Monday, July 19, 2010

The Greatest Generation

I’ve been reading Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, which is a collection of stories about individual Americans involved in WWII.  What strikes me the most is how many are poster children for a deprived upbringing, and how instead of falling apart as adults, they bootstrapped themselves into the educators, politicians, writers, and business people who shaped America after the war.   Most were teenagers in The Depression and had to work as early as they could hire themselves out -- not to make their own own spending money, but to contribute to the family resources.  When babies were orphaned, they were taken in and raised by friends without the rigamarole of lawyers and agencies.  When WWII rationing began, people saved gas and food cards together because everything went a little further when it was shared.  There was an essential, almost urgent sense of community, and not a shred of entitlement.  

After spending the first three weeks of summer listening to my kids bicker incessantly, even though we were in Tahoe and then Hawaii, I am convinced they could benefit from a little deprivation and forced community.

It makes me want to toss half their toys, throw out everything we own with a screen, make all three of them share one room, and pack the other two rooms with house guests who have no where else to go.  I want them to have something real to overcome – adversity training or at least close, long-term contact with a whole bunch of people with whom they can practice resilience.  

It’s the teamwork that stumps me.  It is the middle of summer and during the weekdays, there are no kids out on the street in my neighborhood.  They are all in “camps.”  (Although if your hair doesn’t smell like smoke, you’re not covered with mosquito bites, and you’re still clean, it’s not really camp.)  I can’t send them out to “play with other kids” because there aren’t any.  If I keep them home, I can try to teach them to work together, but eventually, frankly, they could use some variety, and so could I.  

It’s very modern to talk about the challenges our kids encounter and how stressed out we are these days, but when you think about the reality of the circumstances most of them face, it’s hard to fathom exactly why that is.  Their lives are as manicured as a golf course.  We treat playground spats with gravity worthy of a felony.  Everything is closely supervised.  Instead of talking to our children about coping with a social conflict or addressing other children with whom they’ve had the conflict, we tattle to other parents and teachers.  That would never have happened to kids growing up 75 years ago.  They may have had fewer resources, but they were allowed to practice solving problems on their own.   Equal parts responsibility and capability leads to less stress.
After reading about the WWII generation, it seems like it should be more stressful to have three sons deployed overseas without any contact with them for months.  Or to be sidelined by crushing racism or sexism.  Or having your crops fail without government subsidies, welfare, medicare, or a back-up plan.  Or discovering that you’re pregnant for the ninth time, married to an asthmatic coal-miner in Appalachia?  That sounds a lot worse than a bad grade, too much homework, or even (gasp) a bully.  (And let’s quit pretending that our kids are never bullies, only victims).

I don’t want my family to have to endure what our WWII veterans went through to build resilience and resolve.  But, there is no character development without real hardship and no generosity without sacrifice.  I just wish I knew better how to help my kids turn their disappointment, conflicts, and isolation into compassion and determination instead of despair and how to influence them properly without controlling them oppressively.