Bill Cosby ends his latest concert film with a very funny story about his dropping his kids off at school. His kids are obviously uncomfortable and ask him to let them out well before the school grounds. The story winds on for a bit, but he finally finds out his kids are uncomfortable because the other students tease them about being rich. Cosby sets them straight.
"You are not rich," he tells his children. "You're mother and I are rich. You don't have anything!" Everything they have, he explains, he and his wife give them: clothes, shelter, food, even money. So they can tell their friends they aren't rich: problem solved!
It's funny, but it also struck me as kind of odd. Only later did I really it was actually quite wise:
That's one big ill we can clean up - if we allowed our children to be able to work at an earlier age, part time, be taught by their parents, be taught by their relatives, and if you would allow schools to have a broader curriculum. We have a system in Maine where every child is going to go to college - boohey! I have seventeen brothers and sisters; I'm the only one that graduated high school. Only one. That doesn't mean that they all failed. Some failed, some didn't. The point is, not everyone is going to learn through books. Some learn through hands. Some learn through seeing. Some learn by hearing. Others learn by all of the above. I think it's just sad that we sit there and we allow adults that have never been there to tell us how they're going to improve things.
This is right alongside the idea that kids should pay for school lunches because there is no free lunch. Because especially if someone else has to buy it for you, you should be marked as someone living off the kindness of strangers, but you shouldn't expect them to be too kind. St. Nicholas paid those dowries anonymously, but in America today we don't want to encourage such behavior. We've got an economy to run here, it doesn't do any good to encourage true gifting behavior! Gov. LePage there is not really saying anything differently than Newt Gingrich did, when Gingrich said children should do janitorial work at public schools. Can't let 'em grow up thinking people give 'em stuff just for bein' alive; at least, not unless the stuff comes from parents who can afford it, or even better, who are rich.
Rich kids don't need to learn the value of money; poor kids need to learn the burdens of poverty. It may not be their fault they're poor, but they should pay for it anyway. Indeed, it is their fault; that's what they get for being born to impoverished parents. We've moved from helping families and recognizing children are not responsible for their parents, to being sure the problems of the mothers and fathers rest firmly on their sons and daughters. In fact, we want to secure them there.
At which point you should be asking: what the hell is wrong with this country? Mitt Romney says going after children is crossing the line; but only when those children are identifiable, and are the scions of wealthy white people. Poor kids are fair game, especially if they are only known anonymously as "poor," or, better yet, "underprivileged" (because we really don't have "poor" people in America, we just have people who don't take advantage of all that is available to them; or just haven't had a chance to take advantage of it yet. But our wealth never rests on their poverty; why, such thoughts would be disturbing! It might mean there's a child in the basement of our Omelas! Perish the thought!).
Going after children is not crossing a line anymore; in fact, it's a political necessity. An Illinois Gubernatorial candidate Congressman apologized for saying the minimum wage should be lowered. How many politicians have apologized for arguing we should return to the days before child labor laws?
I'm so old I can remember when child labor was sacrosanct, when any mention of making children earn their own money would have been akin to advocating white supremacy.
Now we do both, quite openly. This isn't even a pro-capitalist, pro-free enterprise argument. It's savagery, pure and simple.
Cosby was right, in the technical, legal sense as well as in the comedic sense: children don't have anything. By law, they aren't allowed any ownership rights, any possessory interests: they're children. He's wise, also, because he means for us to understand our children are our responsibility; we protect them by law and by custom and by social convention, from the burdens of adult responsibilities; and we should do so. We should also give them what they need, whether we are parents or society; and that includes food and shelter and medical care and a proper education; and when they are old enough to work, a decent minimum wage so they know their work, even if it is just dropping potatoes into a fryer, makes them worthy of their hire. Because they don't have anything; which means we are responsible for providing what all of them need.