Educator and cultural critic Neil Postman, in his book “The Disappearance of Childhood,” described our concept of childhood as a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the subsequent development of literacy. In ancient times children were not distinguished from adults, did not attend school, and were not shielded from the realities and secrets – including sex and violence – of the adult world.
Postman wrote that children became separated out as a group because the print culture made it essential that they learn how to read and write. Some information, exclusively controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be psychologically assimilable ways. “The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.”
Postman pointed out that “language is an abstraction about experience whereas pictures are concrete representations of experience.” The visual media erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible. “It requires no instruction to grasp its form, does not make complex demands on mind or behavior, and does not segregate its audience.”
Most parents would agree with the difficulty – almost impossibility – of protecting children from information and sights we believe they are too young to process. New developments in technology have eroded the distinction of children from adults even further. Covid is testing anew Postman’s point about the visual media eroding the dividing line between childhood and adulthood.
That dividing line, which has been breaking down in recent years, is now amplified by the collapse of the educational system. With variations throughout the country, most children have been left with remote learning through the use of technology, which itself has been unevenly available.
Aside from the interruption in the acquisition of academic skills, the absence of human interaction between teacher and pupil, between students themselves, is a significant deprivation in child development. Teachers have been speaking and writing about the difficulty in reaching young children without human contact.
Teachers say that even years of experience in classroom teaching has proved to be inadequate and they resort to trial and error in an effort to overcome the distance in distance learning. One teacher speaks of the difficulty holding the attention of a kindergarten class reading to them on zoom. Teachers miss the “mommy look” which helped a child settle down.
At the same time that the prescribed educational path for children remains largely unavailable, children have been exposed more than ever to what Postman called the “realities and secrets” of the adult world. The last few weeks in particular have exposed through unceasing visual media the extremes of reality, the highs and lows of the adult world.
It is hard to know what young children have taken from the violent assault on the Capitol, the impeachment of one president, the inauguration of another. It remains for parents to process the impact of these events on their younger children.
High school age children are more able to conceptualize and articulate their thoughts and feelings. Some express feelings of hope and rescue evoked by the inaugural events, a greater political awareness and a special response to the young poet, Amanda Gorman, and her poem.
Postman believed that in Western civilization, the growth in empathy and sensibility – in humaneness – has followed the path of the growth of childhood. These qualities have distinguished us as a society. Our values have derived from the humanities.
Let us hope that the pandemic with its reliance on technology, will not prevent a return to the kind of education that in the past spoke to those values.
Parents’ wish to protect children from exposure to certain material has become a more pressing issue in today’s world of the internet and cable television. The anthropologist Margaret Mead, once said that when she was growing up her mother censored Horatio Alger stories because the grammar was bad. She used to read the prohibited material under the quilt at night with a flashlight.
Mead’s point was that children will always find a way to subvert adult rules, but that is far different than a newsstand displaying magazines with sexual material on its covers that children passed on their way to school. The distinction she made was that in one instance a parent’s values are made clear, in the other society seemingly gives approval to those kinds of displays.
This issue has become even more pressing as a result of the mob assault on congress by those seeking to stop a legal certification of the new president. In the days since, investigators have identified many who are guilty of breaking laws and using violence to threaten physical harm to those in authority whom they blame for upholding laws against which they rebel.
The controversy about this brings to mind the question parents face about setting limits on children’s behavior. Often the issue becomes one of parental authority, concern about enforcing limits that have been set, how to do this and whether failure to do so will diminish parents’ authority. This is just the point made now about the need to hold those breaking laws accountable for their behavior.
Mead’s point about conflicts between parental values and society’s seeming approval of certain behavior has relevance here because of just this question. There are those in authority who justify or diminish the gravity of the assault in defense of an opposing point of view. Legal authorities, however, clearly define the law-breaking aspect of the behavior in question.
The question becomes more intense when safety issues are involved. Little children will often reach for that which is beyond their grasp with limited understanding of the dangers parents perceive, requiring parents to intervene physically.
The situation is more complicated when children get older and rebel, disagreeing with the parental assessment of danger in what they want to do but are beyond the kind of physical control that was appropriate when small. Parents often consider the threat of punishments as a means to limit behavior.
A familiar outcome is parents setting limits on children’s plans and children seeming to accept the rules then finding ways to circumvent the parental limits. An example is a child being told to return home at a certain time which then doesn’t happen, followed by a range of excuses such as the bus was late, impossible to call.
Children’s evasive behavior in response to parental limit setting is part of the normal process of growing up, spreading one’s wings and testing the parameters of independent functioning. Children pushing back is part of a process that ultimately leads to independence.
Through this process children are learning parent’s values even when they seem to be ignoring them. While seeming to rebel, they nevertheless internalize the standards for behavior that are being set and hopefully, at some point those standards will become their own.
Those involved in the assault on Congress were adults with standards for behavior justifying violence and law breaking as an expression of rebellion. It is such extreme forms of rebellious behavior that concern parents setting limits for children as they develop.
The major breakdown in respect for limits now confronts our society as a whole.
Some things seem too hard to talk about with our children. Even normal things like death, or the illness of a parent. But these days, surrounded by ever-present media presenting stories and pictures of unimaginable events, as parents we have even greater concern about how we can protect our young children from the effects of what they see and hear.
This past week newspapers and tv have been flooded with stories and pictures of the horrifying assault on, and invasion of the Capitol by those seeking to overturn our national election of a new president. How do we talk to our children about these things?
While young children don’t have our memories of upsetting events in the past, such as 9/11, or even former protest marches, our impulse is to protect our children from upset or worry, and to minimize an event as a way of denying its impact on a child.
Children are much more aware of what is going on around them than we think they are or would like them to be. Yet sometimes our own emotions get in the way of our recognizing or understanding what our children are thinking and feeling. We can’t explain to them why this happened in a way that makes sense, because it makes no sense to us. This is difficult for us as parents since we expect to be able to explain things to them and they expect that of us.
Children react to events in different ways, which may be different than we imagined. The media already have been filled with advice about how to talk to your children about this. Perhaps the best advice is to listen to your children. This means to try to hear what it is that concerns them – if anything – before deciding what kind of story to tell them.
The way we talk to a child about disturbing events depends a great deal on the age and developmental stage of the child. By listening to his questions and what he says. you can correct any distortions in his understanding and offer a simple story about what is known. The story needs to match the child’s age and level of development but can be straightforward and real without going into gory details.
That may seem obvious but it is more difficult than it may seem. What interferes with hearing our children are our own emotional reactions. If we are aware of the feelings aroused in us, we can put them aside and listen instead for our children’s feelings and concerns. I found this in talking to several teen-agers. Knowing about the absence of civics in school curricula these days, I inwardly wondered if they could possibly be as affected as I was by this assault on the seat of our democracy.
One said it was the “dirtiness” of it that was horrible, the “trampling of majesty – like a temple.” Another said it was like watching pictures of the titanic going down. There were comments about the contrast between police reaction at the Floyd protest march and at the invasion of the halls of congress. These were high school students currently in school only remotely. Talking to younger students would no doubt elicit different thoughts and associations.
We can’t protect children from life’s painful events and experiences. We can only listen and respond to their concerns to help them develop the mental and emotional muscles they need to confront whatever life holds.
The reassurance for us is our children’s resilience, and their preoccupation with the more usual events of daily life.
Much has been written about the pressure parents have been under as a result of the pandemic, with school attendance occurring remotely at best, mothers back to full time child care combined with attempts to fulfill their own work responsibilities remotely. At the same time mothers feel responsible for maintaining the health of their family including making sure that children are following required safety precautions such as mask wearing and distance from others.
It is impressive to see so many children from the youngest to teen-agers wearing masks outside, even when not with parents or other adults. So it was interesting to come across a mother expressing despair about the mom Covid has made her, one trying to control her children’s activities and time spent with friends.
Many of the feelings expressed have been echoed by other parents. Trying to be sure one’s children are following safety rules while worrying that other parents are not doing the same. Children reinforcing that fear by insisting that no one is making as “big a deal” of it as their parents. Worrying about children’s contacts with their friends while worrying about how they are being affected by all the restrictions on what were once normal activities.
Mothers are experts at feeling guilty, often over something one did or said – or didn’t do or say – and goes along with the worry that one’s actions as a parent had – or will have – dire consequences for one’s child. The fear is that one’s behavior as a parent might damage a child in a way that would interfere with his functioning in the future. This is the fear that is being expressed now in relation to the role of parents in restricting children’s activities and trying to make sure they are following safety requirements.
Mothers assume great powers in believing in their capacity to damage their children by what they say and do. But the other assumption here is that children are so fragile that a wrong word from mom can do irreparable damage. This speaks to a more general anxiety about the significance of negative experiences and the feeling that children must be protected from anything that seems unpleasant, frustrating or upsetting.
This, in turn, suggests that it is possible to go through life without having such experiences, and that mothers are responsible for making that happen – for creating a perfect life for one’s child. We know that unfortunately there are too many children who grow up in far from optimal environments. The larger point, though, is no matter under what circumstances children are raised, life itself requires the ability to withstand hurts and obstacles. As parents, we wish we could protect our children from pain, but that is a totally unrealistic goal.
Our children gain strength from facing such experiences and finding they can master them. We hope they will not face more than they can handle at particular stages of development, and if they do, we can provide the support they may need. Every experience we have in life has an effect on shaping us into who we are or may become. Every individual makes use of these experiences in different ways as part of his or her personality and temperament.
There is no guilt in behaving responsibly as parents, even though we may not like our children’s reactions or the way that makes us feel about ourselves as parents.
Feeling guilty is not about the children. It is about us. It is about our unrealistic demands of ourselves as parents, and about a lack of belief in our children’s resilience.
These seemingly endless days of the pandemic have encompassed a range of emotions, intensified at the moment by the holiday season. Our feelings of attachment compete with our sense of loss at the current inability to experience the reality of those attachments. From every side we hear warnings not to travel, not to congregate indoors, to maintain social distance. Authority figures tell us they are foregoing traditional holiday reunions with family members in adherence to the need to stay safe and protect those we love.
John Bowlby, the British psychologist who introduced the theory of attachment, described an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis. He viewed attachment as a psychological or emotional connection not based solely on feeding by a caregiver. He noted, “…it is suggested the inherited determinants of behavior have evolved in such a way that the standard response to loss of a loved object are always urges first to recover it, then to scold it.”
The early attachment to a caregiver described by Bowlby is the prototype of attachments formed throughout life and it is interesting to reflect on his observation now, during a time of loss without the possibility of recovery. Parents especially, can recognize the dual emotions of relief and anger when a child escapes from a watchful eye and then is found to be safe. Children, too, react this way if a parent fails to arrive when expected – relief cloaked by turning away in anger.
In one sense, the present time has enforced an excess of both attachment and loss. Parents, mothers in particular, have found themselves back at home full time with children out of school and a paucity of both physical and social outlets. Both parents and children stressed by the absence of other relationships.
Interesting too, is the plight of young couples living together, exploring and or questioning the possibility of marriage. Are they being locked together now by forces outside of their control? Planned next stages deferred or accelerated by these forces? Random sampling found three weddings delayed, one accelerated.
Psychologist Harry Harlow, influenced by Bowlby’s work did research with monkeys. He created two kinds of caregiver monkeys out of wire, some covered in soft cloth. One group of baby monkey was raised by the wire monkeys, the other by the cloth covered monkeys. The babies cared for by the wire monkeys sought out the cloth covered monkey even when having been fed by the wire monkey.
After years of research, Harlow wrote, “It is comforting to know that mother love, once formed apparently remains. Mothers should be cheered when their babies are kicking them on the shins, telling them they do not love them or stating they wish they were dead, to know that the infant is hopelessly trapped.”
The idea that one is hopelessly trapped by that first attachment to mother is also the source of many jokes – jokes that encompass the reality of that attachment while also taking jabs to tear it down. The prevailing humor echoes Bowlby’s observation of the response to loss being the urge to recover and then to scold – the combination of love and anger that is joined in attachment.
Harlow’s idea is that mothers should feel comforted knowing of the infant’s attachment. In real life one has to deal with the angry behavior minus any expressions of love. This may be closer to the current situation of both too much attachment and too much loss.
The urge to recover lost objects remains, without the opportunity to scold – the necessary dual components of attachment.
Looking out the window the day of the big snowstorm, an eruption of children seemed to be taking place on a hill in the park. A big rock formation formerly used for climbing by those more daring, had been transformed by the snowfall into a perfect slope for sledding.
Multi-colored saucers, sleds, and snowsuits, created a jumble of movement and excitement from seven-thirty in the morning until almost dark, as the whooshing down the hill continued mixed with the climb back up, without a mishap or a crash of one into another. Watching, one could actually feel the pent-up energy of almost a year of restrictions being released in a joyous burst of movement.
This long period of restrictions in school attendance and usual social activities, has only served to exacerbate a focus on narrow academic skills that had trickled down even to the early school years. Even in the preschool years an idea took hold that only the acquisition of academic skills constitutes real learning. Descriptions of those years reflect a feeling that children are just playing – implying that nothing important is happening.
In fact, play is children’s work. It is through play, pretending and the use of their imagination that children begin to enter the adult world. They develop cognitive and language skills and as important, social and emotional skills. Learning to function successfully in a group means learning how to interact with others in socially acceptable ways. That means expressing feelings appropriately and resolving conflict situations. It means learning to share and to take turns.
Children learn about the world through the use of their senses. The early school years should afford them the opportunity and the materials to make that possible. They solve engineering and architectural problems using building blocks. They find solutions to complex balancing problems. In a housekeeping corner, children try out different roles and costumes – including what it feels like to walk in mom or dad’s shoes.
Young children also need to move – to run, jump and use their bodies. Both large and small muscles need exercise so that play in the physical sense is an important part of children’s development. Using their bodies also involves learning how to control their bodies when necessary and that becomes increasingly important as children later are expected to sit at desks, to focus and attend to teacher directions.
“Play” is the true beginning of education, as well as playing a role in the development of resilience. A criticism made of children – in the pre-pandemic days – was that they are unable to tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. They may give up too readily on things that are hard and are unable to bounce back when things don’t go well for them.
Perhaps this was a result of ideas about child-rearing fostered by a misunderstanding of child development research and theories about mental health. The thought that frustration and negative feelings are damaging to children took hold in various ways. Parents are invested in children feeling happy – the focus on happiness also a product of our culture.
We don’t want our children to feel “bad,” or to struggle. But overcoming obstacles and achieving goals often involves struggle. Just living in the world with other people requires compromise and giving up things you may want. Resilience is the ability to deal with such realities and move forward despite disappointments and frustration. Living through things that are hard early on develops the necessary muscles for the future.
Our children have lived through much that is hard over this past year. Their resilience muscles burst forth in the snow.
BREAKING NEWS: Kim Kardashian feels like a bad mother. Hears child crying in next room and doesn’t go to comfort her. Confesses this to a friend and feels much better afterwards. The “Breaking News” heading is mine, but the item itself appeared somewhere in the reams of social media commentary that turn up here and there these days.
Is the mother reading this supposed to feel Kim Kardashian is a terrible mother, or rather that she herself is not so terrible as a mother for not always comforting her crying child? Either way, it is not exactly breaking news that mothers are not always there for their children, that this makes them feel guilty, that they feel they are bad mothers, and that it helps to share those feelings with other mothers.
The pandemic has left its mark on so many aspects of our lives and changed so much of our behavior. An interesting change has taken place regarding women’s role as mothers, as caregivers of their children and as workers both in and out of the home. There appears to be little discussion any more about “women’s role” in its traditional meaning and the importance of mother care to children’s development.
The pandemic has forced countless mothers back into the home as primary caregivers to their children not only because of the impact of the economy but also the failure of schools to open reliably. The role of schools as primary caretakers of children and the lack of other universal childcare has become abundantly clear.
In the past there was endless discussion about the conflict women themselves experienced between their feelings as mothers caring for their children and their needs, both economic and professional, to work. Now it is the voices of industry proclaiming the need to have women back in the work force and decrying the absence of a national childcare system.
Although the focus has shifted to the need of the economy for women in the workforce, mothers themselves have experienced their return to full time child care as a continuation of earlier demands that mothers meet social needs through the rearing of children. At the present time, because school classes are being taught remotely, mothers see their children needing their supervision in maintaining a meaningful educational schedule. Substituting for teachers has become part of childcare.
Our country has a long history of attempts at social engineering in which social ills are sought correction through child rearing. Mothers as teachers is not a new idea. In the past, when children’s achievement in school fell behind that of other countries, the cause was laid at the early childhood years and mothers were trained to read and speak to their children in various ways.
Child rearing has long had a mental health agenda in which various research findings have been translated into methods of desirable mothers’ response to children to insure emotionally secure, normal development. Social media has become the channel for recommended parental behavior.
The main point is that mothers not only care about their children, but also carry the weight of a long history of being held responsible for children’s development, as well as feeling criticism and blame for the outcome. They believe a good mother would always be responsive to a child crying in the next room.
Now the pressure of life in the pandemic as full-time mothers has brought forth the real feelings that arise in ongoing interactions with children. Mothers are human who can give themselves permission to experience the full range of human emotions.
Exhaustion and frustration are not breaking news.
Every year at Thanksgiving I have written something called “Home for the Holidays,” about the emotions that are stirred by family reunions at holidays. Undoubtedly, the gathering of an extended family including numerous generations, siblings, their offspring and others, has the potential for conflict as well as joy. But this year, the pandemic has changed the nature of the emotions and of the conflict, to the question of whether such reunions should take place at all.
Numerous stories have been told in newspapers and on TV of parents’ sadness at having to advise their college children not to risk the travel involved in coming home for the holiday. On the other hand, the children themselves have told of the hurdles they have met involving testing and quarantine in order to go home for the holiday. Stories have also cited the cancellation of annual family gatherings due to concern about Covid.
Why are some holidays in particular so fraught with emotion? We all have memories of what these holidays were like when we were children. For our children away at school or elsewhere, a certain homesickness may come to the fore, a wish for remembered pleasures as younger children. A sense of loss may come from the wish, or hope that we will be recreating everything as it was in the best sense, without having to discover that our fantasy is not – and cannot – be realized.
The holidays may at times make us feel as though we are back in our former roles. As children we were the ones being given to and taken care of; now we are expected to be grown-ups while perhaps still wanting the remembered pleasures of childhood. For some of us, our own parents may now need that care, yet they may still expect to tell us what to do and how to do it. At past gatherings, old rivalries with siblings may have unexpectedly reasserted themselves, perhaps at times played out as competition about our children; the next generation knowingly or unknowingly repeating unresolved tensions between their parents.
In the new season of “The Crown” now streaming, one episode called “Favorites,” has the Queen meeting with each of her children individually in an effort to prove to herself that she does not have a favorite. She is distressed to realize that her children and their lives are not as she had imagined them and she faults herself as a mother.
Mothers tend to blame themselves for problems confronting their children, but here she is reassured by her husband that she is a good mother and that the children are each facing their own realities, which they will have to figure out for themselves.
Family stories and emotions have a way of living on even when disconnected from present reality and often are revived at family gatherings. Holidays tend to pull us back to old stories, which can be pleasurable to revisit if we don’t get lost in the retelling. Safety precautions limiting reunions this year may have prevented the reliving of these stories, while at the same time enhancing our memories of the stories we treasure. This may be the positive side of the loss we all feel.
Past holiday combinations of generations, siblings, our childhood memories with our adult selves, has not happened for many this year. For those fortunate to have the technology, zoom Thanksgiving or face time reunions may have been the replacement. Someone said we are fortunate to have these new means of communication unknown not that many years ago.
Perhaps staying connected can give new meaning to Thanksgiving.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy of 14 my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” There are many teen-agers who would agree with the first part of that statement and many more parents who would appreciate the underlying sentiment of the entire quote.
For those parents who have experienced hearing from their children that they don’t know anything, it may be a comfort to learn that young people do come to appreciate parental wisdom – sometimes even sooner than later. Even without the familiar parental wish that they have children of their own who will make similar accusations.
I had a recent conversation with a young adult who unexpectedly began to praise his parents for their child-rearing approach during what he now sees as having been difficult behavior on his part. He knows he didn’t think so at the time because it was tough for him then. His parents were supportive and got him whatever help he needed but at the same time they didn’t change their expectations for his behavior. At a certain point he either had to adjust his behavior or face consequences that were not appealing.
What he learned eventually was that the world was not going to change for him. If he wanted to be accepted, he was the one who had to make changes. From further conversation it seemed that entry into the work world had reinforced that message and continued the learning experience.
It was interesting that this conversation came about in the context of a political discussion in which current beliefs and thinking were connected in his mind to his own upbringing. Apparently, the lesson from his childhood, reinforced by those of his first work experience, began to seem applicable to interactions in the larger world. The saying is, “out of the mouths of babes,” but apparently when those babes grow up, some lessons seem to have remained.
The self-reflections of this young person are noteworthy because the issue of parental expectations is central to parents’ concerns. Parents are known to question how to respond to unacceptable behavior, beginning with the toddler years and continuing well into adolescence. A question about the role of consequences always arises, particularly the feeling that there have to be consequences for misbehavior in order for children to learn.
The conflict for parents is between the wish to be supportive and the felt need for consequences, which usually implies some setting of limits. The problem is that enforcing consequences is often difficult for parents and often leads to angry behavior on the part of a child, which parents would prefer not to have to deal with. A parent may have to tolerate being called “mean”, or “bad” when enforcing limits in response to unacceptable behavior.
Another source of the conflict for parents is the wish to be supportive of the evolving development of autonomy in their children as a factor in determining how much leeway to allow in parental expectations.
The way parents feel about their own upbringing as children can have great bearing on their current parental behavior. The post Second World War baby boom generation became known as the Spock generation, with parents thought to be too permissive. Their children are the parents of the current generation of children some of whom are already parents themselves.
For better or worse, the realities of life – such as the pandemic – may have an even greater impact on child-rearing than how you, yourself, were raised.
Like so many other traditions it appears that Halloween will be observed differently, if at all, in this year of the pandemic. Not likely that children will go from door to door trick or treating. One mother told me the big event in their household was her daughter winning the school prize for best Halloween costume. Something from tradition preserved!
With schools functioning on reduced schedules, if at all, children are also missing out on school lunches, which unfortunately for many children was their main source of nutrition. Controversy had also raged over the nature of these lunches, which had moved from previous attempts at providing fruits and vegetables back to children favorites like hot dogs and French fries.
In the past, both schools and parents have been criticized for not preparing new foods in tasty, attractive ways that might tempt children. In an older generation, children were expected to eat what was set before them while parents today have resorted to serving children only what they like. The point being made that children’s acceptance of healthy food begins with what they are served and what is available to them at home.
Children’s resistance to “healthy” food is an old story – especially vegetables. Parents have reported forever about the difficulty not only in getting their children to eat vegetables, but also in getting them to try anything new generally.
Another familiar story is that of children refusing any variety in the food they would eat. Many parents speak of their frustration over children eating only one thing for long periods of time. Most often it is pasta, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sometimes parents feel triumphant when a child will eat a chicken nugget. Parents know that children need repeated exposure to a new food before even being willing to taste it, much less accept eating it. They describe children pushing something new off the plate, or rejecting all the food on the plate if something new is added.
Despite all that parents have heard about children’s obesity, many parents are more concerned about both the lack of variety in what their children will eat and whether they are eating enough. Feeding ones’ children adequately is very much tied in with the need to feel successful as a mother. Mothers’ make food that they know children will eat.
In some ways, though, this issue may be part of the larger question that has been raised about parental authority, and the feeling many parents have that their children rather than they themselves are in charge. The expectation of an older generation that children eat “what is set before them” is not that different from other parental expectations that have undergone generational changes. These days, it seems that it is the children who expect greater freedom in many areas, and parents often express concern about how to deal with that expectation.
When it comes to introducing new foods we don’t have to be intimidated by our children’s protest, sounds of disgust or other ways in which they show their rejection. Without going on a crusade to insist that children try something – “just taste it” – or bribing, nagging, withholding dessert as a condition, a new food can continue to be put out without further comment. It will begin to look familiar to a child after a while, which can often lead to a taste – when no one is looking.
Children love to hear the same story over and over again. They may not love the sound of our voice, but communicating our expectations requires the same need for repetition.