Saturday, September 15, 2007

From Frankenstein To Our Children

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I am malicious because I am miserable. ... If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them a hundred and a hundred fold(words of Frankenstein "monster").
- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author (1797-1851)

People are miserable. Some can be malicious. Perhaps fewer are malicious or miserable today than in Mary Shelley's day, but we still encounter lots of them if we meet many people over a period of time.

I think of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation as two sides of the personalities of everyone. In other words, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are metaphors for ourselves, much like Jekyll and Hyde of another story. We each have the potential to be creative on the one hand and destructive and malicious on the other.

While we may think of the Frankenstein story as early science fiction, the concept of doctors assembling body parts into whole beings in their dark cellars during the night was not beyond the imagination of the people of Mary Shelley's time. Medical researchers were known to hire impoverished labourers to bring poor people who died "anonymously" to them for dissection as study subjects for anatomy purposes.

In those days the components of the human body that could not be seen and what each did were mysteries known to very few, including medical "professionals" who were more like snake oil salesmen than healers. In turn, stories of what research went on in hidden places after dark abounded, though few had any real knowledge of what was taking place because it was illegal, thus kept secret.

Today we have a much clearer idea of what happens in research facilities, don't we? No, of course we don't. Most of us would shake in horror if we knew the number of animals that die in captivity, undergoing all the non-human experiments that take place for years before apparently good versions of new drugs hit the market.

We trust that researchers may be assembling living creatures using genetic material, but not by sewing together body parts spirited away from graveyards at night to make monsters. The monsters exist among us, nonetheless, in more conventional forms.

We have unprecedented numbers of road rage, office rage, murder, use of illegal drugs, alcoholism, physical abuse and other nasty social problems we prefer to avoid thinking about. At any given time of any day or night, someone in every large city commits an atrocity befitting that of Frankenstein's monster. While the numbers of these incidents in rural areas are naturally lower, the rates in proportion to the population are often higher than in cities.

We live in much more peaceful environments today, in general, than our ancestors. Only a few problems are worse than in their day. However, the ones that are worse seem to have no cure, other than to catch the perpetrators and put them into prison.

As societies, we have yet to mature to the point where we believe that growing people who do not feel the need to commit social abuses is better than allowing them to develop unprepared for the rigours of today's world and imprisoning them after the fact.

We only need to turn our attention to our children to see how social problems develop. Today we have fewer couples in the western world who choose to have children and more who have pets they treat as children. Oddly, the pets are better protected from abuse by the law than are children. Perhaps not so oddly, many parents see their roles as modellers of the next generation as similar to the roles pet owners play with their animals.

We have schools and books and web sites galore to explain to eager pet owners what they should be doing to provide the best living environments for their animals. While we have as many books and web sites for parents, we have many more children than pets and most parents are blissfully unaware of the information available to help them.

Children are not little dolls that we should keep "as innocent as possible for as long as possible." The whole purpose of human children having a long period of development intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally is that they need guidance for 20 years or so to prepare them for adulthood. It's a steep enough learning curve under the best of circumstances. Nature provided for that.
Children learn every waking hour of their lives. If they are not provided with a stimulating and fruitful learning environment for long periods of time, they act the way pets do when they are ignored for too long. They misbehave.

This may be a shocking revelation for many parents, but here it is: no child wants to misbehave. They misbehave as their way of showing us that we have not done our jobs of guiding them and providing what they need.

Some parents say "Oh, he's only crying (or screaming) to get attention." Their response to that is to ignore the expression the child has given of his need for attention. That may be the stupidest thing a person can do.

We have a basic need for touch, for example. It's an enormous need, almost as important as the need for food and shelter. Kids who don't get hugged or touched in a loving way enough grow up to have problems. Lack of knowledge about the need for touch is just the start.

We train doctors, lawyers and other professionals for many years to become competent at what we ask them to do. Parenting, a far more critical human task than that of any professional, gets zero training. All two people need is to have sex. We teach kids that on television.

I have yet to see a soap opera that teaches good parenting skills. They don't even teach good relationship skills and that's what soap operas are about. A few of the more popular situation comedies have demonstrated good parenting skills in recent years. We need more.

We have good programs about parenting on specialty channels, but few watch them. We need to have real life situation programs on television and in movies that show not how to kill the bad guys or to put them in prison, but how to grow kids who don't need either. As television writers have proven (Seinfelt above all), writers can write good programs with lots of humour while covering whatever subject (or nothing, in the case of Seinfelt) they want to discuss.

Have you ever wondered why you were born, what your purpose is in life? If you are a parent and you do it poorly, then you miss your most important purpose. Every living being looks after its young. Almost every one does it better, in general, than us humans. The most important function of every living thing is to raise new generations of its own kind to succeed in a rough world.

Let's turn our attention to young children and see more than little laughing, screaming, pooping dolls. Every parent needs to know much more than we are teaching them. We shouldn't need to live to be grandparents to learn what we needed to know to be good parents.

Please speak up. Our children need your voice.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about what children need and a plan for how to teach parents and teachers how to provide for those needs.
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