The care of our children

THE FEAST of the Holy Innocents brings up in a most vivid way the mass killing almost two weeks ago of 20 school children at a public elementary school in Connecticut.  It is a good time to reflect on the varied meanings that this unspeakable deed has summoned in every culture regardless of religion.

In America, the tragedy has focused attention on the country’s lax gun laws.  The murderer was a 20-year-old reclusive man, who used three

semiautomatic weapons, including an assault rifle, all licensed under his mother’s name.  That same morning, he fired one of the guns at his mother while she was still in bed.  Then he headed off to Sandy Hook Elementary School which he had attended as a young boy, killing every child within sight.  Six teachers from the school, who had tried to shield the children, also fell in the hail of bullets, after which the gunman pointed the gun at his head and shot himself.

Despite the influential gun lobby, that historically has led the resistance to tighter gun laws, America is poised to pass the necessary law that will limit gun ownership and regulate the selling of guns.  There is talk, at the same time, of posting armed security guards at every school, and of allowing school authorities to keep weapons within school premises.  There is a renewed call to look into the general state of mental health in the United States, with the end in view of ending the pattern of senseless mass murders perpetrated by deranged individuals.  There is, finally, a revival of the more complex debate about parenting in the face of what one expert calls “the death of American childhood.”

It is always easier to propose remedies than to make sense of the larger context in which crimes of this nature happen.   The Sandy Hook tragedy has been particularly baffling to investigators.  They have found no meaningful leads that can cast some light on the bizarre actions of the young gunman, Adam Lanza.

Not much is known about him, except that he kept to himself and seldom left the house that he shared with his divorced mother and older brother.  Neighbors say he spent most of his time at his computer, playing Internet games with others from all over the world.  There is no clue as to what kind of games these were and what other things he did in cyberspace.  He had destroyed the computer hard disk that would have allowed investigators to look into his digital footprint.

It is interesting how someone like Adam Lanza could be connected to anonymous players in cyberspace while remaining physically isolated in the basement of his home, detached from neighbors and the local community and, by all accounts, even from people his age.  We don’t know if Lanza took any interest in the persons behind the game avatars he dealt with.  To him, they were possibly nothing more than figures locked in combat in digital space.

Digital communication can never fully substitute for face-to-face interaction in the real world.  No matter how segmented and casual modern relationships in the real world may be, the presence and proximity of another human being even in the most fleeting encounter prompts us to be more attentive, if not more accountable, in our dealings with others. Some say this is the foundation of a moral sense.  It is what Emmanuel Levinas meant by ethics as first philosophy.  Sociologists say this moral sense is first acquired within primary groups—i.e. our families and peer groups.

I have found echoes of this perspective in a recent interview with the Canadian physician, Dr. Gabor Maté, author of the book “Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers.”  As the title of the book indicates, Maté believes that for children, the primary connections that define character have to be supplied by the family.  He argues that American childhood has been destroyed precisely by the supplanting of parents by peers.  “And that’s why it’s so difficult to peel them (children) off their computers, because their desperation is to connect with the people they’re trying to attach to.  And that’s no longer us, as the adults, as the parents in their life,” he says in the interview.  These strong views may find easy acceptance in a society like ours, but they will not go unchallenged in an American culture that privileges personal freedom over social cohesion.

But, isn’t it natural for children to rebel so that they can stand on their own later? the interviewer follows up.  “No,” says Maté emphatically.  “They have to separate, but they don’t have to rebel.  In other words, separation is a normal human—individuation is a normal human developmental stage…. But it doesn’t mean you have to reject and be hostile to the values of the adults.  As a matter of fact, in traditional societies, children would become adults by being initiated into the adult group by elders….  Now kids are initiated by other kids…. So you have whole generations of kids that are looking to other kids now to be their main cue-givers.”  Maté concludes with a sobering thought: “What the problem reflects is the loss of the community and the neighborhood.”  ( 2012/12/25/dr_gabor_mat_on_ the_stress)

One doesn’t have to live in America to identify with this last statement.  We find evidence of this in our society, which has been massively transformed in the last three decades alone by rapid urbanization and labor export.  We may take comfort in seeing that the extended Filipino family appears to cope quite well with the vicissitudes of long distance parenting.

But even as we pay tribute to the grandparents and unmarried siblings who selflessly assume the responsibilities of caring for the children left behind, we cannot help but worry about the immeasurable emotional costs that have been absorbed by the present generation of Filipino children.