License To Parent In A Hostile World
I am, here and now, offering you absolution from all your guilt over being an attentive, responsible, careful, loving, and strict parent.Actually, though I appreciate the offer, I don't really need a guilt waiver because I already planned to be this way with my son. I decided before he was born that I would rather him grow up to be good than happy; happy comes and goes, but good stays. That's important because it's a dangerous, hostile world out there, and it's my job to prepare my son to live in it. In my continuing little series, here's what I thought before he was born.
First: It is actually a terrific thing if your child's desires are repressed. In fact, one of the main skills that civilization depends on is the ability of its citizens to delay gratification of their desires until an appropriate time.
Like, not acquiring property that doesn't belong to you until you can pay for it.
Or not engaging in potentially child-producing activities until you're actually old enough and committed enough to guarantee such a child a two-parent family for its entire life.
The other word for repression is self-control. And here's how it's learned. First, your terrible mean awful horrible parents keep you from doing what you want.
Then, as you get older, you begin to realize that your friends whose parents didn't stop them from doing those things are now having horribly messy lives. You're glad your parents kept you from doing it. Now you keep those same rules yourself. You have learned to control your desires because you now understand the consequences.
But during those many, many years when children are too ignorant, inexperienced, self-willed, stubborn, or angry to grasp the idea that really bad things can actually happen to them, parents have to have the strength to say no, to mean it, and to make it stick.
That's what happens when parents actually love their children.
So when you find yourself worrying about whether to put your foot down because you don't want to cause your children to be "repressed," I give you permission to say, "Live with your repressions, child! Live long enough to go to a shrink every week for years, working through all your 'issues' with your horrible parents. But you will be alive because I am going to make sure these insane, self-destructive desires of yours get good and repressed for the next ten years of your life."
We Didn't Start The Fire
Writing these pieces is sometimes a little odd because of the approximate ten year disparity in age in the audience. I don't mean to exclude some of the newest [academic camp] alums by doing this, but it's a natural consequence of making certain references and talking about the events in my life that are capturing my attention right now.
My title, for example, makes reference to a Billy Joel song from the early nineties. Now, I wrote that without thinking, and it was only after I came back to it that I realized that it betrayed my frame of reference. For those of you who aren't very familiar with the song, it's a litany of significant historical events from about 1950 through 1990. The chorus essentially states that the place was a mess when we got here and we're doing what we can. I associate it very much with my high school years, personally.
That little hook ties into a couple of things I've been thinking about lately, both as an American and a soon-to-be parent. First, it absolutely boggles my mind sometimes how this little guy coming into our lives is going to have such an extraordinarily different frame of reference than my wife and I do. For example: even if President Bush is re-elected, my son will probably always remember him as an ex-president. The attacks of two years ago (today) will be like the Kennedy assassination is to me or the Challenger explosion is to some of my readers here. He won't understand the Y2K fuss. The Lord of the Rings movies will be old pictures his folks just won't stop watching. (With luck, though, Madonna will be a has-been nobody's heard from for years.)
These kind of realizations are making me start to appreciate that I'm part of a generation that's moving up and moving on. I've always resisted the lumping of people my age into a designer label "Gen X" or "Gen Y". I consider that to be remnants of a truly self-centered generation, the Baby Boomers, who must classify everything in terms of themselves including the kids they raised without ever seeming to figure out who the kids are. (Exceptions abound, of course, but I'm speaking generally here.) People who spend forty or fifty years "discovering" themselves or finding out who they are aren't much help to young folks who really are figuring out how they're going to be what they're going to be...but I digress (a habit of mine.) The point is that I'm starting to feel the generational distinction without having Madison Avenue shove it down my throat.
This leads to a couple of observations. First, that the wide world is full of dangers, and I must protect my child and teach him how to protect himself against such things. Whether it be pop culture or world events, that sphere of experience will have an impact on my son, and my powers against that influence are limited. These influences range from things I do not prefer that my son like (which, of course, he will; I already know it's coming) to the things that are truly dangerous, though they may appear alluring. Then there are the things that do more than inform my cultural awareness; they are the things that can assault our lives: bombings, murders, devastation.
It is perhaps significant that we first found out that my wife was pregnant on the day the Columbia space shuttle crashed. I've been listening to the tributes and memorials today, and I wonder about all the kids who lost parents or other family in the attacks. I wonder about the kids conceived as a sort of life affirmation immediately afterwards--how will that knowledge shape who they are? I wonder and worry about the big events that will cause the rapids in my son's life--a kind of warm-up for the anxiety I'll have when he arrives and that first moment of total responsibility hits me.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying this: I am wondering how my son will fit into history, and I worry about what history will do to my son.
The second observation that stems from this generational mantle is what we will teach him about living in this society. I'm going to be actively involved in cultural transmission, as the academics put it, and that includes what being an American means, both the burden and the joy. What shall I say? Perhaps something like this, at least when he's old enough to understand. Until then, I leave it for you on this Thursday, September 11, 2003.
I'll tell my son that we Americans are a free and vigorous people with the natural arrogance that comes from youth and vitality. We Americans have been governed but never ruled, attacked but never conquered, bloodied but never beaten. We are a people who put our lives and treasure on the line for our fellow citizens and for peoples across the world in a way no other civilization has. We still believe in the wisdom of the moral instinct, the supremacy of courage, and the importance of fair play. We are a city on a hill, a beacon of freedom, and a good and great nation.
Some people hate us for that and want to destroy us. Others sneer at us and mock with hollow words our virtues while clinging to their own emptiness. I'll tell my son that he must learn to deal with both, to guard the body against the one and the heart against the other. He will be born an American, and Americans battle against the odds and rise up from the ashes. We are a fierce, passionate, and self-critical people who still savor the fiery joy of battle, be it physical or rhetorical. Yet we also love peace, and comfort, and simple homely things. We are a people gifted beyond measure with freedom and riches and leisure and opportunity...but my son will also learn that such things are ultimately fragile without the strength of heart to win them and the sacrifice it takes to defend them. He will be called upon to make sacrifice in some fashion, and he will learn the duty and joy it is to be free. May we all do so.