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TRUSTING CHILDREN

by Gerry McCarthy

Recently in Interview magazine, author Camille Paglia was asked whether art and entertainment awards like the Oscars or Grammys were the "enemy of creativity." She said no. "The idea that it’s discriminatory to declare one work or performance better than another is a prescription for cultural suicide," she insisted. "Human beings construct their identity by comparison and competition."

     Next, Paglia was asked how religion plays into all this. Part of her reply was curious. "Beauty contests, athletics, jurisprudence -so many Western inventions are based on theatrical competition, producing a clear-cut victor," she said. "After the 1960s counterculture, people felt guilty about elitism. We’re still in a PC period when elementary schools and day care centers are banning games where someone can win and `hurt the feelings’ of the losers. Taking the Freudian view, I find this a terribly infantile way to raise children, who need to toughen up. It’s a cultural dead end to think anyone can be spared the hurts of life and never notice that others might be more talented or beautiful."

     The idea that children need to "toughen up" strikes me as a dubious and even dangerous claim. For more than a decade now, we’ve witnessed North American governments pushing a "tougher" curriculum on children, which has resulted in mountains of homework and anxiety. On a wider cultural level, it’s become part of the popular lexicon to say children have grown "soft," and must toughen up so they can compete in a globalized world.

     What are we to make of all this? Part of what’s going on is raw politics. Education policy has been fertile ground for politicians eager to whip up resentments, fear, and anger so they can capture more votes. Someone needs to be blamed, so why not teachers and school boards?

     But there is a deeper problem at work. In short, it has to do with how we see children. In her recent book The Natural Child: Parenting From the Heart, Jan Hunt writes that: "The need for expanded choice for seniors is more acceptable in our society than is the concept of more freedom for children, who are seen as somehow different in nature than the rest of humanity -as property rather than as human beings deserving of human rights."

     I telephoned Hunt at her home in Oregon recently to discuss this "toughen up" philosophy. A parenting counselor and director of "The Natural Child Project," Hunt works with the journal Empathic Parenting. She says it’s true we can’t be spared the hurts of life, but draws a different conclusion than Camille Paglia. "We can’t be spared the hurts of life, so why add to them," she explains. "If we help children to go through life in an easy way, when they’re little, they have all that energy left to expend on the hurts of life which are inevitable."

     Hunt’s work has been influenced by John Holt. His book How Children Learn was published over 20 years ago. In an interview some years ago, Holt was asked: "Do you think that the philosophy of saying ‘I want them to go to school where it is really tough and hard because the world is tough and hard’ works.?" Holt’s reply is interesting. "No, it doesn’t," he said. "At the end of the second World War, our own [U.S. army] made an experiment. It had found out, as armies do, that wars are basically won not by soldiers who dive airplanes down the funnels of aircraft carriers, but by men who slogged on day after day, doing a little bit more than their share -as we say, ‘hanging in there’ you know, men with enormous `sticking power.’"

     Holt continued: "The army became curious. It said, `what kind of growing up experiences have produced these soldiers with the ability to hang on and endure when others are beginning to crack up and give up?’ So they made an investigation. They got names, they looked into their history, and what they found out -which, I think, was the exact opposite of what they wanted to find out-was that these people had extraordinarily happy childhoods, loving families, happy memories. They had lots of `money in the bank’ and they could draw on it when things got tough."

     This U.S. army report was "hushed up," says Hunt. That’s not surprising either, since it contradicts just about everything the military unleashes upon its soldiers.

     Raising children today isn’t easy work. No one has all the answers. But one thing is clear: parenting requires love, time, and patience.

     But schools are making the work of parenting more difficult today. Schools are zones of anxiety, fear, and loathing for children. Among other things, a grading mania has erupted which is disturbing to behold. For example, my sister-in-law tells me her son (who’s in Grade one) arrived home with a Mother’s Day card he fashioned at school. It was graded with a C+. She says practically all his work bears some grade now. This causes her son considerable consternation, and my sister-in-law says debriefing sessions after school are a regular occurrence.

     Children are viewed by public policy makers today as property that must be trained for a prescribed life. That life has nothing to do with the Gospel, or being an informed citizen. Instead, it’s a life driven by an unholy allegiance to corporate Darwinism.

     Children are not empty vessels to be toughened up, molded, ignored, or graded to death. During these bewildering times we need to remind ourselves what Jesus said when his disciples rebuked people for bringing children to him. "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven."

     Like any parent, I have concerns about lies ahead for my 13-year-old child. I’d like him to be spared the hurts of life. But I know that’s impossible. However, when I feel anxious about what’s ahead for him, I always remember how simple his needs were when he was two-years-old. Dressing for bed after a bath, his eyes glowed with trust, acceptance, wonder, and happiness. That’s the gift we must recognize. And that’s the gift we must trust.

Gery McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge.

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