January 22, 2013 § 11 Comments
A couple of days after we slaughtered the pigs, we ushered a couple of lambs into the freezer. As usual, the boys were enthusiastic participants, keen to wield the blade, so to speak, and so once the second lamb was hanging from the gambrel Penny and I retreated to the house to warm our toes, leaving the fellas to finish separating skin from flesh. Again, I was nervous about it: What if they screwed up? What if one of them got cut? What if, what if, what if…
The truth is, I sometimes struggle to trust my kids. Not “trust” as in “believe them,” but “trust” as in “believe in them.” It’s a crucial distinction, I think, the difference between simply believing they are honest, and believing they are capable. Of course, one does not preclude the other, and honesty is a revered quality around these parts. But capability is equally revered. Perhaps even more so, it is the act of becoming capable that we revere and our desire for them to have the sense that the process of becoming capable in any particular skill or pursuit is transferable to other skills and pursuits. Frankly, I don’t think this can happen if we don’t trust them. If we don’t just believe them, but believe in them.
I’m not sure our culture believes in its children as fully as it once did, and I think this is because we have created institutionalized arrangements that simply can’t afford the imprecision, uncertainty and occasional chaos that fully trusting children entails. I think about the tremendous rise in diagnosis of “behavioral disorders” and the subsequent increase in prescriptions of psychotropic drugs among school-age children: A twenty-fold increase over the past three decades. In 2011 alone, a 19% rise in sales of Ritalin. Are there really that many more kids with these issues, or is it possible that the arrangements we have created have made it extremely difficult to accommodate those whose personalities do not conform? Furthermore, if you’re asking a child to take drugs to modify their behavior so that they might fit within the accepted boundaries set by an industrialized educational system, are you not essentially suggesting that you do not trust who they innately are? To be sure, there are cases that might warrant such intervention, but still: A 2000% increase in 30 years? A 19% increase in the sales of just one of these drugs in a single year? Clearly, there’s something else going on, here.
I might be wrong about this, but I am beginning to think that many aspects of contemporary American life are not compatible with trusting our children. On a purely pragmatic level, believing in children takes time, which so many of us feel unable to spare, pushed as we are by careers and our collective faith that “busyness” is the hallmark of a life well lived. I know I could have skinned that lamb far faster than my boys, and there was a part of me that wanted to push them aside purely for that reason: It was a full day. There was much to do. And the biggest lie of all, I couldn’t spare the time. I think of a day a couple months back, when I was laying out the cedar poles that would form the uprights for the shelter we’re building over the sawmill. Rye wanted to help, and I had to stop myself from turning him away, because of course his “help” would slow down the process. And what if he measured to the wrong spot, or misidentified the numbers on the tape measure?
So trusting kids takes time, and it demands enormous patience, because of course the process of attaining capability does not begin with capability. Indeed, it begins most often with failure, or some version of it. Here too is another aspect of contemporary American culture that does not lend itself to trusting our kids, because of course we are socialized to not believe in failure. We are socialized to believe in American exceptionalism, in individualized achievement. In excellence.
To be honest, the boys did not achieve excellence with the lamb. “I think we sort of screwed it up,” Fin told me, when he ventured inside to retrieve Penny and me. And in a sense he was right, although the damage was primarily cosmetic. But in another sense, he was entirely wrong, because by taking on the job in the first place, the boys had done something even bigger than forcing me to believe in them: They’d believed in themselves.