Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Alienation Nation

My reference in last week's essay The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States (June 27, 2008) to camping in the wilds as a 13-year old sparked a dialog with frequent contributor Chuck D. While this topic may seem at first blush to be unimportant compared to rising gasoline and food prices or the host of other problems besetting the nation, perhaps it is one of the roots of those difficulties.

Chuck first wrote:
What a different world we grew up in where parents actually thought two 13 year old kids were capable enough to go off on their bikes like you did, and really would be able to find their way back as well as return in one piece. Somehow I don’t think we would find as many believers in that proposition today.

My reply:

I think you're so right about the fear /lack of faith in teens now. Is it the media blowing up the dangers of axe murderers, or is it real? I really don't know.

Chuck followed up with these incisive comments:

I gave your comment about teens some thought. Off the top of my head, here are some possibilities. Like you I don't know if they're right, either.

1. The kidnap/ax murder syndrome you mentioned. I suspect these things have always been around -- after all it is easy for adults to prey on kids just because they're kids and don't know how to resist. But today's mass communication media make these stories more accessible and graphic, so a parent's worst fear of losing a child this way or being molested becomes more plausible, even if it isn't any more probable than it always has been.

2. Kids aren't encouraged this way. For both harried parents and kids, it's simply easier for kids to sit with an X-box and play video games or text message friends. But if that's all you do, in the end you won't know anything more than how to sit with an X-box and play video games or text message your friends, will you? And since most people live lives completely divorced form nature today, why would they let their kids go out like that where they just "know" there are lions and tigers and bears, oh my? And since many people's lifestyles today also divorce them from much of the traditional social fabrics and networks humans have had throughout history, that avenue is pretty much closed, too.

3. The current choice architecture ordains that organized activities are the only way kids can do anything. Organized soccer leagues, organized dance lessons and recitals -- you name it. My buddy Bill the schoolteacher (here he is again) has for a number of years put together in the summer pickup baseball games with a group of regulars -- his kids, their friends, some others. He does this to recreate for them the enjoyment he had playing pickup ball when he was a kid. I score keep since I have absolutely no hand/eye coordination for anything involving a ball. He regularly complains about the difficulty he has getting kids to play and to get parents to deliver them. His conclusion: they don't appreciate it because they don't have to pay for it; when they have to pay it becomes more important to them because it cost them something.

Off the top of my head, I suspect this may have something to do with our suburban social structure and our utter dependence upon the automobile as personal transportation. Most housing plans (at least in my area) that are more than 15 years old are nothing more than lots and houses. There is literally no way for kids do these kinds of things because there has been no provision made for it -- more choice architecture. The only way they can is to get in a car and be driven to it.

Once parents have to make this investment of time and effort, the most efficient way to make sure that time and effort isn't wasted is to organize and schedule that activity to make sure it comes off. With that organization often come associated costs – uniforms, equipment, league fees, etc. These costs become icing on the cake.

After the parents pay these costs, they feel compelled to make kid go so the money isn’t wasted. And when the kid is old enough to understand that the money been spent on him or her, they have an additional reason to feel compelled to go beyond the fact that they may have simply wanted to do it in the first place.

Excellent work, Chuck D.--thank you for the penetrating analysis of teens, "leisure," and activities.

I am not a sociologist or anthropologist; I am just another citizen who's traveled a bit and lived in a variety of places. Here are my thoughts on some of the issues Chuck D. has so cogently raised.

1. The value of time. Teens' leisure time is viewed through a class lens. Parents with upper-middle class aspirations and/or lifestyles see teens' "free time" as either a danger to their well-being (i.e. drifting into bad circles of peers, experimenting with sex and drugs, etc.) or a waste of time, as the parents are looking at a competitive world and seeing the benefits of violin lessons, soccer, volunteering, etc.--all the "goodies" that give applicants an edge when applying to elite universities.

Lower class kids' parents are often either not around (divorced, never married, Dad is in prison, etc.), too stretched/overwhelmed to do more than put food on the table, or busy with their own entertainments/romances etc. to do more than hope their kids stay out of serious trouble.

The upper-class teens are often scheduled to within an inch of their lives, and lavished with cars at a young age so they can transport themselves to all their success-enhancing activities. Lower-class kids have plenty of time to experiment with drugs and sex (yikes, just like we feared) and also to while away entire lifetimes playing videogames, etc.

Both of these seem deeply flawed models of teen development. The angst of rushing around meeting obligations does prepare you in a way for adult life, but what are you missing in the wholesale assumption of an overscheduled life?

And the ennui of "nothing to do" after school--how exactly is that healthy? What is a kid drifting around "downtown" or absorbed in an Xbox game losing in the way of experience in the real world?

The presumed villains in the piece: technology (games, IM, texting, etc.), and overwhelmed/ missing parents. Yes, the Web and videogames now offer a wider range of passive distractions, but plenty of kids wasted their afternoons watching Gilligan's Island long before the advent of personal computers.

As for distracted parents: while it's true fewer mothers worked in the 50s and 60s, plenty did, and their kids were not automatically stamped as criminals and wastrels as a result.

Chuck D. certainly revealed a key determinant: the suburbs, with their distance from any town center and the resultant dependence on cars. But as Bill Bryson has often described in his gentle tales of growing up in the 60s, suburban neighborhoods were not that different in the 60s; most everyone needed a car to get around, and there was little formalized activity for kids/teens.

2. What seems different is the relative levels of participation and passivity. Here is a partial list of stuff I/we did at 12, 13 and 14 years of age; many of you could easily assemble similar lists:

throw a lot of stones at buoys on the lake, especially when I was "the new kid in town" and had no friends
toss a basketball at my homemade backboard a few thousand times
throw the football with my brother (post pattern, one thousand times)
row out on the lake to try fishing (rarely caught anything)
carve little boats and float them down the creek
skateboard down Death Hill (gravel in knee, ouch)
get my stepdad to go to the town dump and haul an old rowboat home so I could patch the holes and paint it (hey, my own boat!)
tear apart the go-cart Briggs & Stratton engine with a buddy, and reassemble it (hey, it works!)
shovel snow in winter or mow lawns in summer for a few dollars
see how far out we could get on the lake ice before it broke
shoot tin cans and old plastic ship models with our .22s
hiking, rock-climbing, biking, etc. as previously described

At 15 and 16 years old:
ride my stepdad's old 500cc Matchless motorcycle
shoot another couple thousand baskets
hiking, exploring
co-found and edit underground newspaper at high school
and so on.

Yes, I was on the basketball and football teams, not as a result of prowess or talent but simply because the school was so small any 98-pound weakling could get on any team simply by showing up for practice.

None of this was out of the ordinary, and many young teens are still engaged in exactly these kinds of activities--mostly informal, unsupervised, chosen of their own free will, and not troublesome to parents or society. Many others are doing more responsible activities like 4-H.
But gee--dangers abounded. Skateboarding with no helmet. Oh my. Cleaning an old engine with gasoline--poison--and then careening around on the back of a flimsy go-cart. Out on the lake, Playing on the ice. Snorkeling without parents around, ditto riding a heavy motorcycle over dirt roads, and so on.

It does seem as if the dangers and risks of growing up have been somewhat exaggerated. Yes, some kids are killed or drowned or maimed, and each one is tragic. Some activities are too dangerous for unsupervised participation. But the general cultural mindset seems to be that if an activity isn't supervised and formalized, it is inherently risky.

And that is true. But then how do kids learn risk assessment if they're coddled, guided and protected at every turn? I am not celebrating danger, just pointing out that compared to the slaughter we blithely tolerate on our highways (30,000 killed every year, tens of thousands more seriously injured), then the risks of skateboarding, boating, etc. pale in comparison.
The message seems to be: we'd rather you were passively, "safely" at home when you're not in a formally structured activity. And if you're out and about, then we fear/assume you're hanging out with a bad crowd and endangering yourself with drugs and sex.

Is it coincidence that visitor counts at the national parks are down? I mean before gasoline skyrocketed--this decline is a long-term trend.

Is it coincidence that kids are pudgy, out of shape and increasingly unhealthy?

And is it coincidence that while citizens in other developed countries are spontaneously protesting high energy prices (a futile expression, to be sure), Americans grimly and passively accept this burden? Is that wisdom, or merely bulletproof passivity?

Where did teens learn to be fearful, paranoid, passive, unengaged, and eager for drugs and negative distractions? Did those inner states spring unbidden from within them, or are those the meta-messages they get from the culture?

Yes, I know many suburbs and city neighborhoods have no access to creeks, lakes or Nature in any form except lawns and weeds. That is deprivation, to be sure. But is the only option then to stay indoors and play videogames?

Yes, I know ghettos are dangerous, gun-and drug-infested mires, and there are few to none parks or recreational facilities. Those are especially challenging places to raise teens. When I lived in Detroit, we walked to the YMCA to shoot hoops and played in the alley. Maybe this is impossible now, I don't know. But let's not forget that 95% of the nation is not a ghetto. What's the excuse then?

3. Trust. What meta-message are we sending teens when we are so terribly frightened of their presumptive mismanagement of their lives? Isn't the real message something like: we did such a distracted, guilt-ridden poor job of raising you that we don't trust you to act responsibly on your own behalf?

The more you sequester kids from reality, the less prepared they will be when they finally have to deal with reality on their own. It seems the number of parents who are still financially supporting their offspring in their 20s and even 30s and still extracting them from life's difficulties is legion. When did life get so dangerous that your kids can never really take care of themselves?

Yes, things are more expensive now, and more of a challenge in many ways. But surviving the 1980-83 recession was no piece of cake, either. It has rarely been easy to establish oneself.
4. Drugs. Parents and the culture seem obsessed with the dangers of drug use, and to be sure cocaine and "ice"/meth are horribly destructive drugs. Being doped out on pot is also a deadend, ditto being drunk all the time. These are serious risks.

But what about the legal drugs parents are shoving down their kids' throats? Anxious before a test? Here, load up on these pills. And then when the poor kid commits suicide, the parents are devastated. Oops, didn't we mention the suicidal thoughts side-effects? Sorry about that.
Could some of the passivity and paranoia in our culture stem from an overprescribed stew of legal psychotropic drugs? It is something worth pondering.

And how many kids who are excited about their interests and secure in their worth as a human being want to go do drugs anyway? Are drugs the symptom of a deeper malaise? It's certainly easier to blame the drug dealer than to look at why kids are drawn to dead-ends in the first place.

5. Excellence, visibility and failure. Why try out for a team if all you'll be is a benchwarmer? Better to just passively drift home and stare at a screen. That is the meta-message of a celebrity/status-obsessed culture which focuses ever greater attention on the elites: the elite universities, the corporate elite, the elite travel spots, and so on. If you can't be recognized as in the top tier, the best of the best, then better not to try. Or try and then give up in bitterness. I sacrificed all that for nothing.

Is this one of the meta-messages of our culture?

And if you can't succeed at the highest levels of formalized activities for recognition, what else is there to aspire to? Self-sufficiency? Self-development? What the heck are those? All we understand is competition, winning, recognition, and failure.

What an impoverished view of living. With those as choices, no wonder we're an out-of-shape, passive society disengaged from the real world and from the political structures which define and dominate our lives.

I worked very hard to be a benchwarmer, and it was not a failure to be on the team; it was a success to even be on the same bench as my talented teammates.

6. Self-sufficiency. Plenty of kids have chores around the home, but plenty don't. All too often I see teens who are lolling around their PCs while the yard remains a mess, waiting for Mom or Dad to come home and make dinner. Are they disabled? When did the culture dictate that teens should either be bribed with significant money to do some minimal chores, or left to pursue their IM'ing etc. with essentially zero responsibilities other than not dropping out of school?

Ask little of people, and you get little in return. Coddle people and you get people who can't take care of themselves. Treat people as cripples and you get people who think manipulation and victimhood are the most important life skills to develop.

OK, that sounds harsh, but what messages are teens getting from worried, over-protective parents and society? Without our constant protection, you're dangerous, and a mess; left alone, you'll fail, or drown, or be eaten by bears or be kidnapped and murdered. How about giving them some life skills like being aware of your surroundings, of being sensitive to intuition and warning signs of danger, of learning to "trust, but verify"? How about giving them a chance to practice those skills on their own, and demanding they learn life skills like cooking real meals? It isn't torture, it's rewarding. Where did the message come from that taking care of the yard/vegetable garden and making dinner were onerous burdens to be shucked off in favor of gazing dully at some idiot's-delight screen?

Maybe the roots of our difficulties lie precisely in the nexus of these meta-messages about trust, danger, passivity and self-sufficiency.

Thank you, Eugenio M. ($20), for your continuing outrageously generous support of this site. I am greatly honored by your on-going support and readership.

Readers' comments/corrections on letting banks fail.
Readers Journal commentaries week of July 1, 2008 Survival strategies and more.
Social Contracts and the Art of Survival.
Perpetual growth, The Red Queen’s Race and Soylent Green

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