Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Are we raising our children to be fragile?

The age in which I grew up is gone.  We all know that.  But some of the principles of raising a child in that age could and should endure.  It is no secret that in that era the virtues of accountability and personal responsibility were high on the list of traits to be displayed to and encouraged in children.  Whether in the classroom or work (and I did not know of one kid in my class who did not work from elementary years on), children were being taught to be inquisitive, thoughtful, and respectful.  They were expected to encounter and to deal with people and ideas that they would find objectionable.  They lived with a profound witness of community and neighborliness.  Of course, this was not universal and there were plenty of egregious examples of the opposite.  I am speaking in more general terms.

I wonder when we began to raise our children differently.  I wonder when it was that we decided we needed to protect our children from such things as being accountable for what they said and did (or did not say and did not do that they should have).  I wonder when it was that we decided that we would no longer hold our children personally responsible not only for their behavior and mouth but also for the duties, chores, and routines of life together in a home and neighborhood and community.  I wonder when it was that society, families, and teachers began to see children as problems and to treat them as such.  When that happened, probably more gradually than suddenly, we found ourselves with fragile children who either did not grow up or grew up with the same fragility they had as children.  We must insulate our children from threats but if we insulate them from everything that might challenge them, they will never mature.  We insulate them in part because it is easier to do this than it is to raise them to be personally accountable and responsible and to build in them the Christian worldview.

At some point we began to fill our children's lives with diversions -- from sports to screens.  At some point we began to see our children more as victims or special cases deserving of different treatment by the schools, the society, and the law.  I well recall an old man who lived down the block.  He sometimes took odd jobs and this time was plowing a field behind our house.  There was a small stream there where my brother and I and our friends sometimes played cowboy and Indian, army, or just explored.  On one occasion old Red Gust had tied his thermos bottle in the stream to keep his water cold as he worked the field.  Somehow it got broken and he told my mother.  She marched me down to apologize and confiscated my allowance so that there thermos would be replaced.  I did not break it but I was in the group when it got broken.  I hated what she made me do but it was a profoundly character building experience.  Red Gust remained friendly and later as I grew up I sometimes helped him out with things around his house.  He bore no animus and the whole experience taught me what words could never teach.  I wonder if experiences like these still happen?  Or do we view the neighbor as our enemy and insist upon shielding our kids from responsibility?

In the high school Civics class we had arguments about democracy and socialism, the Vietnam war, the draft, and a host of hot button issues of the late 1960s.  We were forced to think not only about the issues but about the other side of those issues.  School did not protect me from ideas I would find objectionable but neither did it force those ideas upon me.  The experience forced me to take the faith, values, and instincts I had received from home and church and community as well as school and apply them to the issues at hand.  Do we provide safe educational spaces for our children where they are kept from controversial things or from encountering an idea they did not like -- where the classroom is an echo chamber of their own perspectives?  Do we live so distantly from the classroom as to be ignorant or indifferent to what is being taught to our children -- until something big hits the news or comes home on the one piece of paper we might have read?  Do we fail to build up the faith, character, values, and morality at home and so leave it to the schools to impose whatever happens to be policy or trend and then to instill these in our kids?

My parents did not know they were teaching me a Christian worldview but that is exactly what they did.  Of course, they did not have to compete with the overt enemies we find in culture, society, the institutions of our nation, and the media.  Nevertheless, they modeled by example as well as teaching with words what was important to my faith and life in Christ, to my life and work in the community, to my role as neighbor and citizen, and to be able to listen and think critically -- judging the ideas without judging the people.  I do not know how well I did as a dad to my kids in these areas.  I hope I did okay.  I did not want to raise dependent children who would be fragile but neither did I want to raise children who would give in to every new idea that came around the bend or to be swayed by personalities over the merits of the ideas themselves.  I wanted them to accept personal responsibility for their words and actions and yet to learn from their failures and not to be guaranteed success.  I wanted them to learn the value and worth of work and to see the workplace not as a prison but as a place of potential for service to others and not simply a paycheck.  I wanted them to know how to enjoy leisure time without pursuing a life of personal pleasure -- amusing themselves at the cost to their spouse, family, and community.  I hope that is what we are still trying to do but sometimes I fear we are raising children to be rather fragile, dependent, and, in the end, to be victims.

When I lived 30 hours by car from my family, we packed up our children as soon as they could travel so that they would know my family.  We did the same for my wife's family who were 17 hours away from the place we called home.  It was my responsibility to bring my kids to know their families in Nebraska and Indiana and not the responsibility of those who raised us to get to know their grandchildren.  We live in an even more fractured world where we are distant from where we grew up, ever mobile, and disconnected from the structures that were once pivotal to our identity as well as our lives.  I know this.  I am not expecting to go back in time and recreate another era.  What is remarkable to me, however, is how little we tend to use social media for the social purpose of connecting and engaging and how much we use it to express ourselves without regard to how or what it is we are saying.  We have the potential to live together in a much more polite and kind relationship than we are doing but as a whole our society has squandered every opportunity to engage ideas rather than feelings, to connect with people instead of emotions, and to live together with purpose instead of conflict.  As a whole, not only our children are more fragile today but life as a whole is more fragile and therefore less joyful, less hopeful, and less rewarding.  And that is a sad thing for me to say.

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