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Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Children's Bootcamps: A well-paved road to Hell

Excerpts from Aaron Bacon's journalAn observation you can confirm for yourself and a question to ponder: If one takes a look at a traditional Jewish family, or a traditional Chinese or Thai one (I'm thinking of a particular branch of our extended family), one sees very little (if any) corporal punishment going on. One rarely hears a son calling his father "sir". Yet these cultures produce many of the most dutiful children ever found, and many of these children remain respectful of their parents throughout their lives. Why?

Because respect is not fear. Fear implies distrust, and one can't respect somebody that one doesn't trust. By declining to call his father "sir", the Jewish son does not refuse him the respect he would show his boss, he elevates him by showing that to him, the word "father" conveys far greater esteem than the word "sir" ever could; no substitute for that simple and loving word could ever ring as praise on his father's ears. Of course, this relationship is far likelier to be found in a culture in which the son would have learned from an early age that no points were to be made among his friends by any show of disrespect for his elders, meaning that while the relationship between parent and child may have had its strained moments, it would have never proceeded on a truly adversarial basis.

Once the seeds of distrust are sown and well watered, uprooting the noxious growth that results will be difficult, maybe even futile. It is not without reason that many of us view "modernity" as being a giant step backwards.

I came across this page and skimmed it, and probably would have been very skeptical about it, but for one accident of my personal history: a past girlfriend was a survivor of one of the places mentioned (North Star) and spoke out about the place before it ever hit the news. The page: Children's Gulags.

I'll try to keep the length of this post under control, because I'd rather you spent your time listening to what the people who are reporting such abuses have to say - and please feel free to link to reports of other such incidents in the comments section.

What we are seeing in these stories is the dark side of "do your own thing", and some of us have been saying this for years. Ever since the 1960s, an attitude has become entrenched in many parts of society that those of us who speak of the need for morality are a bunch of killjoy fuddie-duddies who can't get with the times and see the liberation that comes when people decide that meaning well and feeling warm fuzzy feelings are together an acceptable substitute for honoring the rules of civilized society. The thing is, once there are no longer any rules in the picture and the norms of behavior are thus left free to drift like an untethered boat, one can find oneself amazed at what supposedly loving people will be able to rationalize and keep on rationalizing, until it is too late to save the innocent from an undeserved fate.

Killing your child through an abundant display of "tough love" is not conservatism. Responsible and loving parenting is what would constitute a conservative response to the beautiful (if sometimes stressful) reality of this little person who is sitting on one's lap, looking up at one and expecting so much that one wonders if one will know how to give, and who will need so much from one for so many years to come. We speak of the need to expect things of our children, and in reasonable measure, that is part of love: a child raised without demands put upon him grows without developing self-control, and that leads to an empty life and the inability to live well with others. But how strange that very often, little has seemed to have been expected of the parents, who've (at times) been invited to run their own families as if they were their own private fiefdoms, subject to no civilized restrictions.

It's the flipside of a social trend that drives me buggy - this business of children calling their parents and other elder relatives by the first names. Undue informality, even when coming from a child who is fully grown. In this case, more of the same, in a different form: instead of asking the child to greet the adult as if he were another child, the adult is expected to act as if he were another child and do what feels good, now. We are to protect our younger relatives, in the long term out of that sense of love of family that grows and deepens with time and familiarity, but in the short term, when our better natures fail us, out of that most unfashionable thing - a sense of duty. Would you rather be out partying at Metro, instead of sitting at home with the little ones RIGHT NOW? One suspects that every parent, or every babysitting uncle or aunt has had something roughly akin to that thought, or maybe even the impulse to act on it, but the discipline that was instilled in us growing up draws us back to our duty before we come close to doing wrong, or at least doing as much wrong as we might were we less socialized. It slows us down, calms us, thus helping the fleeting madness of an impulse to give way to something deepier, worthier, more heartfelt and in the long run, a lot more fulfilling.

But lacking that self-control and being as young children when we should be as adults? Those kids stand between a stressed guardian and a quick and easy good time, and if one is so free of the thought that there are rules one should have to honor and duties one should be ready to embrace whether or not they "feel right for you", then there is nothing that is going to force one to slow down, do the hard work of self-examination, and unravel the resentment that can so easily build, just below the surface, when sacrifices need to be made. Shame and guilt aren't hip or cool, but without them, God help us. Passive aggression runs out of control, as we fool ourselves with a skill that would have done Johnny Cochrane proud.

What goes for us goes for previous generations, some of which, regrettably, were known to sustain fads for very permissive parenting, bringing us to today. In the horror stories on that site - and you can find a multitude that are just as bad elsewhere - one hears parents crying about the horror after the fact, but when muscle bound thugs show up at one's house, put one's teen in a headlock, and drag him off into the desert to be physically brutalized - and that's how the program was pitched to one - what does one expect is going to happen? Genuinely loving, responsible parents aren't so eager to find shortcuts to dealing with their children, that they're going to drag those children through a detour that potentially dangerous.

I remember greatly amusing somebody from a more "assimilated", "mainstream" nuclear family oriented cultural background by observing out loud that at the current rate of diffusion, I expected our little clan to reach the Gulf Coast some time in the next few hundred years; I was guessing sometime around the year 2500. Extended family cultures, like our quasi-mediterranean (and now partially Southeast Asian) grouping, do not move quickly. Think of what must be done to preserve such a structure, and you'll see why. As much as I like New Orleans - and that's a lot more than I like Chicago - unless I wish to trash some serious family obligations, I have to bring my family with. That doesn't just mean my brothers (and certainly my dad, now that mom is gone) and my nieces and nephews, but my cousins as well, and there is the difficulty. They, of course, will have to bring their cousins with, who in turn will have to bring their cousins ... and so on and so on, until Northeastern Illinois' population has seriously dipped. Realistically speaking, it's more than I can pull off. It's more than anybody can pull off.

Tradition is very big and I am very small. Family is one of those things that I can connect to that is far bigger than myself, greater than anything that I could ever create.

It blew her mind that I wouldn't just toss away all of that old fashioned stuff and just do my own thing on the spot, especially during the long grey chill of a Chicago winter and the less than cordial reception often given to people from both mom and dad's ethnic and cultural backgrounds around here. "Why not just do your own thing". I could speak to those asking such questions by speaking of a rich level of interdependent existence that comes from connecting to a network in which one's membership is not negotiable, something bound by blood, a living reality that redefines everything and everybody it touches - and I would be as the one who tries to explain the color red to somebody who was born blind. In the absence of common referents, my words would be reduced to meaningless patterns of sound for the one I was speaking to.

But in moments like the ones leading up to the incidents in that article, maybe we can find something that the assimilated among us can connect to a little, if they're open to understanding why, when they ask those keeping to a more traditional life to "just relocate", they keep hearing the word "no". Where a more traditional way of life is seen, one still sees some dysfunction, one just doesn't see quite as much of it, and certainly a lot less of the kind of dysfunction that the parents were responding to, in however inappropriate a way. Why?

One word covers a lot; "babysitting". Having the brothers and sisters and first and second and third cousins around (and well known) means that the parents can get out a lot more than can their supposedly more modern and "liberated" counterparts in mainstream society, and that saves a lot of sanity, when practical. Family members take turns babysitting each other's children while the cousins bond. But also, the experience of life becomes so rich that drugs and alcohol have little allure and the bad apples at school can't even begin to compete. Ponder the experience of the nephew who, when he had a few questions about Science, in short order found his wishes travelling along the family tree until they found their way to a few scientists PhDed in the right areas. I understand that in some cultures it is considered unusual for the life of the mind to begin for a child before the age of ten; at less than half that age, I got to learn about Relativity and start working on my future major (Mathematics). Those more artistically inclined could find guidance from yet another extended family member who could actually achieve the "trompe l'oeil" effect usually associated with the art of past centuries ...

Do you begin to gain a sense of how huge this is? What is possessed within one becomes part of what is lived by all. Yes, it is a huge cultural advantage for those pursuing careers, and certainly a boon that helps those of us from such backgrounds weather economic storms better than we otherwise would, but it offers the child something else as well. Suppose, given that early boost in life, young Samuel comes across somebody who wants to give him a doobie. He's already been told far more about the psychological and physiological consequences by an array of family members than any kid would probably ever want to know, but aside from the fear, he's a lot less likely to be tempted. Why? Think about it. If you found yourself gazing upon a beautiful vista that you had long heard about and travelled to see, would you be in a hurry to blur your own vision? The pleasures we share with him require mental focus to be enjoyed; the only thing the pusher can offer him is an instant loss. Where is the temptation going to be?

That's the part of the answer some of us have for the question "well, what's a parent supposed to do when a kid goes that wrong"; don't wait for things to get that bad. Keep the child's life a full one from the beginning, and such problems are a lot less likely to arise in the first place. The bad news for some is that Hillary Clinton, for once, was right when she said this: "It takes a village to raise a child". No village lives on uncompromising self-indulgence; all must yield a little if all are not to lose greatly. With that statement, I suppose that I'll probably open the floodgates to a fair amount of indignant commentary, because this fits in poorly with almost every version of Political Correctness known, but so be it. So long as one tells the truth, all else can be left to sort itself out.