…in which I analyze my reaction to instances of child endangerment in Georgia

This morning, as I rode the bus to school, a perfectly ordinary event occurred – an idiotic driver swerved rapidly back and forth between lanes, cutting off the bus I was on and causing it to have to stop short. This is the way Georgian people drive – it’s like an entire country of New York City taxi drivers – and I normally just tune it out. This time, however, I happened to notice that the driver in question – not a cab driver – had a woman and three children in the car with him. I made the snap assumption that this was his family, and I immediately thought to myself, “Wow, you drive like that with your kids in the car? You should have them taken away.”

I want to examine that. It’s a very Western response. First of all, in America we have this thing that some have called the cult of childhood – the idea that children are the most precious things in the world and need to be kept completely safe and insulated from all possible danger. We have a cottage industry of lawsuits and sanitary products and parenting magazines devoted to making sure the little ones make it to 30 without ever seeing the world. We have child protective services that can take children away from their parents if the parents are judged by the state to be unfit. But are these things actually characteristics of a healthy society? Is it actually a good idea to spread the cultural idea that some parents just aren’t qualified to raise children and that their children should be taken from them as a result?

Also, philosophically speaking, why should children’s lives be considered more valuable or precious than adults’ lives? We’re all people, right? What makes one person more worthy of life than another?

(As an aside, I was talking to a Georgian friend about the police officer who died during the Independence Day protest – he was run down by a reckless driver (enough said) – and she said to me that she thought his death should be viewed as a tragedy regardless of what you think about the role that the police played in the events of that night and whether and to what extent their actions were justified. In the end, she said, police officer or civilian, every person’s death is a tragedy because people all have families that will mourn them. My first thought was, “that’s an assumption that you can’t really justify” and my second was “well actually maybe in Georgia maybe it is jusfied.”
The point: Georgia has so much more emphasis on family than I’m used to, and I’m always needing to remind myself of this.)

So really, why should I view this driver as more morally culpable for driving badly with kids in the car than I would if he were driving with adult passengers? Why are his children’s lives more important to me than his adult passengers’ lives, or his own life, for that matter?

I mean, I guess the answer is that we irrationally and somewhat arbitrarily assign value to human life, and assign different values to different lives based on what class of people they belong to. We assign more value to children than to adults, more to women than to men, more to people in our own personal in-groups (country, religion, ethnicity, tribe, family) than to people in out-groups. I know that’s a normal human tendency (although I suspect there are cultures or societies that could provide counter-examples), but what I wonder is, does it make any sense to try to translate those values into real-world policies? In other words, for instance, does it make sense to, as we do in the US, create a special set of laws for child endangerment over and above normal laws against putting other people in danger? Should a reckless driver be fined more for driving recklessly with child passengers than with adult passengers, or no passengers?

So when I try to think about the issue from a culturally nuetral, objective viewpoint, I guess that protecting children is something that I value without having a rational reason to do so, and so when I try to be an objective observer of Georgian culture I have to try to suspend that value and the emotions attached to it in order to avoid a judgmental or culturally insensitive response.

It’s not just the driving, either. Georgian fathers do tons of things that potentially or actually shorten their children’s lives, and every time I witness one of these events there’s some part of me that recoils in horror even as my intellectual side tries to process it into a framework of cultural relativism. I’m still shocked whenever I see a father smoking a cigarette around his children – I think to myself, “doesn’t this person know that he’s literally shaving years off his kids’ lives by exposing them to second-hand smoke?” – even though there are obviously also some parents in America who smoke around their children. And then there’s the wider social millieu – the pressure for children themselves to take up smoking and the absence of non-smoking role models contributes to Georgia having one of the highest smoking rates in the world. (Edit: this should say “one of the highest male smoking rates in the world” – of course I should have pointed out that social pressure to smoke is gender-graded just like everything else here. Social pressure on women is not to smoke, at least not in public, and accordingly Georgian women have a very low reported smoking rate.) And then there’s the prostitution culture – and I know I keep beating this drum, but I think it needs to be said, loudly and often – which encourages young men to visit prostitutes but keeps sex ed out of schools (thanks to the Patriarch, which of course literally means “father-ruler”), contributing to a growing STD problem in which men are getting infected from prostitutes and then going on to infect their wives or girlfriends, and all the while social stigma contribute to a common misconception in Georgia that only gays and prostitutes are even capable of getting STDs.

I don’t mean to pick on Georgia. The world is not a healthy place to live – I know that – and I know that we have our share of problems in America. The obesity epidemic in America probably kills at a higher rate than all of Georgia’s lung disease, STD, and automobile accident rates put together, and yet American parents keep feeding their children Coca Cola and Big Macs. (Not to mention that US citizens have no problem supporting regimes that deliberately starve foreign children as a political tactic – it’s like I said, we value the lives of our own countrymen more than the lives of foreigners.) It’s just really shocking for me to witness a different paradigm on child protection than the one I’m used to.

When it comes to adults, I like the fact that some of the safeguards that I found irritating in America are absent in Georgia. In Georgia you can walk through an active construction site and if something falls on your head, it’s your own damn fault for assuming the risk. In America, sites have to be closed off and guarded and even if someone breaks in and gets hurt they can still bring a lawsuit and it still has a chance of winning. America has really done a good job of eroding people’s sense of personal responsibility and Americans tend to walk around in an oblivious cloud assuming that nothing can hurt them because everything in their environment has been nerfed by an unending process of litigation – and if you do happen to trip on a crack in the sidewalk and break something, there’s a big payoff waiting for you.

But the thing about children that distinguishes them from adults, in my opinion, is that children can’t really make the choice to assume risks like getting in the car with a drunk or incompetent driver – children basically have to get in whatever car they’re told to get into, regardless of circumstances – and they can’t choose not to be in a house with smokers when the smokers are their parents. When I was a kid, my father – who had limited resources – had to rely on his relatives to watch us while he was at work and we were out of school for the summer. One summer, this duty fell to my dad’s twin sister – a woman who smoked, and still smokes, incessantly. As an asthmatic kid, I found the time with my aunt to be a living nightmare (I also didn’t get along with her anyway due to certain personality conflicts) because she would always smoke around my sister and I regardless of our complaints, unlike most of my smoker relatives who tried their best to smoke somewhere away from the kids.

To this day, I have never really forgiven my aunt for smoking around me when I was too young to stick up for myself (and I probably never will), and I actually spent several months of my adult life angry with my father for failing to stick up for me when my health was at stake, although eventually we talked it out and I decided that what’s done is done and in this case holding a grudge wasn’t going to accomplish anything, especially since my father himself quit smoking when my mom got pregnant with me, something that I appreciate greatly and understand was probably quite difficult for him since cigarettes are full of addictive chemical additives.

So I don’t know. I have these visceral emotional reactions towards issues involving children – everything from children’s safety in cars to raising children with a sufficient education to survive in today’s world (especially regarding things like avoidance of contagious fatal diseases) – and I have a personal stake in issues like exposing kids to second-hand smoke and other airborne pollutants (burning plastic!) – and so I often snap to judgment about parental fitness especially when I see a particularly flagrant violation like I did this morning.

But in response to that, I have to tell myself – the Georgians are still around after all these years, so they must be doing something right. I mean, if you view it as social Darwinism, every culture that’s still here on the planet now can be considered to have won the fitness battle with the cultures that aren’t here anymore, and Georgians seem to be reproducing and living long enough to perpetuate their DNA with no help from me and my overprivileged American ideas about child-rearing (whereas reproductive rates in America seem to be falling, and evidence is mounting that keeping children too isolated may lead to a host of unexpected health and other problems later in life.)

Anthropological evidence shows that the way a culture treats its children can be affected by a sort of economic outlook or calculation – in other words, people tend to treat children like any other resource. Often things like the supply of children correlate roughly with things like how much care is taken of children. In places like the US, where there is little cultural pressure to have children and most people emphasize individual pursuits over group pursuits like family, birth rates are lower and, since children are thus relatively scarce, each child is protected more. In places with very high infant mortality, parents delay the formation of attachment and can be shockingly blase about the death of a child, but there are many more pregnancies per capita, on the theory that if you have enough children, at least one will survive to carry on your genes. Georgia is mostly like the US – health care is relatively good, infant mortality is relatively low, parents seem to form what we would consider normal attachments to their children – but there is still a greater social pressure to have children and (in my estimation – feel free to disagree if you have evidence and an argument based on reason) lower social pressure to protect children. This balance, ideally, helps to maintain a stable population.

In practice, though, it’s hard to maintain a fully intellectual and objective-observer attitude towards stuff like this. I’m still going to have that emotional, judgmental reaction when I see a guy with his kids in the car pull out in front of several tons of steel death barrelling towards him on Chavchavadze Avenue, or when a cloud of smoke wafts from a father’s cigarette into his child’s lungs. I’m only human – so call me a cultural imperialist or an Ugly American, if you must – but that’s just not a judgment that I can suspend.

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12 Responses to …in which I analyze my reaction to instances of child endangerment in Georgia

  1. katie says:

    In terms of the burden of disease, it makes complete scientific sense to place extra value on protecting a child’s life, as putting them at risk of injury or illness increases their DALYs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability-adjusted_life_year

  2. Oh, believe me, they do radically overprotect their kids here, even so much that when a kid does get a job and can afford to move out, he/she still chooses to stay with his/her family. Just the difference is, the over-protection is a hugely familial thing and not a paternalist government thing.

    That said, when a Georgian gets in his car, all rules, traditions and pretenses go out the window, staying out of the car.

    • panoptical says:

      Keeping your kids at home doesn’t count as “protection” in my book, since as far as I can tell it’s done for economic reasons – or cultural reasons that economic reasons underlie – like the fact that Georgians don’t usually make enough money to divide into lots of little households each with its own rent/utilities/food costs, and that Georgia has never developed ideas about status and success based on the idea of moving out of your parents’ house as soon as possible.

  3. George says:

    You said that Georgia has one of the highest smoking rates in the world, which is not quite accurate statement. There are lots of different sources in the Internet and none of them suggest that Georgians are very heavy smokers. And in USA, by the way, they smoke more than in Georgia.
    The most important thing is that all neighbors of Georgia, as well as all countries, which Georgia is mostly interacting with, have much higher smoking rates than Georgia. Among them: Ukraine, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Greece and many others.

    List of countries by cigarette consumption per capita (according to Wikipedia):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_cigarette_consumption_per_capita

    The World’s Heaviest-Smoking Countries (according to Forbes.com):
    http://www.forbes.com/2007/12/04/smoking-africa-asia-biz-cx_tvr_1203smoking.html

    Which Country Smokes the Most? Here’s the Top 10:
    http://www.gadling.com/2007/05/21/which-country-smokes-the-most-heres-thetop-10/

  4. Gio says:

    I think lack of awareness of second-hand smoke damage could be contributing largely to fhe fact that fathers do smoke around their children. As for driving crazy with children on the back seat, that’s something really disturbing and I think it’s about the individual level of extreme negligence. Although most people generally drive crazy here, I still think (or at least hope, because I personally can’t remember having noticed that before) having children on the back seat has a positive impact on most of them to drive with more care. I do think that Georgians are quite protective of their children, but in some cases lack of awareness and unintentional ignorance changes the pciture.

  5. pasumonok says:

    could it be that what we consider child-protection is different?
    those dads don;t believe that second hand smoke is harmful.
    drivers claim that the safest way 2 drive around tbilisi is 2 break the rules, otherwise when someone else breaks them, u will get crashed.
    i don’t agree with any of it, but i’ve heard this arguments often…
    also, dads are not really supposed to take care of their kids (other than providing for them financially) and it is not expected of them to know what is safe for the children, what children eat, even what grade they are attending and how old they are ( no, really, many can probably name age group, but not the exact age).
    mothers, on the other hand, are so protective, kids don’t have any space.
    and lastly,
    there are number of american practices that will put georgian mothers in shock. for them, that is child neglect.
    1. giving iced water to ur child—bad 4 ur throat and overall health.
    2. not wearing socks–oh, that is a huge one. if u don’t wear socks, u’re gonna get sick, catch pneumonia and ur ovaries will freeze
    3. taking baby outside, till the baby is @ least month old (preferably 40 days)–there are germs all around and baby’s immune system can;t handle it
    4. feeding babies canned food heated in the microwave oven–this one might actually be harmful.
    5. not cleaning kids’ rooms, doing their laundry, cooking every meal, stirring sugar in their teas
    6. when kids grow up, not having a daily contact with them
    so i present 2 u a bunch of stereotypes, as always having nothing smart to add to the discussion

    • panoptical says:

      2, 3, 5, and 6 seem like complete bs. Not even going to bother with the frozen ovaries nonsense. There are germs all around whether you’re outside or not; babies’ immune systems need exposure to them otherwise they will be very ill as adults, but this is a problem in America, too – the hygiene hypothesis suggests that a lot of illnesses that only occur with frequency in the First World (like asthma) are due to lack of exposure to foreign organisms. 5 is cultural and has nothing to do with health, although if you want your sons to grow up to be spoiled assholes who’ve never lifted a finger around the house and expect to be waited on hand and foot for their whole lives, well, Georgia has demonstrated a proven method. 6 is also cultural but once someone is “grown up” they’re outside the scope of this discussion, no?

      But overall I agree with you – different societies have different knowledges and ideas about safety and health, and you can’t expect every parent in the world to watch out for every single danger and know every effect every choice they make will have on their children. You do your best and hope for the best. I’m sure a lot of Georgians don’t think that second-hand smoke is harmful, just like a lot of Americans don’t think it’s harmful – I am just appalled by those people.

      • pasumonok says:

        oh , it is total bs, i am just saying that what seems stupid in one culture might seem important in another. i actually chose bs-s 2 demonstrate that.
        6. “kids” are supposed to call everyday, even if they are 40. i am a bad family member, cause i contact my family once a week. it’s been 3 years now and they are still mad or upset about me not calling more often.
        my hubby’s mom calls him everyday and sees him 3 times a week @ least.
        keep in mind that we are the “independent” and “insensitive” couple…

  6. Pingback: Parental Anxieties | Georgia On My Mind

  7. Polskishvili says:

    Very interesting entry. I enjoyed it.

    A few months after I arrived in Tbilisi my brother started to inquire about coming to visit along with his daughter. She was about 4 y/o at that time. Said brother and his wife are those types that rear their child in a total plastic bubble with nerf trim. His wife is an actual epidemiologist to boot. And that’s just fine. It works for them and my niece will be healthy and sort of happy until her 18th birthday when she goes all rumspringer (sp) on them. Anyway, my response was that he has to get his ass out here (there) because it’s so frickin awesome…. But, leave the little one at home. Not because I don’t love and want to see my beloved, beautiful, toe head blonde niece and probably show her off a bit. Not because I thought that any sort of harm may damage her in any way. I suggested it because it would make them uncomfortable.

    The way I put it to him is that things are exactly the way they were when we were growing up during the seventies. Smoking sections in restaurants did not exist until the late 70’s. While my parents did not smoke I grew up sitting on my grandpa’s lap while he toked away, and occasionally burned me…. Didn’t matter. I still loved him and I survived my youth. Seatbelts were barely mandatory equipment in a car, let alone regulations to wear them. That came along in the late 80’s. Broken sidewalks and giant potholes were something cool to jump your bike over.
    So my brother never showed. Either his love and firm belief in the nanny state model caused him to lose interest, or he thought I was lying to convince him not to. My money is on the nanny. He loves that shit… and probably regrets his childhood.
    I understand the struggle you have with how to evaluate this there. I winced a lot at some if the child safety issues. But the bottom line is that the personal responsibility there is what makes it so great, and a big part of what I love about Georgia, and a big part of why it was hard to be back in the states.
    Anyway, I’ve been going thru your blog, backwards, for a little while now and I do really enjoy it.
    By the way… how do you feel now with your own child and all?

    • panoptical says:

      Honestly it’s a little nerve-wracking, and I’m very protective of him when it comes to these particular issues – smoking, other airborne pollutants, reckless/drunk people, etc. Also, doctors. That said, I can’t just keep him in a bubble, so it’s going to be interesting.

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