9.23.2005

A sign of the shifting times

I have had a number of conversations lately that hinge on "the postmodern thing" (whatever that is). Some people, passionately concerned that the Church (and the ELCA in particular) isn't grapsing "how the world has changed," are skeptical of the talk about "postmodernism" and especially dubious of the assertion that there is a separate "postmodern culture."

This morning my wife was talking about her job at a nursery school, and she described several parents of 3- and 4-year-olds who said they involved their young children in key decisions -- such as whether to come to school -- or in some cases, left the decision up to the children.

Now I'm an old guy, but when I was 4 it was pretty clear that those decisions were made by my parents. We could always ask for things, which might have been granted, or not, but we didn't decide. As we got older this changed, of course. And there were not as many activities on young people's plates back then, but one didn't hear then about families completely run by children's schedules, which is common today.

I'm not lamenting this. What's interesting is how partipation in the decisionmaking process has been pushed down to include the children affected by the decision. This is far from the "children are seen and not heard" attitude that was talked about, even if not always enforced, when I was growing up. It also values the child's experience of the result of the decision as well as "what's good for them." It is fascinating to see how these parents are naturally gravitating to a new model, whether as a "deconstruction" of more rigid methods or as an outgrowth of the parenting they experienced.

Of course there are abuses. Stories of parents leaving children to fend for themselves are frequently on the evening news; this would have been a shocking abnormality when I was young. And we've all seen examples -- maybe in a store or a playground -- where a parent seemed to have abdicated authority and we wish they would just take charge.

But this shift is an example of how shifts in the culture at large -- "flattening" organizations in the business world, increased self-repsonsibility for learning in schools, increased choices in almost every area of life -- are assimilated into the core of our lives. And children are growing up, not to learn to be included in decisions as young adults, but experiencing and expecting that inclusion, just as they are immersed in the technologies that we adults have to learn and explore and think about as we use.

Many of us who are parents learned or experienced such shifts in small doses: experiencing the collapse of seemingly unshakable corporate cultures into "flat" organizations (that often weren't as flat as advertised); seeing the unraveling of paternalistic corporate structures and learning that we, not the company, were responsible for our careers and livelihoods; making career changes our parents couldn't have contemplated; learning that leaders lie to us. I grew up hearing the letter to Santa Claus in which little Virginia writes, "My dad says if I see it in the Sun, it's so." Today we reflexively bash the (your choice of adjective here) media and decide that Rush or Jon Stewart or Dr. Phil has "the truth." We used to go to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and get a neat, peer-reviewed "answer" and now we Google(R) or read blogs and get hundreds of facts and opinions (some of which may actually be useful) and synthesize our "solution."

Take all these little shifts, stir them into the air and water that nurture new generations, and there is culture change. I don't know if there is "postmodern" culture -- I know there isn't "a" postmodern culture -- but we are in a different world. It's hard enough to be in a culture and speak to it of an alternate reality like the Kingdom of God (which is emphatically countercultural today). I can't imagine how we think we can speak at this culture from another world about yet another world and expect to be heard.

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