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TinotopiaLog → Teaching Timidity To Kids (27 Jan 2003)
Monday 27 January 2003

Teaching Timidity To Kids

I’ve had this Washington Post article hanging around for a while now, and I’m not sure what to do with it. (Look here for the article if the good people at the Post have taken it down.)

It’s headlined Teaching Timidity To Kids, and it’s about just that.

Lisa and Danny Stone live in the Charles County house where Danny grew up. They know all the other residents on the cul-de-sac. When 7-year-old Danielle wanted to sell cookie dough for her school door-to-door, Lisa Stone asked each neighbor to call her as Danielle left for the next house.

“Where I live, there’s no reason for that,” she admits. “If I went out on the front porch I could see her. But it made me feel safe. I needed to know she was someplace.”

The article, from early December, examines the trend of bubble-wrapped kids, and speculates on the origins and consequences of the practice. It suggests anxiety about terrorism as an explanation for why being a mama’s boy is the default state for kids these days, but I don’t think that has much to do with it.

The threat from terrorism, as diffuse as it is, is at least a real threat. The overparenting trend seems more rooted in free-floating anxiety over things like Internet predators, school bus accidents, high-fat diets, electrical-transmission-line “radiation”, the “bad influence” of television (naughty words on MTV have long been bleeped, but now they blur the speaker’s mouth, to avoid contaminating the minds of lip-readers), etc., etc. ad infinitum. Parents seem almost exclusively worried about things that are not actually risks.

My take is that this is just another consequence of the continuing disappearance of social roles in our society.

There’s good and bad to this role-less society, as there is to most other things. The good we think we understand: women are not limited to working as secretaries, teachers, or housewives; middle-aged people are not limited by social expectations to playing golf and bridge; black people are not limited to working as shoeshine boys or elevator operators.

Forty or fifty years ago, what you were supposed to do in a given situation was pretty clear. A man held doors open for a woman, and gave up his seat on the bus if necessary. Middle-class women cooked and cleaned, and didn’t worry about that rattle in the car; that was the man’s job.

This was, as the baby-boom generation pointed out, more than a little limiting. Failure to conform carried a great price, one that few people were willing to pay. As the baby boomers have come to define American culture, those old limiting roles have largely disappeared.

Unfortunately, the baby boomers failed to appreciate that there’s also something very liberating about inhabiting a clearly-defined role. The chief advantage is that, in knowing what’s expected of you, you know when you’ve done enough and can go to bed.

There is no accepted role for what a parent does these days. Fifty years ago, it was clear enough: feed, clothe, and house your kids; see to it that they go to school; make sure that that they know enough to stay out of serious trouble and to avoid serious accidents; support them, within reason, in things they want to do, and help them out when they have a problem they can’t solve themselves. If you did those things, you were a good parent.

Note that being a good parent fifty years ago has nothing to do with making sure your children are never injured, or disappointed, or sad or lonely or bored. The parent’s responsibility, broadly speaking, was to make sure the child didn’t get killed. Everything up to that point was largely the child’s own problem.

Did the children of fifty years ago — incidentally, those would be the very baby boomers who have thrown out all the roles — make mistakes? Did they ever get hurt? Of course they did. Undoubtedly some of them were even locked in trunks and left for dead, something that couldn’t happen today.

In making these mistakes, though, these kids learned things about the world, and about themselves. That is, after all, the primary purpose of childhood in our culture: to learn how to be an independent person, and to prepare you for participation in society. Today’s kids — most of them, anyway — don’t have that opportunity.

This actually has some scary implications for the future of our country. We seem to be raising a generation of people — a very large generation, at that, the largest in American history — who will, if they take their childhood lessons to heart, see danger everywhere and who will have an almost instinctual reverence for authority. These are not what you’d call characteristically American characteristics. Character matters, as the political opponents of Bill Clinton lately liked to remind us, but instead of raising kids with character, we’re raising kids who are characters, and pretty flat ones at that.

Posted by tino at 20:05 27.01.03
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