"Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.”
Robert A. Heinlein
I first read that quote, or precisely retweeted it, from a dear friend of mine, Endah Triastuti (@dektitut). I began reading about the person saying it, Heinlein, a science fiction writer. The themes he raised in his work have been greatly about non-conformity, liberty, and self-reliance.
I write this post as a parent, as much as I am a child. And I will begin with how I see Jakarta’s upwardly mobile middle class society today, of which I am a part.
Let’s begin with where we live. We live in housing compounds, protected by 24-hour guards. We build fences around our homes, and have torrents to filter our water.
We take bank loans to buy private vehicles, because public transportation is so unreliable.
We are the world’s fourth largest communication technology user. We use it to maintain contact with people close to us rather than getting to know interesting strangers.
We use them to take pictures of ourselves, our children, what we eat. We share them with people who, in our minds, are closest to us.
We have irrational medicine use. At the first sign of flu, we take three types of medicine. We ask our doctors to give us antibiotics before giving time for our bodies to fight the viruses.
All of these are symptoms. That our environment has become so unsafe, we create a protective bubble around us.
Now let us reflect on our children, and more abstract notions.
We vaccinate our children, in the largest sense of the word. We put them in schools that keep them away from harm. We hope that one day, if they know all the important things, these memories can be used as tools to fight off social illnesses.
In our consciousness, we see the world as a dirty, filthy place. And we try to keep our children clean.
How has that been working so far?
I see adults who never really mature. We were so afraid of infecting our children with diseases that they never really developed immunity. As adults, most don’t know exactly how to rely on themselves, and not objects around them, to mentally process life’s complexities.
And that’s why we have become such a consumerist society. Why malls are everywhere. We buy things; accumulate objects to keep our world safe and comfortable. From binging on food, collecting handbags and shoes, buying the newest gadgets without really using it to make our lives more efficient.
And how do we interact in non-consumerist spaces? Outside of malls. How do we interact online? We do it as consumers.
We collect likes from friends each time we upload a photo or a status. We collect friends. We group with those likeminded with us, and ‘other’ people who are too different from us. When the space has become too dirty, we move on to the next space. From Friendster (infected with alays), to Facebook (infected with distant relatives), to Twitter (infected with public personalities), to Path.
And at this point, we adults are in fact children who never really grew up. We are the ones ‘handicapped’, because we have had ourselves kept safe, we continue to keep our children’s world safe, and we come full circle to Heinlein’s quote.
This has been how we’ve been building our society for the past decades. A huge, safe bubble that is supported by objects to give a sense of comfort from an insecure, unreliable world. We have utterly weakened ourselves, and our children, in the process. How do we raise children to rely on themselves, if we ourselves have not?
I would rather not live in a bubble, than live with fear, thinking of how it might burst one day.
And perhaps, let it pop while it’s small.