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