How to Not Raise a Slacker Kid
By Marian Kester Coombs
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #49, 2002.
Is your little sprout turning into a full-grown couch potato? Here are some ways our society encourages kids to slack off and how we can fight back.
It will come as no surprise even to homeschooling families that "Slack" - the ideal of dolce far niente ("sweet doing nothing") - seems to have become the life goal of all too many young people in our land, and of their elders as well. The "kidz" aspire only to be players: playing music, playing a role or playing sports. Add to these the adult fantasies of playing the lottery, the ponies or the slots. Daydreams of millionaire celebrity crowd out worthier and more realistic aspirations. Work itself, not to mention hard work, is now shunned as radically as the appearance of impiety was, once upon a time.
As with most decadent social trends, we are starting to see a spectrum of behaviors that range from one extreme to the other with less and less in between. At one end, a passive, obese society of spectators - on the other, "hurried children" whose lives are a regimented treadmill of sports practice, music lessons, clubs, camps, group meetings, tutoring, and daycare supervision. It's that excluded middle that we as conscientious parents must seek to expand.
Countering the Pleasure Principle
First of all, as all homeschoolers know, we face the "special circumstances" of a culture that actively seeks to abolish all authority, restraint, transcendence, selflessness, responsibility, and nobility, and special countermeasures are thus required. Blown to bits is the old reassurance of an adult-led society where we're all in this together rearing the next generation. Our children are shell-shocked from a tender age by the relentless demystification mounted on all fronts by mass culture (which has aptly been called the Society of the Spectacle). At the same time they are sucked into a vicious circle of ever-more-instant gratification that is ever less gratifying. Faster and faster spins the mesmerizing wheel of "Easy! Quick! Fun!" And all that cynicism and trivialization kill our children's innate joie de vivre, leaving them sullen, hostile, numbed.
The struggle to survive, recounted movingly in books like Little House on the Prairie and Little Women, used to afford no time for the depression and emptiness that torment our children today. Presumably we do not wish to return to hard times and high mortality - but what other "reality principle" can take their place?
One spiritual strategy that works for some Christian parents is to explicitly define your family and faith as precious "endangered species" in need of militant defense. Wails of "But everybody else does it!" can then be countered with the calm, firm reply, "But we don't." In my experience this taps into children's thirst for moral absolutes, for a cause to believe in and fight for - even into their rebellious streak. Placing your family on a "war footing" helps instill independence from peer pressure and disdain for mass mores, which can take fairly unorthodox forms at times, but is good training for nonconformity to the worthless norms of the Spectacle in later life. For instance, my 15-year-old daughter already glories in the "nonconformity" of defying her peers' obsession with looks, clothes, boys, and enforced mediocrity in general.
The irony is that the old counterculture fought the "Establishment" on behalf of the pleasure principle, while now that principle reigns supreme and is far more oppressive, ubiquitous, and tyrannical than the old Establishment could ever have been.
Meanwhile, the great truth of Scripture remains: "Raise up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." Years of strain and estrangement can afflict even the godliest of families, but once this phase of "growing pains" is through, the essential God-given spirit of the child typically shines forth again in all its splendor.
Yet it cannot be denied that, just as many children born into terrible circumstances rise above their environment and defy the deterministic odds, so there are children who will terminally embrace Slack despite every blessing and advantage. If some formula existed for raising every child to a glorious pitch, there would be little heartache in our world.
The Nanny State: Model Of Bad Parenting
In defense not only of our children, but of ourselves as parents, let's consider for a moment the unbelievable, unprecedented array of forces working on overdrive to steal your child's body and soul.
Foremost among these, the State accumulates more power by the day to run your life and bend your mind. Like a control-freak parent who refuses to let a child grow up, make his own mistakes, reap his own consequences and pull his own weight, the state would far rather see you incompetent than independent. State control of education is the main cause of the awful dumbing-down in public schools that simultaneously destroys children's interest in the life of the mind and trains them for their future role as materialistic prostitutes, docile consumers, and tax slaves.
- Progressive and increasing tax rates have become a powerful disincentive to work, earning, and investment. What you tax you get less of. Little wonder that the moral equation "Hard Work = Wealth" is being fast replaced by "Windfall Judgment/Hitting the Lottery = Wealth."
- High taxes have also driven many if not most mothers into the workforce. The single-earner family enjoyed a mom at home to anchor the kids' neighborhood exploits and facilitate their activities. She modeled the dignity and pleasure of that most hands-on of labors, home-making. Now, with everybody "working" and nobody home during the day, neighborhoods are global-village ghost towns where small children watch TV all day with paid "caregivers" and older children come home to empty houses where they can plug into drugs and sex, or at least into PS2, TV, DVD, VCR, DSL access, IM, Gameboy and the like.
- The proliferation of laws and regulations has had a massive chilling effect on activity in America. Even if you'd like to build a halfpipe or dirt bike trail in your backyard, you have to worry about liability for that "attractive nuisance." In too many places you can no longer hunt, fish, dig, burn, keep animals, swim, dive, jump, skate, bike, sled, play with a dog, or even walk. These restrictions on private property rights and public land use are yet another way excessive government renders the population passive.
- The feel-gooders at various levels of the social welfare bureaucracy are now able to criminalize parents who let their children be "too active," in the bureaucrats' opinion. Adventurous kids roaming free have caused their parents to be cited by the dread Child Protective Services; people have actually lost custody of children whose "neglect" was no more than normal childhood liberty not many years ago.
Of course accidents can and do happen. More to the point, predators can and do strike at the innocent, especially since the state does such a lousy job of preventing them. The state's solution, of course, is to imprison the law-abiding behind walls of fear, while the predators - like terrorists on expired visas - prowl at will.
Advertising: Handmaiden Of Slack
The rest of the enemy array is fielded by the private sector - the media, advertising, and other handmaidens of capital. Without the constant incitement to buy... buy... buy!, what would become of the economy? Everybody wants to sell you something; they surely don't want you to make it or do it yourself - where's the profit in that? To put you in the mood to buy, the product is associated with youth, pleasure, desire, ease, gratification, satisfaction.
"No boundaries" - "No excuses" - "Just do it" - "This one's for you" - "You deserve a break today" - "Because you're worth it" are all recent or current advertising slogans. You needn't do anything to be something; feeling good about yourself is only a purchase away. A lifetime of such messages does tend to make a profound impression.
The Entertainment-Industrial Complex
Leisure time in the past, such as it was, consisted primarily of socializing with other people and activities such as walking, hiking, road trips, amateur artistry, reading, telling stories, fishing, hunting, playing ball and other outdoor games, playing cards and other indoor pastimes, crafts like knitting and embroidery, whittling, making moonshine, singing, playing instruments, dancing, now and then going to a "show." But today the new entertainment technologies have relegated other people - too labor-intensive and too often disappointing - to the bottom of the list when it comes to passing time. The home entertainment center is the always reliable, always amusing Friend you can turn to day or night. The Internet satisfies the need to express yourself as well as virtually (pun intended) eliminating the need to leave the house. And as lack of social contact atrophies the social graces, a vicious circle of avoidance is created: Which came first, the surly "service provider" or the obnoxious "customer"?
What To Do?
Against such formidable odds, we have three choices: give in and go modern (slack off); expose ourselves self-consciously with an eye toward reveling in the upside and forthrightly rejecting the downside of popular culture; or resist by eliminating all exposure to the siren song of Slack.
Is the last option feasible? Not unless you live like the Amish on your own paid-up piece of the planet, able to offer your children their own piece of it as an inducement to remain true to their heritage. No, what most of us need is support within Babylon for our Christian counterculture - precisely what the homeschooling community is making such heroic and successful efforts to achieve.
- In our own homes we must continue to insist that our children work, i.e., do "chores." Such work may no longer appear to be the hard necessity it once was, but it is still the indispensable builder of character, competence and a sense of genuine self-esteem. As all homeschoolers know, our children watch us closely and are easily able to sort the mock sentiment from the heartfelt. If you secretly view yardwork as torture and would rather be watching golf on TV, they'll know it no matter how many pious remarks you utter to the contrary.
- Tolerance for real work needs to be steadily built up. Parents often try to make chores more palatable by turning them into a game. This is fine for very young children, but at some point the distinction between work and play must be honestly acknowledged. Just as in real education there is a point at which mathematics or chemistry or a foreign language aren't "fun" any more if you actually want to master them.
- There is also no question but that gaming and instant messaging on the computer must be given strict time limits. No matter what the game or what the conversation, the very act of screen-staring does nothing positive for the nervous system. Another related and disturbing development is that children seem to be losing the aptitude for friendship. They're viewing friends less as a joy or resource; they have little to offer each other; they "bore" one another. As with learning and work and other forms of exerting effort, it seems now they even have to be forced to practice friendship. And they should be: if your children would rather IM someone than get together and do something with him or her, it bodes ill for their development. The quest to be constantly entertained is in fact a quest for solitude; socializing has itself become "too much work."
Learning How to Handle the Spectator Society
Big business materializes our most secret desires and offers them back to us for a price. But to paraphrase Nietzsche, "Whatever does not sell me, strengthens me." As William Blake realized, the soul is both stronger and finer for having endured the fires of Experience and attained a higher form of Innocence. In short, we need to toughen up.
A wit once reflected that "We all lie in the gutter, but some of us look at the stars." Our children are closely watching to see how we cope with the temptations of modern life. Can we navigate the "gutter" of our fallenness without losing sight of the stars? Or do we retreat endlessly before a Dark Side of seemingly insuperable power?
We need to teach our children to delight in energetic activity, not enervating entertainment. Things that delight us ought to inspire us to further creativity, not to sprawl in slack-jawed awe.
Your children are watching how you handle the Spectator Society and learning from your example. Do your children intuit that you perceive other people as problems to avoid, or as beloved creatures of God? Do they see you reading books, pursuing hobbies, experiencing an "in the zone" moment as you mash potatoes? Do you choose to be active together as a family, or to veg out separately in front of your electronic companion of choice?
In your zeal to have your children succeed, do you also teach them how to do real things, not just academics? Teaching a child to whistle or how to weave a chain of dandelions is just as important as teaching him to say his times tables. An afternoon spent fishing with Dad or gardening with Mom, getting their hands in the water and dirt, can help break through the cotton-ball feeling of separation from the real world. Outdoors adventures of all kinds are a great antidote to virtual reality. The more such afternoons, the better.
Finally, kids need to feel that they can actually affect the real world. A lot of the appeal of the virtual world is that it immediately grants the visitor a degree of control over his environment seldom found in real life. By playing a few rounds of a game, you can amass power and skills. In the real world, power and skill take years to attain, and many never attain them at all.
Homeschoolers of all people must know that with God's help we can affect the world. We must help our children believe they can make a difference. Community service projects, missionary support, and letters to the editor are just three ways even fairly young children can get their hands and hearts into the real world right away.
There is still much beauty in our world... and much worth fighting for. Let us find it, enjoy it, and enlist our children in the battle to advance and preserve it.