I see the mountains that shine before me and a wilderness of trees. This natural beauty conceals beneath it, like a dirty little secret, subdivisions and paved roads and delinquents on bicycles that smoke cigarettes in the shadows of an old overgrown laurel. Yet, I see only the tapestry of green, the electron cascade of photosynthesis, and the folds of mountain ranges.
House Sparrows raise their second family in the little eaved house, copying the dreams of suburbanites, that I built for my daughter; one of three for each of them. One a little dream house with a yard that got stolen after she spent hours decorating it and, in mistaken innocence, placed it on a stump in the woods where it was fair game and was, sadly, stolen. She was sad. Nothing I could do.
The other fell out of the cedar by our windows. Having laboriously attached it to the tree on a ladder I failed to understand the nature of growth, bark and decomposition. The screw, turned into the growing surface of the tree, failed of its purchase - bark is not like a hardwood floor - and the little replica of the American Dream came crashing to the ground one night.
But, reattached much lower now, sparrows live happily in it. Producing two, or even three, clutches of babies. Hurrying on wing, darting and diving among the alders and cedars, filling their beaks with mosquitos, crane flies and other fluttering victims, they return to the strident cheeping of their hatchlings, minute after minute, hour after hour, until, suddenly, the kids fly off to make clutches of their own.
My thoughts turn to child-rearing and how we treat our children.
We are constantly bombarded with pontifications about how much our culture values our children. “Will no one think of the children!?!” This at the same time virtuous working parents, who leave early in the morning and return late in the evening, are required to become strangers to their children.
Looking beneath the words and examining economic realities gives a more accurate description of the situation. The cost of one second of advertising time during the Superbowl is more than a schoolteacher earns in an entire year. Comparing the wages of pre-school teachers with those of plumbers might lead a Martian to conclude that our toilets are far more important to us than our children. In all the determinations of qualifications for good citizenship we inquire about in our leaders, who tend to be workaholics who never spend time with their families, we never ask how they raise their children. The measure of a successful and productive worker is in earnings and possessions and never in how successful they are as parents.
Is this a culture which values children or is it a cruel civilization which values property and wealth?
The history of child labor in this country is black with cruelty and misery. Any perusal of the development of those large virtuous corporations – our valiant “job-creators” - will reward the reader with numerous tales of long hours and dark conditions. And long hours and dark conditions not limited to adults – look at some old pictures of young children who once worked in the factories for starvation wages.
In unaired rooms, mother and fathers sew by day and by night...and the children are called in from play to drive and drudge beside their elders...All the year in New York and in other cities you may watch children radiating to and from such pitiful homes. Nearly any hour on the East Side of New York City you can see them - pallid boy or spindling girl - their faces dulled, their backs bent under a heavy load of garments piled on head and shoulders, the muscles of the whole frame in a long strain
(from an article by Edwin Markham in Cosmopolitan, January, 1907)
A considerable number of the boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work... (Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh about the woolen mills in Lawrence Mass, 1912)
In the spring of 1903, I went to Kensington, Pennsylvania, where seventy-five thousand textile workers were on strike. Of this number at least ten thousand were little children...Every day little children came into Union Headquarters, some with their hands off, some with the thumb missing, some with their fingers off at the knuckle. They were stooped little things, round shouldered and skinny... (The Autobiography of Mother Jones, 1925)
It was, and still is to a great extent, a very cruel civilization for all those who are not part of the wealthy elite. And “grown-up responsibilities” are cruel enough to the grown-ups themselves. In these modern times children are no longer forced to work by financial necessity, but they still face the hard-hearted realities of that necessity. Now that children are protected, after many long and protracted battles with the captains of industry, they watch both parents abandon them daily for their grown-up responsibilities. These responsibilities are clearly not in raising and caring for their children but rather in being productive members of the work force. A poem written by a pants presser, Morris Rosenfeld, in the 1880’s expresses this separation powerfully:
I have a little boy at home,Children, in their natural state, are idle and unproductive; they play and seek pleasure and happiness merely for the sake of pleasure and happiness. It is quite clear that the irresponsibility and pleasure seeking of children is at odds with the priorities of this supposedly Christian nation. They become innocent victims of massive campaigns to drive out this pleasure seeking and mold them into productive hard working citizens. This is accomplished by repeated and abusive brainwashing and is what lies at the root of the emotional distress so many good citizens labor under.
A pretty little son;
I think sometimes the world is mine
In him, my only one...
Ere dawn my labor drives me forth;
Tis night when I am free;
A stranger am I to my child;
And stranger my child to me...
In the words of the pastor of the original Pilgrim colony, John Robinson,
And surely there is in all children a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may, in their time, be built thereon.This is representative, in spirit, of the more general sense of the philosophy of growth and progress which forms the peculiarly American gospel of the virtues of individual worldly enterprise as articulated by such worthies as Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, who owned the factories children were laboring in. The virtues of wealth were being proclaimed with religious fervor by ministers like Russel Conwell,
I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich...The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community...That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money. That is why they carry on great enterprises and find plenty of people to work with them...I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins is to do wrong. Let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings...So, people are poor because God has punished them for their shortcomings. These shortcomings are sloth, laziness and pleasure seeking. And children must have these tendencies, their “natural pride,” broken and beaten out of them or they will not become virtuous productive citizens like the paragons of the virtues of wealth we so admire.
A question then arises about these “Christians,” if their Lord, Himself, said:
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones [children], it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea... (Matthew 18:6)Why are not all the practitioners and purveyors of this “virtue of wealth” philosophy “drowned in the depths of the sea” with millstones around their necks? How are they able to continue to profess Christian virtue while at the same time directly opposing the teachings of the originator of Christianity in their practices and behavior? This is a most troubling and incredible hypocrisy.