A BOOK by Marin therapist Madeline Levine, "Price of Privilege," Harper/Collins, focuses on the children of privilege, but there are other books with a much wider scope.
Problems with children is nothing new. In the mid-17th century Thomas Hobbes remarked, "Unless you give children all they ask for, they are peevish and cry, aye, and strike their parents sometimes; and all this they have from nature."
Levine concludes that privileged children have empty lives, but I wonder if what she sees does not come from the fact that they lack accomplishments.
Instead of "empty" I would assert the situation is "useless."
Like Levine, I live in Marin, but having come from a farming family, I tell parents here to send their children to 4-H clubs - not soccer teams. While learning teamwork is an important lesson in life, doing something yourself, making something and being responsible for it, especially a life, is a fundamental human expression. Such experiences anchor a life and make it more resilient. This has been popularized by the work of Dr. Fredrick Flach in his book, "Resilience," published in 1988.
Levine emphasizes the degree of stress in children's lives due to parents' desire for them to succeed. We see the same pressures in other societies, Japan, for example, but we blame others for our failures, while the Japanese use shame to blame themselves. Perhaps we need to reinvent that idea - personal responsibility - for it seems to have disappeared in recent years with the child-empowerment and self-esteem movement. Here is where Louise Hart's Marin Voice (IJ, Aug. 8) comes in. She blames our culture and argues that parents are struggling in a war against it. The same criticisms of children seen in Levine's work are stated by Castiglione in the 16th century, or Cicero 2,000 years ago.
The work of two French scientists, Philippe Aries ("Centuries of Childhood") and Lloyd deMause (editor of a volume entitled, "The History of Childhood," 1974), argue that we do not need children today, that they have no real role in life. In the past, children had economic roles; they gathered food, watched animals, worked in factories. Today, we exist in a period, as Hugh Cunningham, author of "The Invention of Childhood," writes, where there is no social product for children to produce and so we have created "activities" that are meant to surround the general acquisition of skills defined in education as meaningful.
Again, as opposed to Levine, the issue is not affluence, but the dilemma of children in society - all children, rich or poor. As Charles Derber notes in his book, "The Wilding of America," greed and violence are the main themes children are exposed to 24/7 on TV and in video games. Research by the Kaiser Family Fund found that watching TV was linked to reading problems, English researchers associate television watching in early childhood with ADD/ADHD. In the past, children were engaged with adults in real work; today, they only have custodians - if they are lucky. Most simply have little or no supervision or role models at all.
In the past, the affluent and nobility sent their children off to boarding schools so they would learn discipline and class solidarity. The biggest fear was that a child would develop an attachment to his or her home and the people there, especial other children of lower classes. Their loyalties were trained in boarding schools to be with king, country and class.
We can learn from the long history of education in the West, from R. Freeman Butts' comprehensive review, "A Culture History of Western Education" (1955), that there is little that has not been tried in the past in unique approaches to educating the child or preparing them for later life that we have not heard put forth as new in the past 50 years.
The sad fact is that some children do fail. We also can learn from failure and not be defined by it. When Confucius examined this problem more than 2,500 years ago, he pointed out that if we want our children to act with knowledge and honor, we must provide the examples.