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Don't put aside childish ways: an American living in India offers her unique perspective on parenting and the spiritual challenges of consumerism.

"In my day," I started scolding my son last week, intending to give him a lecture on what a wonderful teenager I had been relative to him.

"Mom," he said in exasperation. "You aren't dead yet. It's still your day."

This is true, of course, for all parents--but it is true on two levels for me. Although I am an American, I have lived in India for the past 20 years, and our three children have all been brought up here. In many fundamental ways, India is at least 30 years behind the United States; in small towns like the one we live in, it's probably more like 40 or 50. This puts me in the peculiar position of having a good idea of what my children are going to do before they do it, because I did it first. Most of the time they remind me of the way I was at their ages, and my memory, while bad for most things, is pretty good for my own teenage years.

Sometimes my kids seem slightly old-fashioned even to me. They rise when a grown-up enters the room, and my son will offer his seat to a woman who is standing. If a teacher walks by when they are with their friends on the playground at school, their hands automatically come out of their pockets and they stand up straighter. They are polite and respectful, and they actually talk to us.

I know better, however, than to think that it's anything we have done. Most of the work is done by the environment in which they are growing up, an environment in which the next-door neighbor has as much authority over them as I do, an environment which, I realized with a start recently, is very much like the one I grew up in myself.

When I was a child, I lived on a street where everyone knew everyone else. The low stone walls dividing one house from another just made racing through the backyards more interesting. Most of the families were large, and we children were as familiar with their internal politics as with the state of their cookie jars. Orders from another child's parent were taken as seriously as those from your own, and if you got into big trouble at a friend's house, you knew that when you reached home you'd be in trouble there, too. Parents formed a united front, and they all spoke the same language. At least it seemed that way to us.

Looking back, I know that the Wheelocks were Republicans, the Feldmans were Jewish, and the Malloys were conservative Catholics. They all believed different things, and they weren't likely to get together socially. But at the time, they all just seemed like parents.

I think my children have grown up here in India feeling the same way about the Sharmas, the Srivastavas, and the Aroras. They all expect children to be polite and respectful; they all think children should spend more time studying. More important, however, they are all grown-ups. They all have authority, and they all have it naturally, by virtue of their age. They do not ask for children's approval or even for their opinion. Children are free to get on with being children--the grown-ups are making the decisions.

This monolithic view of parents and children is a useful one For children, there is the security of clear, uncompromising standards: Grown-ups can all be depended upon to say the same things. And for parents there is the comforting knowledge that they need not be everywhere at the same time: Teachers, neighbors, and shopkeepers will be keeping an eye on the children, too.

Children growing up in the United States, and the parents who are raising them, face a very different situation indeed. Although from age to age parents have always complained about the current younger generation, this time I think there is a case to be made. This Western-hemisphere generation is significantly different (I know because their counterparts in the East are not), and, considering the speed with which the changes have taken place, it is not surprising that so many are worried and distressed.

There are dozens of explanations for the phenomenon, but I think a likely one has to do with the fact that television advertising has, for the first time ever, been aimed at small children rather than at their parents. This has resulted in a breaking down of authority and in a reduction of the respect and trust children naturally have for adults. Encouraged to make purchasing demands and reconstructed as legitimate consumers in their own right by the advertising industry, children have moved to center stage in a way that previous generations of parents could not have imagined. It has changed the nature of the parent-child relationship in a fundamental way, but even more fundamental is the change it has wrought in the nature of childhood itself.

The love of money is the root of all evil, and we have it on good authority. As adults, most of us struggle with our desires for more of the world's goods, and, as often as not, we are defeated. One of the reasons we continue to struggle, I believe, is a memory, however dim, of childhood, when we, too, were the little ones, the ones of whom Jesus spoke when he described the kingdom of heaven.

Could it be that the distress so many parents feel today, their bewilderment and anxiety about the way their children are forced to grow up, is rooted in their recognition that this childhood is not the one Jesus meant?

I think many parents smile when reading the famous "suffer the little children" passage in the gospel, in which Jesus assures us that "of such is the kingdom of heaven." We all know how thoughtless children can be, how inconsiderate and even cruel toward people they do not like. As they get older they learn to hide their true feelings or to overcome them. But when they are young, such self-control is rare. So what is Jesus talking about? What is so great about children that we should strive to be like them?

I believe it is their innocence. By this I do not mean that they are pure and incapable of doing wrong--this is a sentimental view not rooted in reality. I mean something that is unconscious and not, therefore, a virtue. It is, however, something we can learn from.

Children, unless they have been severely damaged emotionally, are almost unbelievably trusting. Nothing worries them--tornadoes, armed desperados, famine, disease--as long as their parents are holding their hands. We, the supposed all-powerful adults, pity this innocence, knowing too well our own impotence in the face of all that the world has in store for them, but at the same time, we long for that security they feel, however mistaken.

It is precisely that security that Jesus holds out to us: The hairs on our heads are numbered, and we need not even worry about our food or our clothing. But the only way to have it is to become as trusting as a child. It flies straight in the face of all logic and reason, and the world of the marketplace is quick to make a mockery of it. With talk of investments and retirement plans, credit cards, and layaways, we are carefully educated as to where our true security lies and encouraged to believe that only a fool would think of trusting in God. A fool--or a grown-up wise enough to have learned how to be a child.

Now, however, the market forces want the children, too. With advertising aimed specifically at them, children are being carefully shaped as savvy, "not to be manipulated" consumers whom business ignores at its peril. But children are not smart enough to be good consumers. Adults have a hard enough time managing it. Children are simply lambs to the slaughter.

I believe this is at the root of the unease most parents feel about the world their children inhabit. Their childhoods are being wrested away from them under the guise of purchasing power and bargain sales. My children have been more protected than their cousins and friends growing up in America, but the army of the global economy is moving rapidly, and it will not be long before Asia is also occupied territory.

It is nothing less than the devil's work, and it is time we named it as such. Only then can we begin to resist it.

JO MCGOWAN is a writer living in Dehra Doon, India.
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Author:McGowan, Jo
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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