12.30.2013

On Childhood & Parenting, or In Defense of the Kids' Table


I am, indeed, a parent. And the love I have for my beast borders on the sublime, threatening to tear me asunder at every thought, cuddle, kiss, giggle, Nerf gun battle. This is a beautiful thing but it's not necessarily pleasant. Like romantic love, albeit in very different ways, parental love is trying, exhausting, fraught with guilt and fear and anxiety and a devastating pathos. O, the heart shattering innocence!

But this pathos is strange. To say that a child is innocent is to view that child from the perspective of a knowing social body. What makes that kid innocent is that he is, precisely, oblivious to this knowing, not yet versed in the social demands of self-consciousness.

Let's say a child's mother dies. Just thinking about this, we are overcome with grief. O, the poor little one growing up with no mother!  But that sentiment can only be had by someone who is not innocent, not a child. The child can't possibly know about growing up without a mother because he knows no other way. This is all he knows! We feel this incredible sadness for his loss but that is the sadness of an adult life pining for a lost childhood, an adult who mourns for innocence lost.

Meanwhile, the kid is experiencing all sorts of things — fear, confusion, sadness, annoyance, indifference — but not that devastating pathos. In fact, I can say with some certainty that the one thing that kid is not experiencing is the incredible pathos of a "motherless child." That is a distinctly post-lapsarian sentiment, a concept that could only be created by someone who can look back and see a childhood after the fact. A kid living his life doesn't see that — that's why we call him innocent! To be absolutely clear, this is not to dismiss or diminish that child's experience. On the contrary, this is to respect his pain, his mayhem, his sense of loss.

This is what Lyotard calls the diffĂ©rend, an infinite gap between the two positions in which the grasping of one side by the other is, by definition, self-effacing. In order for the "motherless child" to feel like a motherless child, he has to already have lost his innocence, already not be a child. He must be grown up, look back on his life, and say: "Oh, I grew up without a mother." Meanwhile, from his perspective, this is all there is: life without mom — horrible, sad, scary, devastating, but of its own sort.

This is by no means to diminish the pain of losing a parent. On the contrary, I'm trying to point out that there is a child's experience that we cannot possibly know, even if we were once children. We look at our spawn and feel this rich, seething pathos of loss, of regret — of time! Time: that is the one thing that a child, by definition, cannot understand. Our dominant sentiments towards children ignore children!

The defining characteristic of childhood innocence is that it's oblivious to the social (more or less). Which is why kids are so casually cruel. You have a big nose! That lady is fat! You smell funny! They don't think they're being mean. They're just saying what they see and feel without regard for social repercussions they couldn't possibly imagine. And that, in its way, is as cruel as the world comes. To be childlike is to be outside the moral; few people are as cruel, greedy, and possessive as children. But this same lack of social training makes children beautiful, hilarious, brilliant, strange.

But that's not my point. My point (do I have to have a point? Can I have many points? And, come to think of it, do they have to be points at all? Can I not come anywhere, as it were? Can I just go, just keep moving with some local zones of sense? Hmn)— anyway, my point is that there is an infinite gap between adulthood and childhood. And — here it comes! — the dominant culture of parenting ignores this fact to the detriment of, well, everyone who has to live through this nonsense —  witnesses in restaurants, on the street, in parks and museums, not to mention the kids and their parents.

When my beast was small — he's 10 now — we'd be pushing him in his stroller and he seemed so far away. And no doubt close to the grotesque urban detritus. And probably bored. But how could he be bored? He has nothing to compare the experience to. And, well, an ass eye view of San Francisco may be disgusting but my guess is it's not that boring. And yet parents relentlessly stop the stroll(er), lean down into the face of their necessarily demented progeny, and coo and ahh and make faces — as if that wasn't completely insane!

To imagine the little idiots as bored is to project our adult perspective onto an eight month old bag of babbling, bubbling flesh. Parents project their own sentiments onto the experience of the kid. The kid, meanwhile, knows nothing else. Just sitting in that stroller watching the world go by is as good, or bad, as it gets. I say just let them be. Let them be kids. We're bored, not them. Why would they ever be bored? Wow! Cement! Cars! Clouds! Sky! Crack vials! Nose rings! It's all interesting because kids can't be jaded; it's all so new and strange. They don't know any other world. They never read Moby Dick or The Book of Job. They don't think that guy painting on the street is talentless and pretentious. They don't know human beings can anguish for years. All they know is, man, this life thing is off the hook!

And yet parenting culture today is premised on the relentless entertainment of the child — including the denial of access to adult culture. We all know this too well. Any time you're sitting around somewhere with kids, the kids are the center of attention. Their noise, their toys, their meals, their needs dominate the event.

Adults think they're being naughty when they have a drink while the kids play. Gimme another glass o' wine, honey, I need it! But that's neither naughty nor funny. Parents shouldn't need to feel naughty for having a drink — not to mention ignoring their kids to discuss ideas, life, films, books, sex. I've lived 44 years. I don't have to apologize for pouring myself a 5:00 cocktail or two. I'm the fucking grown up! I can do what I want! And, no, I don't want to chase you, wrestle you, play legos. I want to drink my gin and discuss Nietzsche with another grown up. Now go play.

The problem is that, today, there is such rampant sanctimony surrounding parenthood. To claim one's adulthood amidst children is to be either naughty or negligent. But I ardently feel that the best way to parent is to perform adulthood for kids. Watch, little dude. This is how it's done. Otherwise, how the heck are they suppose to know what to do?

Now, my parents were by no means ideal parents. But I like that they they never played with me, that they left me to play with my siblings or friends. And I really liked when they had friends over — a rare event for my misanthropic 'rents. I loved the smell of all those adult foods stuffs that suddenly appeared — cheeses and scotch and port and such. I loved the resounding growl of male voices holding forth, laughing, pontificating. I loved listening to the rhythm of conversations, the occasional arguments, profanity, sexual joke.

Sometimes, I'd sit right there at the table and soak it in. Other times, I'd be in my room and let the rumbling permeate my space, the ambience of adulthood. I knew that I was a kid, safe in my world. And they were adults with their different lives and interests and tastes and smells and rhythms. And one day I'd be like them. And, in the meantime, it never occurred to me to interrupt them to show them my stupid drawing or to ask for help finding something on TV.

Making children the center of the world — hiding adulthood — is no good for anyone. It sure as shit makes parents miserable. But it hurts the kids, too, as they are denied the beauty and, more importantly, the performative education of what it means to be an adult.

Listen, sometimes I like to play with my kid. We have some excellent Nerf gun battles; some excellent catches with a baseball; we play pool; we have cocktails on verandas (he's a fan of cranberry soda; the ever-delectable Shirley Temple; root beer). To be honest, I dig it mostly because he's cool, funny, sweet, insightful. He's not a spoiled little shitbird like lots of kids. But, that said, after a while, I want to do my own thing  — write, read, watch a Cassavetes movie, whatever.


And, thanks to modern parenting culture, this is not so readily come by. My demand for my own time, my own needs, runs against the grain of his experience and expectations. He may not be spoiled by contemporary standards but he still expects his pop to play with him — because that's what adults do. And so I usually feel like an asshole for wanting to do my own thing and not have another race, another wrestling match, another game of war.

This culture of parenting — which may be limited to my San Francisco and New York upper middle class culture — makes everyone suffer. The kids may seem like they're prospering as they get what they want. But nothing makes me cringe more than sitting in a restaurant and watching all the adults tend to the burbling demands and imminent tantrums of the kids. The kids sure as shit aren't happy. I was happy to sit quiet and soak in the glorious din of grown up culture. Kids, knowing no better, demand more and more not because it makes them happier but because that's what they expect.  Needless to say, neither the parents nor their childless friends are enjoying themselves.

Why such misery? Well, my theory is it's because these middle class couples don't really want kids but feel like they're supposed to have them. So they spawn in their late 30s or early 40s only to have what remains of their life literally sucked out of them. And begin to resent the tiny bundles of joy that whine and take and take and take. Which, in turn, makes these new parents feel guilty. And, oy, that pathos! So they subjugate their own desires all the more by raining attention down upon their kids in the quest to quash their resentment. The child-centric culture of parenting is an absurd attempt to absolve the parental guilt for feeling so hateful towards their kids — and to fill the void of their own, vapid lives of being a brand manager at Google.

If only they claimed that ambivalence! If only they claimed their adulthood! If only they let their kids be kids! Everyone would be happier — parents, kids, everyone who doesn't breed but has to bear witness. Imagine a world of kids who don't dare throw tantrums or demand to be played with because they know they're kids and so safe and loved! Imagine a world of parents who still watch real movies, read books, enjoy cocktails, have conversations  — and sex!

The kids' table is the way to go. The little beasts can do what they do — all those gross, beautiful things kids do while they eat (teaching humans to eat with bourgeois propriety is distinctly difficult; kids spill, drop, pick, play, and it's not pretty). Meanwhile, they can witness the adult table, the conversations and booze, the jokes and jibes, the resonance of time: the way to go once innocence is lost.

2 comments:

Amy Lee Carrino said...

Interesting, what are your thoughts on the gendered upbringing of children and the perpetuation of such by society?
I find it all rather sickening myself, but it is understandable that peer criticism is likely to occur if, for example, a male child plays with dolls in elementary school. My Adolescent Psychology professor went about raising her own son the same as she did her daughter. Neither were given any specific gender-based activities or toys. The boy played with dolls much the same as the girl did, however they inherently played differently based on their perceptions of their parents roles. Her son played with the male dolls driving around in the toy convertible and dropping off the women to go shopping. I find it of utmost interest the ways in which children simply soak in their environments and reflect them back.
It also makes me wonder is the physiological findings of male and female baby-toddler muscle control is affected by gendered upbringings. Girls develop their smaller muscles before boys, which leads to their advancement in fine motor skills. Boys on the other hand develop gross motor skills to a more advanced level than girls tend to. I wonder if it isn't the mothers push for her daughter to draw and write, while the father leans towards teaching his son to play soccer or some other sport.
Anyway, let me know what you think.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Amy, thanks for posting. And, oy, that's a tough one. As parents, we want to forge a world of gender equality, not a world of gender sameness (at least I don't think we do; I don't, anyway: I like differences). So we can ask how much is nature and how much is nurture but I think that's a false dichotomy. To me, the more interesting and challenging question is: How is my kid going? Is he thriving? Is he a delight? Is he kind and interesting and engaged and thoughtful and playful? I, for one, don't care if he's playing with a truck or a doll.

So when it comes to my role in all this, well, I just lay it out there. If I were to "force" him to play with dolls, will this help erase gender inequality? Maybe, if he continues to play with dolls. But maybe he rebels and says, Screw you, pop, I'm gonna play with trucks!

All of this is to say, kids are not tabula rasas (rasae?). They are inclined from the get go; true, they become enmeshed in discourses that exceed and define them. And, yes, they see various ways to make sense of these discourses. But they are a way unto themselves and will do what they will do.

So, again, I just lay it all out there to my son. I say: this is what some people think, this is what I think, what do you think?

Not sure if addressed your question or not....