Friday, February 15, 2008

Society and the Individual

In every place and every time throughout history, the long term success of society has depended upon the family (variously defined); that intense crucible where new citizens are born, formed, raised and forged. As much attention as has been paid over the years, at least since Caesar Augustus, to the importance of the family and of family values, there actually is relatively little information about how the socialization process occurs or how it can be best achieved. It is the last frontier of the gifted amateur in which we are all qualified.

What are the many steps in the course of eighteen years that carry you from a start with a proto-Neanderthal bundle of inarticulate emotion to a sentient, reasonable, polite individual focused on improving his lot and that of his friends, neighbors and countrymen, and able to express respect for all the unknown strangers that come into his life? No-one has that well mapped out but there is a lot of speculation and free advice along the way. Given what you start with and the challenges from a not-always-sympathetic and, indeed, sometimes hostile external environment, I think the effectiveness of parents raising their children is one of the hugely un-acknowledged miracles of our times.

It seems almost irreverent to think of the family as a socialization process; it is way too personal and fun for that, and yet, for better or worse, that is the outcome. We know when it doesn't work, and often have a pretty good idea as to why it doesn't work. It is a little harder to know when the process has worked or to say what makes it work better.

I once read somewhere that everyone in the US has the power to never be in poverty. All that you have to do is 1) graduate high school, 2) marry, and 3) get and keep a job, any job. There are virtually no high school graduates that are married and employed that are in poverty. Sounds like a straightforward formula. How hard can that be?

Well, pretty hard it would appear.

Clay Shirky made an observation a number of years ago which I think encapsulates the dilemma reasonably well. He said that "Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality." Accepting this clarifies then the mission of the family in raising a child - helping them to understand and make choices.

The beauty of it is that this process is mostly unconscious and often terrifically fun. The benefits are not one way either, from parent to child. With the freshness of their eyes and the blank slate of their minds ("before the dark of reason grows" Betjeman) it is usually quite frequent that as you are explaining something to them, they are asking the questions that you never got around to asking yourself as a child. Children force you also to look at the world with new eyes.

First you teach them to communicate. Then you begin to fill them with knowledge and facts. Then you begin to work with them to understand how to interpret those facts. Then to predict based on that interpretation. Then, finally, to begin to understand the fallibility of facts, reason and, most especially, of prediction. Because the world is not a mechanical place where A always leads to B, we fill in the gaps with our faith, our morals, and our sense of civic responsibility, our ethics. And this is where it gets wonderfully and intriguingly complicated.

It is fun playing around with facts and getting kids to understand them. We once asked our three kids (at that time probably three, five and seven) to explain why it was that, if one in five people on earth is Chinese, none of the five of us was Chinese. It is a real pleasure to see them working through the exact meaning of words and the light beginning to go on.

As they slip more and more out of our sheltering and direct influence, (beginning school, playing with neighbourhood kids, off to camp, etc.), they are of course exposed to an ever greater diversity of values and opinions. I reckon that you have six to ten years to establish the foundation of values and beliefs that will shape their interpretation of the external world and how they choose to interact with it. What are their obligations to family, friends, countrymen, fellow man? What should, or more importantly can, they expect from their fellow man? What are their rights, their obligations?

The check lists are easy - the Ten Commandments, the Boy Scout oath, the Golden Rule, the rules of sports, etc. That is just a matter of exposure and memorization. The challenge is in the interpretation and application. It is the ability to make appropriate choices in every-day life that represents real growing up.

In the midst of all this learning from parent, from experience and from stories, it has struck me over the years just how fruitful our language is with what, fundamentally, are little bits of ethical code masquerading as idioms and adages. Some of these adages are just useful rules of thumb; some are important ethical decisions. I don't know whether you experience it in your household, but we certainly do in ours: a number of adages that get repeated ad nauseum.

• First things first (homework before games, dinner before desert, etc.)

• Focus

• Look before you leap (watch out, plan ahead)

• The early bird gets the worm (hurry up)

• Cleanliness is next to godliness (clean your room)

• Andre volk, andre art (a Swedish phrase from my childhood, "other people, other ways" to explain why someone else has made a decision that seems both self-defeating as well as contrary to the rules we live by)

• Share and share alike

• Slow and steady wins the race

• Do unto others . . .

• Etc.

I once gave Sally a delightful little book by Carol Bolt, Mom's Book of Answers (which is out of print but you can find something similar with The Book of Answers. There are probably three or four hundred pages, each with a single phrase which you will instantly recognize - it is as if every mom on earth is programmed to say these words. Some are adages, many are just familiar phrases. Sally keeps the book in the kitchen and often, when a child comes in with a request or question, she pulls it down and randomly opens it and to read the answer:

Q: Mom, can I have some chips?
Random Mom's Book of Answers: Is there anything you've forgotten?

Q: I can't find my shoes.
Random Mom's Book of Answers: Don't complain; in the old days, we walked five miles in the snow just to get the mail, and that was before breakfast.

Q: Has anyone seen my homework?
Random Mom's Book of Answers: It may come back to haunt you.

It's kind of surprising just how often these phrases/adages work interchangeably. They are always the answer regardless of the question. They take on an almost cryptic haiku-like quality.

I think there might be an interesting study in there somewhere, documenting the frequency of adages used as well as comparing the nature of adages between cultures. In a pre-literate society adages are an efficient way to pass on critical information and wisdom from generation to generation and I wonder if adage-rich families/cultures aren't characterised by better adjusted and more successful children?

As if moving up the building blocks, from basic language to adages, you then have folk stories, myths and legends all of which are usually vessels for communicating information and rules of behaviour, but more often are built around the application and outcomes of such knowledge and wisdom. I mentioned in this essay about James Baldwin, the incredible richness of our heritage of folktales, not only from all over Europe but all over the world. Robert Bruce and the Spider, King Alfred and the Cakes, King Canute and the Tide, Aesop's Fables, the 1001 Arabian Nights, Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby - it is a rich well from which we can draw.

The books we have compiled here are a mixture of tales that you can use to plant ideas in the mind of your child or to serve as the catalyst to discuss a topic to help them explore how to behave, as well as stories that serve as models of how to behave and how to consider making decisions in a social context. Most of these stories allow the child to make the connection for herself about the values being demonstrated and the ways of interacting with one another and the benefit that accrues from those values.

There is also an incredibly dense population of books that deal with the individual in conflict with society and how those conflicts can be resolved. We have included just a smattering of those. The first step is to understand value and obligations with regard to society. Once those basic rules are understood, it then becomes a little easier to navigate the more difficult exceptions and the issues of societal right and wrong which we will address in a future Pigeon Post and book list.

Picture Books

Thomas the Tank Engine by Rev. W. Awdry Highly Recommended

Goops and How to Be Them by Gelett Burgess Suggested

Maybelle the Cable Car by Virginia Lee Burton Recommended

The Yellow Star by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Henri Sorensen Highly Recommended

The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln and illustrated by Michael McCurdy Recommended

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Christopher Bing Recommended

What Do You Do, Dear? by Sesyle Joslin and illustrated by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

What Do You Say, Dear by Sesyle Joslin and illustrated by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss Recommended

Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss Recommended

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss Highly Recommended

Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss Recommended

Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss Recommended

Independent Readers

Fifty Famous People by James Baldwin (Not available from Through the Maigc Door. Click the link to go to Yesterday's Classics)

Fifty Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin (Not available from Through the Maigc Door. Click the link to go to Yesterday's Classics)

Thirty More Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin (Not available from Through the Maigc Door. Click the link to go to Yesterday's Classics)

The Children's Book of Heroes by William J. Bennett and illustrated by Michael Hague Recommended

The Children's Book of Virtues by William J. Bennett and illustrated by Michael Hague Recommended

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and illustrated by P.J. Lynch Highly Recommended

The Christmas Candle by Richard Paul Evans and illustrated by Jacob Collins Recommended

Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey Highly Recommended

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen Recommended

Beowulf the Warrior by Ian Serraillier and illustrated by Severin & Ian Serraillier Recommended

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff and illustrated by Alan Lee Recommended

Stop The Train! by Geraldine McCaughrean Suggested

Railway Children by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by C. E. Brock Highly Recommended

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Recommended

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene Du Bois Highly Recommended

Holes by Louis Sachar Recommended

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

Young Adult

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens Highly Recommended

Lord of the Flies by William Golding and illustrated by Ben Gibson Recommended

The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Isaac Kramnick & James Madison Recommended

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo Recommended

Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley Recommended

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Highly Recommended

1984 by George Orwell Recommended

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand Recommended

Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose Recommended

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