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Tagchildhood

children’s crusades

One clever little speciality of adult humans works like this: You very carefully (and, if you’re smart, very subtly) instruct children in the moral stances you’d like them to hold. Then, when they start to repeat what you’ve taught them, you cry “Out of the mouths of babes! And a little child shall lead them!” And you very delicately maneuver the children to the front of your procession, so that they appear to be leading it — but of course you make sure all along that you’re steering them in the way that they should go. It’s a social strategy with a very long history.

So, for instance, when you hear this:

“It’s the children who are now leading us,” said Diane Ehrensaft, the director of mental health for the clinic. “They’re coming in and telling us, ‘I’m no gender.’ Or they’re saying, ‘I identify as gender nonbinary.’ Or ‘I’m a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I’m a unique gender, I’m transgender. I’m a rainbow kid, I’m boy-girl, I’m everything.'”

— certain alarms should ring. No child came up with the phrase “I identify as gender nonbinary.” It is a faithful echo of an adult’s words.

Now, maybe you think it’s great that these children can begin to transition from one sex to another at an early age. I don’t, but I’m not going to argue that point now. My point is simply that if you say “It’s the children who are now leading us,” you’re lying — perhaps not consciously or intentionally, but it’s lying all the same because the truth is so easy to discern if you wish to do so. (As Yeats wrote, “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors, / The sentimentalist himself.”)

This is why I think one of the most important books you could possibly read right now, if you care about these matters, is Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. Beck is anything but a conservative — he’s an editor for n+1 — and his book is highly critical of traditionalist beliefs about families. And a “moral panic” might seem to be the opposite of the celebration of new openness to gender expressions and sexualities. But if you read Beck’s book you will see precisely the same cultural logic at work as we see in today’s children’s crusades.

In this “moral panic” of thirty years ago, social workers and, later, prosecutors elicited from children horrific tales of Satan-worship, sexual abuse, and murder — and then, when anyone expressed skepticism, cried “We believe the children!” But every single one of the stories was false. The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed. And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did.

Moreover — and this is the point that I can’t stop thinking about — the entire episode has been erased from our cultural memory. Though it was headline news every day for years, virtually no one talks about it, virtually no one remembers it. Beck might as well be writing about something that happened five hundred years ago. And I think it has been suppressed so completely because no one wants to think that our good intentions can go so far astray. And if forced to comment, what would the guilty parties say? “We only did what we thought was best. We only believed the children.”

So if you want to celebrate the courage of trans tweens, or for that matter high-schoolers speaking out for gun control, please do. But can you please stop the pretense that “the children are leading us”? What you are praising them for is not courage but rather docility, for learning their lessons well. (I wonder if anyone who has praised the students who speak out on behalf of gun control has also praised the students who participate in anti-abortion rallies like the March for Life.) And perhaps you might also hope that, if things go badly for the kids whose gender transitions you are cheering for, your role will be as completely forgotten as those who, thirty years ago, sent innocent people to prison by doing only what they thought was best.

I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.

We can probably all agree that it’s worthwhile for children (as well as their parents) to try new activities, and that there is virtue in mastering difficult disciplines. So what challenges should we be tackling, if not ballet and classical music? How about auto repair? At least one Oppenheimer should be able to change the oil, and it isn’t me. It may as well be one of my daughters. Sewing would be good. And if it has to be an instrument, I’d say bass or guitar. The adults I know who can play guitar can actually be seen playing their guitars. And as any rock guitarist will tell you, there is a shortage of bassists.

So parenting has been hard in all times and places, and all times and places have put their unique (and imperfect) spin on it—parenting being hard because living is hard. Having said that, I suspect that the particular flavor of parenting in our time has something to do with our relative affluence—I think we live in a time of just soul-crushing materialism. And by this I mean both that (1) we value material possessions way too much and (2) we believe way too much that the only true or real thing is what can be immediately seen and measured—that is, we live in profoundly anti-spiritual times, and operate under the unfortunate de facto assumption that we just happen to be built such that our mental abilities enable us to know exactly everything there is to know about the universe, just as we are, no strain or work or faith in the reality of things unseen. This is a fundamentally worldly and limited viewpoint: what we see is what there is, period.

There are many dying languages in the world. But at least one has recently been born, created by children living in a remote village in northern Australia.

Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, has been studying the young people’s speech for more than a decade and has concluded that they speak neither a dialect nor the mixture of languages called a creole, but a new language with unique grammatical rules.

The language, called Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is spoken only by people under 35 in Lajamanu, an isolated village of about 700 people in Australia’s Northern Territory. In all, about 350 people speak the language as their native tongue. Dr. O’Shannessy has published several studies of Light Warlpiri, the most recent in the June issue of Language.

“Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive,” said Mary Laughren, a research fellow in linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in the studies. One reason Dr. O’Shannessy’s research is so significant, she said, “is that she has been able to record and document a ‘new’ language in the very early period of its existence.”

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