Thursday, May 24, 2007

Childhood, Industrialized

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
the 1960s.

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
other goals.

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."
(Affluenza, 61-62)

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.



Anonymous said...

On thing that amazes me is the number of people who go to hear their child play in the school concert and spend the whole time video taping it. It seems to me you miss the experience so you can have the oportunity to view it 2nd hand later.

Now, I have a two tapes, each about 5 mins of each dd, sent to me from the orphange before they arrived, and I'll confess, I have an attachment to them. At the time they gave me clues to how the girls were being cared for and we enjoy watching them about once every six months. But now they are with me, I'd rather emerse myself in what they are doing at the moment. I remember being on line with a women who kept the video camera in arms reach 24/7 so she "wouldn't miss a moment" of her child's growing up, and I felt that she was missing a lot of my being an observer not a participant.

My sil sends my parents hours of tape of her children doing stuff. Now, there is a lot to be said for standing on the side lines cheering as your grandchild learns to ride a bike, but you are part of the learning. You encourage, dry tears, celebrate. Just watching the same series of events (get on the bike, have dad push, have dad let go, wobble, stop, get off, start over) for a couple of hours (spread over several days taping) isn't the same. A letter from the child telling granny and grandad she can ride a bike (with, perhaps, a photo) would be a lot more immediate.

(While my brother was expereinces his dd learning to ride her bike, her mother was experiences running the camera.)

However, for some reason, people seem more comfortable with keeping childhood experiences at arms length and viewing them through a filter.


RAS said...

Hey Sharon,
Thanks for the post. You make a lot of good points, as usual. I too have been concerned about you talking about your energy cuts with kids in the house, but I figured that you knew about the risk.

Child welfare laws have gotten nuts in some states. Don't get me wrong; I'm all for protecting children from abuse. I was seriously abused as a child myself -one of the reasons I decided to go into psychology. But there's a BIG difference between abuse and poverty. One of the reasons that these silly cases piss me off so thoroughly is that social workers are all ready overworked and this takes away from the job that they're supposed to be doing -that is, protecting kids who are really abused.

Did you know that there are laws in some states that *REQUIRE* you to have a working fridge in the house and have it filled with things like milk if you have kids in the house? A woman I know moved to Oklahoma a while back. Her very vindictive MIL who didn't want them to move, called child welfare and said she was abusing her kids by moving them cross country. Now this was nonsense of course, but DHS was required to investigate. So, a social worker showed up to her house in Oklahoma to interview her and inspect the house. She had literally just gotten the keys that day and was unloading the U-Haul. (Her husband is in Iraq, btw.) The social worker threatened to write them up because the fridge in the house wasn't yet plugged in and was empty -which were requirements in Oklahoma. She gave this lade ONE HOUR to go to the store and get the "basics" -milk, juice, and eggs -and get them in the fridge before she wrote them up.

There have also been cases here in Alabama where Amish families have gotten in trouble for the lack of electricity and running water. Oh yeah, and being homosexual in most parts of the South will get your children taken away if someone reports you as gay to DHS. No, I am not kidding. It happens all the time here. Even if I had a partner I couldn't risk having kids here -which is yet another reason I want to move. Not too long ago, a woman in Mississippi had her daughter taken from her because she was a lesbian -no other reason; the state admitted she was a good parent other than that, but that gays can't be proper parents. She took her case to the State Supreme Court -and the judge lectured her from the bench on the "immorality" of her lifestyle, and the "abominable example" she was providing her child, and also mixed in some Bible verses for good measure, before permanently yanking her custodial rights.

I've also heard of people being investigated for silly things like not having their kids enrolled in after school activities and the like. And kids are also being encouraged to report it if they think they are being abused. This can have lead to some almost amusing situations. A friend of mine who is a school counselor got called in to talk to a young teenage girl who was claiming she was being abused by her mother. Why did she make this claim? Because her mother was refusing to buy her a cell phone. Now, my friend laughed at this silly complaint, but what if she had been one of those "progessive" counselors who think that all teenagers should have their own cell phones, and called DHS to investigate the family?

Anonymous said...

Makes you wonder what the overzealous lawmakers and social workers will be doing when real poverty starts coming around the corner for millions.

When you realize what's coming, and you start preparing for it, you have to justify your actions to people who live in a completely different world, who see nothing but more of the same, with the emphasis on more.

I wonder how much has changed for the Amish in the past while, how much more they have to explain themselves, and be afraid their kids may be taken away.

One point you haven't even touched on yet is that for the majority of children, the present paradigm means that they will not learn the skills needed to survive and/or be useful in the world they will spend most of their lives in.

That may well be the biggest tragedy of all.

The highest zenith in education today seems to be business management. Good luck with that when you're cold and hungry.

Anonymous said...

I'm struck, Sharon, by the synchronicity of your post with some observations I'm making in an entirely different area, but one that directly impacts that of which you speak here.

First I want to point you and the readers to this incredibly perceptive link to a blog that posted 5/22/07 some much needed thoughts about the poor and the subversive nature of their/our feeling joy:

I like how he is clear to say we don't need to romanticize the poor, but that they/we offer an opportunity for giving and receiving. I find that quite moving.

Anyway, the area I've been musing over is the role of storytelling in our culture, particularly as it relates to theater which I think over the next couple of decades will become a dramatically more important art form as it will be intensely local.

You know, Cap Rep is finishing up their production of The Crucible this weekend, and Arthur Miller had written an essay in the 50s about how modern man can be "tragic." That got me thinking about the role of the tragic hero in history, and theater itself is a conservative art form. More often than not over history, it's been an amplifier of the values of the status quo.

The thought hit me that if Aeschylus, Sophocles or Shakespeare were alive today, they'd be on the writing staff for The Sopranos. The history of our civilization, as you noted, is about mainstreaming a certain kind of thuggishness--the "elegant rogue" who will turn a good bon mot as he slits someone's throat and then sits down to a nice feast with his fellows.

It's sort of like that Woody Allen film Bullets Over Broadway where it turns out the gangster guarding the big cheese's horrible actress girlfriend is gifted with being able to craft a good structure for John Cusack's play, and becomes wedded to the success of the play itself so much that he sees it as necessary to off Jennifer Tilly and thereby succumb to his own imminent doom r/t see the play fail because of an incompetent. For a long time I was bothered by this film and what it says, but today I'm acutely aware that it's of a piece with the way we utilize narrative in this empire culture. The rich-people-are-just-like-regular-folks narrative has been with us and celebrated since Aristotle, I'm afraid.

Michelle In TN said...

Great article. (I quit videotaping
the kids years ago, lots of pics

Anonymous said...

The parents in my neighborhood are addicted to incessantly documenting every moment of their children's lives, whether by videotape, photograph, scrapbooks, etc. I just always thought this was cheating your child's imagination. I have wonderful memories of my childhood, some have been modified by my imagination, which is human and fine and personal, and other memories are so full of holes I have to ask my mother about them, which keeps the tradition of storytelling/family mythologizing strong. It's a real shame when this is taken away because it affects the child's imagination overall. Couple that with overscheduling/no imaginative free play and you have a recipe for disaster. (Also--I DESPISE the term "playdate"...if you have to make a date to play it's time to reassess priorities!)

(I post anonymously because I also have problems when I try to set up an account.)

Mrs. Anna T said...

Thank you for this post!

We were very poor when I was a kid. Yet I never felt deprived because we didn't have a car or a computer, or because I didn't get any allowance. If I felt deprived, it was because I had no father and because I saw my mother for about an hour a day.

Money doesn't buy happiness!! Money won't even buy one joyful moment! We have been told this so many times and we see how our rich generation is so miserable, yet we still refuse to believe it. Why don't we open our eyes?

Well, I guess I will just wish you a happy and blessed Shabbath and say goodbye for now.


Jess Connell said...

Thanks for this timely article- very rich with wisdom and insight!

Jess @ Making Home

Me said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Me said...

What a well written, lovely article! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

this is my first comment here (great blog, btw), but I know you from HT. I thought this post was excellent, but it raised some questions for me, as a person expecting to start a family in the next couple years or so.

Do you envision a complete rejection of the consumptive, overacheiving childhoods of today, or is there a balance to be struck between that and a more homegrown, old-fashioned childhood? What I mean is, I guess I don't think it's entirely ridiculous to be preparing 2nd graders to "compete in the global economy"--I just see that as a way to hedge one's bets in preparing for the future. It seems to me that children would be well-served to learn not only to thrive with austerity and do for themselves, but also to know how to "get ahead in the world" if they so choose.

My parents made sure to give me "every opportunity" as a child to "succeed" in life--by which I mean that my mom signed me up for every kind of lesson known to suburbian momdom (horseback riding, tennis, ballet, gymnastics, piano, foreign languges, ALL school sports, science camp, etc.). I went to all the top schools, and here I am with a pretty nice job and a paycheck to match. None of this stops me from growing my garden, knitting my socks, conserving energy, etc. In fact, it makes it easier for me to afford the land to live on and other essential capital outlays--and it also means that I could work part time (to devote more time to family, homesteading, etc.) and still earn more than enough to live on and put some away for the future. Now, it's true that my coworkers (and parents) are befuddled by my desire to live simply, and especially by my lack of cable TV, when I could "afford" to have more--but the point is that I don't think it has to be either/or. I haven't read _Affluenza_ yet, but it looks to me like he might be making incorrect assumptions about causal relationships--i.e. encouraging children to thrive academically is not necessarily mutually exclusive with teaching them to care about others, learn about the world, or develop a meaningful life philosophy.

I think I would feel uncomfortable withholding from my future kids the socially sanctioned experiences that make them look good on paper to college admissions officers, etc.--denying them the opportunities I had to make choices about my life, and maybe the chance to make life a little easier. I also believe that it's generally easier to fight the system from within than without. My position now gives me access to convince my employer to expend some of its substantial charitable resources on environmental issues, meet with local politicians, give talks to local groups, sit on charitable boards, etc. I am worried that people who don't like the system make a mistake in withdrawing from it too much. Highly educated liberals already have far fewer children per capita than conservatives--if our children are to be not only outnumbered by those who refuse to recognize issues like peak oil and climate change, but also out-powered and out-spent by those people, then it seems to me that our potential for positive future change is in serious jeopardy.

I hope to be able to raise kids who are equally comfortable digging in the garden and kicking butt on the __(fill in the college resume activity here)__ team. I'd like them to be able to go into their chosen profession and earn a secure living in the world as we know it today, but also be conscientious with their resources, and competent to take care of themselves in a world where money isn't worth the paper it's printed on.


jewishfarmer said...

Hisenthlay, I'm delighted to see you over here - I always look forward to your posts at HT. BTW, just in case this doesn't seem finished, I may have to log off quickly because of thunderstorms. I'll come back to it, probably after the sabbath. But I think you are asking a really good question that deserves a longer answer than I may be able to give it without getting my computer fried ;-).

I agree with you that we have to hedge our bets to a degree. If things are better than I hope and my kids can go to college, I absolutely want that for them.

The question, to my mind, is what degree of hedging to do, and what kinds of choices are reasonable and which ones aren't.

I don't know about your experience, but I had parents who didn't give me every lesson known to man - they were very hands off in many ways, and thought letting us read and play ourselves was better than having us have a million structured activities. I still managed to go to a good college, get an MA, nearly finish my Ph.d (and I don't think my failure to finish has much to do with my lack of tennis lessons
;-), and make a modicum of success as a writer and teacher. I admit, I'm skeptical, reading your writing, that what got you all those things was your tennis lessons and good schools, rather than intelligence and drive. Now I could be wrong about that, but it is perfectly possible to educate children very well without burning a lot of fossil fuels, buying a lot of stuff and buying lessons of every sort.

I don't think the authors of Affluenza are making an error of reasoning - the problem is not that there's an inherent contradiction between being well educated and caring about other people - the problem is the kind of education we're selling, and buying. For example, computer lessons for young children are an enormous industry. Having lots of computer equipment in increasingly a measure of a good school, in part because we believe that computer exposure will enable people to be trained for the future. And yet, the last decades have proven that it is perfectly possible to understand computers very well, make a good living with them and be part of the contemporary workforce without having ever encountered a computer before your teens - because all the computer professionals in their 30s and up had precisely that experience. I think the quote I gave may give a slightly wrong impression, but I think the problem is the notion that a good education is something you purchase.

Speaking as someone who has taught writing and literature for a long time, I've been doing it long enough to notice that all the pressure on 5 year olds to learn to read doesn't seem to be making them *better* readers at 18 - that is, I'm starting to see students come through classes of mine who were part of the early reading projects - who did learn a year or more before my first students. They are not, however, better or more critical readers because of it.

All of which is just a long way of saying that I do think we have to take apart where the benefits come from. All the research I've seen suggests that the high pressure, high activity levels of childhood are not leading to a better educated populace - if anything, literacy levels and math skills have declined somewhat over the last couple of decades, and critical thinking skills have fallen dramatically. I think we have to be careful about what we think is essential to thriving academically.

But for me, there's a deeper problem - I am somewhat skeptical of the "change from within" model, frankly, because I think sometimes being within changes you at least as much as you change it. For example, if you tell your children that these things are important, and are valuable, can you then unteach that message? I don't know the answer to that.

I do know that as much as I like my wealth and comfort, rich people are, to a large degree, the problem, not the solution. That is, how much money you make is a pretty good measure of what your emissions and consumption will be. There are exceptions, like you and me. But the fact that we're exceptional is, I think, important. As my husband likes to joke, "we are the surplus population" - that is, people who have good jobs and a lot of money tend to be the worst consumers of oil, the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, the baddies. I'm not sure whether we can own up to that and then train our kids to be those people. It is true you *can* change that - but the question is do we rely on the exceptions or the rule?

I'm a selfish person when it comes to my kids. I want them happy, and comfortable, safe and secure. I honestly don't quite know the answers to this - I want them to fit in, I want them to have what they need, I want them to have everything - and I also want them to do right and live justly and be mensches - people who have done good, rather than done well. I'm not very consistent where my kids are concerned, and a lot of the time, I'm just feeling my way along.

All of which is a really long way of saying - I'm not sure. And look, no thunderstorm!


RAS said...

I was watching tv last night for some strange reason and I saw a commercial that spoke to me on this subject, and on the other end of life as well.

The commercial was for long term care insurance for seniors. Basically the commercial demonized caring for your parents/older relatives at home when you could buy LTC insurance for them now and stick them in a nursing home if the time ever came. No, I am not kidding. The implied reasons for this was that it isn't "fair" to you to take care of your parents, and its even less fair to your kids, who you should be spending time with instead of your old, decrepit father. Personally, I think having their grandparents around to spend time with them is good for kids, but what do I know?

Anyway, I thought that was interesting, given this topic.

Correne said...

I think I am aiming for a balance, but my idea of balance is someone else's idea of crazy. I homeschool because it gives us more time to do the activities that I think are more valuable than sitting in class: scouts and sports and visiting the science centre and museums and art galleries. I live in a small-ish city, so I don't think we do a lot of driving, but obviously we could do better (that's why I'm hanging out here.)

One of the things I LOVE about homeschooling is that we aren't subject to the consumerism as much. When they're in school, they want a new backpack and a new lunchbox and a new jacket and new clothes every single year, and whatever the new toy fad is ("fur real friends" or polly pockets or bratz dolls or what-have-you), it is SOOOOO important that your kids get it, or at least once in a while. One thing I notice at homeschool functions is that kids can wear plain jeans and t-shirts and fit right in, they don't have to wear brand-name stuff or tv-related stuff. (By the way, my daughter is ONLY 7. I can't imagine how bad it gets as they get older.)

The other great thing about homeschooling is that we can spend a lot of time gardening, learning to sew and knit, learning to cook, and call it "school." Anything that you could call a life skill counts as school in my house. And my kids WORK. I think it's good for them.

I know that we are wealthy in the global view, but we're fairly well-off in the North American sense, too. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we are NOT huge "consumers" of stuff, so we can keep more of the money that we make.

I am grateful for what we have, and I intend to use it make sure that my kids do have the opportunities they need to grow up well-rounded, competent, self-sufficient adults.

Jenn @ Frugal Upstate said...

Very interesting article! I followed Jess's link over here from Making Home.

Since I write about frugal living, this topic really interests me. Now from the exterior, looking at my family probably no-one would guess that we are frugal. We look like a pretty typical family-cars, tv's, computers, etc etc. (to include a couple of motorcycles) However I try to live with a lot of the philosophy show here.

I do believe that giving children too much is damaging and can make them spoiled and unappreciative.

I also agree with some of the points about limiting activities-My children are 4 and 6, and so far the only extracirricular activity my 6 year old has been in was a PTO sponsored spanish lessons (2X a week for 6 weeks at a cost of $35). The only reason I did that was because she is very interested in other languages, and there is quite a bit of research to show that the earlier you are exposed to foriegn languages the better your ability to learn them is.

But I struggle otherwise-I have friends who have their children in dance and gymnastics etc already. One girlfriend works full time as a hairdresser (so usually doesn't finish until late-most folks want to get their hair cut AFTER work themselves) and her first grade son has something in the evening every night until past 8pm. They gulp quick meals before running off to scouts, baseball, archery lessons etc, and then after have to jump right into bed.

How much sleep are these types of children getting? When do they do their homework? Since recess is not an every day event here (although they do have it several days a week) when do they have time for free play and creativity?

All of these issues worry me. The activities are all worthwhile-I myself was in lots of activities and clubs as a child-but I remember most of them from Jr. High and older. So I am not quite sure what I will do as my children are older. All I know is that I will continue to think about it and evaluate each opportunity as I come to it in order to try to find BALANCE between the "good activities" and plain old free time.

OH, and I do think having chores and helping around the house are important-not only does it help out the family, but gives the children a sense of self worth ("I contribute to this family") and a good sense of work ethic. When do the children who are gone all the time do that?

Thanks again for such an interesting an thought provoking article.

Sarah said...

Interesting...Native Americans are allowed to take drugs for religious ceremony, but Mennonites are not allowed to live simply. What a shame.

RAS said...

Nechmada, it's a slightly different situation. Actually, much different. Native Americans (of which I am one, though only by one-quarter) can only use peyote and such on the reservation, and the reason for that is that each Indian tribe is considered to be its own sovereign nation within the borders of the reservation. This means they have their own laws, customs, etc. One of them involves the use of drugs. U.S. drug laws do not apply inside reservation borders. There's a reason why, if you go to Oklahoma and the Cherokee reservation (my tribe) you'll see signs saying "Now entering the Cherokee Nation" because you are.

Anonymous said...

We're another one of those families who doesn't take their toddlers to dance or art classes, nor have we ever tried to create "super babies". We don't shuttle them from Karate to Soccer to the Sylvan Learning Center. We just let them be kids, and aside from some structured "help around the house" and some fun family things, we never pushed them to take on activities. And the result? We have a 13-year-old who won three reading awards at school (not bad for a kid who has problems reading) and who is entering the accelerated math class in Junior High next year, and our autistic 7-year-old won awards also for reading, won the "good citizenship award" for being a model student, and also gets 'A's in math. But what I thought was the funniest about your article was the investigation into Amish apprenticeship practices...we've already signed our 13-year-old up for the technology courses at the Junior High, which introduces everything to its students from computer aided drafting and robotics to...get this...changing a light switch and using a hammer. I purposely picked out this line of course subjects for him, because if he never gets to work for NASA, he could at least pick up a hammer and build something.

Needless to say, #3 is only six months old, and we let her just roll around on the floor and be a baby.

As an aside, I think the super-baby syndrome started with the parents of my generation. Thankfully, my parents were older and didn't get into that stuff, because those "super babies" I went to school with...the last I saw, two had eating disorders, one was an alcaholic, and the most successful of them worked for UPS.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the reply--I do think this is an interesting topic, and one that troubles me a little (I like to start worrying a few years ahead of time whenever possible :o) I didn't mean to imply that the tennis lessons, etc. were crucial to my success, such as it is. Good schools certainly don't guarantee anything, but the names do lead certain people to make positive assumptions about you, and make life a bit easier. The more full story is that my mom's method was to sign me up for *everything* available, and let me decide which of those things I would stick with--mostly I picked horseback riding. The tennis lessons were unproductive, and short-lived. But growing up in a highly competitive area (D.C. metro) it seemed true that anyone who didn't have something(s) outstanding on their application simply wasn't going to get into great schools--good grades and a pleasant demeanor only took you so far, and from what I hear, that's only getting worse with every passing year. I don't like that trend, I don't think it's good for the country or the world, but I don't want my (prospective) kids to be left behind, either. Bad position to be in, really--a bit of a mutually assured destruction situation.

I definitely agree with the statement that my idea of balance might be someone else's idea of nuts, but I'm hoping there's a sensible balance to be had. I think by carefully managing the process, so that kids pick up solid credentials in just a few areas they really enjoy, but not letting them become committed to a bunch of miscellaneous stuff that really adds more to the schedule than it contributes to their happiness and chance of success, balance might be possible. As far as pushing tiny tots to do differential equations and write code--well, some things are just silly--in the natural world, whether you're talking about growing vegetables or training animals or raising kids, I think you do more harm than good by attempting to push things past their natural growth progression. If you want your tomatoes to grow nice and healthy, you don't put the seedlings out in February to give them a "head start". Of course, I'm speaking entirely without firsthand parenting experience, so what do I know?

As for working within the system--I know what you mean, and I find myself having to fight the golden handcuffs--we don't care much for *things*, and most of our major acquisitions seem to come from Craigslist, family hand-me-downs, freecycle, etc.--but we're looking for land, and it's a real temptation to take on more than we should. It's undoubtedly easy for a person of lesser conviction to be carried away entirely, regardless of vaguely good intentions going in. I have coworkers who make more than I do, living paycheck to paycheck, because it "seemed right" for their "station in life" (or something) to buy that big house, fancy car, boat, Rolexes, designer handbags (something I truly can't understand for the life of me), etc., because they "deserve it since they work so hard" (I always choke on that one, thinking of my grandfather and uncles laboring in the coal mines and steel mills, my grandmother in the shirt factory, etc.), and then have the *gall* to claim that they'd like to work less hours, but they're stuck with the job because "kids are expensive--you'll see, once you have some". I'm under the impression that kids are somewhat like horses--they're as expensive as you choose to make them, more or less, and the sky's the limit. Heaven forbid, I don't want to be one of those parents, and I don't think there's much risk I will be.

I guess I'm invested in the notion that it's entirely possible to do good while doing well, since I want it to be true for me--it just takes commitment. My mom grew up pretty poor, and she struggled to convince me that having money isn't evil (based on my politics, I think she was terrified that I'd end up in a van down by the river doing something noble and impoverishing)--her point was that somebody has to work in non-profits, and somebody has to fund non-profits, and as far as she could tell, there was honor in both, but more security in the latter. I guess she swayed me--I just hate when that happens. :o)

Anyway, late night ramblings here when there's so much else I should be doing, but thanks for the good conversation. I always look forward to hearing your thoughts, too.


Isabella in the 21st Century said...

I read a little while ago now that the poverty gap may be responsible for the high mortality rate in affluent, western countries. That is to say, relative poverty has its casualties. Where there is less of a social and economic gap between rich and poor then people are healthier and live longer (Greece was sited)where there is a huge gap between the rich and poor, coupled with a commodified society the people who have less die young. I find it disturbing that my government is constantly proposing ways in which to make the poor richer, as though relative poverty is a disease and the cure is giving them the ability to buy consumer goods and yet the quite disgusting gap between the haves and have nots is never spoken of, yet alone addressed...this is a Labour government btw.

I have also been reading the UNISEF report on child health and well being. The UK and the USA come joint last in its findings. We score particularly poorly in mental health, child sexual health, drug abuse and alcohol abuse. This is what happens when we outsource every aspect of family life and bring up little consumers rather than little human beings.

PS. I love your blog and rhubarab makes a great jam!

Anonymous said...

There should be some kind of balance, definitely! For instance, it's true that children learn languages more easily early on (I've known several children who have grown up speaking at least two.) So if you have the opportunity and interest, let them pick up another one.

Also, I am a firm beleiver in children learning to swim very young. Ergo, I take my 10-month-old daughter swimming on base about once a week so she can get used to the water and eventually learn to swim safely.

Anonymous said...

Ooooh! I totally needed this post!!!

This last year, we made a choice to downsize and simplify, and live a very modest and simple life.

I feel a lot of guilt about the things that my children aren't doing that they used to...or things that everyone else's kids seem to be doing. I know so many kids who are involved in extracurricular activities every day of the week and I feel guilty that it's difficult to find the $100-$200 to enroll ONE of my children in soccer or baseball. I feel bad that they don't have huge birthday parties with invitations and grab bags and tons of presents and friends. (My son's birthday "party" is tomorrow and we bought him a super soaker squirt gun. That's it.) I know I shouldn't feel this way, but its definitely tough sometimes.

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