Monday, October 6, 2014

Weeds in the Children's Garden

Johann Christoph Arnold, Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World

Johann Christoph Arnold’s manifesto for renewing childhood’s infinite potential really excites this ex-teacher’s ideals… at first. I like his principles of nurturance and play as tools to develop well-rounded human beings. His exhortation for adults to spend time around children, insisting this gives us opportunities to rediscover life’s wonder. As Arnold asserts, humankind’s philosophical and religious traditions reward people who see life through the eyes of a child. Through childhood, life makes all things new.

Yet Arnold repeatedly undercuts otherwise masterly arguments by failing to recognize nuance. Presumably writing for middle-class parents besotted by modernity’s flush suffusion of distractions, he urges us to forego self-seeking behavior, much loved in today’s technological society, and dedicate ourselves to childrearing as a nigh-religious vocation. He apparently doesn’t recognize the many working-class families who, despite noble efforts, cannot dedicate copious hours to their children’s well-being. Many would desperately love to do so, but can’t.

Who wouldn’t admire Arnold’s vision of classical “kindergarten,” where children encounter a mix of guided play and incremental responsibility, as means to improve their minds without deadening their souls? Were such options readily available, this childless ex-teacher would gladly volunteer his skills. (Arnold’s “kindergarten” survives today mainly in Montessori schools.) The problem isn’t that nobody wants these opportunities, or disdains them; it’s that, at society’s bottom rungs, such opportunities exceed hardworking parents’ ability to pay.

Arnold perhaps doesn’t realize how hurtful some statements appear. He writes: “When we sit texting on a playground bench while our kids play alone, whose time are we saving?” Okay, we’ve all known parents whose children raise themselves because their noses remain buried in an iPhone. I've read the documentation. But everyone has individual circumstances. What of overworked blue-collar parents whose only personal minutes happen while kids run free? They aren’t neglectful; they’re just poor.

Some parents certainly neglect their children because they’re preoccupied with moddish distractions. Some. But Arnold entertains no other explanation at any length; for him, all failure to provide hands-on childhood nurturance stems preponderantly from bourgeois self-absorption. Many of my factory colleagues, many with working spouses and second jobs, would desperately love more time with their kids. But Arnold’s rebukes seem particularly hurtful, because my colleagues can afford neither hip smartphones, nor time at the park.

Too many blue-collar workers castigate themselves because they cannot spare childrearing time like they remember from their parents. Since falling backward on society’s economic ladder, I’ve watched co-workers reduced to rage or tears because they must entrust children to older siblings while they work graveyards, then to schoolteachers and paid caregivers while they sleep by day. They live paycheck to paycheck, unable to bequeath much when their kids hit adulthood. They don’t need further guilt.

Though Arnold resists mere instrumental valuations, and I understand why, the fact nevertheless remains that children are costly. Children require fed, clothed, sheltered, entertained, and educated for fifteen years or longer before they’re capable of making more than salutary contributions to family coffers. Certainly this doesn’t make children worthless; unless you’re Ayn Rand, all humans have value beyond simple economics. But it does force working-class parents to budget money, time, and other finite resources appropriately.

But wait—humans, including children, certainly do have economic import! Writing the above paragraph, I remember something Richard Stearns of World Vision wrote, that when his charity dug communal wells through bedrock in isolated African villages, families found themselves suddenly free to limit procreation, because they didn’t need children to fetch and carry water. Pre-industrial agrarian societies encouraged large families because children constituted the farm’s labor force. Until recently, children had innate value only laterally.

Therefore, Arnold’s vision of lost childhood inherently requires degrees of economic autonomy not shared equally. Even in economically stable America, families who don’t resemble the supposed aggregate find themselves unable to dedicate time to their children like they’d prefer. And lumping overworked, cash-strapped parents together with their negligent or heedless peers essentially serves to shame poor people for being poor. I’m sure Arnold doesn’t mean that. But his failure to differentiate nevertheless produces this result.

I applaud Arnold’s ethical framework. Many women and men, even lacking their own children, share Arnold’s vision, and dedicate lives and careers to education, advocacy, and enlightened childrearing. I taught for four years, and would’ve continued if I could’ve afforded the penurious wage. But Arnold paints with a broad brush, apparently unaware that individuals have differing motives for superficially identical actions. A society-wide problem requires a society-wide solution, not chiding individuals regardless of their circumstances.

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