Responsibility and Status

(What I thought would be a two part post will actually become a series with intermittent additions.  This is the second post.  I’ve also created a web “page” (tabs at the top) labeled “Free Will” which will include links to these and all future posts on the subject, plus some past posts that are relevant to the topic.   These issues will ultimately be connected to the changes in the Mideast, perhaps suggesting some problems and potentials that aren’t apparent at first glance.)

Given what I wrote in my previous blog entry Free Will, as a father with two children ages 5 and 7 (nearly 8)  one of my biggest concerns is raise them to be as little afflicted by the anxieties, depressions, insecurities and stresses of the modern era.  Most parents worry more about things like a work ethic, moral values, manners and protecting kids from bad influences.  Of course those things matter.  But I don’t want to program them to uncritically adapt to the culture around them, or to lack the confidence to think for themselves and challenge authority.   That starts at home.

The interesting thing about the problem with the enlightenment Fromm and others from the Frankfurt school investigate is that it’s symptoms come forth through individual psychology.  If modernity sets up barriers to feeling content, satisfied and valuable, it does so by making it seem like these traits are of scarce supply.  Only a few people get a profession that renders them ‘valuable’ by dint of their pay checks.  Contentment and satisfaction are defined in material and relativistic terms.  That means that there is always something else to strive for, both in terms of possessions and self-identification.    People see others with more stuff, or who seem to command more respect, and they often feel discontent.   The main symptom of this when people obsess that they are “missing out.”  Others have it better, others enjoy life, are treated well, and are able to do things that they can’t.

At base this is natural.  If I gave one son a banana for a bed time snack and the other an ice cream cone, the one with the banana will become very upset, even if he had been content with the banana before seeing the other get a cone.     It’s hard for people to live according to the Sheryl Crow line “it’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.”

Parents realize that it’s usually best to give both children the same before bed snack.  But sometimes there isn’t equality.  Dana, the five year old, is a great skier for his age.  He has mastered the local mountain, skiing fast and under control at pretty high speeds.  Yet I want to take Ryan to a larger mountain like Sugarloaf.  I’ll have to stay with Ryan while there, as the mountain and trails are complex, and potentially more dangerous than the local Mt. Titcomb (though Titcomb has some pretty intense runs that Ryan has explored!)  If Dana is along, at his level, I’d have to stick with him the whole time, at a level below what Ryan could discover — yet the purpose is to show Ryan ‘the next level’ of skiing.   So Dana will feel left out – Ryan gets to go to the big mountain, and he has to stay home.   Parents know that in a situation like this it’s not enough to just say “suck it up kid, life ain’t fair.”

Instead, you explain the reason clearly, and find an alternative special activity for the one who is missing out, and he will experience the bigger mountain, just not this time.   The idea: you may not get the same thing, but you each get something special.   This is equality of status.   The problem with the modern world is that status is determined less by intrinsic human worth or even ones’ contribution to society.  Instead, it is determined by wealth and prestige.  The trash collector is extremely important to society — just visit a city like Naples a few years ago when the trash collectors were on strike — but their status is low in both pay and occupational prestige.   A point guard in the NBA is relatively unimportant for the functioning of society, but their pay and occupational status is quite high.

Moreover, this is seen by many as good because it gives incentive for people to compete — if you don’t want to feel like you’re missing out on something or that you aren’t as worthy as a human, you need to prove yourself in competition and comparison to others.    Those with self-esteem problems will find this a daunting task, since every instance of not being on top will be seen as a source of insecurity.  But even with perfectly normal people this sets up a trap.  Only a few people can have high pay and prestige, by necessity those positions are limited.  Yet it would be a nightmare in psychological terms if the vast majority who don’t make it to the top felt they lacked value and status.

So one solution to this problem of the enlightenment is to find a way to achieve status equality.   The social scientist in me wants to think about this in sociological terms — what kind of social reforms might make status equality possible?  Clearly its not forced equality of wealth, though perhaps European social welfare states might come close by assuring basic minimums are met for everyone.

As a parent, however, the question is different.  Given that the world is what it is, how do I prepare my children to go into the world with a strong sense of self-confidence, knowing that they don’t have to be on top?   Moreover, this is not something that can be forced.  Every child wants to win, trying to repress that, or doing things like just having non-competitive games is pointless.   So the answer can’t be to somehow try to repress that natural drive, that would only lead to other problems.

Ultimately what one has to do is de-couple individual worth from cultural definitions of success and status.   There is only one way to do that — an individual has to have the power to assess and accept that he or she is successful and valuable regardless of wealth, social status or how one fits in. The individual has to be able to define success in his or her terms, determine how to achieve it, and then see that as real, not cultural expectations.  That’s the way the modern world is.

The connection to nature and community provided a “natural” status equality even in hierarchical systems.   Since the peasant didn’t aspire to become nobility — that was not possible and represented God’s natural order for the universe — status within the peer group is what mattered, and that was generally equivalent.   And while friends and a strong sense of nature are powerful means to cope with the anxieties of the modern age (indeed, necessary means to cope) the core responsibility now rests with the individual.

For parents, that means raising children in a way that allows them significant creative room to play, explore and learn independence.  Without an independent spirit, a person loses the capacity for self-valuation.   Confidence comes not from strict rules, protective parents, and messages that success is conformity.  Confidence comes from being able to make as many decisions on ones’ own as possible, and to see parents not as disciplinarians to be obeyed, but as guides to be listened to.   That’s not easy.    That means that as a parent I try to banish the phrase “because I told you so” as much as possible!

Simply, “freedom from constraint” was only one step on the path to the enlightenment project of human liberation.  The ability to handle this freedom requires an ability to take full responsibility for ones’ own life, and that requires that children be allowed to develop truly independent personalities.   That’s only the first step, but a necessary one.    Seeing oneself as a victim of forces beyond ones cultural makes it virtually impossible to achieve contentment and joy.

I hope my children grow up with the idea “I am responsible for my life through my choices.  I will not blame others or complain when circumstances as bad.  I define what is important to me, and I alone measure my success on my terms.  I question authority, I question the culture around me, I question the expectations and demands of my society.  Yet it is my responsibility to confidently navigate these waters.”

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  1. #1 by words, wisdom and nonsense on February 22, 2011 - 04:25

    I couldn not agree more. I just wrote a (future, not yet published) post about our “me” driven society. We seem to all (as a society) play the “blame game”, never looking at ourselves. I like the idea of teaching your children to take responsibility for their lives at a young age. My son is only 21 months but I make him clean up after his messes, a small lesson now, but a larger lesson when he is older. I look forward to reading more of your series of posts.

  2. #2 by henitsirk on February 27, 2011 - 03:53

    Such difficult lessons…. my son (age eight) struggles with taking responsibility for his actions. He “accidentally” throws things at his younger sister. On the other hand, he chafes against our restrictions because of his age: what do you mean I can’t use a soldering iron?

    We are consciously working to instill critical thinking skills in our kids, along with a healthy dose of skepticism about materialism and marketing. The other day, we pointed out that whenever you see a picture on a product label, that picture is there to get you to buy the item. Even if it just looks like it’s there to show you what the product is. Then we talked about how certain movies and TV shows are tied in so closely with their affiliated product lines (Disney Princess sleeping bag, anyone?) that it’s hard to see anything fun or entertaining in them.

    Especially with my daughter, we are working on deemphasizing physical appearance as a marker of status or value. Not that we shouldn’t enjoy making ourselves look a certain way or care for ourselves, but that appearance doesn’t DEFINE us. Sort of abstract for a first grader, so we do this without calling attention to it.

    And materialism…. oh boy. We don’t buy a lot of “stuff”, and we tend to do and make things around here. The men of the family are working on pinewood derby cars, and my daughter and I spent hours today in a clay studio making little pots and things. We don’t buy clothes with logos when we can help it, and we don’t decorate with logo-based things either.

    I think people have self-confidence when they feel capable. To me, the best way to achieve that is to teach my kids how to do things. They are learning to cook, sew and knit, garden, clean, draw and paint, in addition to reading and writing and arithmetic. Sort of like a life-skills foundation.

    As for freedom, I believe children need constraint. They need to learn about boundaries by having them applied for them until they are old enough to create their own. In a very real sense, children are unfree…. but that is OK with me, as they are not capable of handling true freedom without the full range of cognitive and emotional skills that (theoretically, at least) adults have.

  3. #3 by The Empathic Guide on February 27, 2011 - 07:46

    Thanks for this, Scott – I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about self-worth recently so it’s very timely that I chose to read this today. I think many of humanity’s problems stem from the perceived lack of self-worth which seems to be so pervasive in our society. I’ll put a link to this on my twitter feed, thank you.

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