Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Children

Every morning I wake up, check my news feed, and read stories of extreme doom and gloom about the “next generation”. Oh the kids these days! Of course, I usually ignore most of these doomsayer ramblings, yet one story from last week struck a chord with me.

It was a Newsweek piece reporting on a recent study that found that the creativity of American under-18’s, steadily rising throughout history until1 1990, has since then “consistently inched downward”, with the decline most prevalent amongst children of primary school age. The commentariat have been quick to blame “video games” and the educational curriculum for this decline, but I am not so sure. Instead, I propose a different thesis. I suspect that it is our modern culture of isolating and protecting our children from every conceivable risk, any possible danger, anything that might possibly cause them any form of momentary unhappiness, that is to blame. That by “protecting” our children, we have inadvertently killed their souls, and are creating a society not of men, but of zombie drones.

Allow me to explain. We now live in a country that is based upon risk-minimisation to the extreme. It is now viewed as legitimate for our government to do everything to minimise any potential negative effects on our lives, even if we enter them of our free volition (just think of the war on obesity, on smoking, on alcohol and so on). The nanny state rules supreme, and it is only natural that such a protective mindset is applied to the youngest of our society – to an even greater degree in fact. Yet I ask – at what cost?

Let us all think back upon when we were in school. Even for a relatively youngling like me (I’m not old yet!), I think about all I did that was perfectly harmless back when I was at school, but would now be illegal. Indeed, I still remember much-beloved playground equipment at my school torn out on the fear that someone might get hurt (If anyone from Trinity is reading this – remember the Vomitron? And the fun we had before it was removed courtesy of Ashfield Council?) . I remember when, just two years ago, as a leader in the Scouting movement, I proposed, as part of our annual camp, activities that I did countless times as a child – activities that I not only enjoyed, but without doubt built character – and was informed that due to the current legal regime, the 0.001% risk of a skinned knee was too great, and we were unable to do them. Some of my greatest childhood memories have now become illegal. The fun I had, the things I learned – all unavailable these days. And this doesn’t even begin to get into all the things our parents generation did – and lived through.

What have we, proud Western civilisation, come to. What state are we now in. In the U.S., a parent was called the “worst mum in America” for letting her 9 year old ride the subway unsupervised (h/t to the IPA for bringing this case to my attention). In Britain (the world’s first soft-totalitarian state), parents are being persecuted by the State for letting their children ride a bike to school (oh the monstrosity! Heaven forbid! A child riding a bike to school, what horror!). Even Facebook, under pressure from the UK Government run Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (bolstered by a petition from  44 police chiefs – voluntary choice indeed) has agreed to introduce a “panic button” on its UK sites, where “teens will be encouraged to click it when suspicious that they’re being targeted for abuse…and may also report users who they believe are acting inappropriately toward them”.The list goes on.  And on. And on.

And do you know what? I just want to scream “enough is enough”. Call out for an end to this madness. Go climb Mt. Kosciusko and scream for all Australia to hear.  Our great land was founded on the rugged pioneering spirit. The squatter in the outback. The free settles out on the land. Throughout our history we have seen brave men and women face all odds, overcome every obstacle, all in the spirit of  forging a new and greater life for themselves and their families. People who recognised danger, yet spat in its face. This is what made us. We have such a proud history of overcoming adversity, and yet now we are creating a society where adversity is apparently an evil word. A society where everyone must be protected – by The State – from every ill. A society where toil seems to be unacceptable.

Let us just look of what we think of our children. How much faith we place in their resilience. Even a cursory check of the media would bring up countless stories condemning “bullying” in schools, accompanied by calls on the State to take action. “Zero tolerance” educational academics proclaim! No child should ever be “bullied” at school! Everyone should be all sweet and nice and all children should frolic merrily through school playgrounds hand in hand! Real life preparation indeed.

Just think about it. Take a few moments to think about where we now are. We now have a Federal Select Parliamentary Committee looking into cyber-abuse. Again, just stop and  think about this for a moment. The highest elected representatives of the land – the people responsible for our economy, our defence, our national wellbeing – are spending their time trying to stop mean 14 year olds from sending nasty emails. Does this not bother anyone? Do you not just think to stop and say, enough is enough? I mean… really? Are we really that far gone that we really want our government to do this?

Of course, this is not to take away from serious incidents of abuse of people at school. Severe abuse ought never be tolerated, and teachers and community leaders should take every effort to stamp it out without question. Violence, death threats, severe intimidation should be treated with the utmost severity – there is no question there. But to conflate any wrongdoing, any ‘mean’ action with severe abuse strikes me as counter-productive at best. To call someone a rude name, to not invite them to your birthday party, to engage in such acts as what have now been termed “anti-social behaviour” (punishable in many places by the legal system) is not the same thing as genuine abuse. To the contrary, by equating all “bullying” as an act worthy of government intervention, you do little more than trivialise the severe cases, and place everything on the same level playing field. The result? Lessening the chances that intervention where it is genuinely needed occurs properly (boys and wolves, after all). Even more insidiously, however, is the fact that if you consider harmless “bullying” as an act worthy of Federal Government interference, then you do not provide children faced with minor meanness with the opportunity to learn how to stand up for themselves. Instead, you foster a dependant mentality where all they think of is run to an authority figure for help.

Last week, a study [immediately denounced by the busy-body industry (for how else can we call it?)] by prominent psychologists revealed that standing up to classroom bullies can be an important step in childhood development. Without even going into the details, this ought be intuitive to us all. After all, how else are we to learn how to assert ourselves if all opportunities to do so at a childhood level are taken away from us? And so I make the claim: bullying can be beneficial. Standing up to people, learning to deal with adversity, confronting your fears – this is all animportant rite of passage for all children, and one that reaps countless benefits in adult life. Yet it is something we now seem willing – indeed eager – to deprive our children of. Looking back on my life, I freely admit I was an utter twat for most of my school times (not much has changed perhaps). Yet I can freely admit that it was those people who called me out on it – who did  the very “anti-social” actions that are now condemned by the Federal Government – that ultimately made me a better person. And, with t he benefit of hindsight, I am grateful to them for it.

Since I shall doubtlessly be condemned as callous for saying “bullying can be beneficial” already, I might as well go on. And extend this to life overall. Last week, a healthy, leafy branch fell from a tree in Central Park and the unthinkable happened: It killed a 6-month-old girl who was in her mom’s arms, just as the dad was about to take their picture. The mom was gravely injured. The dad is now taking the first steps toward filing a lawsuit.”A tragedy, to be sure. But let us think about what this lawsuit means. What message it sends. Because – to me – the message, one of zero tolerance to any bad act of fate – is clear. It is a message that we need a society where no child can ever, under any circumstances, be exposed to any risk whatsoever. We need a world free of all risk. Of any possibility of danger. Where nothing bad can possibly happen. And this is a message I cannot accept, and a world I would never want to live in.

The busybody-industry will respond by saying “one innocent death is too many”. At the risk of ruining my entire future political career by saying this, dammit, no it is not.  We live in a fallen world. Bad things happen. Innocent children will always die. This is unavoidable. We can never protect people against every threat, every possible disaster. Unless we live our lives cocooned in a plastic bubble (and perhaps even then), s**t happens. That’s life. Innocents will always die. The question is how we react to this. Do we accept the nature of the world, do we accept that there are bad people out there and learn how to cope and deal with this, or do we attempt to cocoon everyone, attempt to prevent every possible bad thing happening, at the cost of our souls. The death of one child is a tragedy. To destroy an entire generation to prevent it from occurring again, that is the real crime.

In fact, having already dug myself into a hole, I will go even further and say that suffering is not in and of itself a bad thing. To go through life avoiding torment and struggle, and wishing only pleasant experiences, is not a life worth living. It is not a life that creates character, or a life that creates true people. There is a difference between living and existing, and, dammit, it is our trials and tribulations that make us truly human.  Suffering – in and of itself – is nota bad thing. To endure suffering, and come out the other end, builds virtue (something our modern society sorely lacks). The sooner we wean ourselves off the Dr. Phil notion of eternal contentment, the better we shall be – not only as people, but as society as a whole.

If we continue upon our present trajectory, we are doing little more than creating a nation of zombies. We are raising a generation who are unable to fend for themselves, unable to cope with even the slightest setback, and will grow up with few skills other than the ability to suckle on the proverbial governmental teat. By protecting our children from anything ‘bad’, we have deprived them of the ability to stand up for themselves. And to be truly human. Ought we really wonder why scores show them to be less “creative”? We have nought but ourselves to blame.

We may well be on the way to creating a ‘safe’ world, free of any harm for our children (Huxley, much?). But, in the long run, is this really a world we want to live in? Do we really want a country of happy, content drones, unable to take any misfortune, and running to the nanny-state the second they cut their finger or fall in the mud?   Such a society may be good for those with a vested interest in big government (whose livelihood necessitates a compliant and dependant populace), but it damn well is bad for the few of us remaining who believe in a robust liberty-oriented populace, or for those of us who want a society with real people, and not simply carbon-copy clones of “happy” drones.

The time has come for us to say enough is enough. To stop our obsession with protection, and to stop trying to create an environment free of risk or unhappiness. Because s**t  happens. But what’s more, suffering does buildcharacter, and taking risks is worthwhile. It is time we reclaim those qualities that made Australia the greatest country on earth.

For the sake of our children, and our children’s children, we need to learn how to say: “harden the f**k up”.

(Initially posted at my personal blog)

28 thoughts on “Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Children

  1. Its amazing how times change.

    I used to ride my bike 3km to school since I was 6 with my older brother who was 8. I didn’t really think anything of it and neither did our parnets.

    I just heard that no children at our local primary are allowed to just show up unattended, and no child is allowed to leave the school gate unless with an adult!

    And the falling tree that killed the baby, thats the fault of the parents. You take the risk walking under a tree and they paid for that risk… extremely unlucky yes, but ultimately its their own fault.

  2. All these people concerned about strangers when the biggest risk to most children are their own relatives.

    Perhaps we should move children to secure cells where they can only interact with other children and only when under video surveillance. Family Christmases? That’s just a recipe for molestation, especially if Uncle Bob has had a few too many Egg-Nogs. Camping trips? Can you see the risks?

    I think padded cells and video surveillance is what we really need. Otherwise those freak parents will end up doing crap like this:

    Think of the children! Leaving them with their parents is just too risky…

  3. I agree that the government is attempting to be too protective however I doubt this explains a decline in creativity. When people are taxed too much they get creative. When people are oppressed they get creative. When selling drugs is illegal people get creative. Constraint is in many ways an essential ingredient in creativity. I blame video games and other forms of instant entertainment which may sometime teach you to solve problems but don’t require much innovation. Kids these days simply aren’t bored enough.

  4. This might explain why the Japanese don’t win more Nobel prizes- they have heaps of safety signs and features, and are a video-game nation, just like TerjeP mentioned. They can put together some stuff, but real creative insights don’t seem to be their strong point.

  5. David – sorry, I didn’t think cross-posting is a particularly bad thing? In hindsight thought I should have noted on MH it was posted here first. Will update the post to reflect this.

  6. Academic performance in general has been declining in the USA. There are multiple reasons for this. Taking creativity in isolation is a logical error, you need to consider the general decline in cognitive skills.

    BTW, there is now research indicating that some video games actually increase certain cognitive capacities, including a key ingredient in problem solving: working memory capacity.

    As for the Japanese, extremely conformist culture, you don’t breed creativity in a conformist culture. That example may be relevant, are we making education too much on giving right answers instead of encouraging creative adventure? Consider Sweden, produces a large number of brilliant bods. Socialist and protective, but a culture that is more inclined to allow diversity and exploration.

  7. Is it actual cognitive skills and problem solving ability that are declining though, or the ability to memorise the curriculum?

    These are 2 different things.

    Nothing you learn at high school requires much problem solving ability, its mostly all rote learning.

  8. Rote learning isn’t all bad. That’s how we learn the alphabet and other basic working knowledge.

  9. School should be harder. They should also make maths teachers actually know how to answer the question “how is this relevant”.

  10. John H

    It would interesting see what is actually going in the the US by stripping away a lot of crap like neighborhood, racial type etc.

    I have to tell you, although the education there is layered a little with leftie stuff, I also found that the kids were really pushed at least at the schools my kids went to.

    They were doing a couple of hours of homework each day from 2nd grade. I kid you not. The stuff they taught was also very traditional too. They weren’t namby pampied.

    They also went to school here and they found it a breeze. They had learned most of the stuff they were taught in the last two years in Oz at middle school there.

    Admittedly these were private schools, but it’s that simple.

  11. JC,

    I’m highly cynical of the they are getting dumber mantra. That data has been coming out for decades yet we are in the midst of a technological revolution across multiple streams that is moving faster than at any other time in history. So if they are dumbing down, if they are becoming less creative then that must be a good thing.

  12. JC- I spent a day in a public school class in Utah while visiting a friend in 2004. It was a grade 10 class that felt like a grade 6 class- the kids were doing SPELLING and all the teacher was doing was reading the spelling words out and having the kids write them down and then reading out the correct answers.

    Then again Utah has one of the lowest IQs in the USA (it’s also one of the strongest Republican states).

    My education in Tasmania felt like it really did me justice- but then I constantly hear that Tassie has poor results compared with the rest of Australia. So I don’t know what to believe about education really. Maybe places like Tassie do good by the high-end students but don’t know how to bring the lower students up to a decent level?

  13. Oh and as John H. says we’re still progressing technologically as a civilisation, so we can’t be doing that bad. Maybe abandoning an obsession with things like spelling and grammar and focusing on current technology is the right way to go.

  14. My impression is that ability to think has stagnated for a long time. I think people are very confused and contradictory in their epistemology.

    About 90% of all scientists who have ever lived are working today.
    Yet we see a poor understanding of scientific method and many problems within the scientific establishment. eg/ climate science. I’ve had about 8 years experience in research and scientists are average people like anyone else. They’re not much more analytical IMO. The standard is low.

    What happened to the groundbreaking discoveries of over 100 or so years ago eg/ light as electromagnetic wave, anaesthetics, discovery of radioactivity, anti-biotics, combustion engine, development of chemistry as a separate field to name a few.
    We’re still riding on the back of giants who laid the groud work. And most development is technological, not scientific. eg/ computers.

    Having said that, people generally have good qualities. I believe that at a fundamental level, their lives depend on it.
    Even if a majority of people are sheep with very poor thinking skills, there are still discoveries being made and good work being done. Government control of science and regulation of business (stifling innovation and productivity) is sub-optimal but some good work will still come out of it.
    And you should bloody well hope so considering the amount of scientists in the world. Mind you, it’s my impression from following blogs like “In the Pipeline” that private research has suffered lately due to the GFC.

    Back to the post, I share Tim Andrews concerns about creativity and freedom of young kids these days. I have very fond memories of riding my bike around all day on weekends, getting up to no good and having fun.
    I’d like to add that I’ve observed a lot of hatred towards teenagers lately from my peers and elders. This concerns me and I don’t understand it. I guess people have a malevolent view of humanity and take this out on those that are visibly most different to them.
    Many oldies think they’ve got the younger generation all figured out. IMO, their generation was just as bad and made many of the same mistakes.
    I find it quite annoying and sad to hear older people complaining about the youth so I thought I’d mention it.

  15. Shem just out of interest, what in particular are your concerns about the “obsession” with spelling and grammar in schools?

    I guess spelling may be over-rated although etymology and phonetics can be interesting. Grammar is often vitally important to be able to convey complex messages accurately.

    Then again not all communication is complex. I have no problem with people “abusing” grammar and spelling by heavily abbreviating in text messages for example. I think this can be quite creative and efficient if done well. Again, the aim is effective and accurate communication of one’s thoughts.

  16. I think most language is picked up through passive acquisition rather than formally studying grammar. And grammar is useful in communication, but often more complicated grammatical forms can be communicated with simpler forms. Dependent clauses and relative clauses can be communicated with two simpler sentences to similar effect.

    I’d say most 95% people can communicate effectively enough, but I wouldn’t say that 95% of people know enough about how to budget their finances or how our political system works. I think less of a focus on grammar and more of a focus on budgeting and politics might prove useful!

  17. I think most language is picked up through passive acquisition rather than formally studying grammar. And grammar is useful in communication, but often more complicated grammatical forms can be communicated with simpler forms. Dependent clauses and relative clauses can be communicated with two simpler sentences to similar effect.

    I’d say most 95% people can communicate effectively enough, but I wouldn’t say that 95% of people know enough about how to budget their finances or how our political system works. I think less of a focus on grammar and more of a focus on budgeting and politics might prove useful!

    When I first got on the net I was often annoyed by the poor grammar and spelling but after a while I got used to it. It don’t matter so much dude so long as you understand what I am saying that is more important for information transfer.

    The so called decline in academic standards may well reflect that the younger generation simply doesn’t care that much for literary eloquence. Technology has allowed that. However there are a number of studies indicating that early childhood screen time(TV or computer) does seem to negatively impact on later schooling. For older people some computer games can increase cognitive skills. Alternately some computer games seem to increase two key factors in intelligence: working memory capacity and visual spatial skills, the latter is particularly relevant for older people as it seems to decline quite markedly with age.

    In the last few decades there have been plenty of major theoretic breakthroughs – immunology, genetics(say goodbye to neodarwinism but wait 20 years for that to become widely known), astronomy, materials physics, a slowly emerging revolution at a fundamental level in our understanding of biological processes(i.e. finally, the recognition of the need for geometric dimension to our understanding), power generation(particularly hydrogen), stem cell developments, immunotherapy for cancer, use of EMFS for various pathologies, neuroscience(say goodbye to modularity and hooray Lashley’s mass action hypothesis wins!), the repudiation of that incredibly stupid idea that brains are just complicated computers, neural protheses(cochlear and now vision trials underway and showing good promise).

    The big failures of the 20th C? Economics, sociology, and psychology.

    Yeah, sure we’re heading towards idiocracy ….

  18. Well, I don’t know what half of the grammar terms mean Shem, currently googling “dependent clause” 🙂 I reckon you’re right that you pick up a lot of the rules naturally from reading etc.

    John, I think science is still progressing, I just think the rate should be much faster.
    But if science ever starts going backwards, we’ll have bigger problems to worry about such as how to live in a totalitarian society!

    In my late teens I was much more of a techno-optimist to borrow your phrase:
    “It’s true, and we’ll all live in cities on the moon!” – Marge Simpson.
    But I’ve become a bit disillusioned over the years especially with the extreme regulations on medical research, a field I worked in a few years ago.

    Another problem is that while some scientists do good work, in a stupider world, people will ignore it more often. So it might take longer to see the light of day. And government power is mainly to blame here. (and the causes of people wanting excessive government power)
    A somewhat controversial example/ There have been many advances in nutritional science but authorities are still clinging to Key’s highly flawed lipid hypothesis of obesity, misinterpreting epidemiological studies and animal experiments, ignoring advances in endocrinology and giving diabetics poor advice.

    Perhaps the best indicator for a culture getting stupider would be a significant rise in popularity for pseudo-science such as the occult, or biggest douchebag in the universe John Edward types, or the power of gem stones or some other rubbish.

    Actually, the wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-intellectualism is quite interesting.
    The destructive influence of USSR’s Trofim Lysenko for example.

    Incidentally Mike Judges’ movie Office Space is a fantastic movie IMO, better than his later effort, Idiocracy. Although “Ouch my balls” still brings a smile to my face.

  19. Hey Tim,

    Long ago I first became suspicious of the obesity jazz when I was reading a text that stated genetically created obese animals were much sicker than obese humans. The BMI is an absurd joke. A recent study even claimed that carrying fat on the hips and thighs was protective, apparently it prevents the generation of pro-inflammatory cytokines, whereas visceral fat does seem to present risks.

    Nutritional science is something of a disaster area. The emphasis on complex carbs and grains may be amongst the worst advice ever issued by the medical authorities.

    It has been argued that the rise of alternative medicine and the occult is driven in part by relativism. In my experience though people may promote alternative medicine, and in some very limited matters I see value in alternative medicine, but the promoters, when confronted with a serious illness, will not be going to their naturopath …

    One reason I remain optimistic is because the power of science pervades our culture. Attack it as much as some postmodernists obviously enjoy doing, but they are stuck with the unassailable fact that science works and that is what matters. So I think people have no choice but to embrace science or piss off to Nimbin and sit under pyramids.

  20. @John H: I’m not quite as optimistic about the power of science as you are, for the very simple reason that I think more and more science will be co-opted by those wishing to control our lives, and we will have the Tyrrany of Science as the next-step in the evolution of the nanny-state, where everything ‘unhealthy’ for instance, is banned in the guise of ‘science’.

    In many ways I see a lot more humanity and value in a wacko going to see a witch-doctor than someone simply doing what they’re told and continuing to exist (for i struggle to call extremist health existance ‘living’) by following the ‘healthy’ dictates of conventional medicine. Individual choice, of course, but what worries me is the fact that conventional lifestyle-desiese-prevention-medicine is rapidly becoming a tool of the state, and not the choice of an individual.

  21. I agree with Tim that scientific advances can at times be worrying.

    If scientists discover the “right” way to live life that maximises happiness will we all be forced into following that lifestyle?

    It’s possible considering the debate around “preventative health”.

    The flaw of science is it always tries to find the “right” answers, which makes it more difficult to argue with than ideology because it’s “right”. Just look at the global warming debate- if you oppose the idea of mitigation then you are deemed anti-science.

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