Thursday, July 14, 2005

Raising Children, or Lack Thereof

I've been thinking a lot about raising children. Not because I'm all that hot on having any, but because of this post over at Bitch Ph.D. and because of a comment one of my first readers made about a draft of the fantasy saga.

I've got a female-dominated matriarchy as one of my major countries, where men only make up about a third of the population at best. When my buddy asked, "So, where are all the children in Dhorin?" I prepared to explain that that's why they had so many slaves. The slaves stayed home to take care of the kids, and women got raises and advancements depending on how many kids they had, and the social system was set up so they had this prime birthing window so they could take time off to nurse kids, and then...

And then...

The trouble with being stuck with the whole "women want to be equal" instead of "let's revolutionize this society so it's better for everybody," is that you get stuck, again, with "male" being the norm. So instead of revolutionizing the workplace so we've got onsite childcare, or better, can have kids hanging out acting as interns at the workplace and functioning as members of society instead of subordinates, we just figure, hey, the parents will work and just hire somebody to take care of the kid, like a wife.

One of the big jokes between me and Jenn is that we're both so busy that we need a wife to do things like change lightbulbs and pick up mayonnaise.

And I was reading about kids in Rome, how they were dressed like "little adults" and had to function as adults by the age of 10, and I was reminded of my great grandfather, who was orphaned at 10 and who supported himself shoe-shining by the time he was 13. Infantilizing kids in the Victorian age, I guess, just made it more acceptable for a woman to spend 20 years raising kids instead of five or ten, you know, until they could go out and function in society.

In Durban, the department secretary sometimes brought her child to work with her on those days she and her husband weren't able to juggle childcare. The kid was maybe 2 or 3, and played quietly on a blanket, surrounded by toys, in the department office. Profs and grad students would come in to say hi, and the secretary could do her work at her desk and watch her kid. It didn't hurt anybody at the department, and I'm sure it was good for the kid to get out and be around other people.

We had a paper presentation once where the presenter brought her baby with her. Unfortunatley, the baby was pretty whiny and upset at being up there; it sure would have been nice if the conference room had a cradle or something she could rock the baby in with her foot while she lectured.

Yea. I'm being serious.

What's wrong with it? Shouldn't children be fully integrated into society? Isn't treating them second-class keeping them acting like "kids" far longer than they would otherwise? I know that the more people treated me like an idiot, the more I knew I was going to be able to get away with. In high school, if teachers treat you like you're four, you'll do just the amount of work they expect, and you'll produce it like a four year old. Why should I work harder? It wasn't like I was being treated like an adult.

And I realized I was doing that fantasy matriarchy all wrong. Why should they hide their kids at home? By the time the kid's five or so, they can function in society. Kids were being sent off to knight training and Roman schools at that age. Why can't we ask the same of modern children? Why can't we tailor institutions so that we can integrate our desire to raise families with our desire/neccessity to work?

Kids in Dhorin would be shipped straight off to schools and jobs at 5 years old. The lucky ones would likely apprentice to their mothers or mothers' friends and be ushered through the halls of the capital, running notes and errands and acting like "little adults" - and being treated that way.

If you want to change basic ideas about how society works, try altering assumptions about the place of children, and the separation of private and public life.

You might come up with something really different. Well, different to 21st century America, anyway.

9 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Bless you for being someone without kids who realizes that kids are part of society.

Re. your utopian matriarchy; I think that expecting kids as young as five to be sent away to school or jobs might be a little much--kids that age are very distractable and just keeping them on task is absolutely maddening. But they do like to *help*. Keep in mind that in a utopian state (is yours utopian? Ok, maybe it's not), the model we have for "work"--which was also a 19th-century invention, the product of industrialization and beginning to think of people as machine-like--is kind of messed up too. What I'd like to see is something where "work" is something one can wander in and out of, you go in, you work for a while, when you need a break you go take one, maybe do a little shopping, maybe go get a midmorning cup of coffee, maybe meet up with a friend or take the kid out for lunch--then you wander back in later, work on some other stuff, etc. Or you do your work at home when you feel like it, and so on. You'd have higher employment, kids could much more easily be part of the workplace---"helping" by running errands or whatever--but when their attention wandered or they stopped to play, that would be okay too.

In other words a more organic, less factory-like sense of what "work" should be like. 

Posted by bitchphd

Anonymous said...

I think your ideas are especially interesting contrasted with the way kids are looked upon in Norway, where I live (I'm an expat American). Here in Norway it's seen as extremely important that kids are allowed to be kids for as long as possible, and parents seem to favor a laissez-faire style of child-rearing that makes Norwegian kids singularly irritating to be around. There was recently an article in the evening paper debating whether kids should be educated more in "barnehage", which is more or less like day care, but government-sponsored. Children can go to a barnehage from their infancy 'til they're school age at 6, if they can find a barnehage with free capacity. Barnehage is most definitely not seen as school or pre-school, but rather a place where kinds can play with other kids. Most people feel that forcing kids do grow up too soon is a Very Bad Thing, even cruel, and they consider things like learning to read before you're in school as growing up too soon. Given that I come from a culture in which smart kinds start to pick up basic reading skills by the time they're 3, I find this attitude disgusting. The way I see it, by trying to "protect" kids from learning and participating in society, we're just teaching them that these things are work and no fun, and something to be avoided if at all possible.

I haven't got kids, and I don't want kids, but I never had anything against kids 'til I moved to Norway. I think your attitude about treating kids like they're actual members of society is incredibly refreshing. Whether or not I ever have kids myself, I recognize that they're a fact of life and part of society as a whole. I get the idea that most kids don't really care what it is they're doing, so long as they're able to participate at their own level. Integrating them into society from the beginning seems like the best solution, for the sake of parents, other adults, and the kids themselves, not to mention society in general. 

Posted by Sarah Brodwall

Anonymous said...

One of my big hobby horses is that society, including the workplace, needs to be more accommodating of children  and childbearing

Posted by LAmom

Anonymous said...

Any number of single people I know have complained at one time or another that society is *too* focused on children, specifically insofar as popular entertainment seems in the broad strokes to be incresingly focused on the idealization of children and the "dumbing-down" of various media such that it renders the market space for adult (not "adult") entertainment relatively marginal.

The more I think about it, however, it seems like the other side of the same argument. The goal really has to be to stop treating children like fine china- expensive possessions to be hidden from view lest they suffer damage, and stored under strict conditions. More credit has to be given to children for their capabilities, and for the variety of those capabilities- for the kids who don't learn well in class (and might be better served by learning through hands-on observation), for the kids who are VERY mature at young ages, for the kids who lag and so on.

The rest of society can't be expected to operate at the level of the average 8 year old (the sense of which being what some single people react to), but nevertheless the total lack of support given by society to the real practicalities of child-rearing can't be ignored. I tend to think changing the root cause of the idealization of children would do a lot towards curing both sides of the problem.

In short, seeing breasts or hearing swears isn't going to destroy little Timmy, and seeing little Timmy isn't going to destroy your office. 

Posted by Brendan

Anonymous said...

Hmmm . . . not perfect, but I think you might be on to something. I would say that 5 or so is too young to be working, though; their time would be better spent playing and learning. Work tends to be tedious in one way or another--if they do anything of the sort, it ought to be less "work" and more "hands-on learning experience;" both work and play should have a big focus on learning.

I think it would be cool if our society thought of daycare as valuable time in which children have friends, a stimulating learning and playing environment, and a break from their parents, instead of a place where too-busy parents dumped their children while they worked.

I agree about the complaint about Norway's childcare philosophy, although I think your matriarchy's idea is a bit too far in the opposite direction. What I think would be cool is children being encouraged to learn as part of their play and amusement. Definitely they should be taught to read as soon as possible, and shown the benefits of reading (fun books, little notes from the parents, reading games, etc), and also shown other fun and interesting things such as how to add numbers, some basic principles of science, that sort of thing, in a non-pressuring way, before they ever start school. As they grow older, they should learn about various different professions and fields of employment, and have the opportunity to explore these and eventually spend a few hours a week working at a job they find interesting, getting treated more like an adult as they become more like an adult, which should happen more at their own pace than either being pushed too fast or being treated like a child until the magical age of eighteen.

The biggest thing, though, is teaching them how to think rationally, how to make smart decisions, how to reason---how to be wise, basically; how to do all the mental things that our society seems to think you have to be an adult to be capable of.


Posted by Anonymous

Anonymous said...

I like the ideas you've presented for your story, but if you're bringing chldren that young into working, I think Bitch PhD is onto something with the more organic workplace in which allowances are made for the distractability of very small children. Indeed, a healthy respect should be accorded to the needs of grown people to have free time away from work in which to relax, socialize with family or friends and perhaps pursue hobbies.

"I haven't got kids, and I don't want kids, but I never had anything against kids 'til I moved to Norway. ..."

I remember a columnist writing about her pregnancy and saying that the most sensible advice she could remember getting was from an 8 year old. The advice was not to let the kid run wild, because then other people would like them more and want to spend time around them. It probably isn't a coincidence that more people are saying they don't want to have kids now that it's more common to let them act like utter brats. And it only takes a few to spoil it for everyone.

Also, regarding dumbing things down for kids, my grandmother isn't all wrong in her frequent complaint that intelligent dramas and comedies that can be viewed by all ages just aren't made as often anymore. Even material marketed as adult, due to violent or sexual content, is often written for a fairly low denominator. The success of movies like Finding Nemo, Seabiscuit or Shrek and the adult market for the Harry Potter franchise says to me that a) material that's suitable for children doesn't need to insult the intelligence of adults and b) that real creativity has a big potential audience.

The question we should really be asking about pop culture is why so much of it is unwatchable and endlessly recycled pablum. 

Posted by natasha

Anonymous said...

There's a book I reviewed just recently that handles just this topic - The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood by Sharon Hays. It's about a decade old - was written in 1997 - but it's still a damn good read.

I agree with your assertion that children are both venerated and shut out from society. So much effort goes into protecting, and preserving their childish innocence (whatever that means anyway) for what purpose? It certainly doesn't make them into extraordinary adults. 

Posted by the amazing kim

Anonymous said...

I'm a parent of two elementary-aged sons and I am extremely conflicted about parenting, mostly because of the expections I had of what being a parent meant and how my actual parenting style differs. I expect a lot from my children, socially speaking. When I see them interact with other children I realize how different my approach is than the norm in my community.

I hate working because I spend more time in an office pushing papers than I do with my children. I hate spending time with my children after work because I've spent all day tending to childlike adults as a cog in the corporate machine. I know I've got to find employment that's more friendly to my life, but if I don't make enough money I don't get to keep my house...

Sorry, now I'm venting. Thanks for posting the excerpt and link. Interesting stuff. 

Posted by Lavalady

Anonymous said...

Followed Dr. B. over here, and she's right on target about work. The whole idea of an 8-hour shift in which you're constantly "on" and your kids have to be stashed somewhere being taken care of by professionals, is completely anathema to the way human beings actually function. And it's only in the past few centures that most people have been expected to function that way. Hunter-gatherer societies, farm- or estate-based societies, and cottage industry-based societies all have in common that work is simply part of life, you tend to live and work in pretty much the same place, to be working with relatives and people you know, and kids are just around and hanging out and learning the trade or at least learning to help out. Following mom from kitchen to dairy to garden and back, or watching dad while he shoes horses, or whatever.

Mothers have worked for the whole of human history. It's only since 1800 that that's presented an intractable problem at the societal level. Maybe that indicates that something's wrong with society? 

Posted by Grace