OUR PROSPEROUS society has created the ultimate in obsolete possessions-its own chidren.
Something crucial has gone awry, and it's not something that can be blamed - like everything else seems to be - on the schools. It begins with affluent families and th world that they create for children and the wrong leesons that are taught.
As a child of Depression - reared parents, for whom security was never qquite within their grasp (even though they now own a large home and have all the other accoutrements of the American dream), I grew up wanting nothing. My gather was a prominent television newsman in San Diego, and I basked in reflected glory fom the time I was a small child. I went to am expensive summer camp, has music and dancing leesons, went on trips and had a TV set to entertain me around the clock, if I so chose.
Ther e was nothing for me to to "work toward" because I had been born "arrived". I was like the pampered child who does not utter his first words until his eighth birthday party, and then he says a complete sentence in precise English: "May I plese have a fork, mother dear?" In response to her look of surprise and her question of why it took him so long to speak, he says, "Becuse I never meeded anything before".
Today's yougster is even more pampered and more insulated than the generation I grew up with. This goes will beyond the apparent disintegration og the work ethic, that inspieing, damning, uplifthing, neurosis-forming part of the Amirican experiment. It goes to the heart of one's worth. Not only "self-worth," but worth period. A child growing up in such circumstances is useful to one. He is not even needed for chores: The dishwasher does the dishes, the cleaning lady vacuums and dusts, meals come in abox or a can, the "corner store" is three miles away across a major freeway or two and thus requires a car to get to.
he is also insulated from the world's horrors. "We don't want our children to sufffer as we did, "those parents of the Depression generation said. And we, their children, carry on in that tradition. Our world is fine. War and crime and hunger and injustice are on TV, to view in half-hour segments, with as much impact as shows like "Eight is Enough."
Because in his chilhood he serves no function that he (or anybodu else) can regard as truly useful, in a society oriented toward the utility of things and people, the child must learn that sense of importance as an adult. Because he has not been made sensitive to others' meeds as a child, he must learn that, too, as an adult. Because he has been instatly and constantly provided everything material as a child, he expects to receive everything just as easily as an adult. And Madison Avenue and Visa and the 30 - minute TV solutions to problems of love, crime, money and medicine make it seem the correct way to live.
Obviously, the sapling thus bent will not straighten out or grow in another direction easily when it reaches maturity.
children do need to feel equal. But they also must feel necessary . They must feel that someone counts on them. Telling a child he is important is just so much hogwash. He must know it and feel it.
The first time I really felt mecessary - not just an adornment to my parents' house - was when I was in high school. My father had a serious heart attack and was unable to work for some time. The total family income - for five people - was $40 in weekly insurance payment.
I got a summer job at Sears for $1 an hour, even for overtime work, which I often perfomed. I proudly handed over my $40 or $40 weekly to my parents. I never bought snacks - although the overpowering aroma of fresh Sears popcorn practically drove me mad - because the money was needed at home. I told my mother about using powdered milk instead of whole milk so we could save on our dairy bill.
The work at Sears was dull. No, not dull, but Dull. Imagine putting price stickers on 3,000 pairs of pajamas and then on 2,500 dolls, and so on.
Things were difficult that summer, but without those few extra dillars, life would have been even more difficult. I remember withdrawing all $900 or so I had saved for college, too. I was necessary. I helped my family survive. And I grew enormously. I learned self - discipline. I learned to do with - out, and it wasn's just popcorn and whole milk. I had a purpose, and I took my incredible adolescent enegy and poured everying I had into this important venture.
I learned some things about myself and the world that summer, lessons that nothing since has been able to match. My father had to come close to dying for me to find out those old truths.
How can we provide for our own children this vital something that was lacking in our own upbringing? As a 38 -year-old mother, Iam taking the liberty of saying "our" rather than "my" because what I experienced is probably typical of those in my generation. Let me tell you what my husband Don and I have been doing for several years to provide this element for our 11- and 12-year-old daughters, Emily and Jessica. There are small practical teachers all around us, if we look for them.
Use muscle instead of gadgets and electricity . No dishwasher, no electric can opener, no garbage disposal, no maid. Everyone has chores. Or we don's eat or we don's have clean clothes to wear or the jobs don't get done in time for the family to go on a picnic. The garbage goes into the compost. The compost goes into the garden. And the garden has to be taken care of. We scrounge fallen limbs on the street for our fireplace, and the girls help saw and haul wood. They assist in the shopping. Fortunately for us, we live in the center of Washington, so the store is close and there are no freeways cross.
Emily grinds the coffee in our 1905 hand grinder. We eat almost no fast foods. That means lots of cooking, which the girls help with, learning about good nutrition and efficient food preparation in the proce.
Every summer the whole family picks fruit and vegetables at nearby farms, then peels and slices, pickles and cans. Imagine the pride when we lay out for company a relish plate with six different things on it, and Jessica and Emily can, "I picked those beets. I husked that corn. I shredded that cabbge. I labeled the jars."
Do without one more pair of shoes so that someone who has none cna be shod . For four years we lived in Costa Rica. While there, we became closely involved with two desperately poor families, one of which had nine children. Over the years we have provided economic assistance, moral support, interference-running with an un-cooperative bureaucracy and "Dutch Uncle" advising and prodding. This has not been Don's and my "project." It has been the entire family's concern.
Many times we present our daughters with a dilemma like this: We have $25 to spend. They would like new party shoes, indeed could probably use them. But they have three other good pairs of shoes already. The Montoya and Araya children are barefoot and lack school books. What should we do?
The decision is easy. Jessica and Emily have seen the tragedy of a family of 11 living in one small room, with an overflowing pit privey outside. They have felt the sense of importance that comes from giving to real human being and seeing that individual benefit from their help. This is not unlike the sense of importance I derived when a 16-year-old hands her parents $48.
One need not go to Costa Roca to fimd families living in such deplorable conditions. Our own city will suffice. Perhaps, even, our own neighborhood. Doing as a family for another family teaches the child a sense of democracy. It also gives them a feeling of being necessary. "I am responsible for Jose and Luis having new shows. Because of me they will not cut their feer on glass and rocks.
We do not require only Jessica and Emily to make sacrifices. We require such of ourselves. Granted, we have not missed a meal yet, but we, too, to without that pair of shoes, and the girls know it.
Att of these things are really not so hard to do. You don't need to live in a particular place or have a certain income. It can be done in families where only one parent works or, as in our case, where both parents work. All it takes is discipline and commitment. And the will to set an example.
When all is said and done, maybe that is the education all of us should seek for our children: toknow, notjust facts and data, but themselves and the world around them. To think, not merely react, and not let someone to the thinking for them. To aspire, to better themselves at the same time they are bettering an all-too-imperfect world.
And, I would add, fell a necessary part of the human enterprise. Not indispensable, because that can be just as damning as being unnecessary, but to become a vital link in a chain, a needed member of a cooperative venture. CAPTION:
Picture, Don and Lorraine Goldman with their children Emily and Jessica, front.By John MacDonnell-The Washington Post