Born to Buy_ and _Affluenza_. Among other things, the authors of Affluenza observe,
As affluenza becomes an airwave-borne childhood epidemic, America's
children pay a high price. Not only does their lifestyle undermine the
children's physical health, but their mental health seems to suffer too.
Psychologists report constantly rising rates of teenage depression and
thoughts about suicide, and a tripling of actual child suicide rates since
Much of this stems from the overscheduling of children to prepare them
for our adult world of consumerism, workaholism and intense competition.
In some places, this reaches truly ridiculous levels. Since the passage of the
No Child Left Behind At, nearly 20 percent of American school districts
have banned recess for elementary school children. The idea, as one
Tacoma, Washington, school administrator put it, is to 'maximize instruction
time to rpepare the children to compete in the global economy.' This is nuts
We're talking second graders here....
What kind of values do our children learn from their exposure to
affluenza? In a recent poll, 93 percent of teenage girls cited shopping
as their favorite activity. Fewer than 5 percent listed, 'helping others.'
In 1967, two thirds of American college students said 'developing a
meaningful philosophy of life' was 'very important' to them, while fewer
than one-third said the same about 'making a lot of money.' By 1997
those figures were reversed. A 2004 poll at UCLA foudn that entering
freshmen ranked becoming 'very well off financially' ahead of all
Juliet Schor survyed children aged ten to thirteen for their
responses to the statement 'I want to make a lot of money when I grow up.'
Of those children, 63 percent agreed,; only 7 percent thought otherwise.
Asked about their 'highest priority' in a 1999 poll taken at the University
of Washington, 42 percent of those surveyd cited, "looking good/having good
hair." Another 18 percent listed "staying inebriated," while only 6 percent
checked "learning about the world."
We have come to believe that good parenting is something you buy, and our children have, as children do, understood us a bit too well - they have learned that the things that matter are all things you buy. We no longer think of poverty as ordinary - we no longer look at a small, simple shelter, with enough food and some clean clothes and love and say "that's like our house." Because our house doesn't look like that. And we have a lot more than that. And most people look at simple, everyday, ordinary poverty with fear, distaste and a hint of judgement - ordinary people must have failed somehow. Our children know that. They know that not having stuff and being poor are bad - even if they are poor. Especially if they are poor. Think about that - in a world where all of us are a little less rich, what are we teaching our kids?
But the second problem is even more insidious. It isn't just that we're raising children whose morals are deeply skewed, but more importantly, we're creating a culture in which good parenting is equated with being wealthy. That is, good parenting has become not the provision of love and basic food and shelter, but a host of things that are both superficial and impossible to achieve if you are very poor. In a world where more of us may become poor someday, that means any one of us could face state intervention because of things we can't control. If electricity and running water, your own room and not having to do too many chores are requirements for an ordinary life, what happens if those things cease to be available?
A friend who has read about these CPS cases emailed me recently and asked whether I should keep talking about all the energy cuts we're making. And I worry that she might be right - maybe I shouldn't. For now I still am. But I am aware that in cutting my energy usage down to what represents a fair share, I am risking something more than discomfort - and all parents who do so are taking those risks. That's a fearful thing, if we are to enter into a world where all of us take only our fair share.
I tend to hope that these are isolated cases, and that as long as we love our children and take good care of them, use good judgement and keep them safe, that is enough. I don't demonize social workers -my mother worked for DSS in Massachusetts for more than a decade, and I've met enough foster kids to know that most social workers are honorable and do the best they can at an overwhelming and difficult job. And they don't exist in isolation - they are products of their culture, and it is the culture as a whole that is the problem here. And sometimes poverty does come with all sorts of bad stuff. But not always. And if we cease to be able to seperate out ordinary human poverty from real suffering, we lose something - something that may matter to us personally, and that matters to our society.
Economic status is not virtue. We do not have our wealth because we are better or smarter or wiser than poor people - in this country or any other. I doubt many people would admit to believing that the poor are inferior, and yet we act as though there is something inherent that divides us from the ordinary poor people around us. And we live our lives as though we view material things as more important than kindness, a sense of justice or love for one another. Unfortunately, our children see this. We live our lives as though we are good because we are rich. And children, being children, understand the underlying message. They learn that poor is bad, that wealth is what matters, and they begin to judge us by the standards we teach them.
Children have begun to substitute the objects in their lives for the virtues we wish for them. A good home is good not because of what it does for the child, but because of what it has. And that's wrong - it is a wrong way of thinking, and it may yet come back to haunt us. We start substituting things for experiences, and that way lies...well, we're finding out. It does not appear to lead to closer or happier families.
The problem is us. The longer we think that normalizing being rich and priveleged and lucky will keep the wolf away from our door, the longer we pretend we can all live like the people on tv, the longer we pretend our children hear what we say, but don't watch what we do, the worse off we'll be. And the richer we are, the poorer we are - that is, the less likely we are to raise children who fully understand what self-sacrifice, honor, courage and integrity are - because, in the end, we cannot have those virtues and be rich ourselves - not in a world of increasing scarcity, where our wealth is borne on the backs of others.