Saturday, July 2, 2011

Kids and Culture

Everyone was a kid once upon a time.
Except my dad.
He used to tell us that before he was a grown up, he used to be a boy.  And before that he was a girl.  And before THAT he was a dog.  And a raccoon.  So my dad didn't have a childhood, really: more of a collage of animal and human experiences.
Across the board, all places in the world experience childhood.  What are some universals?  Kids love to play.  I've seen street kids in India make toys out of broken yogurt pots next to road stands, kids in rural Thailand play barefoot soccer, and my kids play for hours with sticks and rocks in our backyard.  Some other universals~sibling rivalry, the terrible twos, rapid growth and development, and pretty constant noise and activity.

Kids are necessary in society.  Of course they are necessary for the continuation of the species (I guess we live one generation away from extinction, after all), but I mean as a part of the fabric of society.  They help us to experience life in an immediate, wonder-filled manner that fully embraces the present.  They make us laugh.  They make us stretch outside of ourselves in order to meet their many needs, daily.  They remind adults not to take life too seriously, and that sometimes, a little time without noise and chaos and kid whimsy is nice.

How much time without the noise and chaos of kids can we expect?  When?  Where?  I know I've been in the grocery store or a restaurant and wished someone's child wasn't there.  [Or my own, ha ha].  We have kid free zones: pubs, nude beaches, police cars, and most workplaces.  But I think our culture could stand to love kids a little more in those non-kid free zones.  Like airplanes.  Or airports.  Or buses.  Grocery stores.  Standing in line at the movies.  We value our children when it comes to their safety or their education, but when it comes to actually integrating them into society there is some leftover desire for children to be 'seen and not heard' as they navigate our public places.  Or even not to be seen at all.  Why is that?  What is it about public space that makes it belong more to the ADULT in the space than the CHILD who is also in that space?  We all have to learn how to behave in public spaces, but of course to learn all of us have to practice.  And while we practice, sometimes we fail.  Sometimes we are tired, hungry, lonely, overwhelmed, overstimulated, or feeling far from home.  Kids are no different.  They are human beings, after all, don't they deserve some consideration?  Also, babies have immediate needs including hunger, and a right to their most natural food~can we be a little more tolerant of breastfeeding in public places?

When I was a student in University I spent 2 semesters as an exchange student in Russia.  Russian society grapples with many problems and difficulties but one thing they know how to do is childhood.  Children are seen as valuable creatures, and the responsibility of all to protect and nurture.  If a person boards a bus with a child, the entire busload of people focuses on making sure that child is comfortable.  School and children's programs across the country are often free, including summer camps, sports, art, and recreation activities, because childhood is considered an idyllic time in life which should be free from worry and as enriched as possible.  Children who are cared for by the state live in orphanages (which are kept to various standards, some not high, I acknowledge), and the communities surrounding these orphanages often have extensive volunteer programs to involve the community in these children's lives.  Children frequent operas, ballet, theatre, symphony performances, restaurants, and public transportation without question.  There are always exceptions, but the cultural focus was different in Russia than it is here.  People complained about children's manners and *the way it used to be* just as they do here, but it was never questioned that children are a valued part of the fabric of society and are welcome and accepted in all public places.

I think of course that it is important to teach our kids manners and acceptable behavior in public, because it is considerate and respectful of others to tame the Wild Beast that lives in all of us while we are in close proximity to other people.  But I think it is also important that we as a culture shift our perspective a bit to integrate children into our lives to the point where they are valued and understood.  And accommodated.  Yes, kids climb things they shouldn't and knock over plants and talk too loudly and poop their pants in the bank manager's office!  But you know, they also remind us to think outside the box, enjoy special moments, and embrace the present moment.

 I think it follows that a culture that values children also values those who care for them.  So often I feel like the frumpy frazzled mom [read: irrelevant person], and I know that parents often feel undervalued in society as a whole.  Of course Russia was a communist state for seventy years, and as a result was steeped in socialist ideology that elevated every member of society to an equal footing and equal value.  By no means is Russia an ideal society, but I admire the way they treat children and view childhood, and believe that their culture is richer as a result.  It is difficult to describe a typical social situation involving a child in Russian culture, but it is similar to how a field of sunflower heads follows the rays of the sun: every adult in the room continues their activities and conversations, but their attention follows the children in the room to ensure they are happy and fulfilled.  Attachment parenting en masse by society as a whole.
And cries of "Buddish kusheit?" [are you hungry?] follow the children around as babushka bags open everywhere and in the deep recesses appear cookies!  Wrapped candies!  Tarts!  Toys!

What better way to engage a child than with cookies?

Of course, on the other hand sometimes I get a little steeped in my kids' childhood.  Sometimes Attachment minded parents can fetishize their children's lives to the point where nothing they do or read or think about is unincorporated with childhood.  Really, a hands off approach is sometimes warranted.  Sometimes I really want to get away from my kids and think adult words for awhile, and do adult work.  It doesn't help that I write for the Natural Parents Network, the Mothers of Change website, do work sometimes as a doula, and make handmade children's toys.  Even my work is steeped in childhood.  The advocacy work I do for Mothers of Change is also about women, but birth involves children, of course.  It is interesting, this dichotomy; embrace and integrate the child, but don't lose yourself in the childhood....

What do you think?  How do you balance integration with individual adult needs?  What do you think of children in public spaces?  Has your perspective on this changed over the years and as a result of your life experiences?


Louise and Gary Chapman said...

All I can say is that over the past 5 years, something that has been so beneficial to me has been football. I would have a practice and a game each week which meant I was away from my home and totally immersed in another mindset. I could just worry about myself. I would carpool in with friends where we could talk about dating, books, movies,life and exercise. It was so important to leave the breastfeeding and diaper talk behind. And also, the exercise, so great!

In regards to kids in public places, I love seeing them everywhere. I like seeing their interactions, how the respond to situations etc. I think it's the pysch minor in me:)

Anyway, you are a blogging machine, keep it up!

Tonya said...

Interesting what you are saying about Russia. I've always heard such negative things about children who are adopted from Russia and their problems - huge attachment issues. And yet, from what you say, that should seem to not be the case. Maybe I have just heard the bad stories, you know?

Rebecca said...

Hi Melissa! It's been a while!
I go to a kid friendly church and live in a kid friendly building, and my work place is generally kid friendly too -- the kids can come hang out with me while I work once in a while, and they're welcome at most of the social events. One thing I still love doing by myself, though, is grocery shopping -- and that's because it goes so much faster without all the "No, we can't get that, it has too much sugar." But the other day, at the grocery store, my four year old went over and gave a complete stranger a bear hug, bringing tears to her eyes -- that's why we need kids in public spaces!