In 1958, A YOUNG Air Force physician from New England began to probe the lives of children growing up in Mississippi during the last years of segregation. Using a method of "direct observation" learned from Ann Freud and Erik H. Erikson, and a style of reporting remindful of James Agee, Dr. Robert Coles produced in 1961 Children of Crisis I: A Study of Courage and Fear.
That work blossomed into five volumes over 17 years. Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers and The South Goes North (volumes 2 and 3 of Children of Crisis ) took Coles to Appalachia and to the new northern homes of southern children. Now, the series concludes with its masterpiece, Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians, and an ironical denouement, Privileged Ones: The Well-Off and the Rich in America.
Coles has not tried to contruct a uniform model of childrearing. Instead, he offers us "a child psychiaticist's and a pediatrician's naturalistic observations" of particular boys and girls. Coles talks, plays, draws, and sits in silence with them in their natural or everyday situations. He comes with no agenda, he is not a hunter after gain. He is after the stories that children tell themselves about themselves. In Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians, he keeps his theorizing to summary chapters. Thus he removes himself in the form of "I" from the children's narrative - a perfection of his earlier style and, he says, a personal "relief" - and gives wider discretion to his seeing eye. The product is this sensual portrait of growing up in America.
Childhood for the poor can be brief and an adelescence of schooling and play may yield to the necessity of earning one's own keep and to the responsibilities, the birthright, handed down by the tribe or community. While rich children show a loyalty to the money, if not always to the social views of their parents, poor children are often loyal to their poverty, which is the fate of the people.
No one can deny the need for money, but some of the people Coles encountered do have other priorities. Some wants to be left to cultivate their own language, old ways of hunting and easting, and traditional identities. Nor, is this sentiment found only among old or defeated people on reservations. Joe, a 13-year-old Eskimo boy walks miles with his father to shed the noise of motorcycles and snowmobiles and to listen to the ducks. "That's the kind of noise my father and I like to hear!"
Hopi and Pueblo children regard the white man as a pluderer, who, in the pursuit of wealth, turns the land into a junk pile. "he spoils everything he touches, our father says - incluing us, the Indians!" Rose, a nine-year-old Pueblo girl from New Mexico is full of fight. "That's what my father wants all of us to remember - that we should fight the white man right here, in our house and outside, on our land, by being different from him." Pueblo and Hopi children are taught, in Coles's words, "to care passionately for the land . . . in the hope that others will do likewise."
Is this hope farfetched? Is the Indian point of view hopelessly obsolete? Or is it on the horizon? Whatever its outcome, this attitude for the present stands between the Indian and vanquishment. It is an "entirely assertive resignation," and the people who practice it have something in common, Coles suggests, with "Kierkegard's Christ, the Man who confused just about everyone by His willingness to be defeated so long as he made clear His beliefs - in the hope that, ultimately, others would come to see their value."
This kind of fight must have troubled Coles. He was trained in the South and in Appalachia to observe children in the context of a protest movement, knowing that he "might be of some practical help to the harrassed participants." But among the poor peoples of the Americans West, he found no one overriding issue, no representative movement to voice the people's outrage. Among Indians especially, he observed "a distinct unwillingness to shake one's fist at the world, rise up, and change the social order." The fight was deep in the home territory, in the consciences of individuals - not a fight that invites outsiders to participate.
Coles entered these communities as a doctor and stayed on to learn from the children. Their "crisis" was not a response to specific historical events, such as the desegregation of a school system, but rather a continuing emergency. How do young Eskimos, Chicanos, and Indians come to know themselves in the midst of the conquerer's world? What should they do with their lives? Should one follow the ways of ancestor and parents, or strive instead to be modern and to express oneself as a consumer, property owner, profit maker? On this road the chances for success are slim.
Many well-meaning white teachers advise poor children not to crave the modern - to preserve Eskimos "culture." But this is a waste of time. Mary a 13-year-old girl in a small Arctic village, accuses her teacher of "trying to sound like an Eskimos,'" of "talking like she thought an Eskimo talked, or like she thought we all should talk." Mary wants to be free to choose what is good from both worlds. Not all white people are plunderers, she knows, and not everything they bring is bad: penicillin and electricity are welcome additions to Eskimos life.
Eskimo parents tell their children not to speak their minds to white people, rather "ask them what they believe and what thye want, and be friendly with them." Parents and grandparents teach other survival skills how to catch and dry fish, to care for the dogs, and to act with "modesty and civility" toward animals as well as people. An adult Eskimo's sense of himself or herself as simply one among the many worthwhile beings and forces in the world may be, says Coles, the most significant lesson to the Eskimo child, "the influence" that most shapes the child's thoughts and behavior. The drawings of Eskimo children are "hauntingly unpopulated." They convey the tentativeness of material life in the Arctic, the primacy of spirits, and the passing of thought and vanity, borne away on wind and buried under snow.
The drawings of the Chicano children of the Rio Grande Valley center on pople. White authority figures appear bigger than life: a teacher as tall as a school building with a mouth the size of a child's head; a sheriff with enormous ears so that he can take orders, above whom the sun crawls like a spider, the "big boss," the grower, a man three times the size of the farm workers, rearing back on his horse, the grower's daughter with a rifle in her hand, a girl who hates injustice and dreams of leading a revolution in the Valley.
Chicano children feel they are living under survellince. Teachers are always mocking their "laziness" and doubting their allegiance to this country. Though born in the United States, they are called Mexicans, or Mexican-Americans, distinguished from "Anglos" by their language, skin color, and employment. But "'bad as it is here,'" says the father of 12-year-old Domingo, "'our people'" have it worse in Mexico. Domingo's mother, disagrees; she won't listen when her husband feels "'lucky'" to live in Texas. It is all confusing to a child. Domingo's grandfather came to Texas from Mexico many years ago, but Domingo can never be a Texan" the way some Texans are Texans'" Mr. Long, the grower who employs him, is what the foreman calls "'a real Texan'" though he was born someplace else.
Domingo will probably stay in Texas, in the Valley. There is no viable alternative in the immediate past, and he looks toward the future, as do many Chicano children, with "a certain reasonable gloom." But what becomes of him in the Valley is not determined. He is later than other Chicano children "to renounce personal ambition." His camaraderie with the white foreman puts a distance, overcome by joking, between him and his people. With outsiders he is energetic, even talkative. In psychological terms you might say he has an identity crisis ahead of him, a time he will have to accept or reject for himself the destiny of the Chicanos.
Coles is extremely reluctant to pin children with "authoritative diagnostic and prognostic statements." He does speak of the absence of "phobias" among Eskimo children. But his clinical outlook is evident more in the breadth of his gaze than in his language. Sometimes he has to go against his training, as when he meets as Indian child who "not only sees fit to say nothing, but seems strangely, wonderously, unnervingly disinclined to speak." He has been taught to ask himself if the silent child is "troubled" or "sick." Now he asks a radically different question. Is it possible "that some children are brought up to be quite most of the time, not out of fear or because of various inhibitions and anxieties, but as a quite natural and even active way of responding to the world?"
By removing the discussion from the setting of "normality" and "pathology" Coles fixes attention on cultural and social forces. In this light, we find surprising unities between children who grow up in "racially connected poverty" and children who grow up rich. Both are aware, by the age of 7 or 8, of their special inheritance. In Eskimos, Chicano, and Indian families, this amounts to a knowledge of dispossession. Among the well-foo, the inheritance is an "entitlement," an expression of emotional attachment to "those familiar, class-bound prerogatives, money and power." Entitlement is an extension into childhood of the omnipotence all infants experience, when the world outside, the body exists merely to supply their wants.
The children in Previleged Ones: The Well-Off and the Rich, learn early how to regard their social and economic inferiors - just as poor children lear an etiquette for dealing with those who have power over them. Veronica, a nine-year-old girl whose father owns a plantation in the Mississippi delta, hears her parents praise then disparage their servants. Ultimately, she locates the inconsistency in the servants, not in her mother's and father's views.She herself doesn't think that "anyone wants to talk about the colored people" but she spends a lot of time talking about them anyway. They need help, she decides, but her parents convince her directly that she is not the one to help them. She is thankful for the message because as young and free of misfortune as she is, she knows that to appear to side with blacks or to step of a woman's traditional mold would cause trouble - social trouble and emotional trouble. "'I wouldn't know how to get myself out of the trouble if I got into it,'" she says.
Parents try doggedly to suppress their children's sympathies for those of less meabs, A West Virginia lawyer, the son of a mine owner, broods over his daughter's concern for safety in the mines. It is not that he wants her to be insensitive to other people, but rather to be faithful to her own. A Florida grower actually takes his eight-year old son to see a doctor because the boy has been carrying on for two years about the "'unfair'" treatment of migrant workers. Once the boy drew a picture of migrants beding over in the field with a huge sun on their backs. "'The sun is exaggerated,'" his father said. Well, the doctor couldn't do much. He couldn't turn the child's mind away from the scenes in the fields; he couldn't turn the perception of a social reality into an emotional illness.
Many of these rich children have a fear of "the mob" in some form - from a meek disdain for "'most people'" to an active hatred for "'labor people,'" "organizers" and "outsiders" who would distrub the social order. James, a 12-year-old boy from New Orleans, the son of a cotton broker, feels a comradeship with blacks who are attacked by white mobs. But unlike the people he befriends in his mind, he finds a remedy in the police. He agrees with his father that "'if the police don't stop mobs from forming, the city begins to fall apart.'" The handsome policeman he draws is his ally.
Coles found among the children of the rich "a strong inclination to build a sanctuary out of one's room and one's property." The sanctuary can also be "a withdrawal from the world's distractions," from social conflicts. These sanctuaries offer a more secure retreat than, say, the reservation for Indians who want to avoid whites. When Sam, a young Pueblo boy, tells his grandfather that he is sure "'no whiteman,'" the old man "'says that may be true today, but tomorrow might bring different news.'"
The rich children of Coles's study have, quite expectedly, "an enhanced expectation of what life has to offer . . ." and a correspondingly high self-esteem. They emulate their parents' assuredness and learn to direct their worlds by hearing their parents request or command and watching others obey. The fathers in this book are zealous, overworked men - no idle rich here - while the mothers are behind the scenes, underutilized.
Maids and teachers do a lot of the work of bringing up the children. A child may feel abandoned when a favorite maid leaves. Richard, the son of a vice-president of a Boston bank, drew a picture of his maid Charlotte flying off on a broom. When his mother reprimanded him for putting "'a nice woman on a broomsticks," he told her "that he ought to hve drawn pictures of all the housekeepers, and identified them, so that he would have a record of the various people who had taken care of him and his sister."
The teacher who expresses opinions in school which are obnoxious to the parents may find his or her job in jeopardy. Well-off parents do not pay tuition fees - or taxes - to have their children converted away from their values. "'But children are more than future heirs, '" says one of teachers: they may develop in all sorts of ways, even if it is their common fate to have money. This is Cole's view, too. Furthermore, children of the rich are good students, a pleassure to teach. They pay attention in class, demand to be challenged, and who knows, one or two of them may make a discovery and add to our collected knowledge.
Each child of the rich has, in one sense, no more than each child of the poor - a "'one and only chance'" in this world. This is the broadest definition of the crisis shared by all children. To be sure, most of the children in this volume will grow up to be like their parents - adults who are "a perfect foil for a person like me," says Coles. The work that went into this part of his study presented more dangers, more snares, than any other. In home after home, Cole's political and professional standards were often at odds with the ethos that goes with making and keeping a lot of money.
But up until the end he maintains a hushed respect for what Agee calls "'all that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience . . .'" Then, he lets a New Orlenas maid conclude, wondering with her "' if there's any profit under the sun.'" As an ending to this particular volume, the choice of speaker is a slap at the rich. Surely, of the eloquent children we come to know in the preceding pages could wonder, praise, indict, sing, and lament for himself, for his or her class. On the other hand, by letting the black woman "have the last word" to the whole Children of Crisis series, Coles goes back to the starting place in his heart and declares his unyielding advocacy for the poor, for people of color, and for the unrequited child that lives in every adult.