...

Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: childhood (page 1 of 1)

ignorance, vincible and invincible

‘Childhood has been rewired’:

[Jonathan Haidt:] ‘TikTok and Twitter are incredibly dangerous for our democracy. I’d say they’re incompatible with the kind of liberal democracy that we’ve developed over the last few hundred years.’ He’s quite emphatic about all of this, almost evangelical. Which makes me think of his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, in which he argued about the danger of getting too caught up in your own bubble, believing your own spin. Might he be guilty of that here? Might it just be the case, I ask, that there’s less of a stigma around mental health now, so teenagers are far more likely to admit that they have problems?

‘But why is it, then, that right around 2013 all these girls suddenly start checking into psychiatric inpatient units? Or suicide – they’re making many more suicide attempts. The level of self-harm goes up by 200 or 300 per cent, especially for the younger girls aged ten to 14. So no, the idea that it’s just a change in self-report doesn’t hold any water because we see very much the same curves, at the same time, for behaviour. Suicide, certainly, is not a self-report variable. This is real. This is the biggest mental health crisis in all of known history for kids.’ 

People are absolutely desperate to believe that this isn’t true, but as Jean M. Twenge shows, the alternative explanations are getting less defensible by the day. 

One oddity of this: People used to worry desperately about boys being immersed in gaming, but it turns out that gaming is not as bad for young minds as social media, and therefore boys are not being as thoroughly traumatized as girls. The smartphone era is bad for boys, but it’s nightmarish for girls. 

My guess is that parents who continue to provide smartphones for their kids are, epistemically speaking, indistinguishable from those who declare that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. They cannot now back down; they have made themselves invincibly ignorant. Their sunk costs are just too great for them to consider evidence. They’ll keep doing what they’re doing, no matter the suffering their children undergo. 

Now, these people are not invincibly ignorant in the proper sense of that term: The truly invincibly ignorant are not culpable because they cannot remedy their ignorance. I am using, and perhaps abusing, the term by employing it to describe parents for whom the admission of tragic error is psychologically impossible

It’s noteworthy, I think, that in his current and forthcoming work Haidt links the smartphone plague with helicopter parenting: the very same parents who fret ceaselessly about their children’s safety, and prevent them from achieving independence, also put those kids in the way of certain dangers by tethering them to social media. Worse and worse!

But: Lenore Skenazy, of Free Range Kids fame/notoreity/infamy, writes on Haidt’s Substack about a new study demonstrating … well, you can put it two different ways. You can say that while parents accept that their kids need to be more independent, their actions don’t reflect that acceptance: they just keep on helicoptering and snowplowing. But today I choose to put the point more hopefully: Though most of them cannot yet break themselves of what they know to be very bad habits — they can’t summon the courage to take away their kids’ smartphones or let them walk to the local library by themselves — at least they know these habits are bad. Which is the necessary first step, after all. Maybe if I meditate on that I’ll become less despairing. 


P.S. On the other hand, I’m reading stories about how A.I. + social media = guys using their phones to make deepfake porn videos featuring their female classmates, so maybe parents who don’t take their kids’ smartphones and smash them to pieces should be sent to prison for, like, fifty years. 

Matt Crawford:

Today’s Leviathan conceives its subjects as fragile beings afloat in a field of incipient traumas. Such a governing entity will look with suspicion on the unsupervised play of boys who “challenged each other to spontaneous feats of daring and agility, acted out stories of heroic adventure and collaborated in the enforcement of an informal code of honor that stressed courage, loyalty and stoic endurance of pain.”

That is not at all what is wanted.

What is at stake here is the conditions for the possibility of achieving adulthood, for men and women both. The process of development from childhood to adulthood requires departure from the safety of parental protection and affirmation, through confrontation with hard reality. It is through such confrontation that a person escapes the solipsism of unearned self-esteem, enters the world of objective standards, and begins to develop competence in some field of endeavor.

Peter Gray:

Other research has assessed relationships between the amount of time children have to direct their own activities and psychological characteristics predictive of future mental health. Such research has revealed significant positive correlations between the amount of self-structured time (largely involving free play) young children have and (1) scores on tests of executive functioning (ability to create and follow through on a plan to solve a set of problems); (2) indices of emotional control and social ability; and (3) scores, 2 years later, on a measure of self-regulation.

Moreover, two retrospective studies with adults have shown that those who recall more instances of independent play when they were children are, by various indices, happier and more successful in adulthood than those who recall less such independence. And research with college students reveals that those with over-controlling parents (as assessed with questionnaires) fare more poorly psychologically than those whose parents are less controlling. These and other correlational studies all point in the same direction. Opportunities to take more control of your own life when young predict better future well-being. 

See also this essay by Gray: “Why Adult-Directed Sports Are No Substitute for Kid-Directed Play.” Sports, in our context, are very nearly the opposite of play. 

in defense of Esther Summerson

Cover Bleak House 1852 3

Esther Summerson, the protagonist of Dickens’s Bleak House – insofar as that outrageously ambitious and wide-ranging novel can be said to have a protagonist – has come in for a lot of criticism over the decades. Charlotte Brontë found her “weak and twaddling”; Terry Eagleton calls her “insipid”; examples could easily be multiplied. She’s often linked with Agnes Wickfield of David Copperfield and Amy Dorrit of Little Dorrit: exemplars, it is said, of a certain Victorian ideal of femininity — serious, responsible, endlessly patient, methodically virtuous. I agree with this reading of Agnes, who is perhaps the only tiresome character in a wondrous book, and I think it at least defensible as an interpretation of little Amy Dorrit; but Esther is a different character altogether and doesn’t deserve the criticism she gets. Dickens is doing something quite subtle with the character of Esther; when she’s properly understood I think she stands forth as one of Dickens’s greatest creations.

Let’s have some context. 

Marshalsea prison London 18th century 3

As is well-known, when Dickens was eleven years old his father was arrested for debt and sent to the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison on the south bank of the Thames, and young Charles was removed from school and sent to work in a factory. Charles, who was already ambitious and full of hopes for himself, hated every minute of it and felt that he was wasting away; moreover, he was separated from his family and lived in lodgings near the factory. He could scarcely believe — as, decades later, he told his friend and biographer John Forster — “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.” This situation lasted for about a year, and even after John Dickens was released — his mother died, and his inheritance enabled him to pay his debts — Charles’s parents considered keeping him working at the factory. It was John Dickens who decided to send Charles to school, over his wife’s objections. The adult Dickens to Forster: “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” (We cannot know what Elizabeth Dickens was thinking, but I suspect she knew that her husband would soon be in debt again — as indeed he was — and wished to find some means of keeping him out of the Marshalsea.) 

It’s hard to overstress the influence of this experience over the thought, and the fiction, of Charles Dickens. It touched him and shaped him in many ways, but one of the chief consequences was this: he acquired an abiding interest in how children respond to injustice and suffering of all kinds — if we can use a word now common, to trauma.

Only gradually in Bleak House do we discover Esther Summerson’s story — only gradually does she herself discover it. She was an illegitimate child, the product of an affair between one Captain Hawdon and an unmarried woman named Honoria, and nearly died in her first minutes of life — indeed, Honoria’s sister told her that the baby had died, and, shocked and horrified by the gross sin that had produced this child, immediately cut Honoria out of her life, and determined to raise the child herself. Of course, Esther was never told any of this; and while her aunt — never acknowledged as such; she called herself Esther’s godmother — gave Esther physical sustenance, she gave her no love. Once, Esther’s birthday was marked by this outburst: “It would have been far better, little Esther, that you had had no birthday, that you had never been born!” And she gave Esther this advice: “Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it. You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath. You are set apart.” And from this point on Esther never for a moment forgot that she was “filling a place in [her godmother’s] house which ought to have been empty.” Filling a place which ought to have been empty — that’s quite a phrase. 

Again, what especially interests Dickens is how children respond to trauma, and here is how Esther responded to hers: 

I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll’s cheek against mine wet with tears, and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy at any time to anybody’s heart and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me.

Dear, dear, to think how much time we passed alone together afterwards, and how often I repeated to the doll the story of my birthday and confided to her that I would try as hard as ever I could to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confessedly felt guilty and yet innocent) and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could. 

“Guilty and yet innocent” of a life-blighting “fault.”

In George Orwell’s lacerating essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he narrates his years at school under the tyranny of abusive schoolmaster and his wife, and describes how he was constantly being told of his inferiority — he was a scholarship boy; his parents couldn’t afford the school’s fees — and the likelihood that he was headed for financial ruin or, at best, a miserable hand-to-mouth existence.

To grasp the effect of this kind of thing on a child of ten or twelve, one has to remember that the child has little sense of proportion or probability. A child may be a mass of egoism and rebelliousness, but it as no accumulated experience to give it confidence in its own judgements. On the whole it will accept what it is told, and it will believe in the most fantastic way in the knowledge and powers of the adults surrounding it.

And you can see that for just this reason Esther believes what her “godmother” tells her: that she should not exist, that her very being is “set apart” for unique shame, that she must devote her life to the service of others not in order to make her life worthwhile — that could never be — but to reduce, if only slightly, the humiliation of her very being. Esther believes it, and acts accordingly. 

Much later on, when the adult Esther contracts smallpox — something that happens because her kindness towards others puts her in danger — she nearly dies, and emerges with a deeply scarred face. She realizes that whatever looks she might have had are gone, and feels certain that the man she can barely bring herself to acknowledge loving could now never love her in return. Then, when the infinitely kind older man who has become her guardian plans to send her to a friend’s house for further healing, here’s what she thinks:  

When my guardian left me, I turned my face away upon my couch and prayed to be forgiven if I, surrounded by such blessings, had magnified to myself the little trial that I had to undergo. The childish prayer of that old birthday when I had aspired to be industrious, contented, and true-hearted and to do good to some one and win some love to myself if I could came back into my mind with a reproachful sense of all the happiness I had since enjoyed and all the affectionate hearts that had been turned towards me. If I were weak now, what had I profited by those mercies? I repeated the old childish prayer in its old childish words and found that its old peace had not departed from it. 

The point I want to make here is simply that everything Esther does and thinks — her investment in the lives of others; her perpetual kindness; her refusal of self-pity; her determination to give endlessly while expecting nothing in return — all arises from the profound trauma of being taught, and coming wholly to believe, that she is “filling a place … which ought to have been empty,” that her life can never be truly worthwhile, that the only love she will ever get is the love she can “win” through strenuous effort. 

Esther is a wounded healer; her goodness and compassion are real and admirable, but they are also a continual testimony to an injury that cannot be cured. Esther will never be able simply to rest in the love of her family and friends; she must always strive to earn it, again and again and again. In this sense she has indeed been “set apart”; her viciously judgmental aunt ensured that. In the end, things go well for Esther; but they go well for her in large part because of the character that she develops and demonstrates; and that character, in turn, is marked but also in a sense made by a grief and a shame that goes all the way down to the bone. “Insipid”? Anything but.

Dickens’s reflections on how children are affected by trauma always circle around a great mystery: some people get trapped in their trauma, remain perpetually victimized by it, re-enact the same patterns of mean-spirited or self-destructive behavior, all their lives; but others prove strikingly resilient, and find creative ways to meet that trauma, though it always marks them in some way. Dickens saw these two paths in his own family: his brother Fred ended up simply imitating the dissolute and improvident ways of their father, while his sister Fanny seems largely to have ignored her chaotic family life and made a decent career in music (though, sadly, she died in her thirties of tuberculosis, leaving behind a husband and two children). Who can say why some of the early-wounded take the one path and some the other? Dickens, as far as I can tell, didn’t think he knew, but, as one who escaped, he seems to have striven not to judge the ones who failed to manage it. When Fred died he wrote to Forster, “It was a wasted life, but God forbid that one should be hard upon it, or upon anything in this world that is not deliberately and coldly wrong.” Perhaps the striving was not wholly successful. 

Esther Summerson is not likely to be a role model for anyone today, in part because I don’t think our book-reading culture (such as it is) admires resilience. To our cultured folk, I think, a resilient person can’t have suffered all that badly; the only way you can authenticate your suffering is to succumb to it. But this is an unfortunate attitude. Esther’s story has some powerful — and not altogether comforting — lessons for those with ears to hear. 


Bleak House is, I think, one of the two greatest novels in English, the other being George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I used to teach it regularly, but since coming to Baylor I haven’t had the opportunity, so recently I picked it up to re-read for the first time in a decade. It has kept its hold upon me. I think in the coming days I’ll write a post or two on other elements of this marvelous book. 

children’s crusades

One clever little specialty 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, 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. 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.”

css.php