I fear for the “bubblewrap” generation, raised by helicopter parents, moms and dads hovering in the wings, watching so their kids never get hurt.
From media to games to books to playgrounds, an entire generation has been shaped from the mold sheltering them from all things objectionable or damaging.
Being 45, I’ve watched the evolution of safe-safe-safer coming on since my teens. It’s all around us in North American society, where liability has made our world one of safety rails, warning signs, and adult-content ratings.
It’s the backlash from a generation of latch-key kids. Our parents worked, so we had keys and took care of ourselves. Far too many of my generation grew up vowing their kids wouldn’t feel so abandoned, and then they swung the pendulum the other way.
It’s one thing to calm a toddler who fears the fictitious monster hiding under her bed. It’s quite another to kid ourselves that evil doesn’t exist.
Now, it’s a generation of kids caught between two extremes – on one side, angry they were sheltered from reality while adults fucked it all up, so now they’re fighting for a voice in a world wrested from them that’s in the throes of environmental and political calamity. On the other side, it’s a generation oblivious to calamity, dismissive of real evil, and frustrated that life actually requires adulting, sacrifice, and struggle.
So, when studies come out, like the one in Canada that found 22% of Canadian millennials have not heard of the Holocaust, I worry about what kind of adults we’re creating.
Ideas that Made Me
If you asked me to list books that made me the woman I am today, I’d likely be hard-pressed to come up with ten, because too many made an impact in too many ways. But I know one that’d make the list. Helter Skelter by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.
Helter Skelter is somewhat sensational. I don’t remember the writing or whether it might have inspired me to be a writer, but I remember what it taught me when I read it in college. Evil isn’t just a thing done, it’s spread through words. What most people don’t compute about Charles Manson is, he never killed anyone. He simply twisted people’s brains so hard that they did the killing for him.
There’s an important lesson in that: Ideas can be dangerous.
Why do you think every successful dictator ever has basically attacked intellectuals and libraries first? Hitler burned books. Mao killed intellectuals. Franco banned Basques from speaking their own language or learning about their culture. Today, Trump decries the “elites” while living a gold-plated life. It’s why Hungary’s Viktor Orban has slowly consolidated all control of Hungarian press.
Ideas kill. Education changes the world. What we learn, or fail to learn, shapes who we become as people, as societies.
Oversheltered = Vulnerable
If we’re wrapping our kids in a blanket of safety and love, we’re failing them.
Yes, there are good people, beautiful people, inspiring people in the world. Yes, love moves mountains and makes life worth living. But evil is out there too. Far less frequent, thank God, but it’s out there.
The one place we control what the world becomes is in school. By teaching our kids the reality of what we can do, and have done, to each other, we can help avoid such behavior ever triumphing again.
One country that knows what hate can do is Poland. In Poland, like in so many other places, there’s a hesitance to be truly honest about that history. We want to teach kids some of what history entailed, but we don’t want it to be so scary-real, so we only pull the curtain back a little, rather than showing the full extent of the horrors it hides.
Teach Them, Or Someone Else Will
I taught English to students between the age of 10 and 17 in Poland during the summer of 2018, and I loved the kids. Intelligent, well-read, kind. One girl’s name escapes me but her face is burned into my memory. Among our conversational sessions was a chat on racism. She told me how sad it made her to hear classmates belittling a Muslim kid.
“Their parents need to do better,” I told her.
“It’s not the parents,” she said. “The Internet teaches them to hate.”
This is the battle we have before us – if we don’t teach our kids, teach each other, then there are interested parties who will fill that role.
Chaos Ushers in the Unthinkable
The strangely funny thing about Charles Manson was that his goal, he said, in doing the Tate and LaBianca killings, in scrawling “death to pigs” on the wall in blood, was to make the city think Blacks did the murders. He wanted to cause race riots, to send the world into what he called “Helter Skelter” mode he dreamed of. In ripping society apart, it could be put back together again.
During the rise of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon spoke about that too, how they envisioned visiting chaos upon America, to dismantle the Republic as it was, so it could be rebuilt in a way that accommodated their world view in all its racist, hegemonic ways.
Remember, it was in the consequential vacuum and chaos of post-World War I that allowed Hitler to point fingers and create a new political era in Germany. Chaos creates a vacuum, and it’s in that vacuum that the unscrupulous capitalize.
Preventing that disorder and the onslaught of ignorant hate all comes down to what’s being taught in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth grades and beyond.
Childhood Ideals Are Powerful
When I was about six or seven, my favourite book was a story of Nazi gold, Snow Treasure, which told how Nazis were basically bad, and how Norwegian children managed to dupe the Nazis and smuggle Norway’s gold out of the country as Nazi occupation began. I didn’t know it then but it was my indoctrination into a life where social justice would be somewhat of a focus. It probably belongs on that list of mine.
At age nine, I was with my mother when a poor, drunk man begged from us. My mother made me give money to him. He’d been made small by life and time, had rotting teeth, dirt all over. I pressed a $2 bill in his hands, a lot of money for someone in his situation in 1983, so he sputtered his gratitude, got on his knees, and prayed for God to bless me.
I was left shaken that Mom “made me” be the donor and upon asking her about it, she simply said I needed to understand that not everyone was lucky in life. It was a significant lesson about the suffering some endure.
Two years later, my father brought me home a book as a gift, Underground to Canada, a young adult reader about the Underground Railway and those who escaped into Canada to leave slavery behind. I learned a sanitized version of slavery. I didn’t understand why one group of people felt justified in owning another group of people, but I knew it was motivated by greed and evil.
The same year, my Yugoslavian classmate was asked if he understood why his family had emigrated to Canada. He promptly told us of the country’s dictator, Josip Broz Tito, and how he tortured dissidents, how his parents were dissidents, and that the fled to survive. That’s when I learned what a studded “cat o-nine tails” whip was.
So Much to Learn
But for all the social awareness I may have had, I grew up financially ignorant. All the people I knew grew up like me, in nice houses, without wanting for much. My parents hid from us how tight things could be with money and the result is that I grew up without good money sense. I would be in debt by 18, and 27 years later I’m still trying to reckon with that.
We’re doing the same thing to the youth, raising them without understanding what the Nazis wrought, what Stalin wrought, what Mao and Franco and Pinochet and Tito and the Khmer Rouge and the Boko Haram all wrought.
Evil isn’t an idea in books, it’s a reality. The only avenue we have to fight it is in teaching our youth who these people are and why we can never, ever go down their road. Whether it’s the man who shouts racist epithets on a street corner or a president who mocks the disabled, we must teach children that small acts of cruelty often segue into something larger, darker, more disruptive.
The small acts are just a test of what we will abide. We must abide none of it.
There Be Monsters
There are monsters. They’re not under the bed. They’re in offices of power, in dark trucks on lonely roads, in the Catholic Church. They’re in all kinds of places we need to be honest about, lest we allow them to remain.
Evil isn’t an abstract idea, it’s the enemy we must fight every day, in every place.
There’s good news too. Just like hatred can be taught, so can love, kindness, and strength.
But for them to understand how important love, kindness and strength are, we must teach them how insidious and easy evil can be. And if we choose to teach neither, someone else will decide the lessons for us.