Friday, September 07, 2018

My Philosophy of Childhood: "What Did We Learn Here?"

I'd like to expand on the blog entry I wrote recently about "The Parents We Would Have Been". And I'd like to start by quoting Canadian comedian Tim Nutt:

"I let my kid eat dirt. All the dirt he wants." 

Other parents look at him askance on the playground, and if they say anything, he retorts "how else do you think they get an immune system?"

He's right. Unlike some species of animal, our young don't come out of the womb as finished products. We require exposure to dirt and germs to complete our immune system's development, or else we stand a good chance of developing something else, such as a severe allergy, asthma, type 1 diabetes, depression, or even cancer, among other things.

The same principle applies to the successful development of our emotions. Brutally put, we must face adversity. It is crucially important that children learn the difference between failing and being a failure. I'm convinced that many children and teenagers don't readily grasp this, and the reason is that they've never been allowed to fail.

I was, by 1970s/1980s standards, an incredibly sheltered kid, even after my stepfather booted me outside in 1981 and told me to make friends. But even before that, I was riding my bike well past the Bramalea boundaries my mother had set for me. I tobogganed, sometimes using my feet for a toboggan. Ever 'skated' down an ice-slicked hill? It's exhilarating.  In Parry Sound, I played road hockey. (How many games of road hockey do you see nowadays?)

And yes, I got injured doing these things. Usually by other children: I was an irresistible target to many of them. In the geography of my face, mountains would rise and continents would drift. But sometimes my injuries were self-inflicted. I've had my nose broken three times...twice in collisions with fists and once because I tripped on a sidewalk crack and landed nose-first. In one of those road hockey games, I took an India rubber ball off my left knee, resulting in a gouge my aunt Dawna had to attend to. (I'm here to tell you: while adversity is good, I don't advise playing road hockey with an India rubber ball.) On the plus side, I learned my left from my right once and for all.

Mental illness is on the rise in iGen (those born after 1995). There are a myriad of reasons for this, and they themselves would be quick to blame the fact that previous generations have made an intractable mess of the world they're going to inherit. This is, of course, true. I've been fighting the urge to write a jeremiad to the world I grew up in, a world we'll never see again.

There are other factors. Social media is a big one, both because it practically DEMANDS we compare our lives with countless others, and because it provides a platform for bullies that simply did not exist when previous generations were growing up. If I could dodge my bullies -- and I was smart enough to do that, most of the time -- once I got home, I was SAFE. Not so anymore.

But there's one other factor that can't be discounted, and that's the fact that many parents act as if their children are extremely fragile beings. And you name it, if it's a bad thing, the parameters to define it have broadened over time.

This "concept creep" can be a good thing. In the 1950s, as this linked article notes, third-grade kids would ride in the front seat of cars, without seatbelts. Did parents love their kids less in the 1950s? Of course they didn't. I scoff because it seems to me that kids today are supposed to be in child seats until they drive the damned car themselves. However, I can't deny that current practice is safer.

Where it gets to be an issue is when we start redefining things like "trauma", "bullying" and "abuse" such that EVERYBODY has both inflicted and experienced all three. It gets to a point, and I've seen it with my own eyes, where a teenager feels perfectly justified abandoning a relationship because she perceived a single random remark as hurtful.

People are going to hurt you. Many of them will do it unintentionally. Many others will do it very deliberately. If you go to pieces every time it happens, you won't last long in the real world. If every boy who squirms in his seat in class has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, it loses all meaning.

I see it everywhere. People feel a bit bloated after eating some bread and they believe they have celiac disease. (I know someone living with the real McCoy: she eats gluten and she's incapacitated for days.) By today's definition, every male who  has been sexually active for any length of time is a rapist. We've all initiated sex at some point with someone who wasn't vocally enthusiastic at the prospect.  Concept creep. Asserting everyone has been damaged is tremendously damaging. According to that article, you can be labelled a racist even if you don't agree with ANY derogatory evaluation of another race. You might even be a racist if your evaluation of the other race is deemed too positive!

No wonder the Right snickers and laughs at being called racist. If everyone is, no-one is.

And because we live in this world of extremes, lacking all nuance, I'd better say that I'm not in any way condoning abuse, trauma, bullying, rape, OR any of the -isms or phobias. I'm suggesting that the terms are now so amorphous as to include virtually everyone...which convinces at least some people that they've been traumatized by something utterly mundane. Come on, people. We are more resilient than that.

In the interest of their growth, our kids would have been pushed out of their comfort zones regularly. They also would have been gathered into their comfort zones regularly, and asked a question I recall my stepfather asking me: "what did we learn here?" You'd go a fair piece to find people more protective of their kids than Eva and I...and I mean that for "old-fashioned" values of "protective". Someone's beating you up? Lemme at 'em. You hate phys. ed. and want out of it? Gee, sorry about your luck.

I'll say it, and risk censure. I reject "microaggressions". (So does my spell checker, incidentally.) Show me a peer-reviewed study proving people are demonstrably and irrevocably  harmed (and not looking to be harmed) by microaggressions and I'll change my mind. But I'll bet you can't do it. The Buddhists are right: "Pain is mandatory. Suffering is optional".


Another of my core values is that "everyone is special, but no one is more special than anyone else". This comes into play when you consider respect.

The old, authoritarian model of familial respect went like this: do what I say because I'm the parent and you're the child, and besides, if you don't, I'll hit you with this belt. I do not accept this.

The new, liberated model of familial respect is I am the child, and I will respect you, the parent, as long as I agree with what you're saying and doing and you agree with what I'M saying and doing. I do not accept this, either. Especially that, given the above, children are VERY apt to construe disagreement/disrespect as parental abuse/bullying and CAS can and will come if they get wind you (gasp) let your kid play in the (fully fenced) backyard by herself or (YIKE) raised your voice to be heard over a tantrum.

There is room for dialogue between these two extremes, as there is between any two extremes. Somewhere in that happy middle, parents and children are communicating their wants and needs with each other. Ultimately the parent has the final say: that's by virtue of more lived experience and skin in the game. But there is lots of room for compromise and collaboration. Creative parents can even steer while maintaining the illusion they're letting their children do it.

Yeah, you know...I'm starting to understand why they decided we couldn't have kids. Because we wouldn't coddle them. Because we'd allow the consequences of their actions (within reason) to play out. Because we'd insist on answers to questions we ask.

Because we'd let 'em eat dirt.

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