Last week I wrote about a New York Times article by Andrew Solomon on raising child prodigies. His findings on prodigies came from more than 300 interviews he did over ten years with families of “exceptional” children. His term is “horizontal identities”, meaning children with radical differences from their parents, including a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences. All are differences that present great challenges to parents. His book describing this work has just been published. The title is FAR FROM THE TREE: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.
Although Solomon is writing about extreme situations, the underlying question is one we all deal with as parents. Can we come to know and relate to children who may seem so different from ourselves, whom we may not even recognize as having any connection to who we are? These differences may be in behavior, temperament, interests, values or even total personality. I have heard parents say about a child, “I don’t know who she is.” This is sometimes said half in jest when disowning some disapproved of behavior. But perhaps it is a thought we have all had one time or another.
This brought to mind the writings of the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who was interested in generational differences in the context of culture. Writing about the acculturation of young people in this country, who came as immigrants, she commented on the break this causes between parents and their children. Children are eager to become Americanized, to be like others they go to school with and come to know. They learn a new language, new ways to dress and behave, and begin to reject the old ways of their parents. Parents and children literally no longer speak the same language.
Partly due to Mead, and to similar writings of others, our educational system began to incorporate the idea of teaching in a second language, and generally supporting cultural differences. This approach ran counter to the older idea of an American “melting pot.” It put its emphasis on supporting family ties and cultural groups, which perhaps then sacrificed a different kind of cohesiveness.
Moving through the inevitable generational stages, I have observed how distance, cultural difference, and potential difficulty in communication can take place between generations even absent the immigrant issue. I thought about this in a conversation with my grandson, a theatre buff who was showing me the lighting and stage design work he had done for his school play. Using his computer he demonstrated the way the software he uses works. It was as though he was talking to me in a foreign language.
I told him about Margaret Mead’s ideas and how the world of technology had put children in a different world from their parents. His response to that was to show me the change in his own work since he got special software. He pointed out the hours it used to take him just to draw the set-up that is now already there for him. He himself is experiencing a change in his own world. I asked him if he thought anything had been lost in the process. As he saw it, the hours formerly spent on mechanics were now available for creative invention.
Not long after this conversation, I noticed a newspaper article about artificial intelligence. Technology companies are reporting astonishing advances in diverse fields using an artificial intelligence technique inspired by how the brain recognizes patterns. This has led to widespread enthusiasm among researchers who design software to perform human activities like seeing, listening and thinking.
Reading this made me wonder why there is so much enthusiasm and effort going into making machines more like humans. Will we create machines that have the capacity to be creative, and if so, what will they create? I thought about the conversation with my grandson. Technology has given him more freedom to be creative. Will technology replace human creativity? If machines are more like humans, will humans be more like machines?
All of which brings us back to Andrew Solomon and the “search for identity”. As they grow, our children search for their own identity, and, like them, we also have to come to know who they are. Our ever changing world seems rapidly to create distances between us, adding another potential layer of confusion in our attempt to know our ever changing children.
Perhaps despite the changes, our job as parents remains the same: to respect and support even those differences we may not understand. Those may be the very differences that will serve them best in their own new world.