Jani Kaaro is a scientific journalist, a researcher and encyclopedist, and he has some of the most insightful columns that I have ever read, time after time. I'm going to translate a few of his articles, if you have time and interest, check it out, you won't be disappointed.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Christmas is over and done. Now that the gifts have been opened it’s a good time to ask: did your children receive more presents than they deserved? Did you realize, even while buying them, that after a while they would not care about these particular presents, but instead wanted new ones?
What do you think, will your child still show you gratitude in the spring time for running sweaty in warm winter clothing around crowded malls and shops just to get them the most wanted piece of crap of the season? And when you ask them to clean out the dreary toys and gifts crowding your floors after Christmas, do any of you think that your child might have a motivation problem?
I could be completely wrong, but do any of you as well feel that children are often ungrateful and egocentric, that they get far too much for how little they have to work for it and it is hard to motivate them to do anything besides something that straightly serves their hedonistic desires? And do any of you ever get that dreadful feeling – akin to a terrible nightmare slowly rearing its head outside the dream world – that you possibly are at least partly responsible for all this? That the attitude of the child is your own creation, as you happen to be the mother and father of the kid.
Lately, I’ve had the honor of getting to know David Lancy, an anthropologist from the University of Utah, who is studying how childhood differs in many cultures – from hunter-collectors to farmers and industrialized societies.
A discussion with Lancy and reading his work have helped me realize how much the childhood of our children differs from others – not just in contrast to other cultures, but to children of previous generations. Next, I’ll try to summarize two of the most significant changes in the history of childhood.
The first change is the shift from a gerontocratic society to a neontocratic one. In a gerontocratic society, there were many children, only few old people and the elders were respected. On the contrary, in neontocratic societies there are less children, a lot of old people and the kids are almost worshipped. The shift is actually so fresh, that some people reading this article might have grown in a gerontocratic society; I grew up safely in a neontocratic one.
With the shift, there was a large change in the attitude towards children. Even in Finland of the 1930s – and many cultures to this day – a child was an investment, and one that had to pay itself back. Nothing came for free and the kids knew it. They worked hard from infants onwards and served a significant economical role.
In neontocracy, the attitude flip-flopped. As the economic significance of children shrank, or even became nearly obsolete, their emotional significance grew enormously. The peak of this development is what children represent today in mostly Western societies – invaluable gifts, which are not expected to give anything in exchange for their existence.
In a neontocracy, our attitude towards children or childhood is overly sentimental, and this can be pretty much traced back to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts.
Romantics like Rousseau believed that a child is inherently good. If a child is not forced to adapt to an arbitrarily man-made society and culture, the child will go on to develop towards the kind of perfection that nature has meant for it.
So, a child must be able to fulfill itself with its full potential and limiting or blocking this self-potential could be harmful to a child. In the romantic view, culture is the oppressing force that destroys the goodness of a child.
Sometimes I wonder what Rousseau would think if he saw what giving children the ability for their “full potential” has meant after capitalism came into play. Many of us have been duped to believe; that a child’s full potential is somehow essentially yet hardly understandably linked to consumerism. So we buy our kids toys and games; we pay for tickets to the water parks and Disneyland; we get them into developing hobbies and we take them abroad, so they would experience the turquoise seas and the exotic nature of foreign cultures from an early age.
At the same time, we feel like we have accomplished something good and possibly even essential as these things serve the goal of fulfilling the child’s potential. We have become servants of the children’s full potential.
And what would Rousseau think when he’d see the dire consequences of letting children get their way easily enough and how the adult serves his or hers main purpose as a purveyor of “happiness” to their children. I don’t know what he would think, but personally I think this attitude, where life revolves around children instead of children revolving around life, has been feeding our society the worst possible poison already for the last two or three generations.
The consequences show children in elementary school with attitudes towards life as “don’t care” or young adults with “lol whateva”. We treat children as kings and queens and later we wonder aloud, why are they acting like royalty?
I’d like to borrow philosopher Mary Midgley’s thought on how culture doesn’t oppress us humans any more than a nest oppresses the chicks inside it. We need culture as much as the baby birds need their nest. It’s a foundation which we use to grow and leap into the world as we have to share it with other humans (and animals).
A child’s nest is its parents, relatives, friends and teachers, on top of values, morals and societal agreements which a child is expected to learn as it grows. We have to teach our children what is right; that there is a difference between being right and doing what simply feels right.
I don’t know any other thing where our romantic attitude would show itself better, than our attitude towards babies. When we keep a newborn in our arms, we say: “…just so perfect.”
In comparison with what I just said about learning about cultural values and norms, describing a baby as a perfect being is highly weird and tells more about us than our newborn children. Our babies can be lovely, awaited, loved, hoped-for and precious, but they are not perfect – except in the light of Rousseau-like romanticism.
With this article, I am by no means saying that we shouldn’t love our children. The many generations growing up in a gerontocracy and who had to earn their parents’ love prove that it was not an ideal system. Still, we could take points from the good sides of gerontocracy. I believe that we should offer our children a more favorable position than that of a tribe leader, who accepts gifts, services and worship. We have created a limbo of adolescence, where there is nothing else worth to do than to wait for a suitable social or societal role, and in the mean time is spent on playing the recorder or entertaining oneself with more devious hobbies.
If we could return the role of helping hands to children in an early stage of their lives, we might be able to create more youth who are willing to do, participate and help, not just consume and be entertained. I am completely assured about the fact that this kind of want for participation lives inside every child and it can only be fed by taking them in on the action. Imagine a society, where 8th graders rake an older woman’s lawn just because it’s good to help those close to you, instead of nodding off to thoughts of Idol-hood or daydreams of becoming a celebrity.
No matter my thoughts on the issue, if you have the perfect teenager in your home today, who asks you in the morning “what could I do today to help my society”, don’t get mad at me – tell your kid how you pulled it off.
Does Crichton smoke? Does a bear shit in the woods? -Rex
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