Thursday, August 03, 2006

Raising Feral Children

What does it mean to raise “feral” children? Some would argue most kids being raised today ARE feral. They have no sense of right and wrong. They are disrespectful. They are in every sense of that word “feral” – truly wild. But that is not what I am getting at here.

First, I reject the notion that kids today (and you can pick the age) are any more unruly than they ever were. Yes, I think culture has made things harder for them, but I also believe that culture has less of an impact as a teacher than a child’s first and most indelible teachers: his parents. Parents, no doubt, are informed by the cultural norms every bit as much as kids watching MTV. I think there is a double whammy: that of a corporatized world which tells kids and parents alike that life just ain’t worth living if you don’t have that widget, that new gizmo; if you don’t have that branded sort of life that makes you beautiful. It’s a tag team type of depersonalization. The pressure is real, it is palpable and it is completely self-inflicted.

Second, given the decline of any sort of meaningful dialogue about anything in this nation (and with it a sort of demonization of intellectual things as being “effete” and “snooty” and of course “tight-ass”), there is an aspect to being “wild” that I believe we need to restore in our children.

I recently spoke with a colleague of mine who had just come back from China and his most interesting impression of the country was how the people he met there seemed to have this overwhelming sense of personal responsibility in whatever they did. For example, not only did he witness people riding scooters without helmets but they were often overloaded with goods and too many other passengers.

My first instinct was one of horror. No helmets? No regulations limiting how many could ride a scooter? No, my friend told me, people there seem to be freer in many ways than we are here. They know that riding without a helmet is risky and when tragedy strikes, as it almost always certainly does, the grief and responsibility is almost always personal.
My reaction was evidence enough to show me that I had drunk the “cultural Kool-Aid” for far to long and it made me recall times when that a of laissez faire approach to things was how life went down and to be honest, it wasn’t always the worst of things.

Now let me be the first to say that this is a very difficult subject to argue. No one wants to see anyone get hurt. And please don’t think this some sort of libertarian call to arms. No one is trying to revoke child labor laws or (perish the thought) let the market decide what we should or should not be allowed to do. But in the noble attempt to save lives and avert disaster we have to pause and ask ourselves what are we giving up?

Here’s what I think we are giving up: a wildness in our kids that let’s them think they are immortal so they will try things; so they will not be so afraid and dependent on a culture that makes them dependent on consumption. True enough, it is that sense of immortality, that fearlessness of life - what I as a parent have sometimes called “stupidity” – that gets them into trouble. It will even cause tragedy. But here is where the personal responsibility part comes into play. Kids have to know enough, be lucky enough and be self reliant enough to make it out of childhood with enough risk so they can hone skills that will ultimately allow them to contribute to society. One way they get this is through the love and support of the family. Another is through experimentation. Our kids need to be allowed to fail if we have any hope at all of raising a generation that does not require the giant government teat and a society of privilege to get them through the golden years.

Raising children is no different than running nations when you stop and think about it. The other side of complete control (fascism) is always fully blown freedom (anarchy). It’s a natural dialectic between order and chaos and it permeates everything in our lives.
Consumerism, however, seems to have blanched the wildness out us. Much has been made of the post 9/11 fear culture converging with the post-industrial age consumer culture. But colored alert days are really all not all that different from the “duck and cover” drills of the fifties. Fear is fear. What has changed over the last 50 years since I first started breathing is this idea that we can always prevent bad things from happening to good people. It seems that we believe we can: by considering every angle, every law, every possibility in every event. This is the sort of “missile defense psychology” that says rather than do the harder work of enacting real political and social reform to lessen the likelihood of nuclear missiles flying everywhere, let’s have that garage door opener technology and make it moot. Similarly, when it comes to our personal lives, there is a very difficult lesson that we all want to avoid: that sometimes, bad things happen. Sometimes, really bad things happen. But rather than equip our children with an appreciation of the preciousness of life, and a sense that we are all in this together, we have carved out the great litigious society: this is the social equivalent of the Star Wars missile defense for the tragedy that befalls us on a personal level. So now our kids are all bundled up to go outside in the snow as in that funny scene from the movie “A Christmas Story”, except we can’t put our arms down, and God help us if we fall down!

Theodore Roethke wrote: “Self contemplation is a curse/that makes an old confusion worse”. This myth that we need to protect our children from everything comes from the heart, no doubt, but it is wholly misguided. It is the result of over analyzing life instead of just living through it and dealing with the consequences. It is truly a case of making an old confusion worse because each time we fail to protect our children, we are paralyzed even further, looking for other holes to fill to keep the next child safe. It ultimately robs our kids of chances to grow, learn, and eventually gain compassion for others about the ways of the world. It allows us to avoid the really hard questions too.

So what do we do?
Perhaps the trick is the middle path, as the Buddha would tell us.

A reverence for each child’s abilities is a start. (Real love requires this anyway.) This will create children who will challenge us to be sure. In fact it is the challenge that we should be seeking as parents. It requires letting go. It requires faith. It requires wisdom to know where to step in and where to step out. Most of all it requires a reflective thoughtfulness on our part as parents; a conscientious effort on our part to change the world, in the same manner as we compost our organics, recycle our plastics and buy more fuel efficient cars. After all, raising a feral child is nothing less than an act of saving the world, as green as any environmental activity one could imagine.

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