Many people in this country are fortunate enough to spend their days searching for happiness, rather than eking out survival. History points to aristocracies with such luxury but never the better part of an entire society. Not until the advent of clean water, abundant food and antibiotics have the lower classes been able to take daily survival for granted. Although we can agree that hunger and poverty still ravage many, at least here that is no longer the norm.
While the comfortable aristocrats focused on education, breeding and power, with a few directed to ascertain the meaning of life, the bulging middle class now has ample security, and practically a national obligation, to pursue happiness as a birthright. As a national phenomenon, happiness can mean many things: professional success, financial security, family, but many if not most people are still perplexed by this newfound freedom. In addition, outside forces can manipulate the extra leisure time and lack of direction to turn happiness into entertainment or materialism and precipitate a descent into a deeply felt meaninglessness, something easily mistaken as depression. The residual memory of a parent or even grandparent who struggled to survive can temper the fall into complacency, but at some point, in some generation, a child far removed from these fears will think we all do have it easy. Who can ignore how available everything is in this country? With that safety net in place, any child taking in the surroundings will know life is good. In fact, any child will believe we can control anything we want. Living well is most clear at the mundane miracle of your local supermarket: everything is available all the time. Just pick what you'd like.
It just feels like we haven't wrapped our minds around the idea that we all have it so good. There are countries in the world with illness and lifespan data unchanged from a century ago. To think that we all now expect to live twice as long as our forbears, and with good health to boot, is an astounding shift in a moment in time. Entertainment, capitalism and the food industry may fill our time and minds. Many smart people devise ways for us to while away our luxurious lives comfortably, if mindlessly. But I'm not sure who is truly thinking about our well-being. What in the world should we be doing with ourselves?
The answer seems to lie in future generations. It is unnerving to see small children, barely out of diapers, nonchalantly using a computer (more adeptly than their grandparents no doubt), turning on the TV or unlocking screen after screen on Angry Birds. It's just as disconcerting to see these same children shamelessly manipulate their parents in public, and succeed. Without the pressure or instinct that comes with the struggle to survive, young children can live with their enthusiasm and drive to pursue pleasure unbound. With only parents' willpower between them and the proverbial candy, children are overwhelmingly successful in their endeavors. Honestly, when do these kids not get what they want?
However, the freedom to get anything you want isn't equal to the freedom to be whoever you want to be. Parents raised in a world of security have since learned that adulthood doesn't come with guarantees and place the onus of vicarious success onto the next generation. Increasingly desperate parents, now egged on by sanctioned professional opinions, think they have found the answer: flood children with endless encouragement. What happens when the comments like "good job" and "you're so smart" are a dime a dozen to a growing child? Success, accomplishment and praise become the only way to understand the world; pleasing parents the sole purpose. Although survival may be a birthright, academic, professional and personal success are not. Just because the middle class can take food (even organic, pesticide-free), shelter (one room per kid) and clothes (the latest fashion, of course) for granted doesn't mean success comes along with it. Some people work hard their whole lives and don't get far. Others just get lucky.
So children are very much expected to fill the void. They live as scheduled a life as their parents. Their future goals are lined up long before they can even tell time: the right schools, the right people, the family expectations. What's so scary about letting those children run free? What's going to happen if they fritter away some time in the afternoon after school? The obvious answer is that they will fall behind. In the endless rat race, each kid always has to be caught up or even ahead. If you're left behind, you'll be lost forever. But in the lost freedom to think and explore, to wonder and question, lies true answers. Who can better figure out what to do with all the extra time? Imagination is the essence of childhood. The answer may lie in creative play.
I don't mean to say one generation of children left to run free will magically solve the pointlessness of our miraculous longevity. Parents clamping down on childhood to absorb their own doubts, failures and excess healthy years isn't helping either. The rampant disordered eating and eating disorders certainly can attest to that. The complacency, if anything, heralds the slow descent of a nation from its most glorious moments. If parents attend to their own failures and frustrations, children can be left to focus on their struggles and be free to learn both how to succeed and how to fail. And hopefully to learn to have compassion for the uncertainty of life ahead, no matter how long and healthy it might be. The general idea is that a more realistic, freer experience of childhood allows the child to gradually see the human condition for what it is and not become trapped in an artificial world they are supposed to save. Undoubtedly, placing the weight of the world on young shoulders collapses the true order of the world. The young need to contribute but also need to be free to forge new, uncharted paths ahead. They are much more likely to find ways to constructively fill all this extra time. The undue, poorly timed pressure leads instead to childlike solutions, like eating disorders.
There is no question that a laissez-faire approach to rearing children can feel anachronistic, like a proto-hippie backlash. Freedom needs to mean something else. Children crave structure and order, in large part to have rules to break. So if the rise in disordered eating stems from a desire for order, why would freedom lower this need? Look for the next post.