Maybe We Don’t Stink at Parenting

A mantra thrown around the column circuit from time to time is the idea that, back in the good old days, parents were parents and children were taught responsibility, duty, and thrift.  Scenes like this no doubt abounded. . .

Embedded in this picture is the idea that adolescence as a distinct stage of life was an invention of the Victorians in the mid-19th century.  This essentially artificial creation of a previously non-existent stage  then created all sorts of problems that we deal with in the modern world, as our youth postpone “growing up” well beyond what is “normal,” or at least what existed before the Victorians ruined everything.  Many commentators point to the laws against child-labor, and the increase of wealth during the late 19th century that allowed for children to have more leisure, and so on.  The argument makes sense logically.

In her book The Life Cycle of Western Europe, ca. 1300-1500 (“Take courage,” I thought to myself as I picked it up, “The book can’t possibly be as boring as the title.”), Deborah Youngs sets out, at least in part, to debunk this modern notion.  The medievals viewed life as happening in 4-5 distinct stages, with different expectations for each stage.  Childhood, and yes, adolescence, has its roots far beyond the Victorians.  Logical, common sense must give way to the historical record.

Youngs crafts no narrative but her book managed to hold my interest due to the surprising amount of information she gives you in a short book.  Thus, while her work contains no lofty insights, it gives the reader plenty to chew on.  Among some of the highlights:

  • The medievals in general were much less concerned with one’s actual age, however much they fixated on “stage of life.”  When Henry IV of France sought an annulment of his marriage based on the fact that he was too young to give legal consent, no one could remember exactly when he was born.  Opinion varied — some said he was 12 at the time of the betrothal (which would have allowed an annulment) and some said he was 15 (he would have to stay married).  
  • Adolescents (12-18) were universally acknowledged to be in an irresponsible stage.  Medieval literature expected erratic behavior from them.  They simply had too much “heat” in their bodies and too little reason to control it.  Many of us might have an image of an authoritarian and rigid medieval culture, but to my mind they were surprisingly tolerant.  For example, boys who engaged in homosexual activity under 18 were given a “free pass” of sorts.  After 18, not so much.  Some might not find this “tolerant” at all. But if you account for the fact that they believed homosexual behavior to be a great sin, then by their standards they were tolerant, at least in this respect.
  • Some might guess that medieval culture expected all to be “saints” from the toddler years on, but again, the data confounds our expectations.  The key for them was “acting your age.”  Each stage came with certain expected behaviors.  True, acting outside these expectations brought censure, but this held true even with “good” behavior. For example, regarding piety, they had a saying: “Young saints make old devils.”  Those who have read Belloc’s The Path to Rome might recall him saying that he always felt much more comfortable when altar boys made faces at each other rather than standing with scrupulous and solemn attention to duty.  If boys were boys, he took it as a sign that all was right with the world.

In this way, some medievals had more of a sense of “stages of life” than most moderns, who see human nature as more fungible than those in the past.

Youngs argues for no main thesis, but underneath her writing runs the current of the universality of human nature.  We lack a sense of the past, and this opens us up to think unrealistically about the present.  We exaggerate our virtues, vices, problems, and successes.  Youngs reminds us that six year olds have always been noisy, and that twelve year olds have never been responsible.  Parents, take heart, we are not alone.

Most of their ideas regarding “stages of life” bear a general similarity to ours, with one exception: the final stage.  I think if you asked most people what kind of death they preferred they would answer, “Quick and painless.”  Medievals had a different perspective.  A quick death robbed one of the chance to prepare, to “pack” for the final journey.  Medievals wanted the chance to reconcile with God and man, and provide a firm legal pathway for their relatives.  Here I think they had an advantage over us.  In general they did not ignore or flee from death, but called a spade a spade.  Again we are faced with the possibility that medievals did a better job facing reality than we do currently.


We’ll See. . .

They are not getting much press, but events in Egypt recently have me strangely fixated.  At the time of the overthrow of  Mubarik in the spring of 2010, many hailed the event as a great leap forward for democracy in the Middle East.  Then people held their breath as the observed some of the conflicts within the provisional constitution, as articles 1-6 attest.

Article 1:

The Arab Republic of Egypt is a democratic state based on citizenship. The Egyptian people are part of the Arab nation and work for the realization of its comprehensive unity.

Article 2:

Islam is the religion of the state and the Arabic language is its official language. Principles of Islamic law (Shari’a) are the principal source of legislation.

Article 3:

Sovereignty is for the people alone and they are the source of authority. The people shall exercise and protect this sovereignty, and safeguard the national unity.

Article 4:

Citizens have the right to establish associations, syndicates, federations, and parties according to the law. It is forbidden to form associations whose activities are opposed to the order of society or secret or of militaristic nature. No political activity shall be exercised nor political parties established on a religious referential authority, on a religious basis or on discrimination on grounds of gender or origin.

Article 5:

Public property is protected, and its defense and support is a duty incumbent on every citizen, according to the law. Private property is safeguard, and it is not permitted to impose guardianship over it except through means stated in law and by court ruling. Property cannot be seized except for the public benefit and in exchange for compensation according to the law, and the right of inheritance is guaranteed.

Article 6:

Law applies equally to all citizens, and they are equal in rights and general duties. They may not be discriminated against due to race, origin, language, religion, or creed.

It looked as if those more skeptical of democracy’s future in Egypt had prophetic foresight when the Moslem Brotherhood made itself more prominent and Mohammed Morsi assumed the presidency.  Then the tables turned again, with angry demonstrations against some of the more Islamist-leaning elements of the government, leading to Morsi’s recent statement that the disagreements were a “healthy phenomena” of their new democracy.

I am reminded of a famous scene from Charlie Wilson’s War. . .

I do not mean to conflate the two issues, but I am thinking about Egypt after the Redskins loss yesterday.  Last spring I strongly criticized the trade to bring R.G. III to Washington.  Basically, I argued that we paid far too high a price for such an uncertain future.

Then RG III set the NFL world on fire and lead the Redskins to their first divisional title since 1999.  Fellow Skins fans have urged me to recant and say I was wrong.  The price was worth it, R.G. III is one of a kind, etc. etc.  So far I have resisted recanting even as I have enjoyed the team’s remarkable run.   Certainly a large part of the reason involves my reluctance to admit I was wrong.  But another part of my refusal is that it’s too early to tell.

We can now say that the issue does not center around his abilities.  When healthy, he can be one of the most dynamic players in the league.  But, how often will he be “healthy” and what happens when he is not in top form?  He has shown a propensity for leg injuries dating back to college, and his style of play will not minimize that risk in the future.

As I watched RG III play horribly after the first quarter yesterday and continue to remain in the game despite being obviously limited, another shiver went down my spine.  What if no one checks his competitive spirit?  What if he has no internal brakes?  It appears that Shannahan has obfuscated the whole issue surrounding RG III’s knee and allowed him to play against doctor’s advice.  Should we beware of an old man in a hurry?

If the Skins had simply drafted him with the #2 pick, then no one could dispute the choice.  But given that we mortgaged so much of our future for him, we can’t make a blanket statement that the trade has already proved its worth.  If he blows out his knee next fall, we’ll be left holding the bag.  Esteemed muscle expert Dr. Ali Mohamdi (also a Redskins fan) commented recently that,

Recovery from combined ACL and LCL tears is a grueling and time-consuming process, and when you’re dealing with a patient like Griffin with a prior history of an ACL reconstruction on the same knee, even more so. The progression to physical activity is very slow to ensure that the grafts are sufficiently strong to endure motion and weightbearing. Typically, patients remain in a brace for at least 6 weeks, during which time they are advised not to fully bear weight on the affected leg and aren’t allowed to fully bend the leg. Strength training and range of motion exercises progress slowly to a point where the patient has built up enough mobility and regained muscle to begin running, usually at 6 months after surgery. For most athletes, notwithstanding Adrian Peterson’s amazing full recovery from ACL and MCL tears in about 9 months, many experts will tell you that it can take a full year for an athlete to feel like he or she is back to 100 percent function.

The added factor for Griffin is that he has a prior history of ACL reconstruction. For an athlete with no prior history of an ACL tear, the recovery is a daunting process to begin with and usually takes longer than for other knee ligaments. Studies show that while the risk of re-injury is about 5% among patients who have had ACL reconstruction, the risk for failure doubles after a second ACL repair, and this study didn’t just look at athletes who endure the wear and tear that football players do. It doesn’t mean Griffin shouldn’t be able to play — and play well — after a second ACL reconstruction, but it does add a level of concern over the possibility that it could happen yet again.

It’s worth noting that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson did a marvelous RG III impersonation yesterday, and he was taken in the 3rd round of last year’s draft.  We know that Griffin ran track at Baylor, and before his injury his speed took our breath away.  It may be however, that he has a track star’s body.  I still think it reasonable to say, “We’ll see,” as we evaluate the merits of the RG III trade.