Category Archives: Parenting in the Age of Studies Have Shown

Staring at Stars with Soldiers

13308609_10153713608587683_3511624982502320709_oA concert program falls from the balcony to the floor, like a meteor, causing confused parents to look up and see the auditorium’s Big Dipper, a constellation composed of glowing red SORTIE signs. Cellphones pulsate in the darkness, like fireflies, as we wait for our little stars to come out. How fitting it is, that this marching music was created by military men! Because I feel a kind of martial pride tonight, as I look out upon this vast army of mothers and fathers, soldiering through the disasters and disappointments of midlife with admirable aplomb. We’ll tolerate the friendly-fire of our flash-happy friends, and the deafening shrieks of the newborns in our midst; but we shoot all deserters, who leave early, with deadly looks. Because we love our children. And they were good tonight. This, thought I, is what the Olympians must have felt like when they looked down upon the children of men; this, thought I, is what God must have felt like when He parted the heavens and declared: “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Moms Who Wish They’d Never Had Kids

sad-mom-bad-mom-mom-guiltJust read an article in Marie-Claire magazine about moms who wish they’d never had kids. I’m not surprised that many mothers feel this way, I’m surprised that we think it matters. The world is filled with people who regret big life decisions (where they live, what they do for a living, who they married), and it probably doesn’t amount to much. Your life is shaped primarily by what you do, not by what you intend to do or regret doing. And my guess is that when it comes to doing, the vast majority of these regretful moms are doing fine. I’ll bet they’re great moms. History will, I suspect, laugh at our culture’s obsession with the inner life. My God, we’re hard on ourselves! It’s like you’ve gotta have your heart in everything you do or it doesn’t count. We need to get comfortable, again, with the idea of people doing the right thing, and fulfilling their familial duties, even when they don’t feel like it. Maybe then we could give a regretful mom a hug, and buy her a drink, rather than judging the fuck out of her.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Helicopter Parenting and the Decline of Dad

The gendered parenting model of the 1950s had its flaws for sure, but at least there was a complementary division of labor that, like a well-rounded diet, ensured that kids got what they needed: certain kinds of love from dad, and certain kinds of love from mom. My main problem with the egalitarian model that’s replaced it is that it’s not particularly egalitarian. We haven’t divvied up the old parenting tasks equally; we’ve decided, instead, that everybody’s supposed to be “mom” and nobody’s supposed to be “dad”. The stuff that dads used to do just isn’t done now, for the most part, by anyone.

Parental discipline is a case in point. Back in the day, dad played bad cop to mom’s good cop. He was the bad guy, the disciplinarian, the heavy, and, as any parent will tell you (gay or straight), that job fucking sucks. But dads used to do it regardless because—like taking out the trash or changing the kitty litter—it had to be done; most 21st-century dads, who are too often little more than fun uncles, invariably stiff mom with the job.

This profoundly unbalanced state of affairs is, I hasten to add, largely responsible for the rise of so-called “helicopter parenting”. Helicopter parenting is, at bottom, what happens when both parents are striving to be a 1950s mom. It produces exhausted parents, neurotic children, and miserable marriages. Kids need to be given the space to make their own mistakes, manage their own relationships, manage their own time, and figure themselves out. And they need to grow up around parents who have fun with each other, parents who have friends, parents who laugh, parents who have a life—a life that doesn’t revolve entirely around them.

—John Faithful Hamer, Parenting in the Age of Studies Have Shown (2017)

Stranger Things

“In nature we never repeat the same motion; in captivity (office, gym, commute, sports), life is just repetitive-stress injury. No randomness.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010)

Fullscreen capture 8162016 112004 AMWatching Stranger Things on Netflix reminds me that growing up in the Eighties wasn’t all bad. It’s so nice to see free-range kids biking around their neighborhood, getting into trouble, and having adventures. So nice to see kids who have a life, kids with free time, kids who aren’t being shuttled around by harried helicopter parents, in minivans, from one structured activity to the next. And it’s so nice to see kids resolving conflicts amongst themselves, and managing their own social lives, without the constant intervention of meddlesome grownups with PhDs in Sensitivity.

I took the kids of Wild Side Day Camp to Nun’s Island today, a place I’ve been going to for almost thirty years. It’s still a magical place—replete with herons, owls, turtles, snakes, frogs, and salamanders—despite the fact that most of the forest has been replaced with upscale apartment buildings. Among the new additions to the island is an exercise park, which is basically like a kid’s park for grownups.

We stumbled upon it more or less by accident, and, as you might expect, the kids immediately started to play with the equipment. They came up with all sorts of novel uses for the stuff and invented a remarkably creative game which went on for two hours. From time to time, health-conscious adults would show up in spandex (which, let’s face it, makes any adult look ridiculous to a child). They seemed annoyed that the kids were there, using their stuff, though nobody came out and said so.

I’m usually not that interested in what the humans are doing on Nun’s Island. But today, at the exercise park, I felt like an anthropologist. And I noticed some interesting differences between the ways that the kids and the adults interacted with the park: (1) Everything the grownups did with the exercise equipment was repetitive, boring, and predictable, whilst everything the children did with the same stuff was spontaneous, creative, and unpredictable. (2) The adults looked miserable whilst working out at the park.

By contrast, everything about the children—their screams and shouts, their smiles—radiated pure joy. This leads me to the following conclusion: Maybe working out is boring and chore-like because it’s so utterly devoid of randomness and playfulness. Maybe it’s time to take the “work” out of working out.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Why Sitting Down is often the Best Way to Stand Up for Western Civilization

894830_10151801086137683_557615151_oThe bathrooms of households containing young boys are often disgusting. Seriously, they smell like the public urinals at a rock concert. Of course if you say something about this, as I often do, you’re invariably told, with a sigh and a smile: “Well, you know, boys will boys.” What the parents mean by this, I gather, is that it’s normal for little boys to hose down a bathroom the way dogs hose down a fire hydrant. Bullshit! Many things are normal for boys, but this isn’t one of them. My wife and I have two boys. And our bathroom never smells like the human equivalent of a kitty litter box. Why? Because the dudes in our house sit down to pee. Really, it’s that simple.

Our sons have friends over quite often, and, as such, from time to time, they are forced to socialize another boy into the ways of civilized men. It’s quite comical to watch actually. A typical scenario looks something like this: young boy rushes into bathroom, slams toilet seat cover up loudly, pisses all over the place (getting some in the toilet, but most on the toilet seat and surrounding bathroom floor), fails to flush, fails to wash his hands, and returns hurriedly to play video game with other boys. A moment or two later, one of our boys goes to the bathroom, finds the pungent nastiness left by the previous kid, and returns to the bedroom to make a big deal about it. The kid who hosed down our bathroom is publicly shamed until he returns to the bathroom, cleans up his mess, flushes the toilet, and washes his hands thoroughly. Trust me, that kid never does it again! Ever. Maybe in your house. Maybe when he’s at home with his clueless, uncivilized parents. But not in our house!

In the midst of our obsession with self-esteem and enthusiasm for anti-bullying campaigns, we seem to have forgotten that peer pressure and public shaming aren’t always bad. In fact, they’re often central features of the civilization process. For instance, I know a kid who used to pick his nose and eat it compulsively. Often in public. Drove his mom crazy. She was so embarrassed. Thoroughly humiliated by his behavior. Told him to stop countless times, but to no avail. The kid would sit there in the middle of a family gathering and meticulously eat his own yellow-green snot.

But he eventually stopped, rather abruptly, a week or two into kindergarten. Why? Because the other kids in the schoolyard teased him about it. They laughed at him when he picked his nose. Mocked him for his repulsive habit. And he stopped. Right away. Just like that. What my sons do to little boys who think it’s their God-given right to hose down my bathroom like tomcats is of a similar stamp. And I’m proud of them for it. When they perform this useful service, they are, quite literally, agents of the civilization process and forces for good in the world. After all, sitting down is often the best way to stand up for Western civilization.

—John Faithful Hamer, Parenting in the Age of Studies Have Shown (2017)

Butterflies not Crocodiles

IMG_7221-002A central problem with progressive parenting manuals is that far too many of them assume that children are little more than miniature adults. But this is manifestly not true. We undergo massive changes in our development that make us much more like butterflies than crocodiles. What do I mean by that? Well, baby crocodiles are ready to go on Day One. They are, quite literally, miniature versions of their parents. All of their proportions are the same as their parents, all of their instincts, everything. But butterflies start out as caterpillars. And caterpillars have a diet, motion, and morphology of their own. Eventually they go through a series of dramatic changes and become butterflies. And butterflies have a diet, motion, and morphology of their own.

It would be foolish to try to care for a caterpillar the way you’d care for the butterfly it’ll one day be. Likewise, it would be foolish to try to reason with a toddler the way you might reason with a friend. Children aren’t miniature adults. They’re cute little talking puppies. And, like puppies, there are times when they simply cannot be reasoned with. For instance, I knew a four-year-old boy who ran into traffic every chance he got. It was terrifying. And his mom was at her wit’s end. She tried everything: time-outs, taking away his toys, etc. She even went so far as to show him some roadkill (a squashed squirrel). Told him that this is what could happen to him! But to no avail, the little rascal kept on bolting into the street every chance he got. So, after yet another near-death experience, she whacked him in the ass. Hard. And guess what, the little monster never did it again. Not once. Ever.

When I recounted this story to a particularly judgy colleague, she launched into a long mommy-shaming diatribe about the rights of children (she doesn’t have kids, of course). I tried to defend the mother in question (a close relative of mine), but this only made my preachy coworker more mad. She stuck her finger in my face and asked me if I would slap my wife if she wasn’t doing what I wanted her to do. I laughed and said that comparing the use of corporal punishment on a fellow adult to the use of corporal punishment on a four-year-old was absurd. She looked puzzled.

“Why?”

“Because we’re butterflies. Not crocodiles.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

The Perils of Praise

Big Tom Hanks memeThe Good Student was a teacher’s favourite in school, consistently earning praise from teachers for her work. Over time, the tokens of approval changed from gold-star stickers to A grades, but the mechanism remained constant: teachers liked the Good Student’s work and contributions, favoured her with extra attention, and told her she was going to go far.

Perhaps you’ve met the Good Student. Perhaps you were one.

The Good Student received constant praise. Contrary to what one might think, though, this wasn’t a good thing. Constant praise does bad things to human beings. It’s much like any other drug that affects our dopamine levels: provided sparingly, it induces brief sensations of warmth and happiness, but provided constantly, it induces dependency. Just like the cocaine addict requires constant bumps just to get to ‘normal’, so too does the praise addict require constant reassurance just to function. If the praise ever dries up, the recipient goes into withdrawal. This is talked about most often in regards to rearing young children, but it applies just as well to older children and youths in high school and university. Deprived of praise, the addict becomes anxious and emotionally fragile. Rather than try new things or practice new skills, she prefers to retreat into fantasies of power and control.

Unfortunately for them, while the school system is a great place to get constant praise from one’s superiors, outside of school it’s much harder to come by. Employees receive much less feedback from their employers in general, especially for those working entry-level jobs. Often, the only time an employee gets feedback is when she screws up; good work isn’t singled out for praise, but rather is expected and taken without comment.

And so, Good Students who enter the world of work often suffer an unexpected shock: for the first time, nobody is telling them how great they are.

I’m sure the person who wrote the movie Big (1988) with Tom Hanks was familiar with this situation, because the movie is a perfect recitation of the sort of fantasy that these circumstances provoke. In the film, Hanks’ character is an anonymous data-entry clerk whose work is repetitive and dull. Management, to the extent that they notice him at all, holds him in contempt, seeing him as a drone incapable of anything important. But then he catches the eye of the firm’s owner, who immediately sees that this kid has real talent. Overnight, Hanks is a senior executive, with his own office, secretary, and fat paycheque. Better still, he has flexible work hours and the autonomy to do his job as he likes. In return for this recognition of his genius, he leads his company to fantastic new achievements.

This is the sort of thing that Good Students daydream about, when they’re not seething about how they deserve better than what they’ve got, dammit. Don’t they know how special I am?!

Young people with fresh undergraduate degrees, faced with this unexpectedly difficult environment, often beat a hasty retreat to grad school. It’s a bad idea, because they’re not going because they love their subject, but instead because they hate being just another nobody. This is unfortunate, because it’s a recipe for quitting ABD (but that’s a post for another time). Bad as this scenario is – I’m surprised it wasn’t written up as one of the 100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School – the PhD holder who leaves academia for the working world outside has it worse. At least the undergrad has an escape hatch, but the ex-academic has no grad school to retreat to. She has no alternative to going cold turkey.

Well, I suppose there is one – she could start looking for a constant stream of validation in her romantic life. I suspect the results would be ugly.

The best response is to grit your teeth and get over it. It’s a painful process, in the same way that athletic training is painful. Getting physically stronger takes time and discomfort, and getting emotionally stronger is no different. Good Students in recovery, rather than waiting for the world to acknowledge how special they are, should recognize and embrace the opportunity to learn some important life lessons: that you are not your resume (or even your CV), that good work is worth doing even if nobody notices it, and that ultimately you are the only judge that matters of whether you’re living a good life. If you know that you’re doing something worthwhile, and you’re doing it well, then no else’s approval is necessary.

—Andrew Miller

In Praise of Authoritarian Parenting

“Let’s say that you are a small child and one Sunday afternoon you have to do the boring duty of visiting your old senile grandmother. If you have a good old–fashioned authoritarian father, what will he tell you? ‘I don’t care how you feel, just go there and behave properly. Do your duty.’ A modern permissive totalitarian father will tell you something else: ‘You know how much your grandmother would love to see you. But do go and visit her only if you really want to.’ Now every idiot knows the catch. Beneath the appearance of this free choice there is an even more oppressive order. You seem to have a choice, but there is no choice, because the order is not only you must visit your grandmother, you must even enjoy it. If you don’t believe me, just try to say ‘I have a choice, I will not do it.’ I promise your father will say ‘What did your grandmother ever do to you? Don’t you know how much she loves you? How could you do this to her?’”
—Slavoj Žižek, “The Superego and the Act” (August 1999)

phil-dunphyŽižek argues that the old-fashioned authoritarian father is, strange as it may sound, far less demanding than the progressive parent of the North American suburbs. Why? Because at least the old-fashioned authoritarian father allows you to maintain your inner freedom. He doesn’t insist that you like going to your grandmother’s house. Nor does he even insist that you act like you like going to your grandmother’s house. He merely insists that you show up, play cards with her, listen to her stories, eat some biscuits, and refrain from saying anything stupid.

By contrast, showing up is never enough for the permissive totalitarian father. He’s not satisfied with control over where you put your body. He wants to control how you feel and what you think too. The permissive totalitarian parent doesn’t just want you to do the right thing, she wants you to want to do the right thing. As such, your job, as a kid, is to convince her that you actually feel like going to your grandmother’s house, that there’s really nothing you’d rather do on this sunny Sunday afternoon.

Though it pains me to admit it, most of what passes for “progressive parenting” these days consists of emotional manipulation of precisely this kind: modern permissive totalitarianism. For instance, we often force kids to apologize when they aren’t ready to apologize, and then cynically chastise them for their lackluster acting job: “Say it again with feeling, son!” Are we not teaching our kids, albeit inadvertently, how to fake it? How to hide their true feelings? How to lie to themselves and others about what they really want? And how is this a big improvement over authoritarian parenting? What’s more, how is all of this good for democracy? Doesn’t “the open society” depend upon citizens with precisely the sort of inner freedom that modern permissive totalitarian parenting destroys?

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

p.s. I’m having second thoughts about this—it’s such a tough call—because these two things are equally true but hard to reconcile: (1) we know we don’t want to raise bullshit artists; & (2) we know that much of the socialization process involves playing parts that start off as acting but end up real. What’s more, we know that some kids need to be told what the appropriate emotional response to certain situations is (because it’s not entirely as obvious to them as it is to other kids). After all, just as there are slow intellectual learners (who learn how to read later than most of their peers), it stands to reason that there are slow emotional learners (who learn how behave like civilized human beings later than most of their peers). Modern permissive totalitarian parenting might be just what these kids need.