I’ve recently started reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘spiritual memoir’ Living with a Wild God, in snatches, before bed. I’m not sure it is suited for this time. It is clear-eyed and wise; it is tempered, beautiful and rich, so far, with a fine sense of craft about it. And while it is grounded, plain-spoken and economical with emotion I often find myself feeling quite emotional, aghast at what causes the sense of detachment she cultivates (and the drama and credibility of her remembering of it) to keep herself together.
I look forward to the coming of the Wild God in the story, I admit. Ehrenreich’s bold and forthright manner of self-examination and her candour make this event something to anticipate.
After yet another gloom and doom report of the dwindling Japanese population a phrase from Ehrenreich’s popped into my mind. It buzzed actually, in the way that things do when they accord with observations that influence your way of thinking. She wrote about the ‘artisanal project’ that the child has become: a kind of golem, the ‘intelligently designed child’. All teachers know young people whose parents are engaged in this worrisome project. (And I find myself tempted to make the connection to the Edge Question for this year: What do you think of machines that think? . . . as if a child could be programmed.)
How is it that economy and technology — and their attendant anxieties — now so dominate our ways of thinking and being in the world? Has it ever been so? Perhaps that is not a useful question. Peter Gray’s recent article in the Independent exhorting us to ‘Give Childhood Back to Children‘ is well worth a read. (It lends support to my suspicion that cultures with Confucian underpinnings may be more susceptible to this apparently rather instrumental view of the Child. But since this is where the Woman’s centre of power in ‘traditional’ society is, it is by no means a simple matter to disentangle or judge with clarity.)
Lately I listened to an interview with Dr. Vivienne Mountain, a specialist in the child spirituality movement. [‘Turn your life around‘. It’s about 30 minutes long and starts around 27″ in.] Her latest piece of research works with the image from Matthew 18 that has the child at the centre of the circle. It seemed to me that there were two different things covered: the child in society, first, and second, the qualities of the child, those parts which need to be kept fresh in the adult person, like imagination, trust, vulnerability, dependency, humour, etc.
Rachel Kohn (a very fine interviewer) remarked appropos of the ‘artisanally’ raised child:
‘. . . Kids seem to be leading the way in our popular culture. Parents seem to be running after children rather than the reverse and I’m wondering whether . . . this is just another example of putting kids first.’
Mountain admitted that the Child Theology Movement wrestled with the question.
‘The child is not an idol. We don’t put the child up as being God; the child is standing beside Jesus . . . and on the other hand, if you look at our children today, there is a kind of debate as to whether they are being put in a central role or are they more like a trophy child?’
There is a chapter in Mike Higton’s book on Rowan Williams (Difficult Gospel) entitled ‘Adulthood and Childhood’ that I read last summer that I am reading again more closely as I delve into this question. Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan is another one that invites attention for its exploration of the conception of childhood and its (and our) relationship to language, sexuality and death.
I come to the interest in children as part of a society that isn’t reproducing sufficiently, as a person who works with young adult women and as a teacher with an interest in and focus on children’s and young adult literature. It seems to me that growing up and inhabiting the role of the adult person properly and patiently is a central challenge of our age and essential to the future of society.
To protect childhood and to foster real adulthood are not easy tasks: they require from us great patience and great vigilance. (Higton, 110)