Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tough Stuff

I've just slogged through a terrible biography of FDR, written by by Ted Morgan. The 742 pages had a zillion arcane details, divined private thoughts and assigned motives... and plenty of just plain bad writing. Some of the highlights of the book, however, were these quotes regarding Roosevelt's triumph over, in all but the physical sense, his affliction by polio and subsequent crippling.

Eleanor Roosevelt was once asked the question, "Do you think your husband's illness has affected his mentality?" She said, "...yes. Anyone who has gone through great suffering is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind." Morgan goes on to say that Eleanor felt his years of convalescence had taught him patience.

Francis Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet, was appointed by FDR as Secretary of Labor in 1932 and served in that post until 1947. She is quoted as saying, "I would like to think that he would have done the things he did even without his paralysis, but knowing the streak of vanity and insincerity that there was in him, I don't think he would have unless somebody had dealt him a blow between the eyes..."

Steve Early, who went from AP reporter to FDR's White House secretary in charge of press relations (later serving as Deputy then Under Secretary of Defense) remarked, "If it hadn't been for his affliction, he never would have been President of the United States. In those earlier years, he was just a playboy...During his long illness, he began to read deeply and study public questions."

Adore or despise him, one can't discount the positive impact that FDR had on this country reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, and the impact he had on the world battling the evils of the war years. Life today would be immeasurably different had FDR not been our President from 1932 to 1945. FDR himself was immeasurably different because of his struggle with his disease and its effects.

The principle that adversity builds character, that we grow only through times of challenge and suffering, never through periods of ease and "being comfortable," is a basic truth of the human condition, yet it seems that in today's culture there's almost a conspiracy to ignore this fact, or at least a wish to deny it.

It makes me wonder and worry about our general trend to make and keep our lives, and our kids' lives, as bland as flan. Of course we don't want to suffer and certainly hope to keep our kids from ever suffering, but we also seem to shield our families from half of the choices life offers with both one, the fun, the easy, the pleasant; in the other, the good/bad news of character growth and strengthening.

I'm a relatively involved grandma, participating in many of the little kids' school, sports and art activities. While I certainly can't generalize about ALL kids, I have drawn some conclusions about the kids of middle class California yuppies.

In this group health care isn't a concern, family incomes allow nannys, McMansions and McBMW's. Peer pressure includes whose mom can come up with the most elaborate birthday party (the details would make you gag,) and the cutest designer clothes, and it's not unusual to send the family pet to doggy camp for the day.

The children I'm around are being reared with solid moral values, and most of these families are stable. That isn't my worry.

I've never seen a generation of kids who are so coddled, so protected, so babied (and so spoiled) -- if any of them ever reach any kind of independence, I'll be astonished. We read a lot about families who still shelter and support young adults long after college graduation as they have yet to make any kind of solid career move and just don't seem to mature as have previous generations -- and those kids are 15 years older than the children I see. I can't imagine what this next crop will be like.

I know there are safety issues involved today that I didn't have to deal with 25 years ago. I also know I was in a completely different economic class than these families (single mom, with a management position some years off,) but for the life of me, I can't see one of these little princes or princesses learning how to cook a real dinner at age nine, washing a dish with detergent and water, doing the family laundry at age ten or walking a mile or two to school daily. The hardest thing most of these kids face is a five-minute time out as discipline, the loss of a turtle, or an occasional difficult homework assignment. Wait...there are ready turtle replacements at Reptiles R Us and tutors standing by for the homework, and five minutes is...just five minutes.

In insulating these kids with money, with private schools, with 24-hour attention by overindulgent parents and nannies, with a lack of any real responsibility other than MAYBE tidying their professionally-decorated rooms, the kids are being denied one real opportunity for growth. They don't have to struggle for a damn thing now, nor will they in their rosy futures. I'll wager that they will be handed keys to their own baby BMW the day they get their driver's license and not one will ever work a day through high school or college.

All of these parents appear to know more about child-rearing than any expert on TV. What they seemed to have missed, however, is the truth that struggle, challenge, adversity and hardship really form the child's character. Everyone, sooner or later, gets their share of these. If they haven't had to deal with them in some minor form as kids, how will they survive their harsh lessons later? If they don't learn consequences and independence as kids... will they ever learn them as adults?

I hope I'm wrong about this. I hope that the security that comes from a solid financial foundation, that the parenting knowledge and values these kids are growing up with are enough to allow them to reach their potential as productive, independent adults. Coming from my own background, however, and seeing what strength of character a few years of hardship and necessity produced in my own sons, I have to wonder...and I worry.


IntelWmn2 said...

Certainly right to worry! I just spent four exhausting hours with a 7 yo girl next to me on a flight, while her father sat two rows behind with his 3 (yes, count them three) ex-wives, new young wife, and all of their fanned out brood.
Please don't get me wrong...not all heavy metal guitartists leave the care of their young daughters to every imaginable game, iPod, dvd player in a backpack, two separate meals, and their precocious manners to strangers. Perhaps I was the newly appointed Nanny for Southwest Airlines and no one remembered to inform me of my duties as I flew from Philadelphia back to Los Angeles after witnessing a ceremony for new medical students, my son included.

I may wonder at times why my son chooses to live a Spartan lifestyle, even ridding himself of a used car, but I do know that the tears flowed freely as I assisted him into his new lab coat, remembering his brain stem bleed of only three years earlier. I saw no fear on his face of stroking out from stress, no mention of the many years it will take to pay back loans. Tomorrow as he actualizes his first use of a surgical scalpel, I may even reflect on the mother with one pair of shoes a year that so enjoyed your blog.

bgrant444 said...

Now think about where FDR might have wound up if he had been born to poverty--the child of a depression family. I agree that kids are spoiled rotten these days and they think the world is a safe and secure place--based on their parents money and not only is that breeding a generation, or two or three, of coddled people without any independence but it is breeding a generation of people without a sense of community and sense of what the future can be if we try to work together without regard to who has the most expensive toys. These generations you reference are walled off from reality and reality is raising up to bite us in the ass. We are electing idiots, we allow the self-interested to corrupt our institutions, our infrastructure is in sad shape--partly through lack of attention and partly through rigged bidding which allowed corrupt contractors to built our bridges, roads and tunnels in the first place and these people merrily ride in their Chevy Subdivsions to their $30,000 birthday parties with ride-on elephant for a 7 year old and think they are immune from the rest of the tawdry world. I do go on :-)

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