When I put the thing about hard times not creating strong men, (though they do create hard men, but that’s not always in the sense we think of as strong,) a lot of you came back with “shirt sleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”
I don’t need to tell you that’s also not a universal truth, right? Not even close. It might seem that way in America (and we’ll go into it) but when you have an history as long as European countries, you quickly realize “families colonize niches.” Sure, some rise spectacularly and fall again just as spectacularly, but most families have kind of an “Area” they move within. Which is not particularly surprising given that your spouse usually meets in the same circles, and has the same general characteristics. (This is not true in America, btw, for obvious reasons.) I think it is at the back of the European notions of class and also that if no one in your family ever did x how dare you aspire to it?
My family is a bit of an outlier, because men in my family tend to marry weird. Not necessarily badly, mind you, they just tend to prefer their women to be interesting in some way, which involves (most of the time) marrying outside their circles and often very strange indeed. (That I know there is no genetic connection between Dan and I. I mean, we did look, since a lot of the same characteristics run in our family, and yes that is one of them, though frankly my husband — judging by past dating history — likes his women dangerous.)
So my family does tend to go up and down on a cycle, but the cycle seems to be more five generations. And frankly part of it is that the society doesn’t fit the family very well. As in, everyone seems to have artistic inclinations but also do well academically. Since the arts don’t pay well in a tiny and frankly odd country, people either become craftsmen or go into a bureaucratic position in which they die by bits, while excelling and living lives of quiet desperation.
We’re five generations removed from business acumen and I’d say those were outliers, since most of my family cannot sell ice cubes in the desert. They’re good at saving, mind you (thank heavens) but suck at selling at a profit.
However most people, if you count extended family, settles into bureaucrat or teacher, and rumbles along. And has done so as long as we know, which is very long indeed.
Now are there families where it is shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations. Yes, mostly in America, honest (or was when mobility was freer) though I know of two in Portugal as well, and mostly what I call “flash in the pan” wealth. It can be very large, but usually luck was involved in forming it. (Other than that, vast fortunes are usually amassed very slowly. As in husband’s family, 150 years to amass a fortune, four generations to lose it. Though not completely. I just married the youngest son of the youngest son of the youngest son. Makes a difference.)
And what that family did when getting rich was go directly to treating their kids as though they were scions of old, wealthy families. As in, families that have been rich as heck for generations and have so secured their income in land and investments that they can afford to wrap their kids in cotton and treat them like precious gilded china.
I met some of those, and unless the fortune is indeed vast, incredibly secure, and there is no catastrophic innovation to upend its security, that family is indeed going to tumble into poverty very fast. Faster if the guy (it’s almost always a guy, though there is the rare woman) who made the fortune and who is a bit of a sport, if you look at his ancestors, marries unwisely. And in the case of men, most of them do. They marry for looks, and often people of terrible inclinations and habits. And their kids devolve to the gutter.
As I write this it occurs to me some of you are going “eugenics” and “treating people like race horses.” You’d be wrong. Sure, there’s genetics involved, because you inherit psychological traits from your parents, as well as physical. If I’d ever doubted that, I can’t when younger son is my father’s slightly taller clone, down to the type of woman they’re attracted to.
But those traits are not, in themselves, what makes you capable of succeeding or failing in society. For instance, in Portugal I’d probably be a housewife, with poems stuffed in my desk drawer. Oh, I might also have taught. Because society can’t afford professional writers. So, in other words, I’d follow the family path.
Because I have most of my traits from dad’s side (where the business acumen pops up every five generations or so but dutifulness and intellectualism are consistent traits, so that they usually end up as middle managers, professors or well, doctors and engineers. Or carpenters. Or mechanics. Because if you look at it those professions are all actually using the same traits. What they don’t end up as is (normally) entrepreneurs, top managers, or charismatic figures. Why? Well…. because they’re very …. self-effacing and while not lazy don’t want to exert too much effort on things that don’t interest them. What usually interests them doesn’t pay.
Then there’s mom’s side, who are mostly decayed aristocracy. (VERY decayed, as I’ve shared some stories of her childhood.) But the thing is mom’s family is ODD. They throw sports all the time. And the sports are either startlingly UNsuccessful or well….. astonishingly successful. And you can’t predict it because the trait for wild creativity seems to be at odds with stick-to-it-ness. IOW I think mom’s family is mostly ADD (AF) and few have the discipline to overcome it and stick to it long enough to be successful.
So, you know, (As Jordan Peterson points out) it’s not just a matter of being intelligent enough or smart enough to be successful in life. There are other traits that go into it, such as persistence, (both in learning and in working in a field) and creativity and, oh, yeah, ability to work with others (most people in dad’s family are introverts. I think the worst ones go into teaching, because it’s very top-down in Portugal) which Peterson calls agreeableness. There are other traits he doesn’t touch on like charisma. Mom’s side has oodles of charisma. It oozes off them. So they often end up as leaders even if they’re in no way qualified to lead a kitten out of a wet paper bag. And often make it stick on charisma alone.
I’d like to think that even if I’d stayed in Portugal (looking back that is wildly unlikely. Though it was by no means sure I’d end up in the US, or at least not right away) I eventually lost my mind and started writing books in English, and that even if I put those in the drawer, I’d have now published them indie. And probably done very well. (Keep in mind the “very well” is about 2/3 lower in Portugal. In Portuguese terms I’m making as much money as MDs. So….)
Would I have? I don’t know. Depends on how much my upbringing could overcome my inclinations. And frankly, on how much I needed money.
Which brings us back to the old conundrum: genes or upbringing? I don’t know. And you can’t either. Each family has a culture that gets passed along with the genes. It’s probably not a coincidence that in demeanor and action I feel more comfortable with/resemble dad’s family the most, as they were the ones that brought me up, so I got that culture. Even if I also have some wild flashes from mom’s side.
At any rate, the way to do shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations is to get someone who is a wild outlier, amasses a vast fortune, and decides his children SHALL have everything they want, plus the pony. No one will ever speak to them in anger. They not only won’t be spanked, every pain will be spared to them.
This usually creates an absolute wastrel, who might coast through life on daddy’s money, but whose kid will have to work to GET BACK to “shirt sleeves.”
This has society wide implications, which is why if people squint really hard that strange thing about hard times creating strong men “feels” right. But it isn’t.
It would be more accurate to say that discipline and a strict upbringing creates strong people. This might or might not be a “hard” upbringing. And of course, if taken too far it creates broken people. As hard times tend to.
In the end we come back to Heinlein’s saying “Never ruin your children by making their lives too easy.”
Now, what is making your children’s lives too easy? I don’t know. You’ll have to calibrate it and sometimes you’ll be wrong.
There are certain things that seem universal, such as you should get your kids to do at least some work for their “extras”. How lavish the basic is is up to you. I mean, you’re supposed to furnish a minimum by law, but after that, you think about it.
My family didn’t give me many extras, either because they couldn’t afford it, or because mom was engaged in saving as much as possible (having seen the results of the opposite) which btw included depriving herself. In my case too it was complicated by the fact mom refused to understand there had been an episode of hyper inflation between myself and my brother, because of the long span (to be fair, she refused to recognize the hyperinflation at all for decades, which I think is similar to some people from the depression era here. As in, the equivalent of someone nowadays running around going “But the cheapest shoes are $5 at Walmart. OUTRAGEOUS. I should be able to buy an entire outfit for that.” Which meant we lived well below our means, while she lamented every day of how life was ruinously expensive. That’s fine.) Which meant what she gave me for school lunches bought me an espresso at the cheapest price (discounted school coffee shop.) It also meant that clothes, books and anything else came out of my pocket. Which was mostly empty because I didn’t get an allowance.
Now this isn’t necessarily as bad as it could be, because mom retired when I was 12 (medical, due to her heart condition and her tendency to brink deadlines) which meant after that clothes designing and making was her hobby, so as long as I was willing to wear whatever struck her to make, I was well (for Portuguese version) dressed and didn’t need to buy any. Except that I liked jeans and t-shirts for every day wear and she wouldn’t make or buy me those.
Anyway, what this meant in practicality is that though I think naturally — genetically — I’m like dad’s family and not likely to get really daring or entrepreneurial, I had to figure out early on how to make money for the extras. It mostly meant stuff like publishing a neighborhood paper at 12, or later tutoring.
Which caused me to develop initiative.
In the same way, though I am naturally ADD (AF) I had to learn to stick to studying long enough to have good grades (interestingly enough this involved rewarding myself, which I have to learn again.) because failing was just not possible. No, I don’t think my mom would kick me out, but in my head she absolutely would. Besides dad would be all “more in sorrow than in anger” and that was unbearable.
So, do soft times create soft men? Well, no. But a soft upbringing DOES create adults who just go with their genetic/family culture inclinations. And few of them are the kind that lead to success. Since humans are a scavenging species, if children internalize that “times are good” and they’ll be fine no matter if they don’t work, or if they give in to every destructive impulse, then the scavengers “time is too good. Have no children and laze about” kicks in. Because otherwise scavenging species get too large and the next generation starves (in nature.)
Obviously this is controllable, and obviously the “old, successful” families of Europe have managed to control it, by instituting rigid rules of conduct for their children, which in turn create or promote certain traits in the children. (In England this led to notoriously spartan living conditions for boarding school children, for instance. It seemed to work? At least better than now.)
And there is a hard/soft parenting thing that cycles. Let’s remember the Victorians succeeded the footloose and fancy free Regency. Those aren’t hard or soft cycles in money terms (though they were for many families. Because many people blew through family fortunes in the regency) but more soft/hard cycles caused by the fact people recognized the defects in their own upbringing and brought up their kids differently.
I want to point out here that both extreme hard upbringing and extreme soft upbringing both have problems. In the first, you risk creating someone too timid to succeed, and in the second the kind of hedonism that makes it impossible to ever do anything worthwhile, or even know it’s possible to.
On the other hand, all of us being human, it’s almost impossible to hit the happy medium (who won’t be very happy after you hit her.) You’re going to err. But most small mistakes are correctable. And sometimes you’ll make mistakes without realizing it. Or the kid’s innate tendencies will defeat your best efforts, because kids are human too, meaning self-willed.
Now hard times can force that kind of “come to Jesus” moment, where people realize that they need to treat their kids with more …. stern supervision. Or trigger the conditions for it. I’m sure the fact that mom’s dad drank away the family fortune was responsible for her “must sock away every penny” which in turn made me shift for myself in ways she didn’t probably even realize (like photocopying classmates’ school books so I could do the home work. Or doing it very early morning borrowing a friend’s book. Because mom refused to believe university books (come from England) could be that expensive.)
However it doesn’t follow that good times must perforce create soft and spoiled, “decadent” men. (Competent men in each civilization are different. Spoiled scions of the elites, though, are all the same across the ages, and seem to partake the same vices with minor variations.)
It’s all on how you treat them.
Part of the problem we’re in is not that people who came back from WWII tried to give their kids the best of everything, and raise them as much in a bubble as could be managed. (By and large. There’s always exceptions.)
Rather it’s that the culture as a whole wanted to “study war no more” and also had hit one of its goofy cycles of “romanticism” and nature worship, which in child upbringing means “Let’s all believe Jean Jacques Rosseau knew squat about raising children. Let’s believe if we set no boundaries or limits, we’re creating angels, and that children only learn violence if they get a swat on the behind, and without it are natural pacifists.”
Look, I understand the temptation as far as the Germans of WWII were believed to be the culmination of the Prussian way of life, which was also believed to be very rigid and stern. (Look, none of these things are 100% but that was the popular view of it.) So, they tried to run the other way.
But unfortunately this also happened at a time when “mass everything” was at its apogee, as was centralized dictating of “how things are to be done”. This led among other things to schools of education who enshrined Jean Jacques Rosseau artsy fartsy nonsense as holy writ, taught generation after generation and made worse every generation because when it doesn’t work it must be because we’re still too harsh and demanding.
Which has us in the year of our Lord (maybe. not absolutely sure how much the Lord is involved in this) 2021 dealing with a top-down educational establishment and culture trying to force every kid to be raised like the spoiled scion of a noble family.
This discourages child bearing (as the only way to still make the kids functional is for the parents to treat child rearing as a full time job, which few families can afford.) It also — if parents don’t fight it tooth and nail, without running afoul of the law — creates a generation of useless wastrels, addicted to their pleasures.
To the Millenials credit most of them are NOT like that. But are they soft? Well, yes. Far softer than they should be, because the parents weren’t able to do much to make them work for their extras. (We managed it by living so tight that well, they had to.) And somewhat confused about their abilities, talents and what they should use them for, because in its latest “self esteem” incarnation the insanity of the establishment praises them for everything they are even vaguely competent at.
Yes, most of them need to be tested and hardened. Again, to their credit, at least in the US, most of them improve vastly over their first decade of paid work, and develop the discipline they were never taught. The rest of them become socialists, of course. Which, yes, is a problem. But I want to emphasize (whatever my younger son says) those are a minority. (A lot of them pay lip service because the establishment will destroy them otherwise.)
Is this the ideal way to raise kids? Oh, heck no, and I suspect in the wake of whatever is heading for us we’ll head the other way. Possibly too far. (And no, I can’t give exact dates or nature. I can just feel it, like a massive break in the timeline and culture. I still think it starts next month, though the early incidents might not be recognized as such. After that it’s all in the air. I still think “Brief” but is brief months or years. I don’t know. Also note, I’m not a cult leader. I could be wrong. Particularly on the timing. It’s just a sense from the “feel in the air.”)
So I see where people get that impression. But mostly it’s the way kids are raised, not how “good” times are, that creates softness or hardness. And it’s possible to be raised “soft” and fairly wild in bad times, too, particularly if distracted parents are fighting too hard to survive to keep an eye on the little so and so.
If you can at all, don’t have your kids raised by strangers. And make them work for some of their extras. And the rest will take care of itself.
The thing to remember is that as hard as it is to discipline our kids or deny them harmless pleasures (and if you’re not a parent yet, trust me on this, it is) if you are too soft and indulge them too far, you end up making it impossible for them to succeed.
And if you have the supervision of a bunch of kids and don’t discipline bad behavior because “he’s just wild, not a bad boy” you’re going to ruin everyone. Perfect justice is not your purview. Enforcing acceptable behavior is. Otherwise you’re teaching a kid to be untrammeled and, yes, cruel (all humans are cruel if not checked. All that varies is the degree) and the others that people can impose on them and there is no justice or safety.
It’s important to know that in the end the worst thing you can do to people is to set no boundaries, no limits, no expectations, and give them everything they want.
That will not create soft men, per-se. It will often create monsters, and the rest of the time create wastrels.
It’s bad enough when the institutions go that path. Don’t add to it.