November 5, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)

People Programming

Up from the Earth's Centre through the Seventh Gate

I rose and on the Throne of Saturn sate,

And many a Knot unraveled by the Road;

But not the Master Knot of Human Fate.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, c.1100 (Tr. Edward Fitzgerald, 1809-1833)

In principle, the programming of a human being should be the same as programming a computer. Yet, despite the efforts of psychologists and educators to understand what makes a person who he is and how he can be controlled, no one can predict how a person will turn out. We find children of parents who are, to all intents and purposes, beastly people, turn out to be very fine members of society. On the other hand, there are people whom we would expect would be superb parents, whose kids turn out to be sociopaths, with every kind of undesirable trait imaginable.

To illustrate the complexity of the problem, one has only to look at identical twins. Since they have the same genetic makeup, they will look alike. One of the most reliable ways to decide if twins are actually identical is when the parents report that they sometimes get them mixed up. Usually identical twins have very different personalities and characters.

While as a rule nice people have nice children, responsible parents have responsible children, it is the exceptions that are the most challenging, especially when the exceptions occur in a single family. In upper class British society it was the rule to have most of the kids turn out to be just like their parents; while many families had one "black sheep."

It's easy enough to say that parents are not always what they seem, but that is too simple an explanation. When parents have only a single child, it is easy to attribute a kid's aberrant behavior largely to the parents. However, when parents have more than one child, the children will invariable exert a considerable influence on each other; sometimes a greater influence than their parents.

William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies (also a movie) concerns a group of children who are shipwrecked on a desert island. They organize their own government and, in the process, proceed to commit unspeakable crimes on one member of the group, who is selected as the scapegoat and is killed by the others. It is not hard to see how a similar dynamic could operate in a single family, especially when the parents are, for one reason or another, not able to directly supervise their kid's behavior.

In past centuries, the most common cause of children having to shift for themselves, without the benefit of direct adult guidance was the death of one or both parents. In close, or extended, families, this was dealt with by the intervention of relatives or grand parents. Nowadays, children are separated from their parents by divorce. The effects can vary depending on a large number of factors.

I could give advice on the ways to avoid problems with your children. I won't, because I haven't the faintest idea what that advice should be. One problem with being old is that I am no longer sure that I have the solutions to the world's problems. If you want answers, ask my children.

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