Sunday, June 26, 2011

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Toddler?

A number of bold writers have attempted to predict future states of human society. Perhaps the two best known works of such speculative fiction were written in the first half of the twentieth century. These two novels offer competing visions of humanity's potentially dysfunctional future. One is Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. First published in 1932, this novel describes a society in which human beings are genetically engineered to fit into rigid social castes, which they occupy from birth to death. In Huxley's fictional world, it is impossible for any person to raise his or her social standing; in fact, people are systematically brainwashed to accept their assigned lots in life. Feelings are controlled by drugs, so normal human emotions such as depression and anxiety have (supposedly) been eliminated. Another unforgettable example is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, published originally in 1949. Orwell satirized, and warned against, Soviet-style dictatorship. His tale is set in an imagined future civilization dominated by an omnipotent, omniscient, unseen entity known as "Big Brother." In this environment, the individual is completely insignificant; people live only as functionaries to perpetuate the totalitarian state, which controls every aspect of every person's existence. While both novels are compelling, neither Huxley nor Orwell could have predicted the twenty-first century. The true victor in this de facto competition offered a more chilling, and relevant, vision than either of them could have imagined.

In his intriguing 1985 work, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, cultural critic Neil Postman compared these two visions of the future. Postman's book is a blistering critique of the modern entertainment culture. The author argues powerfully that the prevalence of mind-numbing, commercially-driven television has reduced all discourse to utter nonsense. No serious discussion of issues is possible when any message, no matter how critical, can and will be interrupted by a vapid advertisement for beer, complete with asinine musical jingle. Both literacy and education have fallen victim to the devastation wrought by television. Thus, asserts Postman, Huxley's version of the future, in which "what we love will destroy us," essentially appears to have been fulfilled.

On first reading, it is difficult to argue with Postman's declaration of Huxley as the more accurate prophet of doom; however, developments of the past quarter-century have refuted Postman. In fact, both Huxley and Orwell missed the mark. Their bizarre visions of the future have been superseded by that of the very prescient science fiction writer, William Gibson.

Gibson is best known for having coined the word "cyberspace." His books predicted technologies such as virtual reality and the commercial Internet, long before those terms became household words. Most of his novels are set in a world without boundaries, in which which fantasy and reality have merged. One example is Idoru, which tells of a "relationship" between a human rock star and an artificial celebrity (an "idoru") created in Japan. The human being declares his intent to marry a virtual one, a figment of its society's collective imagination. In today's society of social networks, instant messaging and a twenty-four-hour news cycle, Gibson's stories are increasingly less far-fetched. Day by day, Gibson's fictional world seems, and feels, hauntingly similar to our own.

When the wall between the real and the imaginary is breached, the consequences for can be far-reaching. The erasure of the boundaries between the real and the imagined has extended to a breakdown in the societal boundaries once considered sacrosanct. In Western societies, this breakdown means that children often are raised with an ingrained sense of entitlement, sometimes a comically extreme one.

A prominent rabbi in the Los Angeles Jewish community recently addressed that sense of entitlement and the challenges that it poses for parents. Many parents feel subservient to their children, even duty-bound to indulge their children's desires for material gratification. One story involved a woman whose nine-year-old son demanded the latest Pokemon toy. This woman searched for the toy in a store, but discovered that the item had been sold out. She asked the store's personnel if any toys were left in stock, and learned, to her chagrin, that none remained. In desperation, she then requested a note from the store's management stating that no toys were left, but the store was unwilling to comply with her request. Horrified, the poor mother was forced to return home and to face the wrath of her nine-year-old son. In another case, a toddler in a shoe store settled on a pair of shoes that she liked. When the proprietor recommended a different pair of shoes, a healthier and better fitting pair, the child refused to switch shoes. Her mother apologetically told the proprietor that her daughter truly wanted the other shoes, and that she therefore had to buy them. Numerous such incidents occur daily throughout the Western world.

The rabbi suggested economics as an important contributor to this sense of entitlement among children. In earlier generations, consumer credit was either nonexistent or available only to the wealthiest members of the society. Consequently, most individuals had only limited access to consumer goods; one could spend only the money available in his or her wallet or bank account at the time of each purchase. Thus, for the vast majority of the population, ownership of luxury items was out of the question; since those items were completely inaccessible, one neither considered owning them nor felt entitled to them. However, the extension of consumer credit to the masses has  made expensive goods such as sophisticated electronic device and luxury cars available to people in a wide range of socioeconomic levels. The possibility of on-demand use of an item that one cannot afford has led many individuals to feel that they must have that item, and that they therefore deserve it. As a result, many children have come to expect their parents to get them whatever they want, simply because they have never been told, "No, we can't afford that."

Effective parenting, said our speaker, requires a certain balance. It may be a difficult balance to achieve, but well worth the effort required in attaining it. A parent must be able to say "no" to a child's demands without imposing intolerable limits that stifle the child. On the other hand, one must be ready to give what one's child what he or she wants, when appropriate, without  engendering in the child a sense that he or she automatically deserves anything that strikes his or her fancy. Jewish tradition cautions us that "the right hand draws close, and the left hand pushes away." When one pulls with the right hand while pushing with the left hand, the affected person or object is literally turned around. In a deeper sense, a judicious parent will use his or her strengths and abilities to maintain a close relationship with a child, while sometimes - less forcefully - setting necessary and tolerable boundaries. Eventually, this approach will empower the child to recognize what is and what is not important, valuable, safe, and proper. He or she will be transformed, "turned around," a responsible human being with boundaries intact.

This challenge may seem a daunting one in the modern era of instant, on-demand gratification, but it is achievable. A key strategy is to create a culture characterized by striving, to counteract the prevailing sense of entitlement. Children can learn to earn rewards, by gradually improving in some area or by demonstrating consistent performance, rather than receiving deserved benefits. The concept of working towards a desired benefit eventually can supplant (to some degree) the idea of receiving it as an automatic, deserved gift. As a personal observation, I would add that any physical or personal benefit obtained as an achieved goal is more valued by the recipient than an unexpected gift. With a bit of thought and effort, we can transform our children and ourselves into balanced, goal-oriented, people who approach life with an effective balance. A world without boundaries can be relegated to the realm of science fiction.