Lucy is an 8-year-old girl who has a range of interests broader than that of an ordinary adult. She is enrolled in an international school, where classes are taught in French by native speakers. Her classmates are children of expats from different cultures, which amuses her nanny, who, when picking her up from school, says that she “took her from the children’s UN.”
Until last year, every other day, Lucy went to piano lessons after school, because her parents wanted her to develop an artistic sense and a taste for music. This year, however, they took into account her changing preferences and, given the growing demands of the labour market for technical specialists, they enrolled her in an expensive robotics course for children.
When she is not at her robotics or swimming lessons, Lucy is at her German classes. Both her parents have management positions in a multinational company based in Germany and are already thinking about a career prospect that is at least as good for Lucy.
Their sizable incomes allow them a mobility that most people can only dream of. However, Lucy’s parents are not trying to impress anyone. They believe they have a duty to make the best out of their many privileges, and consider themselves obligated to make use of them so that their little girl can enjoy life: develop her brain, refine her senses, and cultivate solid ethics. They want her to get to know, experience and explore the best and most beautiful things this world has to offer.
For them, money is a simple tool by which they can create graceful paths for their daughter. Only when she grows up will she realise how blessed she was to be able to be brought up in an environment where the whole world is at her feet, and she is free to create her own paths.
Lucy and her parents are fictional characters. However, although they are not real, such parents do exist and are painfully and clearly portrayed in the dreams of parents with much lower incomes but who have desires as high and as legitimate as those of the parents I just invented. What parent wouldn’t want their children to grow up and reach their full potential? The only thing that makes a difference is the method used to obtain this desire.
In a New Yorker article, essayist David Sedaris describes a life management theory that is self-explanatory to most of us, yet so plastic that it manages to hit a sensitive chord. “The four burners theory”, as it is called, views life as a four-burner stove: the first is family, the second is friendship, the third is health and the last is work. The message of this theory is that in order to be truly successful in one area, we have to cut off one of the burners (any of them)—and in order to be really successful, we have to cut off two.
Because the theory has a dose of truth, we are not surprised to hear stories about people who, in order to consolidate a successful career, give up going out with friends or ignore their health. Similarly, it is not surprising to hear of people who choose the combination of career and health, reducing the time spent with family and friends.
However, we learn through education that this combination of choices is individualistic and selfish, therefore it is not viewed with approval, nor recommended. On the contrary, the advice that many young people receive is that spending time with the family is important, especially with the little ones. “To a child love is spelt T-I-M-E” has become a mantra of developed societies—that is, those in which the multitude of activities require more time than the parents have at their disposal. Moreover, studies show that the ubiquity of this advice in the media, whether we are talking about parenting articles or family movies, has paid off.
The paradox of time
A very interesting trend discovered by sociologists is that higher-educated parents spend more time in the presence of their children than less-educated parents. What makes this finding interesting is the way it clashes with the finding that today’s parents work longer hours than the parents of previous generations, a change that is felt especially in the case of mothers. So, while they spend more time working on their education, higher-educated parents spend more quality time with their children.
Which burner of the stove is cut off in this case? Probably health, because the days of these parents also only last 24 hours and, of course, these parents also need time to sleep. However, it seems that highly educated parents are willing to give up their sleep time rather than time spent with their children.
An ‘arms race’
By the way they are structured, the developed societies of the moment push individuals to progress because anyone who does not keep up is left behind. That is why many parents consider it their duty to make the most of their financial resources and time, to ensure that their children have access to premium education. Some are even willing to make big sacrifices to see their children make it. However, if we believe the analysis that journalist Ryan Avent published in 1843 Magazine (under the auspices of The Economist), these desires of fulfilment may be in the interests of the parents rather than that of the children.
In more detail and with more examples, Avent talks about a real ‘arms race’ for children in developed societies. Parents “arm” their children with everything they think is best, such as skills and knowledge, so that they are prepared as early as possible for the great competition—college—that devises the categorisation of lives into interesting and valuable, or mediocre and difficult (a phenomenon that has been statistically documented many times).
According to Avent (and backed up by polls), American parents, especially the most educated of them, are aware that graduating from a good college may be the key to opening the door to a more fulfilling life for their children. However, given that this achievement mentality has become entrenched among parents, leading to an exponential increase in competition for admission to top colleges, well-meaning parents have found themselves enrolled in a marathon of additional training for their children, which does not only deplete their resources, but also exhausts the little ones, burdening their childhood with worries that they should not have to deal with.
This competition widens the economic gap that already exists in developed societies, because, by its unfair mechanisms, economic inequality leads to the transfer of the financial situation of parents to their now-adult children. In other words, it perpetuates economic class. Why? Because resourceless parents cannot afford to invest in their children’s education in the same way as parents who do have the resources to do so. Conversely, parents who have money will compete with each other in the education they provide to their children, artificially raising the bar and making it impossible for the lower-class children to catch up.
A study published by the prestigious The Lancet showed that children who are not properly fed and who are not cared for and stimulated as they need to be will most likely end up earning about 26% less than other adults. The researchers referred to a phenomenon they call “stunting” and said that the first two years of life were a critical period to prevent this from happening.
Undernourished children living in extreme poverty have learning difficulties because poverty also affects the brain. Stress caused by childhood poverty could affect those brain functions responsible for regulating emotions, say American researchers from the Universities of Illinois, Cornell, Michigan and Denver. The study’s coordinator, Dr K. Luan Phan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois, demonstrated through an experiment on 49 subjects that in the adult participants who lived in poverty as children, there were dysfunctions in two regions of the brain, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia, showed that poverty can impede the development of intellectual capacity. Worrying about the future can cause the brain to function as if it had lost 13 IQ points.
However, the focus returns on the parents because, according to American researchers in a study published in JAMA Paediatrics, parents could reduce these effects by nurturing their children. When poor parents care for their children, the little ones are at a lower risk of developing cognitive problems than those whose parents do not care as much for them. In other words, parental love can make up for the financial shortcomings, but it also means that low-income parents need to be helped to care for their children.
A careful assessment of developed societies reveals that there are two antagonistic currents influencing the upbringing of children: formally educating them according to a rigorous program to discipline them in their childhood, versus educating them informally, leaving them free to explore the world at their own pace. The first is a path that is not accessible to everyone.
A rigorous educational path is a difficult one for children but it has a great chance of securing them a financially stable future. On the other hand, it has the disadvantage of putting pressure on those children, and indirectly on other children, their parents, and society. The second path is born in response to the first and does not pursue its complete opposite, but rather seeks to temper the tendencies of burdening children with tasks and to eliminate the reasons for the physical and mental exhaustion of children.
The choice between the two is a dilemma that causes anxiety to many well-meaning parents who cannot decide which one is better for their children but want to avoid regretting later that they have negatively influenced their children’s future with their decision.
This dilemma is natural, but it is not universal. Although we may be tempted to believe that such questions are at the forefront of raising children, in reality, they are a result of the values that dominate our cultural space.
Ethno-theories about raising children
Parents in different parts of the world value their children’s abilities in very different ways. For example, although intelligence is highly valued in most cultures, parents will interpret its cues differently.
For many European or American parents, the fact that their children are bombarding them with questions is perceived as a sign of intelligence. Italian parents will perceive the questioning as proof of the children’s sociality (and they will be happy because sociality is highly valued in Italy, as it is in Spain).
Instead, in the Netherlands, asking many questions is viewed as a negative attribute because it means the child is too dependent. For them, the child’s independence is of higher value. These and other such differences were collected by Sara Harkness, a professor of human development at the University of Connecticut.
Harkness believes that American society has developed “almost [an] obsession with cognitive development in the early years” and as a result, American parents tend to overlook many other aspects. These aspects should not be sought in an additional list of activities, but rather in a list of fewer. In Spain, for example, they believe that a simple stroll through the neighbourhood is very stimulating for children. They can get to know their neighbours and interact with them, and they can also develop their spatial orientation.
Americans have exported their child-rearing ethnocentric ideas to other Western societies that look up to American culture. This would not be a bad thing if this ethnocentric theory did not exclude from its list of priorities useful values for individuals that other cultures, even relatively unknown ones, stimulate much more effectively. For example, says Harkens, in the Kipsigis community of rural Kenya there is an expression, ng’om, that describes a child who is not only intelligent but also responsible. The mere existence of this concept reveals a philosophy of raising children with the desire to assist them in developing the ability to take responsibility for their actions and help others.
The impressive variety of valid parenting methods can be an encouragement to parents who can’t answer with confidence the question, “What can I do better for my child?” For some, even the prospect of such anguished concerns causes them to postpone indefinitely the decision to have a child.
“What if I can’t provide everything they need? What if I can’t protect them enough? What if…?” The array of questions seems to be directly proportional to the maturity of the potential parent. But this is only partially true. Probably, after a yet-unknown number of “what ifs”, the enumeration of questions rather shows the person’s fear of losing control of the situation when a baby appears. But this fear is natural and beneficial, to an extent.
What do we do with fear?
The movie Arrival has a theme of an existential sensibility, unexpectedly for a commercial movie. We see Louise, the main character, facing a decision that each of us takes in the form of a risk resulting from uncertainty about the future. Unlike us, however, Louise knows for sure what her future will look like: she will have a baby girl who will develop fatal cancer. Moreover, she and her little girl will have to fight this cruel battle by themselves, because the girl’s father will have left them precisely out of fear of everything that fighting the disease entails.
The moment of this discovery is also a moment when Louise can choose to change the course of her destiny and avert all the suffering that is waiting for her. Still, she chooses to move forward. Although she knows that the one who proposes to her will abandon her, she accepts his marriage proposal and then accepts his suggestion to have a child.
The emotional plot of the movie is built on parallelism with our existential questions: If we knew the end from the beginning, would we choose the same path we are about to take now? If we knew that the end was a sad one, would we consider it worthwhile to start anyway? The unspoken moral is that the experience of love is, in itself, so valuable that it cannot be nullified by suffering. It is, in essence, a beautiful declaration of love for life and an assurance that, although life sometimes strikes hard, undeservedly and incomprehensibly, the blessing of living is worth our painful sacrifice.
To a similar extent, the dilemma of choosing the best method of educating children is a sign of responsibility. However, letting ourselves be paralysed by fear when we have important decisions to make about our children is a sign that we need to remind ourselves that there isn’t only one way to be happy in life. If we fail to hold fast to this truth, the entire future of our children is doomed to fail as well. Therefore, there are many ways in which we can support our children to become fulfilled adults.
Alina Kartman is senior editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.