11.27.2010

Parenting, Pleasure, and Adulthood: Revealing a Life (Well) Lived



What is the task of the parent? Surely, it's to keep the critters alive — fed, clothed, sheltered, educated (although that can mean many things and take many forms), loved (this, too, can take many forms). But is that all? And what do these things even mean?

Parenting today — at least the parenting of predominantly white upper middle class San Franciscans — seems to involve sheltering children from the nuance, subtlety, pain and pleasures of adulthood. We are asked to shield our children — we don't curse, we don't cry, we don't kiss, we don't yell, we don't ignore by reading a book, we don't go out too often, we don't, we don't, we don't....

Parenting has become a thoroughly masochistic endeavor, a martyrdom. I have close friends, dying before my eyes as their jobs suck their life blood, who feel obliged to continue in their misery so they can keep their kids in their middle class homes, in their middle class schools, wearing brand new Baby Gap, and eating organic bananas.

Our kids assume — they assume! — that we will play with them, more or less non-stop. We'll sword fight and wrestle, play with Legos and stuffies, go to the park, the pool, the zoo, play chase and tickle. All the time!

I feel guilty for wanting to take the time to write, to read, to think, to fuck, to drink, to love, to frolic, to sleep, to relax.

And what kind of kids are we breeding? Self-entitled shitheads.

I want to suggest that good parenting is not shielding a child from adulthood — from its pains and pleasures — but is showing a child a life in motion, a life lived with zeal, with passion, a life ripe with nuance and negotiation, with lively thought and secrets that will only be revealed when they are older.

Am I suggesting we weep all the time in front of our children? That we fuck in front of them? Of course not. But not because they're our children per se but because that's just downright rude.

I want my kid to see me interact with other adults, see us discuss Godard and Burroughs and laugh maniacally at things my kid could not possibly understand. I want him to hear me curse and know that that's what grown ups do: they speak emphatically! I want my kid to see a life well lived — and, barring that, at least a life lived.

This may sound easy but I am up against powerful forces that would have it otherwise. Forces that tell me, in no uncertain terms, that I should hide my adulthood: the boy should see me work and play with him and little else. He feels entitled to that. All other adults in his life treat him like that. So when I tell him I am going to write for a bit, he feels neglected and I feel like a dick. For wanting to write!

And so I tell you this: When I tell my kid, sternly, to go play on his own so I can write, so I can read, so I can think; when I go out at night to drink and flirt and fuck; when I pour myself a cocktail as I cook and tell him to be quiet while my friend and I discuss Nietzsche: this is not my lack of love. On the contrary, it is nothing less than my supreme, profound love — a love that often makes me weep, right in front of him so he can see that life remains a place of passion.

11 comments:

Brandon said...

So this post makes a great point about kids growing up with an unearned sense of entitlement. The problem is that the alternative you present doesn't really contribute to the child's growth either. There always has to be a level of 'martyrdom' as a parent, but should we really draw the line in the place you describe? Does cussing and acting without filters around their children actually promote their growth and make you as a parent happy in the long run? The 'typical San Fransiscan' you describe clearly has flaws in their parenting, but they do take full responsibility with good intentions. While its good to say to parents 'Hey, don't feel like a dick just because you want some personal time away from your kid' , the real trick is finding that balance where you are meeting the development needs of your children and meeting the level of your own personal needs. At the same time parents have to understand that our needs do come secondary most of the time; this is not a 50/50 balance.
Overall, this is good to consider but not sound advice. This is not something you should just start doing haphazardly without a long term gameplan in mind. I would say what you really want to do is balance your personal space and their growth by teaching your child how to be more proactive and more responsible for his/her actions. Talking about Nietzsche with your friends and telling your son to be quiet will only confuse and create distinction between you and him. Instead , why not take a short sidebar from your convo and ask your child to discuss their own philosophies on life. This will introduce them to adulthood in a more productive way(plus it will usually be hilarious to listen to). Allowing them to see your passion is a positive thing, but believing that you are doing your kid a favor by removing all filters for their benefit will not lead to a solid long term parenting strategy.

aaronblohowiak said...

I don't want to combat my children's sense of entitlement by neglect alone, but also through instilling a great sense of duty and obligation. I think lots of parents miss the mark on a healthy emphasis on chores and obligations, so they can work to contribute to the family.

Many of the especially good memories I have growing up are not the times my dad played with me, but when he worked with me so we could accomplish things together. The expectation that modern children have that their parents will play with them is absurd! While Betsy (from Mad Men) is a pretty terrible mother, she at least has the children respect their father's time.

Anyway, this rolls up into a bigger argument for the waning desire for self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, the now-popular image of self-sufficiency is not the pioneer, but the survivalist hick. =( I'd much rather see more people embrace their own long-term self-reliance and attempt to instill such attitudes in their children than to coddle and pamper another generation of self-entitled praise-mongering brats.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Brandon: I hope I didn't suggest acting without filters. That would be absurd and distasteful and, probably, poor parenting.

Now, of course parenting involves sacrifice — we sacrifice sleep, money, time, energy. But that doesn't mean we need to sacrifice adulthood and its pleasures.

There is a distinct delight in discussing Nietzsche with fellow grown ups (well, certain and very few grown ups), a delight that simply cannot be had doing the same with a 7 year old. And, no, I don't have to ask him his philosophy on life. I can do that another time, perhaps when we're alone.

My point is this: there is a distinctly adult way of living that involves conversation and booze and laughter and more — and that excludes children.

And — and! — such events are good for children to witness. Showing one's kids that there is an adult life of thought and merriment and language that, for now, is unattainable teaches them a) humility in the moment — not everything is about them; and b) the wonder of an unknown, but passionate, future.

So I am not proffering a "strategy." I am proffering a shift in perspective.

@Aaron: I like the argument for self-sufficiency — or reclaiming it, as you suggest. It is what I tell my kid: it is good, it is powerful, to be able to entertain and enjoy oneself.

Linz said...

This is such a huge part of being a kid: everything is over your head. There is proximity to the unknown, but no penetration of it. And so you have to make a lot of shit up to fill the gaps in your knowledge.

Like: I was pretty sure I had AIDS when my cousin touched my boob one time, and I thought that every half-hour of sex produced exactly one baby. This led to some embarrassing confrontations.

But it's important to get used to making sense of the world for yourself, even if it's not the "right" sense. Because even when we're old enough to understand slang and referential humor, there are still plenty of encounters with the unknown, and helps to have a willingness to conjecture.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@Linz: I love that: the importance of the adult mystery in teaching a child how to make sense on his own. Yes yes yes.

I remember loving the sound of adults talking, of being excluded but being witness. It felt deliciously dangerous, enticing.

Ruby said...

Daniel, in a period of child neglect would you consider recording a reading of Nietzsche's Truth and Lies?

The versions on youtube veer towards the monotone but the snippets from your class were fantastic.

It could instigate a revolution in audiobooks: reading in the tone of one who actually likes reading.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ruby: I'd gladly give it a whirl. Of course, I think it will sound insane....

Ruby said...

Fantastic-I look forward to it.

Pierre said...

by the way I have made a short unachieved poem.

In french it partly respects metrics and rimes.


Having hardly reached 30 years old out of breath//
He thought with a girl that they would have a rest//
If the sun on summer at the feet of the eternel snow is so//
They began to dream to the crops of Sahel.

One died without fever//
While the other began to speak in the silence.

Because that's the way of the lost children.

In french it makes:

Arrivé à 30 ans, son souffle à peine repris,
Il crut avec une fille qu'ils auraient un répit.
A voir le soleil l'été au pied des neiges éternelles,
Ils se mirent à rêver aux récoltes du Sahel.

L'un mourut sans fièvre,
Et l'autre commença à parler dans le silence.

Parceque les enfants perdus ont droit au paradis

nthmost said...

So far I feel more like the task of parenting in SF is to shield everyone else from the inconvenient realities of my kid, not to shield my kid from anything in particular.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@Naomi: there are very few kids in this town. Dogs outnumber them by an exponent. I say let loose the little demon — as long as I'm not around.