The Unbidden

If you’re a parent, you want the best for your children. You want them to eat healthily, to do their homework, to keep fit, and to be well-mannered. You may go a step further and carefully study nutritional information to make sure they receive the right balance of calories, protein, and vitamins. You’d hire a private tutor to help them with the maths they’re struggling with, or send them off to summer school to learn a musical instrument. You’ll drive them to football matches and shop for the right boots and equipment.

You’ll want to keep them safe; you’ll tell them how to cross the road and ride their bike properly, and you’ll teach them never to talk to a stranger – someone who might want to hurt them – whether in the real world or online.

One way to keep children safe from strangers is to never put them in a position where they could ever meet them.

The Purpose of a Child

What would you like your child to be? A doctor? A lawyer? A CEO? A soldier? A politician? An artist?

I’ll make it easier: would it be better if they earned a lot of money, or a little? Do you think they should have a family, with lots of kids, or would you mind if they never had children?

Maybe you can’t answer those questions, so let’s step back a little. Is it important for them to go to a good university, like Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge, places that might given them better opportunities? If it is, then what’s the best way for them to get in?

This is something we can answer (or at least, we think we can): it’s by getting top grades at school, and by racking up a list of extracurricular achievements that’ll impress admissions officers. If you have the right enough time and resources, and the right kind of environment (and many people do not), and you’re sufficiently dedicated, this is quite doable. A 2006 article from the Times Educational Supplement shows exactly how doable this is:

In 2005, 55 per cent of all pupils achieved five GCSEs at grades A-C. Breaking down the figures by ethnicity reveals that white pupils were exactly in line with that average. Above-average results came from students of mixed white and black African descent (56 per cent achieving five or more A-Cs); mixed white and Asian (67 per cent); Indian students (70 per cent); and Chinese students (81 per cent). Those groups that fell below the national average were Bangladeshi (53 per cent); black African (48 per cent); Pakistani (48 per cent); mixed white and black Caribbean (44 per cent); and black Caribbean (42 per cent).

I don’t believe there are any differences in intelligence between ethnicities, and neither do the vast majority of scientists. This means that the very significant difference in GCSE scores shown above is down to environmental factors, which could include poverty and culture. However, it doesn’t seem as if poverty is the sole answer, if this 2008 LA Times article about the performance of poor ethnicities in California is accurate:

With about 2,500 students, Lincoln High draws from parts of Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Chinatown.

Both the neighborhood and student body are about 15% Asian. And yet Asians make up 50% of students taking Advanced Placement classes. Staffers can’t remember the last time a Latino was valedictorian.

…According to a study of census data, 84% of the Asian and Latino families in the neighborhoods around Lincoln High have median annual household incomes below $50,000. And yet the Science Bowl team is 90% Asian, as is the Academic Decathlon team.

This makes for uncomfortable reading, but the point is that money doesn’t appear to be required to perform well academically. So what is required?

“They only start paying attention if I don’t do well,” said Karen Chu, 15, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam. “They don’t reward me for getting straight A’s. I don’t get anything for that. But if I get a B, they’re like, ‘What’s this?’ ”

If her grades slipped, she said, her parents laid on the guilt extra thick. “My parents are always like, ‘If you don’t do well in school, then it’s all going to be worth nothing,’ ” Karen said, laughing nervously.

Julie Loc, the daughter of a seamstress and a produce-truck driver, said that if she gets a B, her parents ask whether she needs tutoring. She said her father used to compare her to other people’s children, noting their hard course loads or saying, “They have a 4.3 [grade-point average]. Why do you only have a 4.0?’ “

Overwhelming and unyielding pressure to excel – that’s the answer. It’s not easy to do, but it does work, and it’s not isolated to Asians either – it just seems to be more common among them. And believe me, it’s often not pretty. I’ve seen kids get nervous breakdowns from this pressure; I’ve seen kids who had heartfelt ambitions to become artists or musicians, only to be forced to abandon them so that they can become the doctors and lawyers their parents so desperately crave.

Among less academically-driven parents, I’ve seen extraordinary hot-housing of kids, who are cajoled into taking hours of music lessons, tutors, and sports clubs to get those all-important extra-curricular activities for their university applications. I could see this was getting ridiculous when many of my friends on the Duke of Edinburgh course outright admitted that they were just doing it to get into university, and had zero interest in any community service.

A Personal Story

My school experience was similar to that of Karen and Julie’s – I was pushed hard by my parents to get good grades – but as long as I got As, I was left to do more or less whatever I wanted (aside from practicing the violin and piano).

We were lucky enough to have a computer and modem at home when I was growing up in the 90s, so I spent a lot of time surfing BBSes, newsgroups, and the web. I also read a lot of science fiction; Clarke, Asimov, that sort of thing.

Now, there’s no doubt that I spent a lot of time learning about things that were completely ‘worthless’, like the X-Men’s complete history or reading every single Terry Pratchett novel, while my friends were doing useful stuff like hiking around mountains. I played a lot of games, I designed websites, I got obsessed with NASA’s experimental spacecraft and various sightings over Area 51, and I wrote hundreds of book reviews, short stories, and essays on my blog.

Precisely none of this would ever go on my university application form. None of this was ever planned by my parents. In fact, I’m pretty sure they had no idea that most of it was going on; they maintained a detached interest in my bizarre teenage activities, and would only step in if it seemed like there was some obvious risk. So, I don’t think my parents know that I actually downloaded the entire Heaven’s Gate manifesto and read it with quite some fascination, months before they all committed suicide. But when I wanted to meet up with a fellow (adult) Babylon 5 fan in Liverpool I’d been chatting to online, they did insist on meeting him beforehand (which went fine, and we proceeded to geek out for the afternoon).

It’d be easy to dismiss about 95% of what teens do in their spare time as being essentially useless, and so I can understand parents’ feeling that they should provide more direction, in the form of formal classes and groups and clubs, so that this spare time can be put to better use; after all, the kids will appreciate it one day!

But there were many things that were unbidden by my parents, that still became incredibly important to me:

Mars: When I was 14, I’d read every Asimov and Clarke sci-fi novel I could get my hands on, along with all of my school library’s modest SF collection. Once I’d exhausted these resources, I remember flipping through the Book Club catalog that’d just been delivered at home. Since we were obliged to buy a book, I picked out one, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. I didn’t know who this Robinson fellow was, and I didn’t care much for Mars either, but Arthur C. Clarke liked him, and that was good enough for me.

The book had the same effect on me that Ayn Rand has on impressionable US teenagers – it made me see the world in a completely different way. I quickly bought the next two books in the trilogy, and, drunk on the possibilities that Mars held for the future of humanity, I searched the web for anything Mars-related I could find. I came across a site by Robert Zubrin, a space scientist who was campaigning for human missions to Mars; he was setting up something called the Mars Society, and had created the Hakluyt Prize, which called on people under 18 to write a letter (or pamphlet) campaigning for the same.

I wrote a letter, sent it off to various politicians, and won the prize; for my efforts, I got a trip to the first Mars Society convention in Denver, Colorado and began a five year affair with the Mars exploration movement in which I gave talks around the country, set up a small business, and started a thriving online community. I’m no longer actively involved, but that moment of luck – and the time and freedom that my parents gave to me – changed my life. For one thing, I was invited (or rather, I invited myself) to speak the TED conference in 2001; for another, I gained invaluable confidence and knowledge that helped me in later life. It wasn’t something you could’ve scheduled for, in between football practice and trumpet lessons.

Games: I spent a lot of time thinking about, watching, reading, and occasionally playing computer and videogames when I was growing up. I wanted to become a games designer, but I knew that there were exactly two routes to that: being a programmer, and being a tester. The former intimidated me, since maths wasn’t my strong point; the latter sounded incredibly dull. Still, the time I spent playing games clearly benefitted me after university in my current role at Six to Start.

Talking: There’s one conversation I’ll never forget from when I was a teenager. I’d been reading websites and newsgroups about evolution, and I’d started posting about it myself on my blog. A particularly articulate anti-evolutionist (we didn’t call them Creationists at the time) emailed me with some questions, and we got into a dialogue about whether Noah’s Ark actually happened. We had some interesting discussions about the practicalities and problems, but ultimately he told me that obviously it did happen because before the flood, all carnivores ate plants. I told him that I didn’t accept the literal truth of the Bible, and that was that.

As someone who makes games for teenagers, I know very well that websites must moderate any discussions that might involve anyone below 18, lest any personal information be revealed to paedophiles. Consequently, many sites just don’t have discussion forums, since it costs too much to provide that level of moderation. I suspect that a lot of parents wouldn’t like their kids talking to some evangelist man on the internet, either; but in this case, I found the conversation to be extremely enlightening, both because it taught me how to argue, and because it gave me an insight – better than any other – into the beliefs of Creationists.

There were other situations that combined an element of risk with an element of sheer time-wastefulness; situations that might never have happened had my parents been more cautious or more motivated to tick all the boxes to ensure my ‘success’ in life.

The Unbidden

In a discussion about reproductive cloning and the potential for parents to genetically determine the characteristics of their children, the theologian William F. May talked about “openness to the unbidden”. As Michael Sandel, a political philosopher, put it:

Bill elaborated this insight with a distinction between two aspects of parental love: accepting love and transforming love. Accepting love affirms the being of the child, whereas transforming love seeks the well-being of the child. He observed that, these days, ambitious parents are prone to get carried away with transforming love – promoting and demanding all manner of accomplishments from their children, seeking perfection. “Sometimes,” he said, “we act like the ancient Gnostics who despised the given world, who wrote off the very birth of the world as a catastrophe.” He drew a parallel between parental love and modern science, which engages us in beholding the world, studying and savoring it, and also in molding the world, transforming and perfecting it.

The prospect of genetically engineering our children for height, or musical ability, or intelligence, is many years off, but we don’t have to look far to see that many parents are closed to the unbidden, ‘seeking perfection’ by ‘demanding all manner of accomplishments from their children’. This hot-housing denies children of agency, and smacks of hubris. Many of us shy away from thinking overmuch about the purpose of life, whether that’s happiness, or to make money, or to be loved, or to do good works – so how can we define such a rigid path for our children, closed to any contingency and any luck, if we don’t have an answer for ourselves?

Even among those who don’t demand such accomplishments, there is still a fundamental rejection of risk, coming from the same transforming love that ‘seeks the well-being of the child’. It’s hardly surprising that parents would want to protect their children from harm, amid the constant scares of paedophiles and accidents. With the imagined total control that we have over children now, through police and teachers and CCTV and parental controls on computers, we have that same hubris in believing we can wall off the world – wall off every stranger, every harm, and every danger. No wonder children desperately seek whatever freedom they can get online.

I was interviewed about Smokescreen last week on BBC Radio Manchester, and much of the conversation dwelled on the ‘perverts’ and ‘paedophiles’ that lurk online. At first I thought that my interviewer was being facetious, but I eventually realised that she was serious – that she viewed this not only as a danger, but as the danger that faces children, online and offline. I told her that online bullying was a far more common problem, but I don’t think she was convinced.

Two final questions:

Which life is better, a child whose parents are successful in getting them into a top university and seeing them become a professional, when all the while the child isn’t sure that this is the life they wanted, or even worse, doesn’t even realise there’s an alternative – or a person who never becomes rich or even happy, who doesn’t reach that level of conventional success, who constantly struggles with these questions, but is happy with the choices they’ve made?

And what’s more dangerous, the tiny chance that a child might come to harm online – or the gradual, crushing accumulation of all those lost chances, all those unbidden discoveries and conversations from the internet that could have nourished a child, grown them as an individual, and opened them up to interests and possibilities that any parent could never hope to reveal on their own?

3 Replies to “The Unbidden”

  1. Hear, hear.

    When I was a teenager I spent dozens of hours a week playing tabletop role-playing games like D&D and the original D6 Star Wars series. Later on, we went on to develop our own role-playing system, which we played throughout university. It was all ‘wasted time’.

    But it’s given me many things:

    – A deep and intuitive grasp of interactive story structure, how to engage and involve people

    – An understanding of the fundamentals of game design at the most basic and important level

    – Through repeated GMing, the respect of close gaming friends, and the confidence to be original and speak my mind – worth more in any job than a university degree.

  2. In David Brin’s “Uplift” series of science fiction novels, humans come into contact with a galactic civilization that’s existed for millions of years. They have a somewhat conservative bent; they tend to believe that everything has already been figured out and all knowledge exists in the “Great Library” somewhere. (They also usually don’t believe that humans actually evolved sentience without outside help.)

    One subtle point in the final novel is that human languages are rather chaotic and prone to misunderstanding, especially when compared to the galactic languages that have been honed over millennia. But it’s precisely this uncertainty that allows for the possibility of innovation, and that gives humanity a bit of an edge over the other species.

  3. Adrian I’m a senior citizen & retired teacher from HongKong, Chinese. My son, mid-twenties, about your age, graduated (economics major) in a U in HK a few years ago. When he’s young, we bought a piano and got him to learn and practice & we took him to the HK Children’s Choir every weekend. He skipped piano classes and quit eventually, for all our patience. My son did not get A’s in his primary or secondary schoolwork, but we did not pressure him too much (though his parents were both teachers). Unbidden, he started road biking (biking was a weekly family event since he was 4, when we had fun & enjoyment, and I think he learnt while playing) in his early teens; won some prizes and derived a sense of purpose in achieving something, & entered U as a sports scholarship student. He’s still biking, not a professional, not so well read as you’re, and now self-employed on biking business (though he got a post as a merchandizer 6 months before graduation, & quit a year later). He told his parents he’s making money, & I said that I was pleased (relieved) but said his profit has better be sustainable.

    Yes, I think much of what you said about pressure to excell academically happens with the Asians, like in HK, and also worldwide, especially in the Chinese culture. The unbidden works, I’d agree. John Dewey, a teacher of your great grand-father generation, in U of Columbia,US, once said succinctly:”Life is education; education life”. We can’t help learning.

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