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Culture of fear, culture of safety, culture of control, culture of faith

November 14th, 2005 · 1 Comment

danah boyd published a passionate and profound piece growing up in a culture of fear: from Columbine to banning of MySpace

The day she posted it, Ted and I had friends staying at our home. I started mentioning danah’s ideas to Ted, asking if he had read her post yet, and it turned into a discussion with our friend. In her post, danah described the prevalent culture of fear and its power, in particular its effect on adolescents:

The culture of fear is devastating; it is not the same as safety.

I started thinking about culture of fear and culture of safety. Sitting in our kitchen, the concepts of culture of control and culture of faith also emerged. Why is youth culture controlled? Fear, yes, as danah mentioned.

I see myself as half-way between a being a teenager and being the mother of a teen. Chronologically, I’m a bit older than that balance. But I’m about 6 to 10 years from being the mother of young teenagers. 14 years from now, my kids will be in their late teens and early twenties. 14 years ago, I was in college. I can still remember high school. And I can see myself as the parent of high schoolers soon, as many of my friends already are. I can still remember my adolescent anxieties and anguish and also look from a mother’s perspective of her own adult fears. I appreciate what danah wrote as an advocate of adolescent freedoms and I also can see the other side of parenting concerns and control issues.

We live in a society which is sold on control and tries to sell it to us. – Madeline L’Engle

Sold on control

Consider the insurance we purchase: home, auto, medical, dental, to name the basics. As if risk can be calculated and compensated. Consider suburbia. I wish I’d bookmarked it, but I read an excellent description in a blog recently of suburbia as an illusion of control. As someone who lives in a new development on a small island, which features good schools and low crime rates, I see this culture maintained and this illusion made manifest in families.

Parents are fearful. Why? Because many middle-class families have done whatever they could to buy a house in suburbia (the huge price tags are no small feat to afford) and control the dangers to their children. The thought that these kids would go out and experiment with risks threatens and frightens parents and their investments, both tangible and intangible.

Another reason why parents fear is that our identity exists in our children. I don’t think I’m explicitly referring to mothers and fathers who live vicariously through their kids, pushing them into private lessons and competitions. What I mean is that we have poured our lives into our children, to the point that we don’t know who we are outside them. We fear whatever will happen to them, because we will hurt.

This past weekend I went to a women’s brunch. At one point we were asked to write down goals for ourselves in a number of areas, including talents and gifts. Of the women at my table, I was one of the few who had some idea of her interests and goals. (why blog reason #342: so you can know yourself and develop yourself better as an at-home mom!)

Many moms, if I may extrapolate from this small sample and discussion on Saturday, are consumed by their kids. Part of it probably comes from feeling the need to justify the decision to stay at home, if that was made. If we’re at home to be moms, then let’s throw all we’ve got into it. Our culture says our identity and value comes from what we do all day so we had better produce good kids to prove our worth.

See Anastasia Goodstein’s commentary in a recent post on Generation Y in the workforce:

This generation of parents is trying to right the wrongs of having to deal with their parents’ disfunction and subsequent breakdowns — so they have consciously decicded to be all about their kids instead of being all about their own self help (they probably went to therapy early on to deal with their parents’ issues).

Part of it comes from the middle-class achievement college-prep culture. Everybody’s doin’ it…and doin’ it all. Running here and there to take Jane and Johnny to Scouts and soccer practice leaves Mom little time for laundry, much less sanity. She becomes a chaffeur, defining her family by meals eaten in the minivan and responsibilities in the community taken to sustain the activities.

In a small town, probably even in a larger suburbia, our children’s reputations are our reputations. If Johnny and Jane go to jail or get in trouble with the law or school officials, it affects how others see us. When we as parents have worked hard to be presentable, polishing everything from our professional position to our landscaping and lawn, we want to make sure our children preserve this image. Yes, raising a family can involve a lot of PR. I’m kidding, of course, but I imagine many families discuss what others think of them and value how others perceive them.

Kids are scary: they are their own people, individuals with separate ideas and identities. Early on, from baby days, many parents I think realize that they can’t control their kids. They are not docile baby dolls but living beings that scream and sleep whenever they want. It can be a surprise. And so the battles begin.

One more reason parents want to control teens is the fear that comes with protection. We want to protect our kids from the pain we experienced. We want to help them learn lessons the easy way not the hard way. Sure, we selfishly may want to spare ourselves heartache. But I think parents also want to spare their kids hearts – and minds and bodies – too. Yes, as danah wrote, lessons are learned in fire. But as a parent it is hard to watch your child (choose to) be burned.

When kids are younger, perhaps they can be controlled, at least in some sense. You can put your baby in a crib or playpen. You can confine her body. And you need to do this at times, for the child’s safety and protection.

But we can’t ever confine or control their minds or hearts. Humans can manipulate each other. Deception – and abuse – only last so long.

Early childhood can be a time to try to build trust with our children, realizing all the while that they are giving us a fragile gift, one to be cherished, nutured and sustained throughout life.

As danah pointed out in her piece, alienation is a large reason why adults try to control kids, and yet it only exacerbates the problem. Why are we adults alienated from our kids? Because we lack relationship with them. We can’t communicate. Trust is lost. I’m on this path of parenting myself so I am not in a position to say how it happens. But somewhere somehow parents and kids disconnect. It might start early or happen later, depending on the family. I suspect that kids at some point begin to think we don’t care about them, who they are, what they desire and need. They doubt our love, perhaps for good reasons. And then the alienation begins. At least I remember how it happened for me, as a teen.

Our friend pointed out that we should live in a culture of faith, not one of control or fear. We lack faith. I don’t mean this in strictly a religious sense. I’m not sure what we can all agree we believe any more. Or where we find hope. Not in our government. Or in our world at large. Within our own smaller communities, we are fractured by separate values and lifestyles. See tania’s post on the isolation of motherhood. We are isolated from each other. We don’t trust each other. Certainly not our kids or their friends. We live within white-washed walls of fears.

Letting go of fear means grabbing onto faith. We can’t control life. We can’t control our kids. Parenting is scary. But if we confine our kids, we will kill them, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. We have to believe in something beyond ourselves. For some it’s the goodness of humanity or the universe. Others grab onto God. We need a culture of faith for our families, so we can be free from fear and control, free to listen and learn and love.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Gary Bloom // Nov 14, 2005 at 4:20 pm

    Or, to put what Julie is saying another way: good parenting is the same as good writing — show don’t tell. If you’re curious, honest, empathetic, industrious, brave, and and respectful, then your children will be. That respect is displayed when you encourage your children’s interests (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, skateboarding, fantasy ficiton) rather than discounting everything but what’s supposedly good for them (school, organized sports, church).

    Being a good model while respecting your children is the only form of control that works. Relax parents, it’s not that hard, unless you’re a phony jerk, in which case it’s hopeless.

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