Children Are The Good Life

May 04, 2006 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Children are no longer viewed as an essential part of what it means to live the "good life." But they are. And parents are better people for them.

You may not know his name but I'm willing to bet that you know who Jason McElwain is.

Actually, "what he did" is more like it. He's the autistic teenager from Greece, New York whose magical three minutes on a high school basketball court captured the imagination of the entire country. In hitting seven of thirteen shots — some of them seemingly launched from another area code — McElwain taught Americans that autism and other disabilities aren't the impediments to the good life that we have long supposed.

Not surprisingly, Jason's story is going to be a subject of a movie. What is kind of surprising is that it's only one of several upcoming movies, television shows and popular books dealing with autistic people and their families. Another surprise — at least to me — is that this father of an autistic son has mixed feelings about all of this attention. I guess that I'm afraid we'll learn the wrong lesson about what makes these kids — or any kid, for that matter — special.

A recent article in USA Today described this unlikely pop culture boomlet. Besides McElwain's story, there are at least three films about autistic people either scheduled for release or in production. The one currently scheduled for release, "Mozart and the Whale," stars Josh Harnett as Donald, a taxi driver with Asperger's Syndrome: a high-functioning form of autism often marked by poor social skills.

Written by Ronald Bass, who also wrote "Rain Man," it's based on the real-life story of two "aspies" (people with Asperger's Syndrome) who meet, fall in love and marry, notwithstanding the obvious obstacles: for instance, some people with Asperger's can be incredibly inflexible and others are unbelievably unpredictable. The tagline for the film puts it nicely: "They don't fit in. Except together."

In "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," based on the eponymous 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, Christopher John Francis Boone, an autistic teen, investigates the death of his neighbor's dog. His search for the truth is made difficult, to put it mildly, by his inability to understand emotions — both his and other people's — and a tendency to take things at face value.

While I'm glad to see portrayals of autistic people that move beyond the "Rain Man" stage, and welcome any positive attention given to the disorder, I'm ambivalent. In stories like these, we esteem the characters because they confound our expectations. When Jason McElwain hits six three-pointers or Christopher Boone solves a crime, we gain an appreciation of what some autistic kids can do.

But that's not the same as appreciating them for who they are.

In this respect, there's little difference between autistic (or other disabled) kids and their non-autistic peers. It could hardly be otherwise since both are growing up in a culture that no longer sees children as being a good in itself.

I'm not saying that we don't love our own kids — of course we do. But we're increasingly ambivalent about children qua children. Saying something like "children are a blessing" is much more likely to elicit a smirk than a nod of approval. That's because children are no longer viewed as an essential part of what it means to live the "good life." Instead, they are increasingly seen as something to be reconciled with our conception of that "good life." If managed properly, they need not keep us from our aspirations.

That is, if we choose to have kids at all.

In the latest issue of TOUCHSTONE magazine, writer Paul J. Cella describes a bumper sticker he came across on his way home from work. It read "Stop Breeding." While this is obviously a fringe position, the "childless by choice" position, which objects to the benefits extended to families with children, is making its way into the mainstream. We're moving toward the point — if we aren't there already — where all kids, and not just disabled ones, have to prove that they represent an acceptable return on what evolutionary biologists call "parental investment."

That is, a return above and beyond the whole survival of the species and personal immortality thing.

Perhaps, as Peter Augustine Lawler has suggested, the prospect of ever-increasing live spans has lulled us into overlooking and/or devaluing this not-inconsiderable contribution. In any case, children are valuable because they are the future. Not in a sappy kumbaya kind of way but literally. They are incontrovertible proof that we, their parents, were here. Long after most of us have died, a piece of us will remain.

It's the kind of immortality that no professional or personal accomplishment can match.

Quick: name the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza.Khufu Who build the temple complex at Angkor Wat?Suryavarman II While the buildings, among the greatest monuments ever built, still stand, their builders are all but forgotten, save to a relative handful of specialists. Given that none of us can reasonably hope to match this level of accomplishment, what's reasonable is to place our hope for immortality in our children.

(You see this way of thinking at work in Genesis where God promised Abram that He would make his descendants as "numerous as the stars." Abram's more accomplished contemporaries are all-but-forgotten while, through his offspring, all nations on Earth were blessed.)

There's another, more personal, way in which children are a blessing: they can transform you. They teach us what unconditional love, devotion and sacrifice mean in a way that no other experience can. They help us to distinguish what's important from what's not and what's lasting from what's transient. In other words, they make us better people.

This kind of education may not sound too appealing to those who value their freedom above everything else — my friend Jennifer Roback Morse once compared some young libertarians of her acquaintance to children with attachment disorder — but it's, in large measure, the things that we learn from loving our kids that makes up the good life.

Someone who learned this lesson is Melanie Marsh, a woman who thought that she was already living the good life: an American living in England with a loving husband, two lovely children and more-than-enough money. Then her youngest son, Daniel, is diagnosed as autistic and everything changes. She devotes herself to proving the experts wrong about Daniel. She risks everything, including her marriage, just to hear Daniel talk.

I should probably mention that Melanie is a fictional character — she's the protagonist/narrator of "Daniel Isn't Talking," a new novel by Marti Leimbach, which is also being made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. Melanie's experiences are based on Leimbach's own experiences with her autistic son, Nicholas.

Of course, only the tiniest fraction of parents will ever experience this kind of adversity when it comes to their kids. And that's my point: If the real-world Melanies can, despite their struggles and hardships, see their children as a blessing, I suspect that those of us whose children aren't as "challenging," can, too. It all depends on what you mean by the "good life."

Copyright 2006 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.


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