Who can contemplate a newborn infant unmoved by its helplessness? Few living things are as vulnerable; none for anywhere near as long. Far beyond infancy, into childhood and adolescence, human beings are, if not utterly at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control, at least impressionable to a frightening degree. Who and what the parents are don’t by any means absolutely define the child. But parents are, so to speak, the shaping mold into which the child is poured. How many are worthy of the influence they wield?
None. Only perfection would confer that level of worthiness. Given the limitless human potential for failure, error, frustration and — sometimes even among fundamentally good people — evil, it’s a wonder our offspring turn out no worse than they do. Soaring child-abuse statistics suggest their vulnerability is increasing. In 2010 child consultation centers nationwide handled more than 50,000 emergency cases, 354 of which led to arrests on abuse charges — a 5.7 percent increase over the preceding year and a 1.2-fold rise in five years.
Stressful, changing, unpredictable times can make monsters of people. “Boy, 4, dies of abuse; body covered with cigarette burns, mother arrested”; “Girl, 8 months, seriously injured, mother arrested”; “Fifth-grade boy abused, man arrested” — these news headlines, cited last week by Shukan Asahi magazine, have appeared within the last three months.
“I could have killed him,” says one generally mild-mannered foster father featured in Shukan Asahi’s report. Appalling, the fury a 3-year-old can drive people to, and yet what parent or guardian has not, at one time or another, felt the same? Children and adults live in different worlds, have different needs and feelings, understand each other fitfully if at all. Murderous rage is a fact of parental life — and of juvenile life too; if children were physically stronger, what would the parent-abuse statistics be like? Fortunately for all concerned, the rages on both sides are (usually) fleeting, masterable, and mastered, and a semblance of normal life persists. Abuse is horrifying and its increase reveals something poisonous about society, but it remains all the same a fringe phenomenon.
What of the core? Most Japanese children, it is heartening to note, are loved, protected, nurtured and taught by parents who genuinely want what is best for them — if only they knew what it was. Do they? Who does? What does “best” mean? Dokkyo Medical University biologist Shinichi Nagai, writing in Shukan Gendai, discusses 3,000 troubled families he’s researched and counseled over the years. There is no abuse involved in his case histories — no physical abuse, anyway — just the blind spots we all suffer from with respect to those closest to us. The most successful and intelligent people, he finds, can make the worst parents.
Intelligent people have high expectations of their offspring. Is that bad? Being called “idiot” by parents who hold themselves up as models of what you should become can … what? Stimulate? Stifle? The latter, in Nagai’s view, and he cites some examples. One of them, however, seems to weaken his argument. She is a girl from a dauntingly distinguished family — uncle a university president, father a professor. She herself, academically speaking, is rather average — not good enough for her family, who drove the point home with such force that instead of striving to do better she rebelled and became a juvenile delinquent. And yet her two older brothers seem to respond well to that sort of upbringing. Both are medical students at top universities.
What should parents in a highly competitive world do when children are lax in their studies? Drive them, or relax in the hope that their self-fulfillment lies elsewhere than in what society considers success? Nagai is for encouragement in the form of praise; he marvels at the tendency of some well-meaning parents to “encourage” with verbal abuse: “Stupid! Why can’t you do this? Why don’t you understand?” — and so on. Their own abilities betray them. With all their intelligence they fail to comprehend the inabilities of the less intelligent, or the differently intelligent. Worst of all in that regard, Nagai says, are teachers — they come home from work and treat their children like students. Browbeaten, one student Nagai has counseled “got to the point where he found no pleasure in studying. When still quite small he developed a ‘loser dog’ mentality” — marking the end, despite some early promise, of his intellectual aspirations. He gave up.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Praise? Nagai believes in it, but a recent current in American child psychology has yielded the buzzword “praise junkies” to describe children who get too much of that particular form of encouragement. They develop a dangerous dependence on it and will do nothing if not praised — bad training for the chilly adult world in which carping and indifference must be coped with and praise is doled out in small doses.
The infinite vulnerability of our first years marks all of us for life. We’re in large part what our parents made of us when we were helpless and they were just muddling through. Thinking in particular of super-high academic achievers whose exclusive concentration on studying left them bereft of the most ordinary common sense outside the classroom, Nagai remarks, “When I think of these people taking over as adults, I fear for the future.” It’s true, but probably no truer now than at any other time. People have been saying the same for generations.