My husband has taken to telling my children that they would starve in a grocery store. By this he means that for intelligent individuals they often seem quite helpless. Although both can do things on computers that I can’t, they sometimes seem stymied by things that involve the physical use of their own hands and eyes. And they are impatient. Despite being able to conceive creative projects and determine how to make them they sometimes end up with a disappointing facsimile of their idea simply because they are unwilling to let the paint dry between coats. Obviously some of their impulsivity can be attributed to youth, but it seems to me that it is also characteristic of individuals who are being raised in a push-button society.
There is a scene in one of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies in which a teenager locks his brother in the basement of their home. The younger boy looks frantically around for some way to call for help or escape. There on a table is a telephone. He picks up the receiver tentatively and finds it has a dial tone. He is momentarily elated- until he is unable to find any buttons to use to dial. Tragically, it is a rotary phone -and he can’t figure out how to use it. That episode is, of course, an exaggeration – one at which my own children take great offense. They tell me that they know what such remnants of the ancient 1980s are – but I have observed that asking them to use them is a different story. They are not alone. I see this attitude among many people who would rather wait out a power outage rather than attempt paperwork using actual paper. It’s not that we don’t know how, it’s just that we don’t know why we should.
Perhaps it’s because we don’t have to. When I was a child, my favorite books were about children who found themselves in unusual and challenging circumstances that forced them to be courageous and ingenious. While they inevitably made mistakes, they also invariably triumphed over their adverse situations, emerging from them wiser and more mature. Fiction? Yes – but aspirational fiction. I have heard people argue that today’s fiction for children and young adults is too dystopian and grim, but I don’t think that’s true. “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” trilogies focus on future worlds that are systemically unjust and casually violent, but they are no more dangerous than Middle Earth or Narnia. They present thorny moral dilemmas and seemingly impossible situations that require their protagonists to ponder moral issues and find creative solutions in the same way that Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys did. And Tris and Katniss are no more without adults to intervene than pretty much any Disney princess – none of whose mothers appear to survive their childhoods (think about it and wonder as I do if Walt Disney had mother issues). The difference is not in the books. The difference is in our willingness to allow our children to encounter situations that challenge them in similar, if less dangerous, ways.
That’s easy to say but, given the choice of safety or moral learning most parents (including me) will choose safety every time – and I’m sure my parents felt the same way. It is not the value but the definition of “safe” parenting that has changed. When I was a child, I was allowed to “go play” after completing my homework. I knew where I was permitted to go, what I could and could not do – and what would happen if I got caught doing it. Those were my boundaries. Today’s children play in play groups. They are driven to and from structured after school activities. Permission slips are needed for church activities. Some of these changes are good and necessary. It is not unreasonable to refuse to leave your children with an adult simply because s/he is an authority figure. We know that some teachers, scout leaders and priests have abused the trust placed in them. But is our level of caution necessary overall?
According to Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, between the years that I was five and thirteen years-old violent crime in the United States rose from three-tenths of one percent to two percent. In the state where I lived, it rose from one-tenth of one percent to almost half of one percent. When my daughter was five, the national violent crime rate was four percent but dropped back to three percent by the time she was thirteen. In the state where she lived, it dropped from five-tenths of one percent when she was five to four-tenths of one percent when she was thirteen. Put simply, the national violent crime rate was an average of one percent higher during my daughter’s childhood than my own. So what gave me the idea that she was far more likely to be kidnapped or molested than I had been?
I would suggest that it is the result of something that I (paraphrasing Freud) think of as “media availability hysteria.” While my parents read the newspaper and watched network television, thanks to omnipresent news and opinion feeds, parents today are faced with reports of violent crime everywhere they go. The information highway is one long terror-filled trip for parents who are primed by talk shows, Facebook posts, and blogs to find evidence that they are inadequate to the task of keeping their children safe. FDR told our parents and grandparents that there was nothing to fear but fear itself; we have learned and have subsequently taught our own children that there is nothing to trust but fear itself. We don’t know how to deal with things not because we’re lazy but because we’re frightened.
There is a wonderful book called, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” which suggests that it is necessary for children to experience some adversity in order to become both self-reliant and morally competent. Ethical reasoning cannot simply be taught; it requires experience. Psychologists now suggest that efforts to shield our children from harm may actually hurt them in the long-run. Making sure they get straight “A”s by doing work for them may get them into a good college, but it will not help them survive when they arrive there. Cheering on Harry, Percy, and Alina may provide them with an intellectual understanding of self-sufficiency and moral courage, but it won’t give them the strength to make hard choices themselves. And teaching them that everything they need is available with the push of a button encourages them to be both insular and helpless. The problem is not “out there.” It is in us. We are victims of our own protectiveness. The truth is that struggle is good for the soul. Continuing to guard those we love by keeping them from adversity is not benefitting anyone. In our zeal to make life easier and safer we have made ourselves vulnerable to our own incompetence. I’m not suggesting that technology or mass communication is bad; I am arguing that overdependence on it is. Keep right on using electric can openers and voice-activated cell phones – but think about how we might behave if the power went off permanently. Especially if we were in a grocery store at the time.
United States Department of Justice, “Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics,” http://www.bjs.gov/ucrdata/Search/Crime/State/RunCrimeStatebyState.cfm.
Wendy Mogel, (2008), The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, (New York: Scribner).
Carolyn Carpeneti, “I’m ready for college but I can’t find my backpack,” http://portal.parentseducationnetwork.org/resources/Documents/2015/CCarpeneti_College.pdf