When I was about 14, a friend and I went to a classmate’s house during a break in school exams. I can’t remember why we had so much time between classes, but we did. At any rate, we were killing time and “Eugene” asked if we wanted to watch a movie. He specifically mentioned The Call of the Wild, which I had read. So we agreed. As it happens, the movie that began to play did not feature Clark Gable, and there were no dogs to be seen. What was to be seen was a naked woman, a dumb guy with muscles, and a banana being used in ways that had never occurred to me. Yes, it was a porn film. “Eugene” found my inevitable reaction hilarious. I was appalled that he had access to a large (and it was large) library of porn.
Alas, little has changed since then. I think we need to rethink the phrase “growing up too fast,” because some of the things that very young children are being exposed to shouldn’t really have a place even in the grown-up world. The bit of the old ultraviolence held up for satire in A Clockwork Orange, which was shocking in its day, is tame now.
Last year, a third grader at our bus stop told me that he had watched The Hangover 2 the night before. His comment was, “Completely inappropriate, I know.” But his father was in the room, and he apparently didn’t find it inappropriate for an 8-year-old to watch. This same child once mentioned that his father had taken him out to shoot crows for the hell of it, and that it was fun to watch their guts coming out. I looked at this beautiful child, wondering what on earth I could say to that, and then I said, “That makes me sad.”
Today I was a chaperon on a field trip with my daughter’s first-grade class. We went downtown to see a live play. One of the boys who had been assigned to my supervision, who is a real sweetheart, volunteered to me, “I watch R-rated movies all the time, and my parents don’t care. I also play M-rated games, that only 17-year-olds are supposed to play.” When a child offers this information out of the blue to a near stranger, you have a problem. Here was a child who needed his parents to notice him and set some boundaries for him. He was begging for them. I wondered if he would one day up the ante and stick a needle in his arm to get them to notice. I hope not, but I fear for him.
One of the other parent chaperons on today’s trip spent the entire time with her nose stuck in her iPhone. I didn’t even bring my phone with me. Her child sat beside her, but she was completely checked out and self-absorbed.
It is true that emotional relationships are intense, and there is no relationship more intense than that of a parent and their child. No one will ever ask more of you than your child, and some people have a hard time dealing with this intensity. So they check out. A parent may be physically present and completely unavailable emotionally and spiritually. Very likely, such parents are products of parents who were also unavailable, and they unknowingly continue this destructive pattern. Passive parents are just as toxic and abusive as tyrannical parents. It just looks different.
I think one of the main reasons I like to volunteer in my daughter’s classroom is because I get to know the other kids. They are a microcosm of the world outside the doors. I can tell which kids come from a happy, loving home. I can tell which kids have parents who are checked out, either emotionally or otherwise (some have parents who are physically unavailable because they have to work several jobs to make ends meet). I can tell which kids get help with schoolwork at night, and which don’t. And when a kid walks up to me out of the blue and wraps their arms around me for a hug, I give it back to them with all that I have. You never know what they’re going through.
And occasionally, you run into a kid who remembers you from before. “Katie” would smother me in hugs if she could. “I remember you,” she says to me. Yes, I’ll bet you do. We have known each other before. How lovely to see you again in this time and place.
Every child has a story, and every child has challenges. Some are physical. “Lottie” is autistic and has medical challenges. She is precious in her own way. Some challenges are environmental; hunger is a problem in some families. Some challenges are emotional. And some challenges are the worst kind. I always hope that if an abused child in need were to cross my path that I would have the capacity to see it and then do something about it.
It has become a cliché to say “a child needs a Village,” but it’s still true. We are all one tribe, one community, one being. We do bear responsibility for the health and well being of the whole. And every child is going to come in contact with a large number of adults over the course of their young life, all of whom have the opportunity to impact that child for their good or for their detriment.
It is a quick and easy thing to lay all blame for a child at the feet of the parents, and of course, they do bear a tremendous responsibility. But we all have the capacity to help and to have an impact. If the parents are tired and overwhelmed, or struggling in poverty, we can provide assistance. If a child crosses your path and makes a cry for help, consciously or unconsciously, then we can reach out to them.
Our society has become too complex for us to handle, and our kids are the canaries in the coal mine. The requirements for merely existing on this earth, sleeping, eating, and breathing, are extraordinary. You cannot simply go catch your dinner and pitch your tent where you like. We are trapped by an arcane economic framework that benefit the few clever ones who have gamed the system and poisoned much of the planet, leaving many to struggle. No wonder that people can’t cope and the children are left to veg in front of inappropriate television shows. We are desensitized because our own pain is so great, and becoming immune to it is easier than addressing the brokenness in our way of life.
We can simplify our world, though. We can reconnect emotionally to each other. We can reconnect spiritually to each other. We can care. We can have compassion. We can hug that child, look into his or her eyes, and say, “I will help you.” We can all make a difference. And as we learn to connect and feel again, we will lose our need for such drugs as unhealthy sex, violence, and sedation in the form of hours of TV or emotion-numbing drink or pills. Our own souls can provide fulfillment enough, and we can remember this. We can teach it to our children.
“If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”