There was a man I knew some years back, one of those people that all southerners grew up with, a good ol’ boy who could be tough, ornery, and highly racist one minute, and the next minute could be tender-hearted and generous – even toward black folk. It’s one of those scratch-your-head things that I wonder if people in the rest of the world would understand.
He told me he used to raise sheep, and the lambs he was going to slaughter he called ‘lambchops’ from the moment they were born. He didn’t want to become attached to them, he wanted to think of them only as food, so that he could slaughter them in a few weeks.
I wonder if people in the past didn’t look at their children in a similar way, if they loved them less than we do today. It seems that the ancients viewed children as little more than prized livestock, maybe something like pets. Parents might have been fond of them, they might shed a tear at their deaths, but that was about the extent of the commitment. If they died, or if they had to be abandoned or even put to death, it simply wasn’t that big of a deal.
Many of us are aware that the ancient Spartans would examine each newborn and throw those considered unfit into a pit to die. The Spartan children who were not discarded still faced grueling childhoods. At the age of 12 Spartan boys would have to move out into the wild, and learn to survive – or die trying – in order to learn cunning, endurance, and brutality.1)The Hunger Games has been highly successful, but it’s fiction. A similar story could be written about Spartan boys, which would be based entirely on fact.
Likewise, a Roman father had the right to sell or kill his children, and they were considered to be his property. But the Romans were hardly unusual, many cultures have been indifferent to the fate of children. I recently read about the Sanghi Islands, where in the past the natives would slowly and cruelly torture children to death to appease the gods. Today we are repulsed by the the brutal abortions and infanticide under China’s ‘One Child’ rule, we shudder at the honor killings in the Middle East. But these are horrifying only because we view them through modern eyes. People in the past had no problem with such things.
Which brings me back to my friend and his lambs. I have wondered about more recent centuries, even as parents became more protective of children, if they didn’t insulate themselves from sentimental thoughts about their children. We read and hear about, from our parents and grandparents, how stern and seemingly unfeeling people were toward children in the past, not just parents, but neighbors, teachers, doctors, clergy, cops.
This trend seems to begin changing after WWII. The War ushered in many things, one of which was the miracle drug penicillin. Close on the heels of penicillin came the polio vaccine. Before vaccines and antibiotics, every parent was resigned to the idea that a child could fall ill at any moment, and be dead in a day or two. In fact, it was the rare parent who would not eventually bury one or more children.
So I have been wondering if the cause for sternness toward children, and the seeming lack of sympathy in the more recent past, was not so much indifference as self-protection.
Today in the developed world, I would think that most parents are devoted to our children. Most of us dread nothing more than losing a child, and fortunately – and to our thesis here, perhaps causally? – very few of us have to face that today.
We are certainly more patient and generous with our children today than parents in the past. I let my kids get away with a lot more than my parents did, and my parents were very patient compared with many of my classmates’ parents. Even today, I noted that some of our friends have been critical of how we raise our kids.
So here’s my question: Who’s right? Them or us, toughness or gentleness? As I am constantly hammering on (pun intended), it depends on the context. We need functional definitions; there is no absolute right or wrong, there is only appropriate or inappropriate for the current situation.
Because the surprising truth is, all of us bet our children’s lives on what the future will look like.
For instance, if the Pax Americana continues, if democracy and freedom continue to spread around the globe, my kids will do just fine. The patience, love, and constant intellectual encouragement we give them means that they will have the necessary intelligence, compassion, and related people skills to work in highly complex communities, and prosper.
But what if it all falls apart? We can talk about nuclear holocaust, conventional war or revolution, ozone breakdown, global warming, or many other things that could lead to complete social disintegration.
The one that I have been worrying about, however, is a large solar electromagnetic pulse. Sooner or later that one will hit us; we barely missed one in 2012. And when it hits, just about all computers in the world will be wiped out. That means that all shipping, utilities and communications will be destroyed, much of it permanently. All bank records will be gone, and so there will be no money other than what’s in our pockets. With no money, communications, nor shipping, food will no longer come to our shores, and our stores. Social order will evaporate, starvation will become rampant, and people will begin fighting to death over food and other resources. It is believed that only 10% of the US population will survive the first year.
Imagine Mad Max, but without the sexy costumes and the witty dialogue.
If something like that happens, who will survive then? The vicious, the ruthless and the brutal. The very people who are politically incorrect, or even criminal today – the paranoid, the angry, the violent, the child-beaters – they and their children will quickly dominate the globe.
In such a scenario, my kids’ only chance would either be to quickly learn to murder other people in cold blood over food and other resources; or to rapidly repair the old mechanical systems, and defend them with deadly force from others. They might also survive if they are enslaved to the vicious. Absent these options, my children will lose out, suffer and die.
And if that happens then my wife and I, and most devoted parents, will have bet our children’s lives on the wrong strategy.
Medea by Anselm Feuerbach courtesy of Wikimedia.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||The Hunger Games has been highly successful, but it’s fiction. A similar story could be written about Spartan boys, which would be based entirely on fact.|