Saturday, October 19, 2013

Parenting-- by the book

A post by Gracy Olmstead on Thursday touched off a related effort by Noah Millman to define the 10 essential children's books every kid should read.  I love making lists of this sort and immediately wanted to chime in-- but like my predecessors I also feel called to say something first about the nature and pitfalls of this exercise.  Giving kids reading recommendations is not really so innocent as it sounds.  Such lists may at first blush just seem like a series of works you once enjoyed written by other hands, but they are really lists of some of the chief forgers of your attitudes and identity.  Taken together, they are a blueprint of your personality.  In presenting them to children-- especially our children, if we are parents-- we are effectively saying: here, become me.

Kids will recognize this and rebel heartily against it.  I remember finding on my parents' bookshelves as a kid a hardbound edition of that all-time heavyweight champion of stodginess, William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues.  I never once got past the odious cover illustration (did any child in America?), with its prim, starched, and implausibly-dressed little unfortunates propped dopily in front of some tome (presumably the great Book of Virtues itself).  I did not know what a "conservative" was, or a "Republican."  But I knew in some vague way that I was in the presence of an adversary.  I sensed that this book-- a product of that era of "cultural literary" when Americans suddenly developed an hysterical intellectual insecurity-- was not a disinterested collection of valuable reading material.  It was a blueprint to turning yourself into William J. Bennett.  I was not interested.

All parents naturally delight in seeing their children take up some of the features of their own personality and pursue some of their own interests.  I doubt I'd be studying theology if it were not for my dad or writing blog posts about literature if it were not for my mom.  Most of the books which will eventually appear on my list below were made available to me, read to me aloud, or passed along in some form by my parents or sister.  This is all fair game.  But there is a particular something which a particular someone does to her or his children which is not so acceptable.  That someone is usually an academic, a writer, a pundit a la William J. Bennett, etc.  That something is to arrogantly canonize a particular type of education and force her or his children into it, whether they want to go or no.

I don't know why this should be such a congenital failing of the intellectual class but it appears to be one.  Poets, philosophers, and novelists are unnatural parents.  The life histories of Lucia Joyce, Dora Wordsworth, and John Stuart Mill, etc. make for gruesome reading.  Intellectuals, academics, and the like being faced with children is an odd sight.  They don't know how to talk or interact with these half-formed savages that suddenly appear in their midst-- these feral beasts which can't hold down a conversation about art or politics.  So they turn their children into social experiments-- as chances to test their unusual theories of human nature and ideal social relations.  Their homes become utopian colonies or idyllic Medieval patriarchies where the "feudal spirit" is kept alive by artificial respiration.  All of this suggests that those pseudo-scientific witch-doctors of the early 20th century who advocated IQ tests for would-be parents had things exactly backward-- the real threat to "eugenic health" came from the upper reaches of the so-called intelligence spectrum.  (Advance notice to hostile commentators: this is a joke.  I am not advocating the sterilization of smart people.)

The worst are intellectuals who develop their theories of child development or human nature-- and become committed to them as a matter of pride-- before they ever have children themselves.  When those kids do come along their lives and minds will be corralled by their parents into those theories regardless of whether or not the fit makes sense.  My heart aches for the kids born to those conservative and Christian pundits who have set out to "save the traditional American family"-- starting with their own.  When some of those kids grow up to be gay or lesbian or transgender, when they get into bad marriages and need to get a divorce, when-- if they are boys-- they lose a job or flunk out of school and realize they may not grow up to be the "breadwinners" they were supposed to become-- it will become clear that the purported effort to "save" them was in fact an effort to mold them in someone else's unnatural idea of what was proper.

By the same token, I weep for those votaries of "free love" in the 'Sixties who-- when saddled with offspring-- suddenly realized that all the fun-loving troubadours who were supposedly going to help them raise their children "communally" have now melted into the woodwork.  So too for their children, raised in absolute and therefore debilitating freedom.  I can't think of a more unrelenting and dictatorial discipline than the paralyzing lack of discipline in certain enlightened liberal households.  What more constraining rule could there be than the rule that "there are no rules."  Think of it: no matter what you did, you could never break it!

Raising kids does not lend itself to all-or-nothing propositions.  It delights in weird paradoxes.  Here's one to try on for size: kids need rules, but only in order to break them.  To paraphrase a few lines from George Scialabba's reading of Christopher Lasch, in order to face the challenges of life, kids first need to run up against and overcome the constraints set by parents and authority figures.  This is how they learn that obstacles can ultimately be circumvented or defeated.  Realizing that the seemingly all-powerful principal or schoolmarm does not in fact know all things and control all destinies gives them the courage to face down bigger foes later on in life.

This accounts in part for the necessity of discipline.  But obviously, it contains its reverse: too much discipline, and the child withers into non-existence.

Sometimes, the level of control exercised by the "ideological" parent is so total that the child gives up, and dons the mask that has been prepared for it.  It reads the books, pursues the interests, and receives the education prescribed by the parents-- and thereby assumes the personality intended for it. But this personality will always sit funny-- like an oversized hat that keeps slipping down past your ears.  The child will always recognize it on some level as not really its own.  And because the personality is not really its own, it will eventually be rejected by the body, just like any other foreign article-- resulting in sickness, either somatic or mental.  This is what eventually happened to John Stuart Mill, for instance.  After imbibing his philosopher father's regimen of Greek and Latin learning for his entire youth, he eventually suffered a mental breakdown and had to piece together again from the very beginning the shards of an independent and properly differentiated personality.

How do you walk this line as a parent between crushing discipline, which stunts the personality, and blithe indifference, which gives that personality nothing to fruitfully brush up against?  The key, here as elsewhere, is love.  The child has to know that it does not risk forfeiting its parents' love by acts of disobedience.  It has to know that it can break their rules without breaking their hearts.  Otherwise, the costs of disobedience are too terrifyingly high for the child to risk running them.  She or he will never even attempt the disobedience because it is assumed, implicitly, that it will be met with a crippling, debilitating loss of love.  The quality that allows kids to disobey with courage is what Erik Erikson calls a "'basic trust' [...] that original 'optimism,' that assumption that 'somebody is there'[.]"  Without it, "children die mentally."

Bruno Bettelheim, in his classic study of the psychological bases of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, argues that all the best stories-- the ones kids still love-- symbolically play out this paradoxical, conflicted, but healthy and nourishing relationship between child and parents.  The ogres, trolls, genies, witches and bluebeards in these stories are sort of like parents in the way they relate to the stories' protagonists.  They are bigger than them, for one thing.  They are scary and they tell you what to do all the time.  They regard their concessions as "gracious" even when the child knows they are nothing of the sort ("I will offer you your choice of death" says the Genie condescendingly in "The Fisherman and the Genie").  These monsters embody all the things the child resents about its parents.  They are also always defeated, by the end of the story, by the more clever, if physically smaller, protagonist.  They are eventually found to be flawed and finite.

On the other hand, the child understands that these creatures are not really its parents.  It can slay the ogre or trick the genie into returning to its bottle-- yet it's real parents, the ones it loves, will still be there even after the ogre is defeated.  The child can both delight in the thought of outsmarting, outfoxing and briefly overcoming its parents and still know that doing so does not jeopardize its real relationship with them, which still rests on the basis of unconditional love.

When I look at the books on my list below, I notice several things.  The first is that not a single one of them was assigned in school.  As both Millman and Olmstead note in their posts-- the more reading feels like work, the less children will enjoy it.  As a kid, I hated books I read for school virtually on principle-- if I read them at all, which was infrequent.

The second is that they have this subversive quality that Bettelheim identifies in the great fairy tales.  The stories in The Book of Virtues, in contrast, are not subversive.  No child will ever be able to stomach them for long for this reason.  The "Christian message" as it is usually presented to children, with its arbitrary God and His capricious rules, who drowns all creation in a flood because it displeases Him, is similarly repugnant fare.  As Orwell once remarked in a memoir of his childhood: "You were supposed to love God, and I did not question this. [...] But I was well aware that I did not love him. On the contrary, I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs. If I had sympathetic feelings towards any character in the Old Testament, it was towards such people as Cain, Jezebel, Haman, Agag, Sisera: in the New Testament my friends, if any, were Ananias, Caiaphas, Judas and Pontius Pilate."  This seems to me a much more healthy and normal response than trying to "love" the Bible characters who threaten you with utter and eternal destruction for your disobedience.  That relationship would not be one which rested on a minimum of "basic trust."

Subversion, and the fact that it was not assigned in school.  These were the sine qua non for me to enjoy a book as a kid.  The fact that these two qualities predominate suggest to me that no one else's list will be exactly the same as mine.  Because the reason these books appeal to me is that they, taken collectively, were the books that helped me to differentiate myself growing up.  They were what gave me courage to be a little rebellious, a little different, and a little unique.  Anyone reading these books because I told them to do so would be missing the point.  You cannot differentiate yourself by following someone else's model of differentiation.  I would therefore be very sorry to hear that any kids read through the books on this list in a systematic fashion because they found them here.  That is not why I am posting them.  I am posting them purely and simply as possible recommendations, and for a little self-disclosure about me and what made me tick as a child.  I include, by the way, only those books I read at age 13 or earlier, because after that point I was no longer a spontaneous child reader but a "serious," programmatic, and would-be "mature" reader-- so the later stuff doesn't count.  Here, finally, is my list, and I invite readers to share their own in the comment thread:

1) The complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.  Brilliant insights into all aspects of human life which people can appreciate at all ages, and it's funny, and there are pictures to go along with the words!  The Calvin and Hobbes strips are also subtly subversive.  The prating, TV-averse, environmentalist father, who insists that Calvin "build character" and behave himself, is probably "right" most of the time, the child recognizes.  But there is also nothing more enjoyable than seeing him foiled time and again by Calvin-- who lives out all the things kids want to do but probably won't-- like locking the babysitter out of the house, writing messages in giant letters in gasoline, and building a grizzly "snowman chamber of horrors" in the front lawn.
2) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Was read to me as a child by my dad.  Huck's systematic refusal to be "sivilized" and his overcoming of all obstacles the adult world throws in his path will satisfy kids' desires for mischievous self-projection.  It will also confirm them in their secret but universal belief that the entire edifice of education and religion is a vast system of imprisonment designed to prevent them from having real and worthy adventures.
3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  Was read to me aloud by my mom.  The gentle decency of Pip's adoptive father Joe and how it is a sustaining presence for the main character through all  the cruelties and stupidities of life has always stayed with me.
4) Redwall by Brian Jacques.
5) The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
6) The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7) The His Dark Materials series.  This sealed my fate as a professional religious heretic.  The abuses of the evil, churchly, Sarah-Palin-and-Michelle-Bachmann-foreshadowing Mrs. Coulter and the overweening arrogance of her secular, dictatorial, and murderous adversary Lord Asriel pretty much sum up for me the historical struggle between religion and science.  Lyra and Will, the main characters of the series, make a pitch for human values between the two extremes-- one that ultimately triumphs.
8) A Fistful of Fig Newtons  and 9) Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories by Jean Shepherd.  Should be more widely read.  These collections of tales by a great humorist are marked by a mixture of sarcasm and humane sympathy toward their characters, who reside in a semi-legendary version of the author's childhood.  The observations of kid and teenage life are just spot-on.
10) Holes by Louis Sachar.  A subversive tale in the classic fairy tale fashion.  The evil parents are here represented by the prison wardens of an inhumane juvenile detention facility in theTexas desert.  They are ultimately foiled by the superior cunning and bravery of the inmates-- who are then reunited with the symbolic "good parents" in the final pages, including a public interest attorney who sues the prison into the ground.

There's the list.  Thoughts, friends?

1 comment:

  1. This is great- I'm glad I turned a blind eye or even encouraged the subversive books. Have to say, though, we never did read that "Book of Virtues"- it kind of turned my stomach, too. - Guess who