Isolation or Family?

In the past few weeks I have come across a variety of articles in a variety of magazine which have given me real pause for thought about what is happening in modern American – or perhaps Western – families. In our frenzy to become individuals and to strike out on our own and blaze our own path, there seems to be a growing trend to separate from loved ones and raise children in little cocoons of isolation.
An article which really highlighted this for me (and this wasn’t even the point of the article) was in last month’s issue of Mother Jones (yes, I read Mother Jones – and occasionally Utne Reader though I find its smug trendiness rather nauseating at times). This article was about economic growth and the environment and can the planet sustain what people seem to desire.  It was vaguely interesting but what caught my eye were several quotes from architects and builders about the new “mega-houses” that are the vogue amongst Those Who Can Afford Them. Apparently, there are a lot of Americans out there willing to shell out vast sums of money for houses designed to “suit the dysfunctional family.” This is how one builder characterized these houses. And from the way he was quoted – and the non critical way in which what he said was blended into the rest of the article – it seems that this was neither a joke nor an exclamation of horror but rather a simple description of what is.
So it’s up to folks like me and you to throw up our hands and exclaim in horror!
Wow.  A house that is designed so that the people who live in it – parents and children – not a house designed for groups of college students – don’t have to interact with one another. The little girl’s room has a private karaoke studio, the boys’ room has a 28″ plasma screen TV in a special secret mini room next to the bedroom. There are two home offices at either end of the house (so even when one works at home one doesn’t have to be at home). There is no family room.
So I digested that article for a while, thinking about what it symbolizes in  our disjointed, disconnected fear-ridden society… And then while waiting in the optician’s office for my son to finish being seen the other day, I picked up a women’s magazine and read about the increasing incidence of autism spectrum disorders in children. Is it something like 1 in 10 American children are diagnosed with some sort of condition which fits along this continuum? Sure, there will be diagnosis which some children will grow out of (which points to an increase in adults who know so little about what is normal in children that they see problems everywhere) and many other kinds of misdiagnosis. And there is a well known phenomena amongst doctors of “seeing something” everywhere once it has become well known or carries a lot of interest.
But still…. that’s a lot of children.
So here we have, on the one hand, the American Dream becoming synonymous with isolation – and the American Nightmare becoming synonymous with…. the same.
And yet with e-mail and text messages and all  the various do-dads they have on phones, people are more connected than ever before. Yet… are they connected at a soul level? Can the quality of the conversation loudly broadcast in the restaurant or the train possibly be as deep and thoughtful as conversations which happen when people actually have to make time to seek out each other? If I can live my illusion of family life in a house where I can avoid the other people who live there, then am I having to confront what lives in me that separates me from others? Might I not seek the facile quickie-connection via the cell phone rather than have to face my own pain?
These are my unformed thoughts that I share with you. I see a vast number of children who find human contact so difficult and who have so many challenges when it comes to “I/Thou” issues. And I see a trend in families each retreating to their separate places in the “home.” And I see education, entertainment and so-called socializing being dominated by machine-mediated chatter instead of soul to soul expression. Put it all together and it is a rather sobering and frightening scene.

Posted on May 16, 2007 in Family Life and Parenting

  • Michelle says:

    Great post- I tend to agree with you.

  • Marianna says:

    Wonderfully well said Donna.

  • hippymomma says:

    Ouch! As the parent of a child with developmental delays I was pretty offended by this post! “adults who know so little about what is normal in children that they see problems everywhere”???!
    Did you ever think that MAYBE it’s our polluted environment that is causing this increase in problems and not “hysterical” parents?!
    Too bad you have so little respect for those of us who are struggling with these kinds of issues and who still seek a close, loving attachment with our children.

  • donna says:

    Well of course, environmental pollutants contribute to disorders in our children – no argument there (see my Joyful Movement book for more on how to nurture the sense of all children and to guard against environmental toxins in the home). But from my 25+ years of working with children from a wide variety of backgrounds I see clearly that there is little understanding in our society of what a child really is and what her needs are. That is what I am saying in my article – and yes, as parents are adults, many are included here. Our society as a whole does not understand any longer what it means to be a child – or, and this is the main point of the blog entry, what it means to be a family. Unhealthy parenting and education practices contribute – or, in some situations, create – the disorders that many children are labeled with. I see this all the time when I work with parents who, with a few simple changes in the lives of their children, see how their “challenged” children are actually just children whose needs have not been met and have turned into difficult, challenging and unhealthy children. Again, picking up on your point, part of that could lie in environmental pollutants, whether in the home, food or where the child lives.
    And because so many adults do not know what children are – adults such as teachers, therapists, doctors and policy makers – they can do things like extend the range of disorders included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental health – the bible consulted by health professionals when confronted with a difficult child – such as “fidgety”, “willful around adults” “cannot remember what he was doing” “loses things easily””cannot follow instructions”. And without guidelines for age or for the circumstances in which the child lives and is educated (like schools which, thanks largely to the efforts of No Child Left Behind might not even offer recess)(see Susan Ohanian’s work on this) or, as you say, looking into environmental pollutants.
    Children who sit at a desk all day long, are isolated in the home in their rooms, are over scheduled, do not get enough sleep, are exposed too early to computers and such, have been stressed by overly competitive educations that teach to the test…. all these things and more are what create a huge proportion of the disorders that our children are labeled with.And as long as adults go along with this craziness, children will continue to become ill. That is the point of what I was saying.

  • donna (again!) says:

    And I should say (slap on the wrist – I should have hastened to say this above!) that of course, of course, there are certainly children whose parents DO understand their needs and whose challenges are not due to how they are brought up. Please know that I know that. But I bet that as you are seeking to form an attachment with your child, you are not considering buying a house which caters to the dysfunctional family! (smile!)

  • hippymomma says:

    Well I still think that it is the media that “pathologizes” children – not their parents. Most of the parents I know with SN kids DESPERATELY want their kids to NOT be diagnosed. Most of them were FORCED into accepting a diagnosis after seeing their kids fall majorly outside the range of “normal” behavior. For many of them, the idea that there was something “wrong” with their child was unwelcome news. I’ve yet to meet a parent whose child has a diagnosis that I thought “oh they just don’t understand child development”! (I HAVE met parents who ran around saying they thought their child had a “problem” but once they actually met with some professionals, they were quickly corrected and instructed in what was “normal” for kids behavior).
    I don’t really know enough about educational pedagogy to know if the problem with pathologizing extends to teachers. Maybe. But I think most teachers have enough common sense to be able to say “oh that’s a normal kid thing to do” versus “hey, how come this kid is SO different?” and then refer the kid to a professional.
    While I agree that our society’s level of “family attachment” can exacerbate these conditions, I don’t think they are a causal factor. That just smacks too much of the “cold mother” theory of autism. And it has been completely proven wrong. There is a DEFINITE genetic/biological component to autism and scientists are working feverishly to determine what it is (there are all kinds of interesting theories about damage to mirror neurons etc). And I would not be surprised if they eventually find a viral/bacterial link or an environmental toxin/compromised immune system link.
    I bought your Kindergarten curriculum to use with my DD at home in addition to her SN preschool. I think there is something VERY healing and supportive about the rhythm stuff in Waldorf and some of the non-verbal cues you write about. So I really appreciate your approach. I just DON’T think it’s helpful to continue to perpetuate the stereotype that autism is caused by lack of attachment.
    And, you’re right – our house is the opposite of a mini-mansion. 900 sf of snuggly space for our family! And we all still end up sleeping in the same room at night! LOL
    Thanks for your blog and your site!

  • donna says:

    Quick response – thank you very much for your comments – it is very important to me that I have a chance to hear different opinions and different observations on all of this. I thank you for taking the time to carry on this important “conversation”!
    One quick thing… perhaps I was not clear enough in what I said about diagnosis – what I meant to say was that there are many, many cases of diagnosis which actually are not correct. That is my point – I do not dispute the reality of autism. What I question – and I have to because of what I have seen and worked with – is how wide the parameters of “what is autism spectrum disorder” has become. That is why I referred to the manual used by doctors and therapists in this country – there is a clear widening of the definition of what constitutes abnormal behavior in children over the past 20 years! This is not the same thing as real autism.
    That is my point – that too many people do not know what is normal in children and/or do not appreciate how symptoms which may appear to look like autism spectrum have no organic cause but are rather symptoms of how that child has been raised and or educated. I cannot get away from this because I have experienced it too often myself in my work – that children with a label (a label that the parents might or might not agree with) when approached in a radically different way than previously (and this usually has to do with parenting ie how much media they are exposed to, how much time in free play they have, how their 12 senses are protected, how their family rhythms are structured where there might have been none) the child heals (and the parents as well in most cases). This is powerful stuff and I cannot turn away from it even if your situation is completely different. I can honor what you say in terms of what you have discovered for your child – but I need to stick to the point that this is not so in all cases. Autism – like cancer, like heart disease, like many other conditions, is frequently misdiagnosed. I have met parents who knew that their child was diagnosed incorrectly but because of the way they themselves were raised or because of their limited experience with children, were not sure how to move forward with their little ones. And I am also afraid that again, the norms of what is to be expected of children has so radically changed over the past 15 years that there are many teachers who also do not know what normal is with regards to children. How else can it be that teachers can work in schools where there is no recess or expect 6 and 7 year olds to be able to perform well on tests? How else can teachers expect very young children to tolerate pre-care and a long school day and after care? Some children in such circumstances act up and get labeled ADHD. Others withdrawn and shut down and are labeled autism-spectrum. Where does the truth lie in such circumstances – these are the kinds of things I am talking about.
    Again, I have not said that autism is caused by lack of attachment. I am questioning what exactly the parameters of autism is and what the norms are which determine what falls within its boundaries. But I am saying that attachment problems can contribute to behaviours which might seem to be characteristic of autism. There’s a big difference there!
    Thank you again for your comments and I welcome what you say! I hope I do not offend (or rather, I know I have but I hope I don’t continue to anger you) but I feel we are not quite talking about the same thing.

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