Monday, June 11, 2007

Protection vs. pampering? I'm not yearning for the "olden days"

Last week at our classroom potluck, a group of parents was talking about how much more freedom we had when we were kids, compared to the protected lives our children lead. Remember when we could run loose in the woods? Ride in the "way back" of the station wagon? Do skateboard stunts without helmets or pads?

I struggle with the balance between protection and freedom every day with my almost-8-year old. Around her age I could ride around my whole neighborhood on my bike, with friends or on my own. With my daughter we're not quite to the "run outside and play, be back by dark" stage of life yet. Kids need life experience and yet they also need protection. Achieving this balance is the challenge and paradox of parenting.

But lest we get too nostalgic for the "good old days," I was reminded this week of the sanctioned cruelties that were visited on children as recently as the 20th century. It wasn't so long ago that children and wives were classfied as property. Adults could punish or abuse children in any way they wanted with little fear of reprisal. These dangers are still present in our modern society, but they are much less accepted, at least in the United States.

The June 7th episode of The Diane Rehm show presented one of the most interesting, morally conflicted topics I have ever heard--a story that reminds us how bad the "good old days" really could be. A social worker from Memphis, Tennessee named Georgia Tann did more than anyone before her to popularize adoption in America. She made it "respectable" for families to adopt, breaking through the eugenic myth that no one would want to raise a genetically "inferior" baby born of a poor mother. But, Tann's methods were cruel, amoral, and criminal. From the 1920's to 50's, she stole babies, raised the children in orphanages where they were routinely tortured and sexually abused, and then sold them to families. All this was done under the protection of the corrupt political machine operating in Memphis at the time. Our modern approach to adoption is still influenced by some of the effects of Tan's crimes. The secrecy surrounding adoptees' families of origin, starting with their falsified birth certificates, can be traced at least in part to the fact that Tan had to hide the fact that she had kidnapped babies in order to "fill the demand" for adoptable children, and had to hide them from birth families who were still looking for them.

I haven't read Barbara Bisantz Raymond's book yet, The Baby Thief, but I plan to. I am always fascinated by untold history and the effects on modern society. The older I get, the more I appreciate investigative journalism. Bisantz Raymond is herself an adoptive mother, and she seems to be in an excellent position to grapple with the conflicted realities of the history of American adoption.

A final thread to weave into this story: My daughter loves the Roald Dahl book Matilda. She had read it at school and asked me to read it to her again at bedtime. We are currently 2/3 of the way through. She is drawn to the story of a child's magical empowerment in the face of adult authoritarianism. I cringe at the descriptions of the abhorrent parents and abusive headmistress. Fortunately (from the perspective of a parent looking for relief as she reads it out loud) the worst mistreatment is told through the kids' rumor-mill, which helps distance the tale with the hope that some of it might be a playground exaggeration. But as I heard the descriptions of the mistreatments of Georgia Tann's orphans, who were tied up closets and abused, I realized that perhaps Roald Dahl's tales of Miss Trunchbull's torture closet, "The Chokey," covered with bits of broken glass and sharp spikey nails, were not as unrealistic as I had hoped. I hadn't understood the attraction of this book to begin with and now am really hating it. I can only wonder what Mr. Dahl's experiences at boarding school were really like. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a much more effective transmutation of chilhood angst into literary magic. To me, Matilda is an all-to-literal reminder that the good old days don't deserve the nostalgia we are tempted to bestow.

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Anonymous Lisa Giebitz said...

With all due respect, I think you missed the point those parents were trying to make.

There's a lot more fear-pumping going on today than when most of them were kids. It makes me think of Halloween: when I was a child (not all that long ago), lots of people went trick-or-treating around our neighborhood and my parents gave away a whole punch bowl of candy. Last year my parents had 5 kids stop by. Same for kids riding around the neighborhood on their bikes and such, it just doesn't happen as much anymore.

I do get your point as well, I just think it's a totally different topic. Your topic makes me think of the abortion issue actually. According to many sources, the instance of abortion was a lot higher in the 1950's. So was the instance of infection and death because of the 'back-alley' method. A lot of people just don't want to really think about history and its (possible) affects on current policy.

1:03 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Yes, I know there are several threads in this conversation and I am swinging from one to another like Tarzan going from vine to vine. The parents on the playground did have a point--today we do sometimes protect our kids to the point of denying them valuable life experiences. It would be a shame if no one went to summer camp any more because someone might get hurt, for example. I like the book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, which skillfully examines these issues.

At the same time I think we need to remember that the recent past was often a dangerous and inhospitable place for children, not an era I would like to return to at all. We may have fond memories of riding unbuckled in the back of the station wagon, but I am still grateful for seatbelts!

1:11 PM  
Blogger Chris Austin-Lane said...

We are reading Matilda now. All books that children really love portray suffering, and frequently they show them being rescued from a bad family into an ideal family. Children see their emotions portrayed in so little literature, that when it is shown (as in Junie B. Jones, or Matilda, or the Little Princess), kids always are drawn to it.

The present time in the US is safer than the past, but at some point we'll be having to apologize for letting fear and worry get away from us. The cost of eternal vigilance is psychosis, my Dad used to say :) As Bush is proving, there is no end to fear, you just have to let go of fear and enjoy this lovely risky life. I suffered some fairly bad things as a child, but I'm grateful each day to see what happens next, if you know what I mean.

10:45 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

We finished Matilda today and it was a big relief to get to the satisfying ending. In the case of this book, I think that the innocence of a child is necessary to appreicate it. To a child, the abuse of the headmistress ("The Trunchbull") seems absurdly extreme. But as an adult seeing real-life atrocities reported all the time, this type of exaggerated violence is no longer "cartoonish" to me.

11:22 PM  

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