Read it and Weep, or What Have We Wrought?

“The Overprotected Kid: A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer…”  (The Atlantic, April 2014)

The gap between what people fear (abduction by a stranger) and what’s actually happening (family turmoil and custody battles) is revealing. What has changed since the 1970s is the nature of the American family, and the broader sense of community. For a variety of reasons—divorce, more single-parent families, more mothers working—both families and neighborhoods have lost some of their cohesion. It is perhaps natural that trust in general has eroded, and that parents have sought to control more closely what they can—most of all, their children.

In the Trenches

Mildly (it’s to be hoped) entertaining anecdotes about squirrels and cupcakes set in playgrounds aside, I’ve spent a heck of a lot of time in City of Atlanta parks this summer, and being in such places has made me think.

About what?

Oh,  among other things …  littering; our tax dollars; how children socialize and play; how adults socialize and play; why parks north of interstate 20 are better equipped than those south of 20…

But mainly, just about every time we set foot on a playground and Elder Girleen looks around in dismay and cries But there’s nobody here to play with! I think

Where are the kids?

It being summer and all, you’d think that playgrounds would run a close second to swimming pools as places overrun with children.  This turns out — in Atlanta, GA, at least — to not necessarily be true.  Sure, there’s the random nanny or two, and  sometimes a couple Baby Mamas (by that I mean moms with infants who come to parks to compare notes) but kids above the age of say… four?  They’re an endangered species.

You could explain this away by saying it’s hot; or that they’re too jaded for playgrounds — but the thing is, they’re not really anywhere else, either.  Not on the playing fields, or in front yards, or on sidewalks playing hopscotch or riding bikes, either.

They’re all at Day Camp.

Circus camp, rock climbing camp, tennis camp, art camp, nature camp, science camp — Atlanta’s full of them. And though I don’t have a single bone to pick with day camps (you’d have to work hard to get worked up about something so benign), over the summer I’ve realized that  it wouldn’t hurt any of us parent types to actually sit down for  a second and think about the reasons they exist in such numbers, and examine the implications that existence might have for the ecosystem we swim around in.

What is the reason an aimless kid over six is such a rare bird?

I posit:  If both parents have to work outside the home from 8 – 6 year round, you’ve got to park the kids somewhere.

And voila, just like that, the idea of unsupervised, freewheeling, laid-back summer disappears from our world.

Of course, I have selfish reasons for questioning this status quo — due to The Husband’s enforced hiatus from the working world last winter and spring, we refrained from planning much of anything during the summer that cost much of anything, whether it was a couple of weeks of day camp for the kids or a week’s vacation at the beach.  Because of that, we’ve spent a lot of time trolling playgrounds and the streets and pools for things to do, and gee, I wish we’d find more folks who were doing the same.

But selfish motivations aside, all these empty playgrounds might raise a few larger questions.

Do I have the answers?  Heck no, I’m not even sure I know what the questions are, other than this one:  is this really where we want to be?

Lately, I’ve run across a couple of motherhood-related blog topics/essays on the New York Times website that have given me pause.  One, a posting in Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode called “Scaling Back Career for Baby,” included the following comment from a woman who, having just had her first child, was finding that returning to “work” (by which she meant socially-acceptable work outside the home that one gets paid money for, of course) was more complicated than she’d imagined:

I used to secretly look down on stay-at-home moms. I’m not proud of being so judgmental, but opting out seemed like the easy road to me, an excuse to avoid the 9-to-5. If I asked someone I just met at a party what she did for a living and her answer was “I stay at home with the kids,” I’d mentally check out of the conversation. Surely I had nothing in common with this person.

Oh, granted, she’s contrite, and acknowledges her sins. Oh, granted, this divide’s been around since Day One and is nothing new.  But still…

Also on the NY Times website, exhibit two; a recent Judith Warner column, “Insult and Injury,” which took as its turf Warner’s suspicion “that highly successful working mothers suffer a disproportionate amount of scorn when they fail to have the time or available space on their mental hard drives to do things like memorize school handbooks or master Bundt baking,” in which she offers up her friends’ credentials as a”high level newspaper executive” and “a long-time television reporter, anchor and mother of two…” as if only that would make  them legitimate human beings in her reader’s eyes.

The fact that the major debate of modern parenthood is still being framed in this way — and by highly intelligent women, no less  — astounds me.  The biggest question of our time might be not which is better, the stay-at-home mom, or the “highly successful working mother,” but why we have all  have swallowed the idea, hook-line-and-sinker, that economic productivity makes one a more valuable person. That the “work” that takes you away from your “life” is more important than anything for which we don’t get paid.

Because, meanwhile, the tumbleweeds are blowing through —heck, not just our playgrounds and parks, but down our streets — and wouldn’t it be great if along with the adults getting to be adults, the kids got to be kids?  If we all stood up on our hind legs and roared that all this working  just might not be working?  That women who are fulfilled by work they do outside the home deserve more time, and that women who are fulfilled by work they do within the home are just as productive members of society as anybody else.

Cooperation/Corporation, Continued

Spring has sprung here in the ‘hood. Painting crews are blasting conjunto music while they scrape and prep houses in a repainting ritual that seems to take place every spring. The lenten roses, green belles of the early spring ball, are laden with demure blossoms. The Bradford pear trees are a confectionary of exploded cotton batting.

And just as there has been every single spring for the past five years, controversy is reaching a boiling point at the cooperative preschool where we’ve thrown in our lot.

Cooperative preschools — or for that matter, Montessori preschools, Waldorf preschools, Reggio Emilia-method based preschools, and state-funded preschools— were not something I was aware of, pre-children (I actually don’t have enough fingers or toes to count up all the things I knew nothing of, pre-children). To tell you the truth, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into exactly what you did with kids once you had them. I knew they went to kindergarten at five, but other than that…. who knew?

Now that I’ve got six years of parenthood under my belt, I’ve come to appreciate the cooperative approach to preschool education (and maybe that will be blog fodder on a slow day), but in the beginning I made the decision to enroll Elder Girleen there when she was 1 1/2 based solely on this: the cooperative preschool was close to our house, I was attracted to its flexible schedul, she and I both needed some breathing space from each other, and I’d seen the children enrolled there as they marched (or rather strolled and rode on shoulders) in the annual free-spirited neighborhood parade.

They looked happy. In fact, they were happy — they are. Under the nurturing guidance of a cadre of teachers, a hardworking preschool director and all those fellow parents who “own” a cooperative preschool and pitch in when the building floods or someone has a baby or a child’s nose needs wiped, my daughters have blossomed into a sharp, inquisitive, polite (mostly), poised little people.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But at the same time, that annual free-spirited neighborhood festival, now one of Atlanta’s biggest events, is sponsored by Red Hook Beer, and the preschool (now just Younger Girleen’s school) might just as easily be described as a loose consortium of small fractious countries, each with its own nuclear warhead and fingers itchy to start hostilities. In short, things change in five years. Or maybe it’s just that the Pristine Surface is always, no matter where you find it, in good part about spin.

Last year I was on the board of directors at the preschool. Quasi-political, following — roughly, chaotically — the same Roberts Rules of Order that theoretically instill parliamentary procedure into everything from neighborhood meetings to … well, uhh … preschool board meetings; equal parts tedium, political brinkmanship and occasionally, heartwarming cooperation, the board of the preschool and the time I spent serving on it dragged me, kicking and screaming, to a level of social and political engagement that, before I had children, I mostly chose to observe from the sidelines.

Maybe because of that fact, this year my role can be best described as that of a mostly disinterested bystander. Not for me, board meetings that last for three hours where life-affecting details such as whether or not the child-drawn figure that serves as the school’s logo “looks lonely” at the top of the school letterhead are discussed. Not for me, those sidelong looks and huddles of two or three board members on the playground as the latest board powerplay or malfeasance is dissected. You might even say that I find myself watching this year’s controversy build the way you might watch a car crash — o, that spectacular fishtail! o, the crumpled bumper! somebody call 911!

Past springs, preschool controversies have involved everything from teacher hirings and firings to the possible dissolution of classes for certain ages of children. The specifics of this year’s controversy don’t really matter. The globals, though, as I read them, involve where you stand on the following statement:

Our organization is a non-profit educational institution, not a for-profit corporation with shareholders, etc.

This year, my motto as far as my preschool duties has been to tell myself yo! you can’t expect a sorority to behave like a commune, and even though this is about as inane as saying it is what it is, I’ve drawn a lot of comfort from it. People at the preschool generally mean well. I’m not so sure I would’ve wanted a commune anyway — we all know what happened to most of those idealistic sixties utopias.

Apparently, though, while I’m busy mouthing platitudes and keeping my head in the sand, the firestorm has been raging. I bumped into the poor soul who took my place on the board at the playground and she had a wild look in her eye. “The emails!” she cried. “One came down that said ‘we’re trying to run this place like a corporation.’ She took a deep breath. “A corporation! The first time I read that one, I read cooperation. That’s what it really is, right?”

Cooperation/Corporation. Ah, you wondered how I was going to pull this one off!

The answer is: I’m afraid I can’t pull it off at all. The serial nature of the medium has made me realize I’m on thin ice, narrative-wise: this one is just too hard for me to tackle. In blog form. Without a Ph.D. in Political Science. Or Philosophy. Or a bigger, less-mommified brain.

But I guess the point I might be trying for is this: As I stood there at Elder Girleen’s school while the Pledge was being recited, it dawned on my that we might all have some idealized vision of democracy, and the United States, lodged in our DNA. One vote, one voice! Our ancestors did mostly wash up on these shores believing this to be the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, after all.

So there we are, standing on that bedrock. But we live our day-to-day lives swimming (and sometimes drowning) in a sea of capitalist impulses. That’s why, when the parents charged with making decisions about a cooperative preschool get going, they start borrowing ideas from the corporate world. It’s not like they’ve been working on kibbutzim their whole lives! Where else are they going to get ideas from?

This is a big question. Maybe the BIGGEST question. But I think lots of folks are starting to ask it; that maybe the desire to find the answer to that is in the ether these days.

Apologies for the sociopolitical content of the last few days (we’re done now, I promise).

Howdy to all the folks in Texas who are in the political spotlight today.


Part One

Mornings when I take Elder Girleen to school, I usually hang around for fifteen minutes for Morning Meeting, a daily occurrence that involves 360 drowsy kids with sleep still in their eyes sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor of the auditorium for a couple of announcements, a song or two and a factual snippet (such as: what exactly is leap day, what is a primary election, did you know that George Washington Carver invented over 400 things to do with sweet potatoes?).  

They also scramble up off the floor for the Pledge of Allegiance, as do all the teachers and any parent-types who’ve stuck around.  

I certainly don’t think of myself as the patriotic type.  I don’t go to baseball games.  In fact, before Elder Girleen started kindergarten I probably hadn’t said the Pledge of Allegiance since I was in elementary school.    
But, just as you never forget how to ride a bike, you never forget how the Pledge goes.  The hand folded earnestly across the heart!  Those words:  and liberty and justice for all
On one hand, it seems so anachronistic, so quaint.  But on the other, because of who everyone standing there in that circa 1929 auditorium is (an American) and probably because we all stood in similar settings saying the same words when we were the same impressionable age that Elder Girleen is now (6), I find that I have an emotional reaction to their meaning.  
And liberty and justice for all.  For the few short moments it takes to say them, I believe.
Are they true or false?  Wiser heads than mine are debating that as we speak, and have been doing so ever since they were written.  Because of my status as mom,* I’m not going to weigh in on the actual veracity of those words, though I certainly have my own opinion about it.
Some of my first political memories:  my mother weeping during the six o’clock news as wives of soldiers missing in Vietnam were interviewed; my confusion between the IRA (who were particularly active right then) and the IRS (who upset my father); adult discussions about assassinations; the way the airing of the Watergate  hearings meant there were no cartoons to be watched on TV.  Given all that, it would be easy to say I turned out cynical about our country’s political underpinnings. 
But peel back the callused skin of every adult American and you might find a child who once stood hand-over-heart and said and liberty and justice for all and believed it.  
We tend to forget that as we age.  These are skeptical times; they might even be the end times, for all we know.  But I would submit that under our cynicism the desire at least to believe in the idea of democracy is practically encoded in our DNA.
*Though motherhood can be a deeply political act, I find that in the day to day of motherhood, talking politics is generally frowned upon:  I mean, how can you force yourself to go to a particular play group every week if you know the moms you’re having coffee with LOVE Mike Huckabee?  I was with a group of moms I knew socially every morning during the week the Iraq War started — did it come up?  Not just no, but hell, no.  
Part Two

Currently, the husband and I are obsessed with the TV show The Wire.  We won’t even get into the fact that the pop-culture cognoscenti were first watching, and raving about, The Wire all of five years ago.  We don’t have cable around here and besides, five years ago we were too sleep-deprived to follow complex story lines along the  lines of The Wire’s. Anyway, now the show’s on DVD so we can watch it every single night.  This is lovely from a narrative point of view, sort of like having a long novel that never ends to look forward to every night, but it also colors one’s world view.

The Wire takes a sprawling Dickensian look at life in urban America, and it confirms many of my most-cherished observations about the way the world works: more than half the time the time the good guys are on the take; doing the “right thing” tends to get people screwed; self-interest, power, politics and greed might be the forces that really shape American society.* The framework in The Wire is politics and public safety, but you could just as easily apply its tropes to any institution in American society: white-collar corporations, community organizations, even — dare I say it with a straight face? — cooperative preschools.

But how can those two ideologies — that of the starry-eyed child saying the Pledge of Allegiance who believes democracy is something to be championed and that of the grizzled cynic, who believes that the Will to Power greases the wheels of industry and politics — exist in my body simultaneously?

Bingo. Cooperation and Corporation. The two conflicting impulses that define American behavior.

*For an interesting take on The Wire, click here.

Revisiting Ownership

My life these days revolves around a few simple but important mathematical equations, the simplest and most important being this:  brisk walk with Younger Girleen + strong strong coffee (squared) = blog entry.  Clearly one or the other has been missing the past few weeks but we’re back on track this morning.  

Actually, the more honest reduction of the above equation might be this:  brisk walk with Younger Girleen + strong strong coffee (squared) = impractical flights of fancy, since on a 30 minute walk I was able to not only consider blog life but also imagine an alternate universe where I am the owner of a wonderfully quirky and hip coffee shop (all this being caused by walking past a vacant storefront) that not only serves the city’s best coffee but also displays all my peeps’ best art and crafts (to be knowledgeable enough to run it I will apprentice at my fav coffee shop, where I go to get my Large Special Friend; I’ll hire artists as baristas through Craig’s List) AND not only that, but in the same 15 minutes I can consider just how wonderfully purchase of the sixties-era aluminum tin-can Scotty Sportsman trailer listing on three tires  that I just walked past will change our lives.  
Not even heroin can get you to such places.
Now that you’ve had a glimpse of my overly-caffinated morning, I’ll get back to matters at hand:
A couple of entries back, I made stab at parsing out a particular phrase, that phrase being one sent to me by email recently:  are you willing to own this effort?

At the time, I was interested in examining the way making such a request serves to distance the requestor from the requestee.  A little more thought led me to this:  asking if someone will “own” an “effort” rather than asking “could you help” ALSO makes it awfully easy for the requestee (ie, in this case, me) to say “hhh?  who, me?” and shirk any responsibility as well.  
It’s sorta like Spanish grammer, in that rather than saying “I dropped the vase,” you say “The vase dropped itself”.  Efforts may be owned or not owned, but none of it has a damn thing to do with me.  
Ownership.   There’s a video circulating these days  that makes it awfully clear just how unsustainable our consumer culture has become. The video’s primarily discussing actual material stuff, but it includes a quote made soon after WWII by retailing analyst Victor Lebow that is now seared on my brain:  

Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.  We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate. 

Any one who has a kid is pretty aware of the ways in which the language of the marketplace has come to pervade our children’s educational experience.  
Or maybe we aren’t consciously aware of that.  But maybe they’re all links in an insidious chain:  the fundraising auctions, the requests to “own” efforts, communications committees, corporate sponsorship, PR… all of these address us as consumers:  any time and money we might give an institution is cloaked in a consumeristic experience; rather than helping out, by owning an effort, volunteering becomes something I can choose (or not) to possess.  

The saddest thing is that this is a chain we’ve thoughtlessly wrapped around ourselves. And our children, those little beings we would lay down our lives to protect.