by Sarah A. Hoyt
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
What if we’ve been profoundly wrong?
No, I don’t actually mean in the representative republic project. With all its flaws and all its many warts, has fed humanity and lifted us to a standard of living never before experienced.
Which might be the problem. The standard of living, that is.
We are human, meaning we’re not detached, independently thinking units, but a combination of mind and animal. Our body has all the instincts and hopes of the great apes we’re built on the model of.
And thereby lies the rub. As a certain rabbi said, long ago, which of us is so wicked that he doesn’t want to give good things to his children?
So, of course, the first symptom of true, massive surplus in society was to lift burdens from childhood and try to turn it into this mini-paradise, this diminutive and nonsensical isle of the blest, not won after long combat or much suffering but just given to us, for free, handed over with no requirement for anything.
A myth grew up that not only was childhood inherently golden and perfect and nothing bad happened in it, but that it should be inherently golden and perfect and nothing bad should happen in it.
And it was expanded upon and propagated by both the childless (of which we have a higher number than ever) who push and propagate an imaginary view of children, a Rousseaunian view if you will, where the child, like the noble savage of their imaginings has inherently, by virtue of being born, all the best and noblest qualities of humans. He should never be corrected, thwarted or in any way changed, because he is born perfect.
This, I’m afraid—and one of the reasons I ran screaming from my first major—was justified by a whole lot of psychological and pseudo-psychological nonsense, mostly built on a Freudian basis. In the seventies, it seemed like every other psychology book was determined to tell you that being “repressed” (I.e. thwarted) in any way would make your child a twisted deviant, in sexual and moral ways.
Since then a lot of this has gotten encoded into law. I have pointed out before that I believe in spanking—note, I do not under any circumstances say “beating”, I say “spanking”. Having experienced both, there is a world of difference between being slapped on the butt once, and being struck multiple times with an object—because it seems to be evolutionarily the way great apes raise their children, and also because if I hadn’t sometimes administered it fast and mercilessly, my kids wouldn’t be alive today.
Now, I know, and have heard of children who don’t need spanking. I’ll say two things: it’s easier to not spank the fewer kids you have. And my boys were both ragingly ADD—which I didn’t realize—so all other methods of correction failed.
No, wait, I’ll say three things—should I come in again?—the other thing is that what many parents resort to—partly because spanking has now been codified as child abuse by regulators who never had children—from time outs, to brow beating and belittling, leaves much deeper psychological scars than even being beaten. Again, as someone who experienced both, I don’t actually remember the beatings in detail. I know they happened, because I remember incidents around them, and I remember the last because I was somewhere North of twelve, and that’s when I decided it had to stop.
I do however remember being followed around for days and browbeaten, my character taken apart, and motives ascribed to me that had never crossed my mind (most of my sins, even now, are being thoughtless because ADD and I forgot what I was supposed/meant to be doing, not malice or wanting someone else to suffer I’m too lazy for revenge.) Those are the ones that left scars in my mind.
(And before someone gets terribly alarmed, most of these incidents had absolutely nothing to do with my parents, or even relatives, but people who had temporary, sometimes incidental care/control over me.)
But until the other day—late at night at that—I thought that this refusal to admit they need correction and that sometimes mild corporal discipline was needed was the worst thing we had done to kids in the last 100 years, and the reason most children certainly in the west, sometimes in other countries, act like the spoiled princelings of yore, slow to mature, reluctant to take responsibility, often unable to mature or become functional, functioning adults.
And then late at night I came across this: Children Must Be Made To Work.
I didn’t want him to be right. But–
Look, my mom is perhaps one extreme of this. From fourth grade on, she was largely self-taught for all educational matters. (Since she loves the equivalent of radio great courses and always has—these days it might be television—she has the equivalent of a college education, but is prone to falling for ridiculous theories. Then again, college.) Because at 10 she was apprenticed to a seamstress. This meant that her parents paid some fee for her to learn the basics for the year she was mostly not worth it as an economic producer, and after that, she was bringing her parents money. Yes, very little at first, but increasing as her abilities did.
She bootstrapped this into her own business, and eventually designing clothes, but she started out at ten or eleven, working in a workshop, probably doing much of the work now done by machines, and being paid a pittance for her labor.
What she was paid was, however, essential to her family and younger siblings, so there’s that.
Dad had more what we’d consider a late 20th century upbringing and is an engineer, but this might not be all as it seems, and more on that later.
The point is that we look at mom’s experience as some kind of Dickensinian horror. But should we?
Mom did have a childhood, and an education before ten. She learned more in those four years, frankly—at least on the practical side—than we manage to cram in the heads of our high school graduates. She could write a coherent and cogent sentence, and was quite good at persuasive writing. (I mean other than punctuation. What a very weird thing to be genetic. At least I use more than one punctuation mark per page. Consider yourselves fortunate. Someone, I suspect, told mom to put in a punctuation mark when she paused to breathe. And therein lies the rub. Until recently I’d receive three page letters, with a period at the end of the last page, presumably to tell me I should stop reading.)
On her own, she studied, both in reading and listening and now watching history and philosophy. She has for various reasons, including business and her crazy children bringing their friends home, rubbed elbows with “intellectuals” who never suspected her lack of formal education.
In many ways, her childhood (except for a crazy family and living in the slums, mind) was better than most people’s up through the middle of the century.
If you do historical research, as I find myself doing, one way or another, a lot, and for reasons of historical voice and verisimilitude read auto-biographies or letters of the time period, you find that children, sometimes as young as four were working, contributing members of the family.
From four year olds minding the baby, to four year olds minding the cows, even middle class and upper middle class families had those kids working from sunup to sundown doing things we’d be hesitant to have teenagers do.
Granted a lot of these people were stunted, or otherwise hurt by their childhood, but honestly, everyone was malnourished and working far too hard, not just kids back then.
So, we got a bit of leeway on the surplus thing, and well…. everyone wants to be nice to the children.
How is it working?
Well, not markedly well. It’s not just that we have people only sort of finding their way in life in their thirties (with luck) which btw gives a very small window till your body starts suffering from “middle age complaints.” but–
It’s not working well for society, particularly, either. I mean, we’re now facing a whole generation which has some number of people who think work—any kind of work—is unfair and should be abolished. No, seriously. If you haven’t looked at the anti-work movement….. don’t if you wish to sleep at night.
Look, children are human. Yes, I know. I have often doubted it too. I still haven’t solved the mystery of the gallon of milk under the bathroom dresser, though I suspect it was younger son’s idea of efficiency—breakfast while using the bathroom—gross as it sounds.
But they are basically human. They come into the world as screaming savages—the noble part was always in the eye of the beholder—but they aren’t stupid.
They’re just profoundly ignorant. Sure, I know, IQ is supposed to be lower until maturity and blah blah blah, but IQ measurements are hard, and all of us have been faced with kids who were unholy smart and able to figure out things that would puzzle adults. (See child-proof lids, which mostly are parent-proof lids particularly if you have arthritis.) My kids could open complex locks in their sleep. I know, because at one point our house had four different locking mechanisms on the front door, due to the kids’ sleep walking before about 12. (For years, the front door opening, no matter the reason, would wake me out of the deepest sleep and bring me to my feet instantly. Only stopped recently, and I think it’s because I don’t hear very well anymore.)
They come into the world as little learning machines. One of the things they learn is “what is the world and what am I in it?”
If what they learn in most of their growing years is that “I am to be catered to, and never required to do what I don’t want to”…. well…. it explains a lot doesn’t it?
It also explains things like “Why self esteem teaching doesn’t work.”
People learn self esteem through accomplishment. When the whole movement came about, middle class kids were required to do intellectual labor for a great part of their childhood, while “underprivileged” kids were allowed to do whatever. Starting to praise everyone for doing nothing was exactly the wrong solution.
And that’s the other side of this: though dad had a more conventiona late-20th century (Which he wasn’t) childhood, he was a scholarship boy—as was my brother—whose grades needed to stay up or he couldn’t continue. In a profoundly decayed educational system, where the way into upper education was intensive tutoring, both made it without help, which was labor: just intellectual labor.
And yes, my journey was similar, though not precisely scholarship, but to stay in the non-paying section of schooling, I needed to have grades in the upper 0.5%. And my parents couldn’t afford private paid-for schooling. So I had labor and standards. But not as much, and I felt neurotically like a burden on the family. Even though from the age of eight I was supposed to clean half the house. Never mind. I was measuring myself against mom and her childhood, not other people.
But the point is, worth comes from work. Self-esteem comes from knowing you’re valuable and self-sufficient.
We’re denying our kids this, and turning them into neurotic messes in the vague idea that they should have an “ideal” childhood, where increasingly less is required of them.
And then at eighteen—or increasingly, 26—we pitchfork them into adulthood and expect them to be useful, conscientious, productive.
Why, when all we taught them to be was little emperors?
Frankly, it’s a fricking miracle that most of the kids are all right, even if they come to maturity late, and often maimed by self-doubt and confusion.
I went from: what if this entire project was wrong?
To studying the roots of it and going “Of course it was wrong. From Rousseau to Dickens, none of it made any sense. It was the Fap-antasy of intellectuals positing what humans should be, not what they were.”
The good news is you can correct that to a great extent, though heaven knows you might have to be very sneaky, because, you know? Now CPS is taking kids from parents according to modeling and AI. Oh, wait, that means you don’t actually have to be sneaky, because that cr*p will be entirely random.
You can give the kids jobs and responsibilities in the house, and hard benchmarks to hit. Like “By summer, I want you to be able to cook dinner twice a week.” (Older son did this stuff to himself. He could cook a multi-course meal by six. But not every kid is that self-directed.)
My first jobs in the house were stupid-easy, but I was expected to do it. By three I was washing breakfast dishes (not the big meal dishes, no) and setting the table. But I knew I was contributing.
Allow kids to start “businesses” too, whether it’s making and selling duct tape wallets (which will mostly be to your friends, but hey) or whatever they come up to do. If you are home with them, starting some kind of craft business might not be a bad idea. Think of things you can sell at craft shows (or cons) and help deflect household expenses, as well as save for the kids’ future. (My favorite seen at a con was painting rocks to look like adorable animals. They wold well too. And yes, there are books and you tube videos on it.)
Yeah “but the kids will lose interest” or “They won’t work very fast.” Yeah, okay, but that’s what you’re TEACHING them. That one works for a living, regardless of interest, and that their time has a price.
Patience and patient teaching. It’s part of making them into adults.
Requiring educational excellence—in and out of school—in addition is also something you can do (and jobs can be more or less as needed for that.) Well, you know, kids used to know Latin and Greek and all the basics of composition and algebra by 10. IQ hasn’t changed. Only requirements have.
I guess what I’m saying is the old Heinlein thing “Don’t ruin your kids by making their lives too easy.”
But I’m afraid he had no idea how easy we’d make them.
I’d add “Show them they can contribute, and that their contributions have meaning, and not just in empty praise, but in hard measurements: abilities acquired, things learned, things made that either bring in money, or free the parent to make money.
Here I’d add that from the time the kids were five or six, we ran a marketplace of chores. I had a big blackboard and wrote on them what needed to be done and what I was willing to pay, and the kids claimed the chores. (I suspect part of the issue is older son claimed all of them, and put the money in the bank but never mind. He left mighty little for his brother.)
The money wasn’t a ton. It would be 50c for loading the dishwasher, say. Or $5 for dusting and vacuuming the whole house. The total was usually $5 to $10 per kid, per week, and it was the only “allowance” they got. And it was absolutely useful for the family. There is no way I could have done six books a year while they were little without that. If I had to do it again, I’d have assigned the tasks, instead of going free market, which cut younger son (younger, less capable) out of a lot of it.
It is important not to dictate what they do with the money, too, whether it’s buying an ice-cream (even older son succumbed at times) or putting it in the bank.
But it teaches them you don’t get money for nothing, and also that their labor brings rewards. Which is why it is important not to play government and tell them what to do with their money or take some of it away. Let them discover that in adulthood and be indignant.
Teach your children well. It might avoid having your grandkids work in mines.
If we’re all very lucky.
Reprinted from According to Hoyt for May 5, 2022