In the Absence of a Village

Sometimes you need experts. Then again…

I think I’m squarely in the middle of this one. Our friend DSL, who apparently never met a hundred-word sentence he didn’t like, (Faulkner, thou shouldst be living at this hour…) has treated us to an amazingly unbroken and lengthy quote from Kenneth Anderson as a way of showing his Christmas spirit toward Hillary Clinton. Both DSL and Anderson might be surprised to find out that, having worked for 30-odd years in various parts of the child welfare system, I’m not much keener than they are about some of its accomplishments.

Admittedly, the child welfare system in Cook County, Illinois, may not be a fair sample of the species. It’s understaffed, underfunded, overworked, and mostly kept in line by some excellent reporting in the Chicago Tribune. The only people who have succeeded in getting rid of egregiously bad judges in Cook County juvenile court were both newspaper columnists. One of them is now dead, and the other retired from the profession for reasons that seemed to me at the time insufficient. And, worst of all (at least from my order-craving point of view), the system has no reliable bias. Sometimes they return a child to a home in which s/he is in obvious peril, and sometimes they remove a child from a fairly benign environment.

But on the other hand…

For better or worse, from either Hillary’s standpoint or that of That Other Blogger, there are no longer many villages around to undertake the raising of our children. That is to be expected when most middle class parents and many working class parents now send their children away from home to college or the military during the years in which they are most likely to meet their life partners. As a result, more and more of our newly-formed families settle in Portland, and have one end in, say, Austin, and the other in New Rochelle. Until the elders retire, usually one set in Phoenix and the other in Boca Raton. So we form our villages on the fly, among people who are at roughly the same stage of life as ourselves.

That’s a crucial characteristic of such villages. It means that most of the people in them don’t know any more than any of the others about whatever life problems they are currently dealing with. My neighbors don’t know any more about breastfeeding, or raising teenagers, or planning a Bar Mitzvah, than I do, and we are all, simultaneously, trying to learn. They will not, obviously, learn from me, nor I from them. They can call “home” to Mom or Dad, and get some useful tips. Or draw on things Mom or Dad said years ago that didn’t seem that important at the time, if they can still remember, and if those memories are accurate. Some of them may even feel that Mom and Dad didn’t do such a good job, and their advice might not be worth taking.

Another alternative is to rely on one’s own instincts and common sense. Dr. Spock was a forceful advocate of this approach. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The fatherly instincts of a man who was barely old enough to talk when his father abandoned the family are likely to be exiguous and erratic. The motherly instincts of a woman whose mother kept more vodka than cleansers in the cabinet under the kitchen sink are going to be unusual at best.

Some high schools take on the task of teaching “life skills,” as do some programs for people with mental disabilities. The teachers, of course, at least present themselves as the “experts” so despised by DSL and Mr. Anderson. Their “expertise” may come from some kind of professional training, or from their own life experiences, or just from a mess of never-challenged habits and prejudices. But they are at least willing to stand up and tell a bunch of teenagers that this is how you diaper a baby, or balance a checkbook, or boil an egg. “In a place where there are no menschen,” says Hillel, “Strive to be a mensch.”

Regardless of the source of parental “knowledge,” some of it is strange, or at least varied. I represented one mother in juvenile court who had been taught that you don’t feed a child solid food until it (the child, not the food) is at least a year old. Actually, I knew personally an extremely well-educated woman who had learned that you don’t feed a child anything but breast milk for the first six months, to protect the child from allergies. And yet another, for the baby’s first six months, put baby food into a baby bottle with an oversized nipple and gave it to her baby to suck.

Similarly, some parents let the kid cry himself to sleep from the very beginning, while others have an hour-long bedtime ritual that suffices to knock the kid out. Sleeping practices in general are a major source of conflict in the child welfare system. Google “family bed” to find out about something that drives social workers and judges absolutely nuts. One of my clients lost custody of her six-year-old son because he still shared her bed. Where she was from, in Malta, that was perfectly acceptable.

Some parents insist on cloth diapers, but most go with disposables and to hell with the environment. Some parents never allow their children to play shoot-‘em-up, while others buy them toy guns that resemble the real thing to varying degrees, and BB guns as soon as they turn 12. A friend of mine wouldn’t let her son point a banana at another child and say “bang bang.”

Discipline, of course, is a major source of juvenile court cases. In Cook County, hitting a child with anything other than an open hand, or hard enough to leave marks, or hitting a child under three at all, can get you charged with physical abuse. But the only way most parents find this out is by getting hauled into court. Maternity wards do not hand out “Rules of the Road” booklets. (Actually, I think some of them do provide handouts that cover basic care-and-feeding and car-seat issues, but only stuff that pertains directly to newborns, which discipline presumably doesn’t.) Most of the parents I encountered in court had been spanked routinely by their own parents, and had no reason to think there was anything wrong with it. In some subcultures, the use of belts and extension cords for disciplinary purposes is perfectly acceptable among otherwise nice people.

I figured out, after a few years hanging out in juvie, that there are two kinds of genuinely abusive parents. One is the total psychopath who beats up on anybody who crosses his path and isn’t bigger than he is, and who will never be any frakkin’ good no matter what and probably in a simpler society would be taken out and shot. Or at least (since I’m opposed to capital punishment) put somewhere as far away as possible from anybody smaller than himself.

The other, far more tragic, is the father (or sometimes mother) who is so desperately afraid of the chaotic, violent, destructive world outside the home that s/he has to discipline everyone in the family onto the strictest straightest path, for lack of any other way to protect them.

There are caseworkers who understand the difference, and those who don’t. Most of them are only a generation removed from their client population, in much the same relationship as police officers and criminals. Given another generation to think about it, cops and caseworkers both are likely to send their children to law school.

Anyway, even the most thoughtful of the “experts” can be wrong. B.F. Skinner had his daughter raised in a controlled-environment “box” (I roomed with her best friend for a summer in college.) Freud believed, and taught even his own daughter (who was one of his students) that women are morally inferior to men. The “experts” of the 1930s opposed “too much” maternal affection. The British “experts” believed children should, to the extent possible, be raised by people other than their natural parents, to keep them from being “spoiled.” There have been “experts” who endorsed breast feeding and others who opposed it. Same for early toilet training (indeed, some “experts” oppose any toilet training.) The “experts” in 18th-century France endorsed, or at least accepted, farming out one’s children to “wet nurses” in the country, where a huge proportion of those children died. Rumania’s president Ceausescu constituted himself an “expert” whose system of child-rearing began with an economy in which raising one’s own children was prohibitively expensive relative to available resources, and then prohibited birth control and abortion, so that the children ended up in “orphanages” where they died by the thousands from neglect and disease.

Let’s face it, deciding how to raise our children is one of the most important decisions any of us has ever made. And for most of us, it wasn’t a conscious decision at all. It’s a decision that embodies our highest values and our basest prejudices (I’ve seen one parent sue for custody of a child because the other parent has him/her in a school where another student is HIV-positive. Custody contests sometimes arise when the custodial parent changes religions, or gets remarried to a person of another race.) It’s a decision that maybe nobody is really “qualified” to make—not the parents in the private sanctity of the home, nor their families, nor the “village” they live in, nor the “experts” in the “helping professions.” Original sin, if there is such a thing, consists of being born with parents and raised as children. Only Adam and Eve avoided it. The best any of us can do is avoid the really deadly patterns, and try to learn something new about how children grow and develop.

Jane Grey*

*You may want to Google the original Jane Grey to see how she was raised.

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