Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The hat/elephant problem

This will be about teh behbies. I know you're, like, so tired of my thoughts on teh behbies. It will only get worse though. This is a warning.

There is a tradition within children's literature exemplified by writers like Roald Dahl* and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that is based on the idea that the worlds of childhood and adulthood are diametrically opposed and unable to comprehend one another. Unlike the realist writers, these writers view growing up not as a process of imbibing ("confronting") the adult world bit by bit, but as a moment in which the child betrays the secrets and customs of the child world in order to enter the adult world, thereby closing it off from an entire worldview forever. For example, he looks at the picture of the elephant inside a boa and sees in its place a hat. These books usually revolve around the persistent, usually despotic efforts of adults to superimpose the rules and restrictions of their world onto children. We call this raising them, but the authors insist that children already have a complete (and implicitly better) kind of understanding of the world, it's just not one that adults can appreciate or live by because it involves things like evading witches who turn children into mice.

(Interestingly, these books also suggest that leaving the world of childhood by growing up is neither necessary nor inevitable--a topic for another discussion, perhaps. As is the way that this group of writers sets itself up as allies of children against other adults--usually the child's parents--who it says want to oppress children with their burdensome realities, whereas realist writers demonize parents by suggesting that their failing lies in not telling children enough about reality.)

This tradition is often fascinating, sometimes evil, and, in certain situations, an accurate portrayal of disconnect between childhood and adulthood. Take the internet, for example. Adults are concerned with the possible ill-effects of internet social media on children. But what are those ill-effects? As I've said before, adults focus on the prospect of the "online predator" who will disguise his appearance to lure unsuspecting children away from home and do horrible things to them. But this actually happens so rarely that it barely registers for children, though the few sensational incidents when it did happen understandably instill a burning terror in adults about the possibility. Of course, it doesn't hurt to be wary of these things, but to become pre-occupied by them is to miss what children are really doing on the internet, which is not primarily accepting IMs from strangers asking if they are h0rny2nite.

The same error of mistaking the elephant-in-boa for a hat seems to afflict this view of school violence:
So lesson number one: remind your children that everything online is serious. Threats made not online are serious too. To quote the signs at the airports nowadays, “if you see something, say something.”
This would seem like a really clear bright line if it were enforceable. Unfortunately, not everything online and off is actually serious. (In fact, the chat room conversation was later found to be a hoax.) Children make these threats all the time. Reporting them all would be impossible, and, if possible, would become meaningless. My students threaten each other with violence constantly, and even the impeccably scrupulous Miss Self-Important, who we know has always made such excellent judgments about what does and does not belong on teh internets, once had her and her friend's online "hit lists" discovered by their high school teachers. Needless to say, they were not serious.

Again, you might say that being wary of possible seriousness in such threats can't hurt, and that's true, but Belkin's post suggests a kind of easy, rule of thumb solution to the complicated problem of school shootings. Since we know that in many such instances, the child previously mentioned his plans to someone else, we should just instruct our children to report every such mention they overhear, and this way, we will keep the killing under control. But this is a solution from hindsight--the only thing it will ever help us do is implicate some hapless child who failed to report what he assumed was a joke after it turns out that it was not. Because, again, every child hears this all the time. Adults can try to root out these modes of speech among children (in the same way that people advocate restricting violent video games because they supposedly make children violent), but unless the mode of speech is itself the impetus for the violence, banning the phrase "I'm gonna kill you" is unlikely to prevent it.

Neither does the opposite view--that children who commit such acts of violence are obvious psychopaths whose behavior is organically deranged--work except in hindsight. There are many strange and disturbing children out there (remember? there were at least three in every grade) who, after they kill someone, seem like exactly the kind of person who would obviously have killed someone, but before then, are equally likely to be non-violently crazy or turn out just fine after a period of bizarreness. Here too, adults prefer to see a hat--an uncomplicated type of person who just needs to be identified early (and can be, presumably, since he is clearly deranged)--where children see the elephant-in-boa--a more complicated mix of he-said, she-saids and wrong looks and social errors that sets off violence (including mundane kinds of violence like hallway fights) or keeps it at bay.

The point is not that the elephant is actually the more accurate view of things--certainly in adult social relations, the hat prevails--death threats and fist fights are more infrequent and more alarming events, and people get arrested for them. The point is that there is a hat/elephant problem, and according to the people who describe hat/elephant problems, the nature of the hat/elephant problem is that truthful communication across the hat/elephant divide is impossible, so we are doomed to tell children vapid things like, "Tell me if you ever hear a death threat!" and go unheeded.**

*Ok, I know you are all groaning that it is ridiculous to expend effort contemplating the deeper meaning of Dr. Seuss or whatever, and this is probably true, but I will defend at least Roald Dahl as a serious writer, and also the second-best autobiographer I have ever read. (But then, I have not read very many.)

**I don't actually think this. Mass school shootings are a relatively recent phenomenon, although school violence is not. I suspect the latter is probably a permanent fixture of childhood, though the former is the result of more mutable aspects of culture.