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Homeschooling: 1994 Association of Young Children - Europe (AYCE), Mannheim, Germany workshop talk on 'serial parenting'

 

Good afternoon. My name is Valerie Moon and the title of my talk is “What Do We Want for our Children?” I ask the question not in the manner of how can we prepared our children so they can get into Texas A&M, Harvard Business School or Juilliard, but rather, do we, as a society, value children enough to give them the start in life they need to grow up to be whole adults. Bruno Bettelheim in A Good Enough Parent, characterized this as, “. . . . the raising of a child who may not necessarily become a success in the eyes of the world, but who on reflection would be well pleased with the way he was raised, and who would decide that, by and large, he is satisfied with himself despite the shortcomings to which all of us are prey.”

As I’m not a scientist or a professional of any sort, I can’t quote studies or boast of having read professional publications, but I am a rational person who’s noticed events, read about possible causes and, like everyone else, formed an opinion.

Most of my ‘evidence’ is anecdotal, and I’ve accumulated it over the past 24 years while parenting, working and volunteering in schools and noticing changes. I’ve formed many of my ideas by combining my experiences and what I’ve read. I’ve aimed to be fair when I’ve found opinions conflicting with my ideas and I’ve tried to take them into account. If we’re going to make sense of recent trends and events, we must recognize the evidence even if it’s painful and contrary to what we feel ought to be right, or what we want to be right.

Some of my ideas may sound like a step backward but sometimes we need to retrace our steps to see what previously worked, and then move ahead after maybe changing direction. Perhaps the problems in America are necessary to show us what works and what doesn’t. The story goes that Edison had hundreds of failed experiments to his credit before he found one solution to making an electric light bulb work properly. The difficulty with people is that the experiments take so long to yield results.

The experiment I’ve noticed is our society’s new habit of having children and then farming them out to be raised. The phrase, “serial monogamy” has been coined to refer to the marriage - divorce - marriage - divorce - marriage cycle; I use the phrase “serial parenting” to refer to the cycle of parent - caregiver - parent - caregiver. I think the practice influences our children and their social and scholastic performance, as much as television, that favorite bogeyman in the perpetual pop-quiz as to what’s causing society’s decay.

Some results of the television experiment are falling SAT scores, the tragedy of illiterate high school graduates, remedial classes for college freshmen, and a rise in the number of children who can’t sit still in class. A new wrinkle in our national fabric is noticeable violence. But are the same factors that sponsored the dumbing down of American responsible for the belligerence and hostility we now feel coming from young people?

Is there anything different between the first tv generation and the kids who are becoming adults now? What influence has been added that wasn’t common at the time?

We still have, in varying degrees, music that parents think is trash, sex, unwholesome friends, advertising, commercialism, unhappy homes, broken homes sexism and racism. Global warming has replaced the atom bomb as the millennial terror while AIDS is filling the places vacated by polio, smallpox, measles, and mumps, whooping cough and diptheria. Violent television was with us when I was a child, as well as today, although the quality of the violence has been fine-tuned. Like Chickenman, it’s everywhere.

Violence on television is bad, especially the in-your-face, nowhere-to-hide style, but I don’t think we can continue to make it the lone scapegoat. My generation grew up on hours of bang-bang shoot-’em-ups what with the Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hickock, Roy Rogers, Rin Tin Tin, Zorro and others, all of whom seemed to own those wondrous hundred-bullet revolvers. Even as kids we noticed those guys never had to reload. My kids, through the beneficence of The Cartoon network on the Astra satellite, have seen some of the same cartoons I used to watch. All three of them have commented on how violent the cartoons used to be. And what did all of that violence get us? Hippies, anti-war protestors and peaceniks. Of course, Vietnam had something to do with that, too, but for the most part we weren’t carrying with us the free-floating anger of today’s kids.

So what’s the startling difference between then and now?

Serial-parenting?

With the rise of both parents working outside the home, more and more children are being serially raised in institutions. The cycle begins with daycare, goes on to daycare/preschool/daycare, then daycare/kindergarten/daycare, then daycare/school/daycare, then latch-key/school/after-school activity, then latch-key/school/latch-key. Other modern stressors are children being away from the parent at an early age, multiple changes in caregivers, changes in home, and broken and re-formed families. Separately they’re old hat, what’s new is their frequent combination.

In considering this problem I looked at one study of the kibbutzim of Israel where babies left their mothers as early as four days old to live in the infants’ house. These children had serial caretakers and changes in home, but there the similarity to the American styled ended. For one, it was daycare but consistent care in the infants’ house; babies were visited by their mothers for half-hour intervals throughout the day, and older children visited for two hours or so at the end of the day. Additionally, the caretakers were all members of the kibbutz, everything was communally owned, the changes in home were always from one building within the community to another with the children being moved as a group so that they grew up not just seeing each other daily but living together; the only society the children knew was that of a stationary community united not only in its philosophy, but zealous. None of this applies to American society.

In the book I read, The Children of the Dream, the author noted that the children of the kibbutz grew up with no firm attachment to any adult, that was purposely discouraged.  The children's attachment was to their peer group and their devotion was to the kibbutz. The reasoning for breaking the children away from their dependence on adults was to destroy the family dependence of the Jewish ghettos of Europe. Likewise, American society has taken away the children’s dependence on the family and replaced it with a similar peer-group dependency, which makes us crazy when our kids don’t listen to us.

The kibbutzniks replaced Judaism with commune-ism (not to be confused with Communism) and indoctrinated their children with a fierce devotion to the community. We’ve removed what are invoked as family values and a staunch individualism as the driving force behind our communities, even though we say we haven’t. Our institutionalization of our children shows that. But what have we replaced our mom, home and apple pie values with? What is our reasoning for weakening the family unit?

Today, some children are put into day-care at the age of six weeks and spend their young lives adjusting to different caretakers. The caretakers may have the babies’ best interest at heart and be attentive and caring but the care the children receive is not the same as that of a full-time parent. To quote Bettelheim again, “Having three children of my own, I have learned, among many other things, that there are significant psychological and even more important - emotional differences between the parenting of one’s own children and even the most devoted parenting of children who are not one’s own.”

How can an infant or toddler develop the unshakeable certainty that he is an adult’s beloved child when the adored adult repeatedly leaves the child at daycare? Can the child develop a deep trust that there is a person who loves him implicitly and will always be there when that child is subjected to changing caregivers?

In an institutional setting, once the child is over X-number of months old, he graduates from the infants’ room to the toddlers’ room - the result is that the caregivers may change. When an employee is ill, she generally misses work and a different person fills in. When an employee leaves there is an absence the child may not understand and which must affect the child if he developed any feeling for the caregiver at all. If the child doesn’t miss the caregiver, what does that say about their relationship?

What happens when the child moves? Then the entire environment changes. Not only does the child lose the familiar people of his daytime world but also the constancy of the home to which he’s grown accustomed.

In the military our children are subjected to both caregivers moving and the children moving.
I’ve seen that AFN commercial where a girl is depressed about moving and her friend cheers her up. These kids are teenagers. Who cheers up a two-year old? Can a two-year old be cheered up in that he can see the bright side of moving to a strange place? There’s another commercial where the parents tell their school-age children all the good things about their new duty station. Explain ‘duty station’ to a three-year old. Now make him understand it.

There is the justification that children are resilient, that they can bounce back from moves. But if the changes of home and familiar surroundings is compounded by a change in the people with whom the child spends most of his waking time, what is the result of that? Now add the anxiety of the non-active-duty parent in a military family or the non-career parent in a civilian family worrying about finding a new job plus a new babysitter and finally, for the time being, the child’s adjustment to the new caregiver.

Adults who have lived through traumatic events can suffer from post-traumatic-stress syndrome; can it be that the violent child of today is reacting to a lifetime of stress and is expressing his rage using the training he’s received from tv and movies? If the child has the gut feeling that the people closest to him really don’t give a diddly about him, whether this is true or not, will he care about other people?

Sometimes until we are faced with the result of a child's psychological trauma, we don’t even know it exists.

About ten years ago we lived at Ft. Meade, Maryland and my oldest son, had a friend who lived across the street. Phillip, the friend, was in and out of the house with my son almost every day.

We moved from Ft. Meade to Ft. Riley in Kansas, stayed there two years and then, of course, my husband was reassigned back to Ft. Meade. Phillip’s family was still in the area so he would come over to visit.

The first time he came into our house after our return to Ft. Meade, my youngest daughter, by then four, fled from him. We thought she was just being shy and had forgotten Phillip since she hadn’t seen him since she was 22 months old. Despite this, she declared that she hated Phillip and never wanted to see him. We asked her why, but she didn’t know. She didn’t react this way to anyone else. The behavior persisted the entire year we lived there.

In addition to being frightened of Phillip, to the point of barricading herself in her bed behind pillows and blankets after slamming the door shut, she was frightened of a one-legged man who visited a family across the street. Upon glimpsing him, and this was while she was inside our house, she would shriek, hit the floor and crawl to her room. I couldn’t understand what had gotten into the kid. The twins, two years older that she, noticed the man, but that was about it. Futile explanation of the man’s problem followed futile explanation, but she wouldn’t be budged, she hated him, too. Other than these episodes she was her normal, perky self.

After a year at Ft. Meade we moved to Munich, and although it was late in the school year, I allowed myself to be talked into enrolling my youngest daughter for six weeks of pre-school. The battalion commander’s daughter was in pre-school, and her mom was convinced that my daughter would enjoy it as much as her daughter did. Neither my daughter nor I had desired pre-school, but I wimped out. Hey, maybe she’d like it.

A week into my daughter's attendance I received a call from her teacher. There had been an incident in class when my daughter had been asked to hold hands with one of the other children. This child was to have been my daughter's partner for some activity, and holding hands was part of it. To the teacher’s surprise, my daughter adamantly refused. The teacher, a bluff, hearty woman, insisted my daughter hold the girl’s hand because it would hurt the little girl’s feelings if my daughter were to reject her. She put the girls' hand together and, to put it colloquially, my daughter went ballistic. She plastered herself against the teacher’s leg, and screaming, tried to climb the woman. As she recounted this to me the teacher then added that the little girl’s hand was slightly deformed.

My daughter and I eventually made our way to EFMS [Exceptional Family Member Services] for counseling, and, through patient questioning of me while my daughter played nearby, the kind doctor, helped me dredge up the memory of an incident with Philip when my daughter was sixteen months old. It was Hallowe’en and my older son and Philip had come in the front door; Philip was wearing a rubber gorilla mask. My daughter, then about 16 months old, spotted him and let out a shriek. Philip took off the mask, my son brought the baby to me, I comforted her, incident forgotten - by everyone but the baby. 

The doctor and I carefully told my daughter about Philip and the mask and asked her how she felt now that she knew what happened. “Oh,” she said cheerfully, “I hate him.” I told her that because she was scared of Philip looking strange and then he suddenly turned normal, she thought maybe that all different people would change back and forth and perhaps hurt her or even make her change back and forth. Then I asked if maybe she could go back to preschool since it was just bad feelings and there was no danger. Nope, she said, she wasn’t going back. She hated those short fingers.

She’s now twelve [in 2005 she’ll be 23] and can still describe those short fingers and the fear she felt. Intellectually she understands, but emotionally [at age 12] the terror lurks.

Now if terror can exist, hidden until something triggers the reaction, and if the feeling can persist despite loving support and explanations, what might go on in the mind of a child who has experienced serial parenting and who is assumed to be reacting normally to change when he misbehaves? What is buried in the mind of a child who has repeatedly formed relationships with a primary caregiver that were severed, and only occasionally enjoyed the evening and weekend security of a parent’s presence? Who does this child see as the eternal constant? Who is always there, no matter what?

Adults may say they understand what a child is feeling, but it’s not happening to them. What can happen in marriages where one partner is repeatedly absent and, from the point of view of the other partner, not-always-to-be-relied-on? Our children don’t have the option while they are small to threaten to maybe ‘go home to Grandma’ if Mom or Dad doesn’t, from the child’s point of view, shape up.  For them, divorce is not an option.

If the serial-pattern continues throughout the child’s life, what effect might it have? Aggression in the form of “do unto others before they do it unto you?” Defensiveness because the rules are always changing?

A few weeks ago, while accompanying a teacher friend, my younger daughter edged past a shopping basket in the PX. A baby was in the seat and two children, about six and seven, stood guard next to it. My daughter said, “Excuse me,” as she passed and was instantly bellowed at by the children. ‘Hey! Who do you thing you’re telling to say, ‘excuse me’!” My daughter tried to explain that she was the one saying ‘excuse me,’ but she was shouted down by the two children who repeated their demand to know who she was telling to say, ‘excuse me.’ She gave up and left them.

A week or so after that, as my kids were waiting for me outside the office in the PHV [Patrick Henry Village - an Army housing area in the Heidelberg military community] elementary school where we were reading tutors in a friend's third-grade class, they were noticed by two boys who looked about eight or nine. After announcing to each other that my kids must be new students, the shorter one accosted my younger daughter and belligerently demanded to know what her name was. He prefaced his demand, as he looked up at her, with, “Hey, little girl.” This bit of bravado cracked up the twins who are now almost fourteen [in 2005 they’ll be 25], and they tried, although probably not very hard, to suppress their laughter. The boys were offended at the hilarity and said, “Hey! You two! Stop laughin’!” The spectacle of two munchkins, strutting around a school hallway at lunchtime demanding information and respectful behavior from visitors, caused the twins to laugh even harder. I’m afraid the two little boys had their dignity severely ruffled.

When I told our teacher-friend about this, she said she had experienced the same thing for the first three or four months that she worked there. Now that she is known as a teacher who doesn’t put up with any sass, she’s respected, but until she established herself as a force, it was open season.  On a teacher.

Now I know that everyone here [in the workshop] probably knows a child whose parents both work who has been in daycare, and is a jewel. Statistically it must be possible. In every culture, even those that seem thoroughly odd to us, there are children who are successes. The human psyche is adaptable in a myriad of ways and the child who emerges, seemingly unscathed by the experience, appears to thrive under the conditions in which he or she was raised. American kids who do well socially and scholastically are the ones who would succeed, in our society, in any case. Either they are survivors or they have a relationship with their parents that is as solid as Gibraltar.

But are the majority of the children in day-care in that golden situation? Do most of them thrive and not just survive? Do most of them have two even-tempered, firmly ethical parents with a strong marriage and an ability to stand between their child and the excesses of society? Or are most of the parents struggling to get ahead in their jobs, juggling work and home, reining in Junior because of poor grades or misbehavior in school on the one hand while buying him a Nintendo, a Game Boy and a TV for his room because they’re not home ‘til at least 5:00 every night and they feel guilty? In the time the family is together, the so-called Quality Time, is everyone enjoying a leisurely supper with conversation and a quiet evening, or are the folks zoned out in front of the tube because they’re whacked after a day of work and an evening of cooking, cleaning and riding herd on the kids? Which family is more real - the Huxtables or the Bundys?  (not that Peg works)

The Cosby show was one of my favorites and I think Bill Cosby did a bang-up job showing us a happy family. But was it even partially real? When did that beautiful house get cleaned? Or rather, when did it ever get dirty? Who did the shopping for that crew, Claire or Cliff? Who did the ironing? Why didn’t I see scene after scene where somebody was lugging in gallons of milk? I had a teenager at home and now I’ve got three more - I know how much milk they go through. While watching the Cosby show I never saw anyone wield a vacuum cleaner or did they have a housekeeping fairy during the day when nobody was home? Where did Rudy go after school when she was smaller? Did Theo watch her? I don’t remember.

I’m not slamming Cosby, it was a good show, but it was a pipe dream, a fantasy, a figment of our fevered imaginations. Bill Cosby knew what we wanted, and he gave it to us - on a platter. And we believed him. Not only does TV eat our time, it feeds us delusions. It feeds us delusions of grandeur. It feeds us delusions of need. It feeds us delusions that we can have it all - and it won’t hurt our kids a bit. If people don’t believe those flickering images are even a little bit real, why are there so many commercials? It’s difficult to believe that hard-nosed capitalists would squander money on something that doesn’t work.

I said before that, maybe, what we’re going through at the moment is a necessary part of our growth - you don’t get steel without fire. Women had to be released from the biological bondage of their bodies, as Claire Huxtable has obviously been - she allegedly had five children and yet was still stunningly gorgeous. This is another reason that the women of the kibbutz were willing to allow their children to be raised away from them - equality. Since women no longer have to be protected from wild beasts when they are profoundly pregnant, and since much of the heavy work of making a living is now done by machines, and since women’s brains are as good as the guys’, Society had to change from the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” gender-prison to a more equal and fairer community. Unfortunately the change is not without pain, as no true transformation is. At our moment now, the people bearing the brunt of the pain are those who are least able to carry the burden — the children.

I’m not suggesting a return to the fifties where Mom’s in her kitchen and all’s right with the world. It may sound as if I’m saying only to mothers that they need to sacrifice themselves for their children, but that isn't it. I am saying that someone needs to raise the child they’re causing to be born, not a committee, especially not a committee where there is no common purpose other than keeping Junior out of the street. Someone needs to take personal responsibility for the child’s welfare.

As it is now, in our society, in a family with two working parents, and especially if those parents are both active-duty military, there is no one last place the child is assured of going to in a crisis. In the kibbutz no matter what happened the children knew where they would be — in their group’s house. Do our children have this assurance?

  • If Mom suddenly goes TDY [temporary duty - militarese for a business trip, which can last up to 6 mos.], then Dad picks up the ball.
  • If Dad is suddenly detailed [militarese for being temporarily assigned to other ‘duties,’ i.e. work] then the caregiver is pressed into action.
  • If the caregiver is suddenly unavailable then there is a mad scramble for backup.

Nobody is ultimately responsible for the kid.

In one of my jobs I worked for six months, with two and a half of those months during the school year. My children went to daycare after school, and were alternately picked up by my husband or my eldest son who was seventeen. One day one of the twins forgot to go to daycare and went home. Mom wasn’t home. The door was locked. Her older brother wasn’t there. Her twin and her younger sister never came home.  She panicked. Luckily one neighbor lady didn’t work and took my older daughter into her house, but the neighbor didn’t know my husband’s duty phone nor where I worked. My daughter knew our home phone, but that didn’t help because no one was home, so they waited.

Meanwhile, back at the child care center, not one person noticed my daughter was missing until my husband came to pick her up at 5:00. When he found she wasn’t there he called me at work (I didn’t get off until seven at night) and asked did I have Cindy?

"Do I have Cindy?! Do I have Cindy!?! What do you mean 'do I have Cindy?!?!'  Daycare has Cindy! I’m not supposed to have Cindy." 

I wasn't a happy person.

The story had an uneventful ending as Cindy was discovered sitting in the neighbor lady’s living room having cookies and milk. But I learned the lesson well that first time. Nobody is going to watch my kid like I do. Although almost everybody has someplace they have to be, in our society being with the child is rarely that place - it’s as if the child is a hot potato who keeps getting passed around.

My next job was the career enhancing position of playground monitor, a job I thought let me be close to the kids as well as allowing me to be free after school and during school holidays. While I worked at the school, seeing an ill child on the plastic-upholstered couch in the school office wasn’t an unusual sight, nor was hearing the school secretary leaving messages for a parent at work. The school isn’t responsible for ill children and, if the parent wasn’t in his or her office, or if both parents were unavailable, the child waited. Most of the time a parent arrived quickly and took the child home, but more than once I saw children, fevered, nauseated and achy, lying on that vinyl-covered couch, waiting. Sometimes these parents made it before school was over, and sometimes they didn’t.  If they didn't, the child rode home on the bus. The child was a buck to be passed until he finally came to rest, somewhere. That somewhere wasn’t always guaranteed.

Moving on, what do you do with a kid who is, say, past the ‘hot potato’ stage, but who isn’t happy with life and is acting up in some way? If the child is chronically ill, with something either real or imagined, or in trouble so that the parent is absent from the workplace, the co-workers resent picking up the slack.  There is pressure, sometimes subtle sometimes not, on the parent to shape up that kid. Or maybe there is overt pressure on the parent in the form of counseling to make the kid straighten up and fly right. Now is the usual response of a parent in this position

  • to look at the situation objectively, see that this child is screaming for the attention his nature says he needs
  • or to see the child’s behavior as a threat to the parent’s security in the form of community pressure, bad EERs or OERs [Enlisted Efficiency Report and Officer Efficiency Report], or perhaps be thrown out of quarters [denial of support is a lever used to control behavior in the absence of jurisdiction]?

Can the result of the pressure be that the parent comes down hard on the kid? No TV; you’re grounded; endless lectures; and other tactics which only confirm for the child that nobody loves him? Does all this shape up the kid? For a while, maybe. But many times doesn’t he go back to screaming for attention using anti-social behavior that gets him angry attention? And isn’t angry attention from the person you love better than no attention at all? Can the violence we see be a societal scream of, “Pay attention to me! I hate it when you ignore me!”

In our headlong rush towards the good life, we have, not actually of course, but in a manner of speaking, thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In preparation for this talk I did some research at the library. The author of one book stated, “Some mothers have to work for economic reasons, and others cannot, without psychological harm to themselves, interrupt their own careers or rewarding work lives.” This follows a page and a half of the possible negative behaviors a baby might exhibit upon beginning daycare.

Now I understand the unfairness of men being able to have a family and a career while women often have to choose between the two. As the kids like to say, this sucks. But unless one of the two parents is adult enough to delay career gratification, or to accept the alternative gratification of active parenthood, and unless our society starts valuing the parents who do this, the person taking it in the shorts is the one person who had no say in the situation, and the one person who is most vulnerable -- the child.

Now before I castigate our society any further, I must admit to a characteristic human viewpoint: whichever era we live in, it seems to be the ‘normal’ one. We exist in a continuous present and, as such, accept what we find here. New styles and attitudes may surprise us for a moment, but once they happen they are part of the scenery.

To make the point of how we experience the continuous present, think back. I can remember the normality of the fifties, the early sixties, and the mid, to late, seventies, the eighties and now the nineties - I won’t commit myself to anything 'normal' between 1965 and 1973. [joke, said with a laugh] Wherever I was, even during that late 60s, early 70s turmoil of becoming an adult, I knew pretty much how to act, what to say, and how to project the image I felt was appropriate, as I’m sure most people do. But now pretend you’re doing a Quantum Leap to an earlier decade of your own life. Even though you’ve lived through that time, and acted more or less appropriately for the situations in which you found yourself, can you say that if you were able, this very instant, to leap back that you would instantly fit in as you do in this place and time?

We laugh at photographs of the past and feel superior—what were we thinking? Does anyone who lived through the old fads really want to revive them? But today’s fashions are ‘different’ — they’re not odd like the styles of the past when we didn’t know any better. Today is normal. As always we try to look our best when we go out, and for photos, because we’ve ‘finally got our act together’ and nobody will ever think these styles are funny. Our present society is as invisible to us as those previous times were. We no more see the oddness of what we do now than we notice the air we breathe, at least not until it’s polluted. Once something goes wrong, then we notice, then we act. So it is with the violence and other ills of our present society.

We, and our children, are at the mercy of the Zeitgeist. It has now become normal, average, accepted and expected, to have a baby and immediately pop her into daycare. Everybody does it. But now the ever-vigilant Superego, in the form of My Mother pops up: “If everybody was going to jump off the Empire State building, I suppose you’d do it too?” Should we just go along with the crowd or stop and think about what we’re doing and to whom we’re doing it?

We adults may be all modern and trendy, and on the cutting edge of our careers. Mothers are able to bear small babies with a single push, if they kept up with their Jazzercise all through the pregnancy. We forget, though, that the babies we’re bearing are wee Stone Age creatures who are ‘hard-wired’ for mom; they’ve never heard of day-care. These wee tinies recognize their mother's voice and smell right after birth — they instinctively want to be with their mother no matter how mother feels about this; that’s how a baby is.

If our kids badgered us into buying a puppy, would we allow them to treat it the way our society accepts that we treat our kids? Imagine that you get your child a dog, Rover, and after six weeks you take Rover to Miss Mary’s house for the day so you can go back to work and your child can go to school. When Rover gets to a trainable age Miss Mary keeps him until noon, then he goes to Miss Susan for training, then back to Miss Mary after lessons, and your kid picks Rover up after school. After Rover is trained by Miss Susan he graduates to Mrs. Zelnik’s advanced behavior class at doggie school. In the meantime, Miss Mary has moved away, and now in the morning your kid takes Rover to old Mrs. Harbottle, and then when doggie school opens old Mrs. H. takes Rover to Mrs. Zelnik. After most of the day with Mrs. Zelnik, Rover goes to Doggy Enrichment after-school-care with two or three trainers - Doggy Enrichment has thirty-five dogs at the Dog Care Center. Rover gets picked up at night. After two or three years of this, changing Mrs. Zelniks, Mrs. Harbottles and the various Doggy Enrichment instructors at least once because they all moved away, and new people took their places, does this dog have any strong loyalty to anyone, or might this dog be neurotic? We wouldn’t treat a dog this way, so why do we, as a society, do it to our children?

How can we put our kids in daycare but still give them that “You are Responsible” lecture of, “If we get you this dog, you will have to take care of it. Not me. It’s your dog.” Perhaps we should lecture ourselves. “You are responsible for this child, you will have to take care of it, it’s your child.”

So far, I haven’t been nice towards us. If we consider our Zeitgeist religiously, I’m being downright heretical. How dare I stand up here and kick all these hardworking parents in the pants? They’re doing their best, for crying out loud. Well, now I’m going to get worse.
The bottom line, from what I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, is that we have sold our children’s souls for thirteen pieces of silver. Money. Geld. Greenbacks. Filthy lucre. The advertising geniuses of our society have taken on the task of selling us our dreams, and we’ve gone right along with them, buying into whatever it is that they tell us we need. There is a fascinating, glamorous world out there and we deserve to be part of it. Nobody’s better than we are, and, if we try hard enough, we can have it all! We’re all important. We can be self-actualized. All we have to do is apply ourselves to us and see all the problems in life as challenges and opportunities. The glass is half-full. Whatever your dream is, there’s somebody who will gladly make a buck selling it to you. And it all has to be bought.

So where do kids fit into all this? If we adults are embarked on this grand journey of building ourselves up, how do children contribute? What's the point of having them other than a momentary lapse on somebody’s part? ("I thought you took care of it!" "Well, I thought you did!" < fade to waves crashing on the shore > )

Raising children ourselves, by hand, gets in the way of careers. Raising kids takes time, and we all know the equation Time = Money. Also, to live the life we’ve been promised in commercials, and which, as a society we’ve accepted as our birthright, takes money. Now how can I be so foolish as to expect people to realize their dreams and raise kids without having the money to do so? And I’d better not be telling anyone that they can’t have children — that’s a right, too.

I’m not expecting people to do without money, but I do think we’ve confused our wants with our needs. We do have needs, but we believe those equal that microwave oven, convection oven, toaster oven, crock-pot, fondue pot, automatic popcorn popper, grill, electric griddle, Fry Daddy, rice cooker and a sandwich grill, in addition to the stove.

The downside to recognizing the difference between needs and wants and acting on that recognition is that it isn’t fun raising a family on a limited budget. It’s irritating to see a two-career-no-kids-couple gleefully designing a House Beautifique living room, dining room and kitchen while we’re making do with government furniture [gov’t furniture was supplied for many years to reduce the need to ship personal household goods overseas for everyone]. It’s hard not having the bus fare to go downtown to the Christmas market when your neighbors are putting their skis on the car racks as they get ready to leave for a ski week at Garmisch.
Living modestly is out of fashion. We don’t even have the psychological strokes of knowing that society approves of our frugal, if unstylish, lives. Society, as portrayed in our noisiest and most attention-getting media, thinks that anyone who does that is a loser -- make an 'L' on your forehead. Nowadays “Good-night John-boy” always gets a laugh. We don’t want to live even like Marybeth and Harv on Cagney and Lacey — we want to be the Huxtables. We watch the Bundys, but only for a laugh — thank god we’re not like them.

Even though we say we want our kids to grow up to be caring, truthful, and considerate people and we insist that they need good role models, what kind of person do we envision when we say that? Someone like Hilary Clinton or someone like Mother Theresa? Although Mrs. Clinton and Mother Theresa are both admirable women, we want our kids to be like the one with the money. I don’t think Mother Theresa has to worry about anyone taking her job.
Style has always been the mark of smart society, but the non-rich used to have the face-saving defense that they were living respectably. It was dignified to live within your means and not be flashy. But all that has disappeared and the images from magazines, movies and television all reinforce that if you ain’t cool then you ain’t. As parents we often back away from confronting popular culture because to step between it and our and our children is a lot of work, and threatens the status quo. We allow our kids to be duped by the hucksters of modern life and conform to the mediocrity surrounding them rather than help them to step beyond it.

At a small dinner recently, I was asked by one of the husbands where it was that I worked. I answered that I don’t. I was startled when one of the wives jumped to my defense, and said that because I have three kids still at home, that I worked there; and very hard, too. She didn’t know it but she robbed me of this really neat line that I use: “I’m a kept woman.” That was my first opportunity to use it and I was upstaged. The curious thing about all this is the assumption that, because I don’t get paid for what I do, and since I’m not doing it for people other than my family, that it needs to be apologized for. Not only did I feel the need to come up with a quip to justify my economic sloth, but another woman felt the need to rationalize my apparent lack of contribution to society. Why did we both feel so threatened? I ran into the same problem filling out the application for this workshop. How should I fill in the lines, "title" and "position" when I have no validation from a money-dispensing organization that what I do is worthwhile? I settled for Mrs. and Mom.

I think the problem here is that not only has mom gone out of style, but she seems to be unpatriotic.

On the global stage, what is one of America’s priorities? Beating the economic pants off Japan and Germany and bringing truth to the phrase, “We’re number one!” How do we do that? We produce! And how will all this production help us hold up our head at important economic meetings with international financiers and CEOs? We’ll consume it! We’ll make American and buy American!

Now if Mom is sitting home on her duff carefully pinching pennies, she can’t be spending very much. If she’s not spending then business isn’t being supported. And come to think of it, what’s she producing?

  • Clean clothes? They don’t make money.
  • Mended clothes? Hey! She’s not buying new ones which means some poor clothier is losing money because of her tightwad ways.
  • She’s cooking supper? Well, how are the restaurants supposed to stay in business?
  • She’s playing cards with her kids? Cards are cheap and they last a long time, shouldn’t she be buying a Sega or a Game Gear or a Super Nintendo that has to have new game cartridges instead of using the old ones in a new way? Electronic games produce hundreds upon thousands of dollars, not like silly decks of cards.
  • She reading those kids books from the library instead of letting them watch TV? Now how do you expect those advertisers to make money if she won’t watch the commercials? Advertisers gotta live, too!
  • You say she’s raising responsible kids? Oh, come on. Those kids'll grow up—stop fussing so much. You’re smothering, not mothering. Cut those apron strings, the kids have got to find out what life is like sooner or later. And one of those things is that life doesn’t revolve around them.
     

Children can probably thrive while putting up with one or two of the stresses of modern life, in fact military kids were known for being able to roll with the punches of moving and to be stronger and more mature for having done so. But that was when there was usually just moving. That was when the peer group, as a whole, was more stable. Now the peer group, instead of supporting the less-stable children, is putting more pressure on the ones who used to be the majority.

For the military Europe used to be the place where you moved to get away from the excesses of American society but it seems those excesses have followed us across the Atlantic. Seven years ago when we came to Germany for our third tour here I noticed a striking difference between the high school in the States that my son attended and the one in Munich. Over here we still found the heavy metal music my son listened to in the States. I thought it even worse over here because of the Monsters Of Rock concerts that were popular at the time. I noticed the same social grouping over here among the high school students: jocks; heavy metal types; rappers; and geeks. The ways the girls dressed still made my hair stand on end and their language curled it.  But there was a difference—my son didn’t come home with tales of beatings and intimidation. The one time I had to have official dealings with the school in Munich wasn’t because my son’s locked locker had been broken into and his brand new coat stolen; the response to which, from the Office of the stateside school, was that it wasn’t their problem and I should report the theft to the county police. In Munich the major problem was a girl. The problem was hormones instead of brutality and theft.

The stories about the teachers changed, too. At the stateside school my son reported that a boy had to be tackled and restrained by the men teachers during an assembly because he went on a rampage with a knife. At Munich my son’s main complaint was that his physics teacher was too tough. Big difference in atmosphere.

But now, seven years later, similar headlines are showing up in Stars and Stripes [overseas military newspaper] concerning DoDDS [Department of Defense Dependents Schools] students.

  • I’m sure you all remember the Darmstadt student who was put back into school after robbing a taxi driver, the date of which I don’t remember.
  • I have a clipping from the 25th of January where, in a Letter to the Editor, a man from Grafenwöhr said he overheard two junior high age boys discussing the video game Mortal Kombat. According to the writer, “The boy’s disappointed comment was that, ‘it’s not even fun because you don’t get to kill the girl at the end.’”
  • On the 4th of February Stripes had an article about a brawl on a basketball court followed by threats to the visiting basketball team [interscholastic game].
  • On the 14th of February Stripes ran an article about how a cheerleading team was docked points for cussing during a competition. This was, to a certain extent, a ‘so-what article’ considering how foul America’s speech has become overall, but the article was on the same page as a report that three American teenagers had been sentenced in a German court for attacking a German bicyclist, had used a stun gun on him and robbed him of fifty Marks [German currency is the Deutsche Mark].
  • On the 18th and 25th of February there were articles datelined Mainz and Wiesbaden detailing how badly schoolchildren behave on the buses. Parents were quoted as saying they were concerned for the children’s safety but that they wouldn’t volunteer to be monitors because the kids were intimidating. If the students on the bus are so intimidating, why are parents allowing their children to go where they fear to tread? Are their children tougher than they are?
     

Seven years ago headlines like these were uncommon in Stars and Stripes, if they existed at all. Now I can collect them by the month.

What’s changing? Is it that the serially-parented kids are growing up and they care as much for everyone else as everyone else has cared for them? What else can be done to them? Their fear of desertion was a daily reality so what can the system possibly do to them that’s worse? The attitude of some of the children in USAREUR is similar to that of many of the draftees in USARV [United States Army Vietnam] over two decades ago which was, “What’re they gonna do? Draft me and send me to Vietnam?” And they had a point—what more could the Army do since they were already in hell? What are we going to do to these kids? Take them away from the parents who left them daily? Can the violence from children that we’re seeing stem from the same sort of helpless anger that gave us the horror of troops fragging their officers?

In past times kids have grown up just fine when both parents worked, but were those kids in a neighborhood close to relatives? Was their school safe? Maybe one parent worked days and the other one nights.  Children have survived rough neighborhoods, but their parents may have insisted they attend church or be in Scouts or just flat out told them if the kids got caught hanging around with so-and-so that they wouldn’t set foot outside the house until they were thirty.

Unless we are willing to live in a kibbutz situation, hire a nanny-for-life, or get Grandma to interrupt her career and provide stability, we must go back to raising our children and not merely allowing them to get bigger. The time for constant companionship and control is when they are small, and the pattern needs to be established early, especially with our invasive society in which it is so hard to find quiet or peace.

I have but one final quotation that has not only been in existence for thousands of years but also received popular validation in becoming the lyrics of a song. Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds and the verses are from the book of Ecclesiastes. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up . . .” The verses go on but I’m sure you understand. Let us please give our children their time for raising and their time for going away instead of reversing the process and trying to raise them after the damage is done.

 

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This site was last updated:  Wednesday, 10 March 2010