Sunday, July 10, 2016

How Not to Parent

Alison Gopnik's "manifesto against parenting" appeared yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. It is a mere snippet of a larger work, to be published as a book next month. Gopnik teaches psychology at Berkeley, so even if she gets parenting wrong-- as I believe she does-- she does give us a fully drawn picture of current academic thinking about parenting. It is, I daresay, not a very encouraging picture.

For all I know Gopnik's book has a dazzling chapter on Dr. Benjamin Spock, a brilliant expose on the theories of developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson, and a though refutation of the practices now associated with Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom.

Speaking of the Tiger Mom, her harsh discipline and insistence of perseverance is precisely the kind of advice that Gopnik rejects. Because Gopnik wants parents to be more like gardners. And the Tiger Mom wanted her children to become like tigers, not like fruits and vegetables. She insisted that her girls know right from wrong and always do the right thing. She held them to strict standards and did not much worry about the current vogue that defines human flourishing as the goal of just about everything.

Since flourishing means flowering, Gopnik is firmly within the tradition that sees children as plants that need to be cultivated. You might want your child to grow up to become a buttercup, a peach or a radish. But your gardening is not going to produce a child with the heart or the eye of the tiger.

Gopnik takes special exception to the notion of "parenting." Fair point. But she does not seem to notice that people have latched on to the term becaue they no longer wish to use such gender specific terms like Mother and Father.The term "parenting" seeks to eradicate and neutralize the difference between mothers and fathers... as though the two will become interchangeable as soon as we tweak the language and force everyone to use the new terms. For the rest of us, we know that mothering a child is not the same as fathering a child.

Gopnik believes, in a singularly unoriginal thought, that showering a child with love is more important than teaching, training or building character. 

Think what you will, but when Tom Brady steps on to the football field, no one is going to be thinking that he is flourishing. The guy who is working eighteen-hour days at Google is surely not doing it becaue he wants to flourish or even to attain work/life balance. The Tiger Mom 's older daughter did not sign up for ROTC because she wanted to flourish.

If you want your child to succeed in school, in the playground or in the concert hall you do best not to think in terms of flourishing. You should think of him or her as a construction project, not  fruit or vegetable, or even a flower.

But Gopnik does not see things this way. She does not even see marriage in these terms. In a very wrongheaded proposal she suggests that she does not judge the success of her marriage on the basis of her husband's good character. Of course, we would prefer to think that being married to Gopnik makes him a better person, so we are somewhat confused here.

Consider this. If character is at issue, one would expect that the average adult of marriageable age has a fully formed character. If you are deciding whether or not to marry someone, you ought to be able to judge the person's character. If your intended does not have good character, your chances of sustaining your marriage over time drop. If all you have is love, your great lover might just decide to shower his love on someone else-- why not share the bounty.

As for success, it is rarely noted that a man's career success or failure will often either help or destroy his marriage. If a man thinks that his wife has been intstrumental in helping him to get ahead at work, he will love her until the ends of time. If he feels that she has undermined him and has not permitted him to succeed, all the sentimental slop about work/life balance will not save the marriage.

Children need to be trained, to get along with people and to compete in the world. If they do not they are simply not going to be very happy. End of story.


Ares Olympus said...

I see the article here.

And a small typo, missing e in gardeners.
Stuart: Because Gopnik wants parents to be more like gardners.

I confess I don't understand the hostility here - Tiger Mom versus Gardener Mom. I imagine if you pick either side you're going to feel defensive and dismiss the other side.

I can consider my interest in math, and that I wasn't in the "enriched" sequencing of gifted children, but when wanted to learn something, I learned it on my own time. If anyone was pushing me I'd probably resist, at least long enough to get them off my back when I could go back to what I wanted to do, even if it was secretly what others wanted me to do, I wasn't here to be their puppet. But I admit that self-directed introversion was limiting, and it took my 11th grade math teacher to aske me to join the math team. I HATED the idea of competition, of quick performance, but really it wasn't a zero sum game, and my right answers didn't diminish the right answers of others, so I accepted since they needed my help.

I sort of see learning like drawing a map with large areas of unexplored territories. And when I find something mysterious and beyond me at the moment, I feel some concern, and then put a "Here be dragons" sign and police tape around it, and sometimes I'll leave those warnings for years or decades apparently, until I'm ready to cross. I'll sometimes build mental models in my mind of these dangerous places, and then test them occassionally and sometimes find an insight that makes them slightly less dangerous, slightly more understandable.

On the other hand my older brother was completely opposite in so many ways. He had to try everything first, touch everything, do everything, and be the center of attention, and craved adult attention, and all that was fine with me, and I could learn from his mistakes just as well as my own.

Anyway, I don't know what Tiger Mom would have done with me and my brother. Probably my brother would wear her out since he'd do anything she wants as long as she gives him 24/7 attention, and I'd frustrate her after age 2 when I learned the word no, and then I'd go back to my stuff.

The good thing about gardens is you don't have to plan them. You start with a general plan, and see what works, and see what doesn't work, and do some weeding, and do some encouraging, and get new ideas what to try next.

I remember someone smart saying being a parent was hard because as soon as you think you understand your child, they'll change to some next stage and need something completely different. It does make sense that perhaps the world would be better if half the people had ZERO kids, and half had FOUR kids, and after a couple kids, perhaps you figure things out. Or maybe you figure out even FOUR kids are all different, all moving at their own rates, and strengths and weaknesses.

I'm almost tempted to believe in reincarnation, and perhaps children have more than their DNA, and are carrying vital hidden things from previous incarnations, and a part of them already knows what lessons they need to learn. And the cool thing about such fantastical ideas is you can downplay all that "success" business if its not your thing.

People ask why God made children who get cancer and die young, and no one knows. You could call that tragic failure, or you could just consider what they needed to get done in that life didn't take as long as what you came for. I'm sure such thoughts don't provide comfort for help parents who lose children, but it does give perspective for how little control we have on outcomes for anything.

Stuart: Children need to be trained, to get along with people and to compete in the world. If they do not they are simply not going to be very happy. End of story.

That's a rather fearful story to me, but I'll keep it filed under "here be dragons."

Anonymous said...

Not everything is a competition.

OTOH...People who claim to have no personal interest in power or control
are either lying or very very boring.

There *will* be competition...parents who give their children no preparation for it are negligent,IMO.

- shoe

Ares Olympus said...

Shoe: There *will* be competition...parents who give their children no preparation for it are negligent,IMO.

It seems like there are two contradictory strategies when dealing with conflict. One is to assume the other will do whatever it takes to win, and strive to beat them at their own game. The other side doesn't care about "winning", but in expressing excellence, doing the best you can for its own sake, and letting that pleasure be its own ends, win or lose compared to what others accomplish. And Tiger Mom surely teaches more of the second than the first.

But the second one does always work, like if Lucy keeps presenting Charlie Brown the football to kick, and always pulls it away at the last second, the proper lesson there to learn is not play games with someone who won't follow agreed rules of conduct.

For my early experience of competition, I always figured I was better off having 2 siblings (compared to being an only child like my dad ) at least that gave me some sense of competing points of view, and maybe being in the middle helped me see the best sort of competition is where you can avoid zero sum games (where you getting what you want means I don't get what I want), and instead finding outcomes that are greater for everyone than if everyone just went their own way.

My own solution to power and control is to conserve and protect things that are scarce, and otherwise focus on my greed and attention on what is abundant, where my gain adds to the world rather than subtracts from it.

Recently I watch part of the History channel "The Vikings" drama, my own distant ancestors, at least by legend, and there's no sanitizing that "Might makes right" claim to power. And it shows over and over that showing mercy to your rivals is a dangerous strategy, that most of them will come back to try to kill you.

But the story does show the crossing paths of the violent Norse Gods and self-sacrificing Christian God in Christ. And of course soon after the King of Norway declared himself a Christian and by decree banished the old gods into myth.

It does seem like a difficult question for parents, what do you teach your children about the unfairness of the world, both ordinary and intentional oppression like injustice where bullies are left to pillage and then find people who cooperate with bullies are often rewarded.

I'd guess a harder problem than worrying about children being delicate flowers, unable to handle competition, is where parents prepare their children for competition by being merciless and unbending, and teaching them to bully others to get what they want.

Once a child finds out that being a bully often works, it seems harder to stop that "success" unless finally someone bigger than you makes you stop. Of course playing victim is the opposite strategy to the same game that also can work and is hard to stop if it keeps working. Both the bully and the victim are playing for power and control because the skills of negotiating seem too risky.