Nearly 20 years have passed since my drive-by with a Maasai shepherd in southern Kenya, but I can still visualize the intensity of his gaze as if it happened yesterday.
I was literally driving by– scouting the next location for a fashion photo-shoot with our intrepid fixer, Masjid, at the wheel of an open air Land Rover and me in the back seat– when I locked eyes with the shepherd for just a few seconds. And while I have no empirical evidence to back up my theory, somehow I instinctively understood that if the shepherd and I were to find ourselves stranded on the savannah with a lion chasing us– no harm would come to me if I just followed his steady lead.
If you subscribe to the myth that every young Maasai must kill a lion before he can be circumcised– a rite of passage that happens once the child reaches puberty– then my theory might not strike you as far fetched. But what if I told you my shepherd’s wise, old eyes were in the face of six-year-old boy who was roughly half my size and weight?
Time and again, when traveling in less developed countries I have witnessed the phenomenon of children who comport themselves with a poise, dignity and confidence that belies their young years. More often than not they also possess an intelligence which eludes that of the average Master of the Universe bumbling around Midtown Manhattan. Certainly, the increase of fatal accidents due to pedestrians texting, talking or checking emails while crossing busy intersections is merely one example of how a smartphone can turn anyone into a big dummy. Which is not to say that the geniuses at Apple are the problem. But our unprecedented access to such ingenuity probably is.

There is nothing like extreme privilege to lull people into a false sense of security and utter helplessness. From our increased reliance upon gadgets or government– it seems the more we can depend upon outside entities to think and do for us, the less willing we are to think and do for ourselves. Last January New Yorkers were outraged when a snowstorm blanketed the city and brought traffic to a standstill for a few days. I was as inconvenienced by the storm as my neighbors, but couldn’t help feeling embarrassed at what our neighbors to the north in Maine, for example, might have to say about the millions of city slickers for whom the concept of shoveling our own stoops, sidewalks and streets to improve mobility was inconceivable.

Similarly, you would have to live in a fairly well-padded bubble to forget it only takes one second for disaster to strike. And there would have to be some gaping hole in your logic if the connection between actions and consequences were a foreign concept. But if you have any doubt that we do, indeed, live in a universe of unicorns and rainbows just ask yourself why phrases like “I just glanced down at my cell for a second and the next thing I knew my car crashed!” or “How was I supposed to know that a flimsy, to-go cup of scalding hot coffee might lead to 3rd degree burns if I placed it between my legs while driving? I am going to sue the pants off of Ronald McDonald and teach that clown a lesson!” are the rule rather than the exception in our culture.

To be sure, this imagined immunity to danger is the domain of the super-privileged, and as foreign to the rest of humanity as is the concept of one’s right to happiness. Because most people are too busy simply trying to survive.

I speak here of the toddlers I’ve observed who know how to navigate treacherous dirt paths that border roadways in the Jamaican countryside– where, as any Jamaican can tell you, every other motorist is convinced he missed his true calling as a Formula 1 race car driver– without parental supervision… never mind getting run over.

I’m thinking of the pint-sized mother’s helper I watched doing the dishes on the banks of a deep, fast-moving river in the southern Indian state of Kerala, even though Mommy was nowhere in sight.

And I remember this pre-adolescent girl in rural Brazil– who looks like she could give Maggie the 411 on how she and Brick might get their marriage off  the rocks, as Big Momma tried to advise in Cat on Hot Tin Roof— with eyes that are haunting as they are all-knowing. Just like the little boy in Kenya.

Rarely are such children acknowledged, never mind portrayed in a non-pathological light in popular culture. But after seeing the film Beasts of the Southern Wild and its six-year-old heroine in action, I’m beginning to reconsider what it means to be privileged or  underprivileged  from every conceivable angle. 
Beasts tells the story of Hushpuppy– a little girl who is as inclined to listen to the heartbeat of a baby chick as she is to that of her father, Wink, while he’s sleeping. Hushpuppy is just as sensitive to the cadences of the thunderstorms, hurricanes and floods that constantly threaten her bayou community. Her knowledge that she is but one, small piece of a broader universe is fundamental to her understanding of the world at large; so much so she has a theory that “If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” Her observation is an apt metaphor for her relationship with Wink– a man who, though constantly on the brink of implosion, is still Hushpuppy’s biggest protector and loves her more than she can possibly know.

But how to show that love?

In Wink’s world there are no margins of error. Second chances are a luxury he and his little girl have never known. And nobody gets any medals for effort. Theirs is a world where you either sink or swim, and Wink is determined that Hushpuppy will be a swimmer.


No doubt, Wink’s methods would land him in the Modern American Parents’ Hall of Shame for barking things like: “I’m your daddy– it’s my job to make sure you don’t die!“; demanding that Hushpuppy “Show me your guns!“; and (in what has to be one of the most poignant cinematic moments between father and child) routinely calls “Who da’ man?!” to Hushpuppy’s squeak-of-a-response “I’M DA’ MAN!!!”

And make no mistake: this little girl is da’ man.

Hushpuppy, like the man-child Maasai shepherd who made that indelible impression on me two decades ago, would be my first pick to get me out of any jam, anywhere, anytime– because she and he were privileged enough to be raised by parents who were willing to show them how the world really works, as opposed to how we’d all like it to work. And when compared to the crop of over-indulged, under-challenged children I’ve observed from New York to Los Angeles– there is no doubt in my mind that for all the expensive toys, private school educations and micro-managed extra-curricular activities parents of means heap upon children, their offspring are living in abject poverty where characteristics like self-reliance, an understanding of one’s place within a wider context and self-confidence are concerned.

It’s no secret that ours is the age of Helicopter Parents and Tiger Moms. But with the advent of other terms like Adultescents and Boomerang Kids why aren’t we all questioning the efficacy of these new-school parenting paradigms?

As a bystander, I understand the desire to give one’s offspring every advantage in life. But barring the inevitable self-flagellation and sheer exhaustion that seems to comes with such great expectations among parents, I wonder what the cost has been to children.

In more ways than one, I’ve come to think of this generation as Hothouse Children for all the care, consideration and pruning apparently required for them to thrive. And as with any highly cultivated organism, I find the Hothouse Child simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. It is impossible for me to look at an espalier tree without contemplating what would happen if its wall, fence or trellis were suddenly dismantled. Likewise, until parents figure out a way to outsmart the grim reaper, I keep wondering what will happen to their espalier children– whose limbs are so entwined with those of Mommy and Daddy that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Moreover, what happens to a child’s self-confidence and sense of self when their growth pattern is so assiduously pre-considered, pre-determined and pre-ordained by someone other than the child?

Remember the old days when children could amble into and out of friendships with no parental guidance? Play dates have made a mockery of such natural selection processes. And what of extra-curricular activities? Chances are you ran cross-country or played the tuba as a kid because you had excess energy to burn or loved big, shiny objects. But those were the days before mom and dad took an interest in your development and decided that soccer and the cello would be more impressive on your– or should I say, “our”– Harvard application. And what about negotiating the treacherous waters of middle school with those notorious mean-girls, bullies and pre-proms to which we may or may not have been invited? What I have now come to recognize as excellent character-building exercises– which, come to think of it, are a great way to prepare for office politics, the disappointment of not having you Facebook friend request reciprocated and/or having a boss who forgets to reaffirm your worth on an hourly basis– are a thing of the past as educators and parents have reached a consensus that good behavior can actually be legislated.

Which it cannot.

Nor can parents be expected to keep up when running their children’s races against a younger, faster more resilient competition who are rising in the east… and south.

As globalization leads to greater opportunities and leveled playing fields for all children, it won’t take a psychic to predict how the indulged child will fare when obliged to compete with the little shepherd boys and Hushpuppies of the world. It stands to reason that children who know how to observe, adapt and coöperate  with their environments (instead of imposing themselves upon any prevailing ecosystems)will be far better equipped to succeed than their counterparts who’ve been brought up to regard themselves as the solar system around which all other galaxies revolve.

If the Hothouse Child is ill-equipped to stand on his or her own two feet when the going is good, how can we possibly expect them to hold their own against children whose backbones have been forged in fire? How many second chances will be afforded the child who has never had to consider the needs of a parent, sibling or next door neighbor in our unchecked defense of self-expression– never mind those of their global neighbors in Africa, Asia,  Europe and South America– when these so-called underprivileged children have always operated under the assumption that getting things right the first time was tantamount to survival? And when you are raised to believe that winning is your birthright– how might you cope with loss of any kind?

The mindset that equates allowing a child to experience the consequences of their own actions with reckless parenting is prevalent; even as my most indulgent friends with kids are saying “Enough with the medals for coming in 7th place in a six-person race!” As I see it, not permitting a child to discover and exercise their capacity for self-reliance when the chips are down is a form of abuse. Why would any parent undermine the confidence that can only come of trying, and failing, then trying again until success is won? And why would any parent sacrifice their child on the alter of alleged privilege– training their hopes, dreams and identities along some prescribed path as if they were nothing more than a botany experiment– when the opportunity to have that child reveal himself to the world is the only way to transcend the very black & white sameness of that which is bred in a hothouse?

 Particularly when opportunities long taken for granted as the birthright of those born into the right families are now available to the truly smart who know how the world really works?