I believe we are hard wired to seek pleasure. As newborns the only thing we know is that we either feel good or not; and if the feeling is not, then we make our discomfort and distress known by our discountenance: We cry! There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel pleasure but as we develop and mature we realize that it’s a great big world out there and that we can not always have our own way and we will not always feel wonderful. Being able to withstand the “hardship” of not being in a constant state of ecstasy, or at least enjoyment, is what allows us to develop resilience.
I have been focusing on discomfort lately because of the “Polar Vortex” that is gripping much of the country. Though I live in the upper Mid-west, Iowa to be exact, I am one of those hardy and foolhardy folks who rides a bicycle, runs, or walks to work year round. The cold weather has been extreme here to the point where schools have been closed or delayed not because of snowfall but simply because it was so cold. I have all the necessary gear to keep me warm in very severe weather but I have been keeping an eye on the elementary school children who are waiting for the school bus as I ride, run, or walk by. I have been thinking about their resilience.
Resilience is an attribute that has been highly regarded in our recent past. This is because limited resources, whether physical, emotional, or temporal, meant that we could not be maintained in a state that would always be pleasing to us. It was considered standard to deny children things so that they could understand that just as pleasure is temporary, so is pain or discomfort. Not having everything we wanted was considered normal and a child being able to soldier on under these not completely satisfying conditions was seen as a necessary and desirable characteristic.
The children waiting for the buses at various places along my commute to work have been dressed in a variety of manners. As the temperatures have ranged from the low positive teens to the mid negative twenties on the Fahrenheit scale and the winds have been anywhere from calm to mid twenty miles per hour it should come as no surprise that they dressed differently. But it was more than that. Some kids looked like they were dressed for the ordeal of standing outside in the bitter cold and some didn’t. More importantly, some kids weren’t standing in the cold, because they were coddled in Mom’s or Dad’s car while the engine and heater ran.
I think that coddling a child, giving her everything she wants, is a natural temptation for many 21st Century Americans because more and more of us are beginning to believe that the world owes us pleasure, sustenance, and bliss. I do not concur with this model to which I allude but I do think many people are living their lives in subconscious belief in its validity. We can call this the school of, “If I want it, I need it.”
Keeping a child safe from the elements is not coddling. Some children have asthma or other conditions that make exposure to the frigid cold a greater risk for them. I understand that and having acknowledged it I am going to ignore the real and important times when this is relevant as that is not what I am writing about. Also, bear in mind that I am 52 years old and am exposing myself to the same elements for as much as 45 minutes at a stretch, so it’s not as though I am looking out the window from my warm living room thinking about how the youth of today are not being brought up right. Again, that is not the story I wish to tell. What I am writing about is the clash between the, “If I want it, I need it” school of being and developing independence.
Apart from the fact that I think the “I want it, I need it” model is inherently false, my biggest concern with it is that rearing our children this way can not lead to their independence. I realize that with the availability of electronic gadgets to keep people in touch with one another from anywhere on the globe that independence is a quality that will decline in both value and priority.
The interconnectedness of our world first hit me hard in the nose when my two sons left home and moved 150 miles away. When I left home some thirty plus years ago I was pretty much on my own as far as parental supervision or counseling was concerned.This model of independence that had been the norm then was no longer relevant. My wife kept in daily contact with our sons via cell phone, internet, and email.
My model for how the world works was decades out of style. I was thinking of the changing role of independence and the quality of resilience as I watched the children waiting for the bus. I was thinking of this primarily because while Iowa’s, and much of the U.S.A.’s, cold weather for January and February of 2014 is extreme, the phenomenon of sitting in a running car waiting for a school bus to arrive is something I’ve noticed for over fifteen years.
When I was a child growing up we lived well under a mile from Oakland Elementary, our grammar or primary school in Bloomington, Illinois. As the fourth person in the family to attend Oakland it was routine for us to walk there regardless of weather. Neither sleet, nor rain, ice, snow, howling gales or other mundane roadblocks persuaded our mother to drive us to school. As very young children we walked and after third grade we were allowed to bicycle in favorable weather.
This continued even after moving to Montgomery County, Maryland where I again walked or cycled to school until beginning junior high when the distance from home to school was sufficient for our school district to provide bus transportation for students who lived more than a mile away. This mile distance rule and the subsequent busing was the standard when I attended Maryland high school and when our older son Kevin went to kindergarten and first grade in Indianapolis, Indiana. Moving to Cedar Rapids, Iowa brought about a rule change that I found a bit stunning.
The lovely home to which we moved is located 1.87 driving miles from Nixon Elementary where Kevin would continue his education as a second grader and our younger Sean begin his as a kindergartener. While living in Indy we had received detailed bus information in the mail after having enrolled Kevin in school and we anticipated the same from Cedar Rapids. Our expectations were not met.
Being conflict averse by nature I told my wife I would walk with the boys to school and work out the bus issue from there. So when the first day of school arrived one pleasant morning in August of ’98 the boys and I undertook a meandering hike to school. My place of employment was another mile from school and I had regularly been riding or walking there, so bringing the boys along was a minor change in my newly evolving commuting pattern.
I should mention that I am a bicycle commuter and have been since 1980. I started using a bike for transportation on the Maryland side of suburban D.C., did so for a while in Birmingham, Alabama, then for about a year in Hartford, Connecticut, eight years in suburban Atlanta, Georgia and had recently finished three years of getting around by bike in Indiana. Getting me back and fourth by bicycle for at least nine out of twelve months had by then become ingrained in my personality but I hardly expected my children to do the same. Circumstances would change my expectations and over the next fifteen years I would learn how to commute twelve months a year in a part of the country where frigid winters are the norm. On the first day of school in our new town I was just looking to get our kids registered to ride the bus.
I escorted the kids into the building, sent them on their way to their classes and went up to the office to speak with the school secretary.
I would have many dealings with the school secretary. Sean has and had a penchant for rule bending and this would be a regular part of my communications with Nixon and its secretary. Also, I had earned a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education in 1986 and two years later when Kevin started fourth and Sean second grade I would start doing a little part-time substitute teaching at Nixon along with my full-time job in a bicycle store. On this morning I simply had the unforgettable experience of meeting Mrs B.
There are words, phrases and descriptors that oft times enter our minds when we meet or get to know someone. Battle-axe, didactic, unfriendly; these are examples of words that might enter one’s head when introduced to something or someone new. My mother has reared me in a way that discouraged the use of such epithets. Additionally, sometimes people find themselves overwhelmed with age, arthritis, personal issues and the like that would make the use of such adjectives, though accurate, unkind and petty. I make this observation as an aside and I would hate for the reader to construe that the proximity of the unflattering descriptors and the introduction of Mrs. B is anything but coincidental.
After having cooled my heels a bit Mrs. B greeted me with the sneering, upwardly curled lips she used as a substitute for a smile and she asked, “And how may we help you today?”
“Well,” I began in my suavest, most placative and penitent voice, “it seems as though we didn’t get our bus route information.”
“Oh, what is your child’s name and address?”
I provided her with Kevin’s and Sean’s name and gave her our street address. She pursed her lips, looked at me with squinty eyes and said, “Excuse me just a moment,” while she referenced a chart that was handily available at her desk. “I see. You’re within the two mile limit. You have to live further than two miles from an elementary school to be provided with bus service.”
Trying to both keep my cool and process this new information I said, “But there are buses that go up and down my street. I saw the neighbor kid get on a bus and he goes to Nixon.”
“Well, that’s possible. The neighbor child may live outside the two mile limit or his parents may pay for him to ride the school bus.”
“How’s that?” I asked, all veneer of suave having been planed off my exterior.
“Your neighbors may be paying to have their child bussed. Lots of people do. It’s only five hundred dollars per child.”
“But the bus goes right by my house. I have to pay for my kids to get on a bus that stops three doors down?”
Mrs. B’s calm response was, “You do if you live closer than two miles. Perhaps your neighbor is far enough out.”
“Is there a way I could check and see if we are really less than two miles out?”
Mrs. B was obviously tiring of my inanity and smiling brightly she said, “Yes, you could request a review with transportation. Of course if your neighbors aren’t really at least two miles away then their free bus privileges will be revoked.”
I thanked her for her time, left the building, and heading off to work, muttered some phrases concerning the probable marital status her parents had held at the time of her birth. She had dismissed me and cut me off at the knees. If I asked for the review and we were inside the two mile minimum I wouldn’t be out anything unless of course the review eradicated my neighbors free bus service; thus making me a pariah. I was not going to pay $1,000 a year to have my boys bussed when the bus went right by my house and I was not going to drive them either. Thus began six years of escorting my kids to and from school either on foot, or as the younger son got old enough, by bicycle.
Over the next half dozen years I would get to know intimately just what it meant to have children travel under human power just shy of two miles in most any weather from mid August through early June. The unpleasant parts like slow, sweaty, slogs home on afternoons in August or September, sliding on icy sidewalks and pushing through two foot tall snow drifts in January and February, bundling the boys in their protective cocoons of snow pants, hats, gloves and winter coats as we stepped out to face temperatures in the minus twenties and winds that made pushing through to and from school feel like fighting a demonic Sisyphus.
But for every unpleasant aspect of our twice daily trek there were dozens of delicious delicacies and hidden rewards that were placed upon our table or laid at our feet that materialized with our meandering explorations. We took opportunities to explore the wooded area between school and home, walked atop the frozen creek in the bitter cold, and had time with every walk to talk with one another. Taking our children to and from school most days was a fantastic opportunity that was pretty much forced on me by circumstance.
Waiting for the bus in adverse conditions is an opportunity for children to grow in understanding that they can endure unpleasantness. It is possible they might even come to enjoy it just as we did our twice daily trips together. But when we drive our kids to school rather than have them take the bus, or when we have them sit in the car waiting for the bus rather than waiting outside in the elements with their friends we deny them the opportunity for growth; and I think that is denying them a glorious gift.
So if you don’t already, then think about letting your boy or girl discover a great big world out there that is available to those who are willing to feel a little discomfort in order to make great gains, it might open everybody’s eyes.