I don’t usually write much about childhood. My own was so difficult, that it is a subject I try to stay away from. But lately, I’ve discovered the works of Margaret Atwood, and right now I’m reading ‘Cat’s Eye’, and this has lead me to thoughts on children, and a visit with some of my grandchildren, amplified these thoughts. So I thought I’d share them with you, accompanied by a few photos of my visit to the country, and time spent with family.
When the Chinese instituted their program of only one child to a family, most westerners were stunned by the disregard for basic freedoms in that distant, mythical, gigantic land. And yet, strangely, without a dictatorship to impose a new order on a helpless population, more and more people in the west have limited child bearing of their own volition. Whether because of economic pressures, or choices of life style, children often find themselves unwanted, or a bother to the adults around them, and without the company of other children to give them support and a perspective on life and the world around them. Even though it is common to think that an only child enjoys much more attention from his or her parents, the parents are two great imposing figures in the life of the child. And with increasing frequency, only one parent remains in the child’s immediate vicinity, and that parent is besieged by other obligations and interests.
If an adult suffers from alienation and frustration in today’s highly stylized and regimented life, where a call to a public service often means being answered by a robot, and waiting on the line while listening to muzak, how much more a child must suffer, trying to adjust to continuously changing conditions and authorities.
And though one might think that the school environment provides both adult teachers, and children with whom to learn and play, a child who is a little different (and aren’t we all a little different from others) might feel constant tension, inadequacies, inferiorities, pressure, and even cruelty. And somewhere, in the midst of all this, is alienation. Today it is common to let the TV and the computer do the work of a babysitter. Any game is good, so long as it distracts the child, and keeps him or her out of our hair.
In the traditional society, older brothers and sisters watched out for their younger siblings. And the occupations of parents, uncles and aunts were an example to the young of what one could do in life. Grandparents and other older members of the family or the tribe would provide the advantages of experience and the comfort of understanding. It is said that can choose one’s friends, but not one’s family. That was always true, and some children feel as if they were dropped into a family that just doesn’t fit right. But usually there is a basic loyalty and care for family members, if only because of the greater intimacy afforded by family life. A child that lives down the block may be mean to me, but my brothers will stand by me and protect me.
But there have been drastic changes in the last century. Many families are split and separated, living in far away places. And in many cases, the parents are no longer part of the same functioning family by the time the child reaches his teens and is in need of parental support. And even when the parents have stayed together, they often both go to work away from the home, leaving the children to cope for themselves.
And when the parents are away at work, in an office or factory, far from home, how do the children learn a work ethic, or learn about overcoming failures and difficulties? What examples do they have? Can they learn the nature of life, the value of life, from watching movies or programs on the TV, or playing games on the computer? Do they trust their school environment? Or are they struggling to play by the rules, and feel trapped there?
Watching my youngest grandchildren, I realized that almost every one has individual characteristics that make him or her different from all the rest. Yet, because they live in a more traditional environment, there are many sources of education and enlightenment, and there are always compassionate people around to give comfort and support.
Thinking about the future, it seems necessary that we develop a social environment for our young, in which many of the characteristics of the tribe or the extended family will be provided for children at all stages of their development.