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
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
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. Who build the temple
complex at Angkor Wat? 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
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,
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
Copyright 2006 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.