There are many events in our lives that forge us as human beings, but in general, childhood play, early work, and exposure to death are among the most important.
As a new grandfather, I’ve been thinking a lot about child-rearing, how it has changed and professionalized in a way that leaves many of our young adults pasteurized and ill-prepared for the germ warfare that is life on earth.
We are prepared for life not so much by how we are raised, but by the examples our parents set for us, and by the risks we are encouraged to manage ourselves.
The professionalization of child-rearing: the blogs, the books, the child-proofing specialists all ensure that our children will survive childhood, but what do they teach our children about survival?
I remember my father sending us off into the nearby pasture with a hammer, a glass jar of nails and some boards so we could dam up the brook and make a wading pool. We were a motley collection of neighborhood kids from six to ten, joining about thirty Jersey cows in Mr. Farr’s pasture. We hit our thumbs with the hammer, Vick cut himself when he tripped and the glass jar broke. We had manure on our sneakers and we splashed in the muddy puddle we had made with the boards. We took risks, we got hurt and we learned practical things. We were home by dusk.
My first real job at 18 was on a chainsaw crew cutting survey lines through evergreen forests in Island Pond. I had to be at work at seven. We took breaks when the boss said to and we quit when the boss said. Not even the two experienced men in our crew ever suggested we quit for the day in a downpour or a cloud of blackflies. When told to do something, I knew I could ask how, but not why. I knew that my “better idea” was best kept to myself. Like the grown men who taught me so much, I was expected to do what I was told when I was told to do it. I got cut up and bitten and had a few near misses with the chainsaw, but I survived and learned.
As recently as fifty years ago, people died precipitously for the most part. Lingering deaths were the exception. Deaths were an intimate affair peopled by family, close friends and neighbors. We were not protected from death and dying like many children today. We saw people near death and after death. We saw open caskets. It took much of the fear of death away and helped us understand that death, too, is part of life.
I worry that by insulating our children from all life’s physical and emotional risks, making decisions for them, scheduling their lives, and screening their acquaintances, we make it harder for them to deal with life’s essential imperfections.
Now, don’t I sound just like a first-time grandfather… “Well, when I was a kid…”