I have found the solution to all of America’s problems. It’s not a government program, it requires no legislation, no investment of capital, no new tsars, not even a community outreach campaign. The only requisite is that parents take their job seriously and employ a little common sense and humanity with their children. Although I haven’t even managed to raise a child past her ninth year, I know my method will work, because I raised myself, and if everyone in America was just like me, we’d all be living in Paradise.

Every child is born on this Earth with a distinct set of desires, thought patterns, talents and a unique perspective. It’s called personality. Purely out of laziness, indulgence, self-importance and avarice, our society starts trying to suck the life out of kids as soon as they are born. Every baby has to fit neatly into the prescribed guidelines for health and safety, or someone with gloves and a mask is comin’ after him before he’s even securely out of the womb. We use heavy plastic fabric-wrapped contraptions to put as much distance as possible between us and our offspring, we wrap them tightly in specially-made blankets and shove rubber nipples in their mouths to give them the illusion of safety and protection so we can get back to our adult pursuits. From their earliest days, we sit them in front of flickering screens so they can begin perceiving the world from our point of view. We wouldn’t want them to have unsupervised or undirected experiences of the world around them, would we? We give them the approved toys, we fence them in physically and intellectually before they can walk, much less reason.

But just imagine if parents took a different tack, and recognized the person living in that tiny body. Then we might have a little more sympathy for a wailing babe and have enough imagination to consider that an infant who is used to being gently bounced in her mother’s warm womb with the sound of Mom’s heartbeat constantly in her ears, feels safer and happier and warmer in Mom’s arms or on Mom’s body than she does in a crib or a car seat. And then that baby might just start life knowing that she is safe, protected and worth her parents’ time and energy.

Rather than railing at a three-year-old who won’t put away his Legos, we might offer him the choice of cleaning them up himself or letting Mommy do it with a trash bag.  The first time I did this with my son, his chubby little legs couldn’t get him to his bedroom fast enough to clean up his precious toys.  A couple days later, he decided to try me again, and this time, the cost of losing Legos wasn’t quite enough to motivate him to clean them up, so I got out a bag and started picking up.  After the eighth Lego, he realized I wasn’t kidding, and jumped in to finish the job his way.  He’s a pretty easy-going fellow.  I have other children who are less compliant, and sometimes my threats have to be fulfilled in ways that make me grind my teeth.  I don’t relish throwing my kids’ toys away, or following through when I tell them they need to eat their peas or go hungry until the next meal.  It’s a hassle for me, but for them, experiencing the pain of making a choice is money in the bank.  Every day they have opportunities to weigh the value of their desired actions against the price of the consequences, and while we’re far from perfect, my husband and I really try to let them make the choice and suffer the consequence or enjoy the reward.  If my kids grow up making those calculations over and over, then by the time they’re teenagers and considering experimenting with drugs and alcohol, they’ll have a pretty decent understanding of cause and effect. They’ll certainly have a much more concrete feeling of the possible consequences than if Mom and Dad lecture them about the dangers of substance abuse.

If we saw kids as people, we might have more respect for an eight-year-old’s questions and opinions and ability. If she thinks she can make it to the top of the mountain, why hold her back? Is it better for her to have a life-long fear of trying new things than for her to have a scar or a broken bone? Why not let her find out what she’s good at by offering her as many opportunities to try new things as we parents can manage? Why waste time and money on materialism, when we can help our kids discover who they are and what they love? Strong academics, good books, music, art, outdoor chores, athletic pursuits, animals, the arts of homemaking, automotive repair and building and creating – these activities can all be in our children’s reach if we make the time and put in the effort to offer them. Every person needs to feel that she’s a pro at something, and every kid can find that something (or several somethings) with a little help from a dedicated parent.  My eldest is one of those kids – the kind who can do almost anything and always does it well.  She’s naturally painfully shy, but over the last couple years, my husband and I have watched her gain confidence as she realizes that she has a place in the world.  When she was six, she passed out when asked to stand in front of her peers at church.  Two years later, my husband and I nearly passed out ourselves at her second piano recital when she stood up straight in front of the crowd and introduced herself in an audible voice, then sat down at the piano and played her piece perfectly.  Her little persona vibrated with the message, “this is my domain.”  We saw similar growth as she gained skill and speed over the soccer season, and her success in her studies and in accomplishing new tasks at home with limited instruction from Mom and Dad.  When we hover over our kids, telling them what to do every step of the way, they don’t feel the same pride they get when we hand them a cake mix and tell them to call us when it’s time to put it in the oven.  Each of her siblings has different gifts and desires, and we do our best to find confidence-building activities for each of them.   It’s pretty obvious when we hit on the right venture, because when they find something they love and they’re good at, their eyes are brighter, they get out of bed without a hassle, and they stand taller all day.

If we had a little humanity, we might just cut out the endless bickering over the stupid details of life. When parents are willing to die on every hill of differing opinion, kids learn that voicing their thoughts is a waste of breath. When kids feel that voicing their thoughts is a waste of breath, they either start hiding their thoughts from the people in the best position to offer guidance, or, even worse, they stop thinking.

There’s a great study I read about, one by psychologist Joseph P. Allen.  He video taped thirteen-year-olds describing the biggest arguments they had with their parents, then showed the videos to the parents, and recorded their reactions.  Some parents rolled their eyes at the videos, some laughed uncomfortably, and some, “dove right in and said, ‘OK, let’s talk about this.'”  Guess whose kids did best at withstanding peer pressure?  That’s right, kids who have parents who welcome discussion of disagreements, who negotiate solutions, are able to bring those skills to interactions with their peers.  “The teens who learned to be calm and confident and persuasive with their parents acted the same way when they were with their peers,” says Allen.  Conversely, kids who knew better than to bother arguing with their parents, “‘they would back down right away,’ says Allen, saying they felt it pointless to argue with their parents. This kind of passivity was taken directly into peer groups, where these teens were more likely to acquiesce when offered drugs or alcohol.”  For more on this study, click here.

But it’s not chic to guide our children, or to respect their thoughts and opinions. The modern way is to take kids’ brains and do to them what the Chinese did to their daughters’ feet. As those mothers and fathers broke their young girls’ feet and wrapped them in constricting bandages, so we break our children’s wills when they are young and tender, then wrap them tightly in television, training that we pretend is education, carefully planned and paid-for after school activities, and meaningless busy work that we pretend is building their academic skills at home. If they can’t cut it, no problem. We’ll drug the dissent out of them. The difference is, Chinese parents were happy with the outcome – they found their crippled daughters beautiful and pleasing, where as when American parents see the fruits of their labor, they sputter about free will, knowing they did their best to rid their poor spawn of that disgusting trait, but somehow it survived.

And this is not only a yuppie phenomenon. There is a very strong contingent of religious people who think they can substitute the WalMart brand mind-binding kit for a home-made religious and moral one. Some of these parents are religious robots, but many were once creative thinkers who enjoyed their own free will. Many of them had a wide variety of experiences and emerged from them wiser but sadder, or maybe smarter but sadder, or maybe just sadder. These parents now have a fierce desire to spare their children the same experiences that helped them grow into the people these parents are. They first try to manipulate their kids into adopting Mom’s and Dad’s perspective, and when that doesn’t work, when Mom and Dad see that Junior is starting to ask questions and reason his own answers, out come the bludgeons. Junior was just exploring at first, but now he sees that if he wishes to maintain any self-identity at all, he’s going to have to break from the nest completely. And when he gets out into the Big Bad World, he has no tools, no experience, no self-discipline (how can you learn self-discipline before you have a sense of self?), and now no guide. When these kids fail, their parents throw up their hands and shout, “if only he had obeyed!  I could have saved him, but he chose evil, so my hands were tied.”

As we were discussing this matter the other day, my husband reminded me of Stalin’s collectivization of Ukranian farms in the early 1930’s. When these peasant farmers learned that their crops and livestock were to be seized and declared property of the state, many of them set fire to everything they owned. Then they and their families starved or were killed by Stalin’s thugs. My husband compared wayward, self-destructive kids to these farmers, and I see it too. I see those poor children jutting their chins and declaring, “I’d rather die free than live under this tyranny.”

I never have the guts to say it to the parents who mourn their failure to enslave their kids. I just bite my tongue ’till it bleeds. But I think they know as well as I do who chose evil.

Advertisements