What does it mean to be a child? What is childhood? What does it mean to say “I had an idyllic childhood,” or that “he had his childhood taken away from him?”
So many of the efforts put forth to “protect” children in the US today attempt to protect some bucolic notion of what childhood should be. Even in talking about protecting children from sexual predators we’re talking about creating a Utopia of childhood that has never existed, and I hope never does.
How can I say this? Because when you become an adult you quickly realize the world can be cruel. The world has always been cruel. Does this mean childhood should be cruel? No. But at some point in a child’s development we, as responsible parents need to begin introducing our children to the tools necessary for dealing with this cruelty.
A great episode of Nature is currently playing on PBS. While anthropologists have thought we are closely related to chimpanzees, which exhibit extremely violent behavior at times, there is another primate recently discovered in Africa that scientists believe is even more closely related to us. They are not violent. They power structures are female-centric. They have a LOT of sex. All of the time time, there they are, humping, humping, humping. Not long drawn out, pornographic episodes, just little moments here and there.
But children will never learn about them in elementary school. Sexual behavior gets a PG-13 rating far more quickly than shootings, beatings, and rude behavior. Look at legislature, and general behavior and you might believe we like being more related to chimpanzees.
So how do we rationalize our societal behavior with wanting to create environments for our children that exist no where else in our lives, forget about anywhere else in the world. Less than 100 years ago childhood was hard, but honestly so. A child was expected to help carry the burden of household chores whether in a rural or urban setting. Today, in a middle class or more affluent home getting a child to help with household duties is typically tied to a weekly allowance, or other form of reward. The job of the child is to play, and explore his or her narcissistic tendencies: something children come about naturally.
I have to look in the mirror when I comment on this because I was one of those children who had the luxury of “just being a kid.” As I look back on my childhood, however, that’s when I started asking myself “What does it me to ‘just be a kid?’”
Just being a kid is as varied as there are children, but to create a Never Neverland where children have nothing but gum drops and whipped cream, and never have to worry about a single danger is doing those children a disservice. Our society is more like chimpanzee society and we don’t fix all of our adult issues by having sex. Kids need to learn how to react to and manage dangers.
We never put plastic covers over our electrical outlets because I thought it important to teach our kids that some things in the house are dangerous, and I thought my job, when I was home with the kids, was to make sure they didn’t get themselves into real danger. Was that tiring? Yes. Was that a more difficult job that “baby-proofing” the house so I could turn my back on them more often? Of course. Was I always as vigilant as I should have been? That’s a rhetorical question: of course I was not.
So parents lock down their homes and control every possible danger within the walls of the home, so obviously the next step is to turn their attention outside to the variables over which they have no control. So we have amber alerts, and sexual predator databases. Thing is, 99% of the time those dangers come from within the home, or close family friends. Do random abductions occur? Yes. Do I want that to happen to my child? No. But errant F-18 fighter jets and 50 person commuter planes crash into houses. Tragedy happens. Freak accidents happen. Even cloistering yourself in your house is not totally safe. Danger happens.
I’m not talking about exposing a toddler to life threatening situations unnecessarily, but what is the good in sequestering our children from all bad news and danger?
So why this rumination today? In the midst of the financial Armageddon unfolding in front of us my wife and I have taken the time to talk to our children about it. Do they get it? Do they really understand what’s happening? Kind of. Then again, I don’t think most adults really know what’s going on. But now when our kids read the front page of the newspaper, when they see the parents of friends going through difficult financial circumstances, when they see mom and dad change their spending habits, they need to know what’s going on, and hopefully they’ll learn from it, and hopefully the other thing they’ll take away from their otherwise bucolic childhood the need to be fiscally prudent in order to be prepared for financial hardship.