Wimps or Daredevils

I discovered a previously unpublished Musing deep in the bowels of my computer. From the anecdote therein, I must have written it over six years ago. Within the past few weeks, I have been bombarded with statistics about anxious children, suicidal teens, and emotionally precarious young adults. As society’s hysteria and behavior over COVID upped the ante, this piece may be even more relevant now than when it was first written.

Not only do we live in an age of immediate gratification, we live in an age of expected gratification. Anyone who reminisces about waiting six weeks for an order to arrive by mail sounds like a fossil. When we put money in a machine for a diet Coke, we would be shocked to have a Sprite pop out. We think it perfectly reasonable to demand that our cold-brewed coffee originates in Ethiopia and comes with soy milk, a double shot of espresso, and a dash of cinnamon, as well as being ready before we finish scrolling through our texts. Talk of a sense of entitlement!

All of this makes being a good parent a daily challenge. No matter what buttons you push or how detailed your plan is, children tend to surprise us. They are, after all, human beings full of complexity and their own individual natures. This isn’t to say that parents are irrelevant. Far from it. However, while we can guide and shape children in certain directions, we cannot program them.

Societies do the same. One of the treats of spending time in a foreign country is being reminded that the way things are done isn’t automatic. This can leave you with an appreciation for your own culture. I happen to enjoy living in a society where people queue for a bus rather than jostle for priority. Being abroad can also reveal your own culture’s deficiencies.

Neither parents nor societies can engineer perfect adults. We can, however, choose where on the spectrum we want to aim when it comes to promoting conformity vs. free-spiritedness; academic success vs. artistic expression; responsibility vs. light-heartedness. On the question of raising wimps vs. daredevils, Israel veers towards the opposite end of that spectrum from life today in America.

One of my favorite books growing up, which I shared with my children as well, was Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Elizabeth Ann is being raised in the city by two exceedingly timid aunts when one of them falls ill. The only option is to send her to relatives in the country, whose lifestyle could hardly be different. Suddenly renamed Betsy, she is expected to be resourceful and bold rather than nervous and shy. Since this book was written in 1916 and meant for children of that day, she does not get lost in the woods and die of exposure. Instead, over the course of the book, she blossoms into a responsible, cheerful, and delightful girl.

America today raises too many conformist wimps. Had this been the pattern 250 years ago, I suspect America would still be living under the British Crown. All you need for your local Child Protective Services to leap into action against your family is to allow your children to play unsupervised in your own yard, let alone head to the neighborhood park or walk to the store. Adults, food, and activity are all to be feared. Children are taught not to trust themselves or others. Maybe that storekeeper is a child molester; maybe there are allergens in this food; maybe I’ll fall off my bicycle and get hurt. Of course, there are threatening and perverted men, some children do have dangerous allergies, and bike accidents can result in serious injuries. However, and this is so important, neighborhood men can be amazing role models and mentors, experimenting with unfamiliar food can spark a curious spirit, and heading off on a bicycle ride is not only good exercise but is a prime childhood experience that fosters independence and propels decision-making.

Visiting Israel, it is disconcerting to American eyes to see a ten-year-old girl board a bus, responsible for the three younger siblings who are with her. Meeting a five-year-old who was sent by himself to the market to pick up eggs evokes surprise. Hearing that your hosts have no idea where their child is but expect her home for supper forces you to remember that your parents had the same level of comfortable indifference/ignorance about your whereabouts. Our American-raised daughter, now living in Israel, was a bit nonplussed to receive information that her son’s first-grade class was going on a hike through a water-filled wadi, with no extra parental supervision requested and no instructions other than to send spare clothing and a water bottle. Our just turned six-year-old grandson has already asked when he can walk to school alone, a half-mile journey that involves crossing a major intersection. After all, some of his friends do just that.

Accidents do sometimes happen. At the same time, Israeli children seem healthier, happier, and more confident than their American counterparts. To my eyes, American children are more obese (despite an Israeli conviction that sugar is a required food group), more sullen, and less resilient than Israeli children.

Most of us would like to raise our children to be optimistic and adventurous while safeguarding them from evil and danger. Maybe, we don’t have that level of control. We can certainly model and teach responsibility and discernment but for our children to absorb those lessons they need the opportunity to make mistakes safely and suffer small hurts. We can’t produce the young adults and adults we want; we can only try to steer them in a direction of our choice.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this Susan’s Musings post.
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