Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Raising the Cultural Bar

This past week, our next-to-youngest child celebrated his fourth birthday. It's a new era for him and for our family. I am proud to usher in this new era with my new blog, Wyckoff Works of Wonder. Here, you'll find updates on my writing, new information about upcoming books and stories, and my musings on children's literature, childhood, parenthood, and whatever else is on my mind.

I've chosen to begin my inaugural post with a review of a compelling book: The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization. It's an eye-opening work by Diana West, published in 2007.

Every so often, you read a book that gives you pause, that challenges you to rethink some prior notions on life, society or the human condition. If you're fortunate, you may discover a work that literally changes your life, a true gem that throws your entire worldview for a loop. The Death of the Grown-Up is one of those books.

In this brilliantly researched study on the place of childhood within the modern American (and, by extension, Western) cultural matrix, Diana West argues that we, as a society, are in serious trouble. Here's why. Over the past seven decades, the norm in the parent-child relationship has shifted from a focus on the child's responsibility toward his parents to an emphasis on the parents' responsibility toward their children. Parents acquiesce to their children's demands for ever more liberty that they can't handle responsibly, and even provide the necessary means, money and venues for indulgence.The notion of childhood has thereby evolved (devolved?) significantly since 1940; what was once considered a temporary developmental stage on the road to eventual maturity and adulthood has become an end in itself. The goal of "growing up" has been largely abandoned in favor of a perpetual adolescence. (Remember those Toys 'R' Us ads from the 1980s?) This societal Peter Pan Syndrome has allowed behaviors and social mores once shunned by mainstream society as childish, or even obscene, to gain widespread acceptance; indeed, those formerly immature, fringe behaviors have redefined the mainstream. Examples abound. West enumerates, among other symptoms, the widespread proliferation of rock music and its many variants, the ever-aging segment of the population that plays video games, the childish modes of dress preferred by many adults, the loss of respect for age-old institutions such as marital fidelity, and the continual breakdown of moral restraint exhibited by adults. Before 1941, the word "teenager" was absent from the American lexicon; today, a vast corporate empire exists to indulge teenage wants, whims and "needs." The modern torrent of silly, vapid reading material aimed at teenagers (almost exclusively girls) began in 1944 with the initial publication of Seventeen magazine.

The Death of the Grown-Up is more than a coherent plea for adult responsibility. It is a call to action. It has provided a vision for Wyckoff Works of Wonder and for my writing career.

When the grown-ups left this world, they took a large portion of the world's decent children's literature with them. Today, many authors and other adults have no objection to the literary filth often marketed to children. As the standards of education and moral behavior are dumbed-down, some argue that children's literature also needs to be dumbed-down. One author who has written some excellent, enthralling works for younger children - along with some more risque ones for older children - has stated on her web site that today's children often are exposed to many abuses and vices in real life; therefore, it's fitting for them to read books about kids who must grapple with abusive, vice-ridden circumstances. Doesn't she have a point?

Nonsense, I say. It's time to take a stand. It's time to expose our children, our most precious assets, to new possibilities. Let them read books that show them what it means to live in a stable family, if they're not fortunate to have such a luxury at home. Let them see the consequences of making the right choices, if their personal surroundings do not provide them with the right choices. Let them read about characters who strive to improve themselves, and to rise above their circumstances, if they're surrounded daily by cynics, losers and people with no goals. Literature can provide an escape from the drudgery of a dysfunctional life that the reader never created, but such an escape is of little value if one's literary world replicates one's own, familiar dysfunctionality. If, on the other hand, a child uses literature to escape to a world of stable relationships, solid values and people who aspire to something greater than themselves, then he or she has a real chance of transcending his current limitations. He or she will be able to envision a more desirable, and stable, future for himself. At the very least, he or she will know what it means to strive toward a bright future as a morally responsible and stable adult, leaving behind the peer or family group of dysfunctional Toys 'R' Us kids who daily try to drag him or her into their pathetic abyss.

West has penned an obituary for the grown-up, but her book is more than a death notice; it's a wake-up call. It is time to raise the bar. As adults, we have a responsibility to provide our children (not just our own) with a world that is stable, secure, safe, respectable, fulfilling, and happy. We must provide them with a desirable, achievable vision of adulthood, along with a taste for what it means to be a mensch. We must inspire them to strive, to yearn to become more than they could possibly imagine.

My first novel, Yaakov the Pirate Hunter is about adventurous, persistent children who ultimately achieve a lot more than they thought possible. Read more about it here. It is the first in what I hope will be many works of wonder.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Nate!
    I have often wondered at the lack of motivation among our generation, and those just a few years younger, to step-up and take the mantle as responsible adults, parents, and role models.

    When I look back sometimes at the behavior of people I met even years back as an undergraduate in college - even then, to be honest, I saw a stark difference in values. Sure, having a good time was nice, but I alsmost wondered why no-one else ever seemed to really get down to work or take their classes seriously. But one can undersatnd that: that is the age for it, they'd never had such personal freedom, one short time in their livs, etc.

    At this point, however, it almost seems that many of those people (people of my generational cohort) have still failed to get down to business. And that's pathetic.

    How many continue to put off marriage, parenthood, or responsible personal financial management in favor of perpetuating a "good tiems all the time" mindset?? Too many, it seems.

    OK -- great post! I've said too much.
    I will read this book as well.