[personal profile] wildlyparenthetical
I've been thinking a lot of late about how childhood is thought about in contemporary culture. My thoughts go in a thousand directions, including the erasure of childhood sexuality (and the parallels between the discursive construction of child sex abuse and rape of women, but that's a story for another time), the use made of the 'purity' of childhood in contemporary politics, and, related to all of these, the way that parenting is 'supposed' to work, these days.

I've been reading, most recently, Jo Tamar's take on perceptions of medical risk and birth, as well as Helen's consideration of risks men take and risks women take, as well as Lauredhel's interesting analysis of the obscuring of the safety of home birth in stats. But what I wanted to talk about here was the bizarre way that normalcy and good parenting go together. And all of this is of course related to Ariane's comment on my post over here, which I've been turning over and over in my head, trying to work out how to express my position.

There seems to be this idea, floating around in the ether, that the best possible childhood one could have is the most normal childhood. The one without trauma, without broken limbs or scars, without weight issues or abuse, without bullying, or divorcing parents, or unhappiness. There's this implicit sense, I think, that people who have really 'normal' childhoods (white, middle-class, nuclear family type childhoods) are best off, because they work from a blank slate: they, apparently, have had nothing ruled out for them by uncertainty, by weight issues, by low self-esteem or whatever else. They are most able to make of their live whatever they want. A life that is unblemished is considered flexible, to be pure potential.

And so 'good parenting', it seems to me, is often about protecting children, helping them to maintain their unblemished selves so that when they grow up, they can be whatever they want to be. You see it in so many places: in the anxiety about bullying, in the use of human growth hormone on short boys, in not allowing children to climb trees or rocks or roofs, in the pinning back of sticky-outy ears, in the shepherding of children away from people with disabilities, in the design of the Australian government's NT 'intervention' which emphasises regular, punctual attendance at school (that great normalising institution), in the termination of the majority of foetuses deemed to be imperfect (I'm pro-choice, btw; that doesn't mean those choices are politically neutral, or not enforced), in the public health anxieties about 'childhood obesity', and in the responses of some parents to their intersexed children. The risks to children, in this context, become many and varied, and somehow, they all seem to become equivalent, because the anxiety is that something that seems small could become bigger as the child grows, whether that scar is physical or psychic.

And it manifests itself in the need for control. I remember being horrified at the age of 13 when I mentioned to my dad at a barbeque that some of the trees looked like they would be great to climb, and the guy next to him said 'Ha! Yeah, but you wouldn't let her, would you?' My dad quietly replied that yes, of course he would, and the guy was shocked and kinda horrified that dad would let me take such a risk. A neglect of parental duty. And this is part of the thing: in the context of childhood, no one ever really knows what the effects of an event, or an encounter, or whatever, is going to have on the kid, and psychology tells some great stories about tiny little differences in childhoods that manifest themselves in massive problems in adulthood. And so control, control, control of the 'inputs' into the child's experiences seems to be the expression of 'good parenting'.

And this emphasis on parental responsibility expands and expands until parents have the exhausting task on their hands of ensuring that nothing ever goes wrong. In a world where childhood obesity is being taken as a sign of parental neglect and some are arguing in favour of state intervention in such cases (I'm trying to find the newspaper reference for this, but it's from Dr. Mianna Lotz, of Macquarie University, who has journal articles arguing in favour of this point), it's not surprising that parents choose, for example, to hand over responsibility to hospitals for birthing (at least if something goes wrong, no one will be able to blame them). It's not surprising that they choose to herd their children away from people with disabilities (because it might disturb their sense of comfort with their own bodies, or whatever other adult prejudices are projected onto the blank screen of kidhood). It's not surprising they try to keep their kids away from sex, from queerness, from transness, because these are all situated as troubling the perfect innocence of childhood, which would inevitably lead to the circumscribing of that child's potential. It's not surprising that they express extraordinary anger at educational institutions of all kinds when their child is hurt, or teased or bullied (because the school has failed to live up to the protective standards they would have managed). It's not surprising that there's such an emphasis on not just making the right choice, but making the choice that is approved of by the majority; after all, marginalisation occurs through others' eyes. The adult world finds all of these things disturbing, and characterises them as inevitably affecting childhood in such a way as to reduce the perfectly flexible perfect potentiality of the child.

The thing is, some of that might be true. But some of it isn't. Sometimes, we hear about needing to work on 'resilience' with kids, helping them to learn how to rebound from difficult situations. We hear about needing to foster children's understanding of 'other' cultures (even if this winds up being so focussed on 'festival days' in many educational settings that conflicts between cultures can be concealed). But there seems to be this implicit risk: that exposure to difference—to those racialised in other ways, to those whose sexuality or relationship style is different, to those whose gendering isn't quite as straightforward as we might pretend, to those of other classes, to experiences of their own body which don't fit with the approved cultural norm—that all of these are damaging, that they will reduce the child's capacity to choose their own future, will narrow their potential until they have no choices left.

What's interesting, of course, is that 'potential' is seen only in the proximity of the child to the white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied ideal. Kids with disabilities are seen as having had some potential stripped from them; kids born intersexed might 'lose' the potential to reproduce; kids who might be gay are seen as losing the capacity to live happy lives ("because the world is just so mean to gay people" as I've heard more than one person say); kids who might be trans are seen in the same light. This is supposedly true of adults too, of course (so that the 'tragedy' of disability is that it supposedly steals potential), but because adults are meant to take responsibility for kids, these ways of falling away from the ideal are often seen as the parents' fault. It's little wonder that homophobic parents, when their kids come out, wonder where they 'went wrong'. Parents are supposed to be responsible for everything that their children are, and when their kids aren't normal, it's because they haven't done right by them. It's a nasty little bind, this one, and it situates every deviation from the ideal as unnatural, as the result of environment, as the parent's fault. And all of that contributes to the ideal being naturalised; being just the way things ought to be; being just the way things would have been, if the parents, and their delegates, schools, hospitals etc, had done the right thing by the child, had gotten out of the way of the inherent natural eminently flexible potentiality of their children. YOU fucked them up, the world says, you must've done, because they'd be perfectly normal if you'd just let them be!

Anyway, there'll be more on this theme when I have time. Apologies for rambles. I'm trying to get myself to be a lil less paranoid about this journal (cf the blog), so I hope my lack of editing hasn't let slip any nastiness.



Date: 2009-09-07 04:53 am (UTC)
elf: Sea monkey family (Sea Monkeys)
From: [personal profile] elf
Tangential thought; not sure how well this connects:

There's a concept, implied rather than stated, by Unitarians and the like who preach "universal tolerance." It goes something like this:

Everyone is equally good, worthy, valuable. Everyone, barring their personal reactions to childhood traumas, bigotries, and privations, would be loving, kind, and gentle towards all other people at all times; therefore, we must help each other overcome the horrible scarring caused by all those unpleasant experiences. Further, we must help to prevent traumas, privilege-based oppressions, privations of body & spirit, because if we got rid of those, everybody would be wonderful all the time."

So far, so good. A bit bland, perhaps, but not outright oppressive. Until it gets to Part 2:

"All deviations from norm are the result of those childhood traumas. If we got rid of them, everybody would be happy [straight/bisexual/polyamorous/married/vegan/Christian/Pagan/ whatever the speaker thinks is "virtuous"], like me, and the world would be perfect."

The idea that "prevent all damages, oppressions and privations and the world will be better"--I can go for that. The followup concept that "only our damages make us unique and different; if we all had idyllic backgrounds, nobody would lust after people who weren't interested, everyone would love art and kittens and fishing on Sunday afternoons"... erm, no. I like our differences.

Too many of the "protect the CHILDRUNNNZ" propaganda-bits today sound like "we must make sure no more children grow up to have [undesired trait]."

There's the frightening concept that "everyone should be normal and happy" often means "everyone should be the same."

Date: 2009-09-07 05:55 am (UTC)
lauredhel: two cats sleeping nose to tail, making a perfect circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lauredhel
I'm not quite clear what parallels you're drawing between parents who are unhappy about bullying, and parents who want their kids to never be around people with disabilities, or who are a different race from them, or whatever.

Maybe it's because I've known too many people who were very badly damaged by organised, ongoing bullying that occurred _because_ they had a disability or didn't gender-conform, but I don't see parental worry over that sort of thing as unreasonable overreaction. I find it absolutely horrifying that we lock children up with their abusers for hours and hours, day-in-day-out, with absolutely no escape routes for them. This is not something adults are generally expected to tolerate (and we as feminists get very angry about the exceptions to that), so why should children receive less societal protection? Why should kids get told to suck up horrific violence and what is in some cases years of emotional torture, in the name of developing resilience? Kyriarchal dominance and marginalisation begins in the schoolyard and kindy, and if we want to do anything about it, the solution has to start there too.

Or were you talking more of mutual, random, transient playground skirmishes, which don't amount to true bullying?

Date: 2009-09-07 09:01 am (UTC)
cesy: "Cesy" - An old-fashioned quill and ink (Default)
From: [personal profile] cesy
The other thing with protecting a child too much, is that sooner or later they get into the adult world in a place where they're no longer protected, and they don't have any coping mechanisms. Protecting young children is a good thing, but the protection needs to taper off gradually, and be accompanied by support in learning to build their own healthy resilience. Otherwise you just get traumatising disasters at the age of twenty instead of at the age of twelve, which isn't much of an improvement.

Date: 2009-09-07 07:00 pm (UTC)
mossy: (hitting is wrong)
From: [personal profile] mossy
Well, I'm not entirely sure what you're trying to say, because I don't know what you're talking about when you say "good parenting" as in, who is saying this model is "good parenting" and where? Sorry, bit confused. Do you mean what the "won't somebody think of the children" type people think? (Who rarely think of the children imo).

Or do you mean the "seen and not heard" model, as in, a good parent is one whose child never "acts up" (i.e. acts age appropriately) in a public place, whose main role is to basically keep their child out of adult view as much as possible?

Because most people I know in real life, and on teh intarwebs, think of "good parenting" not at all like that, although everyone differs.

Personally, in my own parenting, I like the quote by Alfie Kohn about carcinogens. When people say "but you've got to be harsh with your child because he'll meet that in the outside world" I think of it like carcinogens. He's gonna get exposed to plenty of carcinogenic substances in the outside world, but that doesn't mean I start it at home. As with carcinogens, I believe that if I provide, wherever possible (and it isn't always in my familial situation) a loving environment, where my kid can never doubt that he's loved, whatever happens to him elsewhere he can have the inner resilience to deal with.

Not that I wouldn't take bullying seriously, and maude knows if I could afford it and his father would allow it (ha!) I would home educate him, and not that I'd push him to do stuff like climb trees, cross roads and go to the shops by himself before he feels he's ready, but still.

As for "potential", well, the only thing I want for my kid is, wherever possible, to be happy, and happy as an adult. I see that that potential is probably there, and I basically show him a lot of love, avoid punishments and extrinsic rewards where I can, never, ever hit him and... well, that's it really.

As he gets older there are other things I'll have to do; many of them specific to raising a white, TAB male (he would tell you he's a little boy himself, and I'm respecting his current self identification but there is the possibility he isn't a boy, obviously) whose sexual orientation is currently unknown. As in, he's gonna have a hell of a lot of privilege. And it's my job to help him learn not to abuse it.

(And as for "happy" - well, I suffer from depression/anxiety, and sometimes I do wonder, yes, is "wanting your child to be happy and happy as an adult" ableist/prejudiced against people with mental illness, and I'm not sure, you know, I'd be lying if I said it doesn't trouble me sometimes, but also, I would like to be happy, and I'm sure my abusive childhood and being raised in a cult didn't help my current mental state, so ...)

Sorry if this is a bit tl;dr.

Date: 2009-09-07 10:01 pm (UTC)
ext_348511: (pic#256905)
From: [identity profile] jotamar.wordpress.com
Bit of a drive-by comment, but I wonder how much the Australian attitude to risk and protection generally has to do with all of this. I forgot to think about that when I was writing my post, but which I was discussing with someone last night in a different context, and realised it fits in with the home birth issue quite well.

I mean, the fact that we tend to have a much larger amount of legislation about personal safety than many other countries (eg bike helmets, seat belts - both of which, by the way, I think are great inventions and I would use even if it wasn't mandatory). We *think* we're so anti-authoritarian and risk-taking, but that's not really how we act - and legislate - in day-to-day life.

I think the phenomenon you're talking about goes beyond Australia, but nevertheless, I do wonder if there's some connection.

Date: 2009-09-08 03:27 am (UTC)
ext_348511: (pic#256905)
From: [identity profile] jotamar.wordpress.com
"Which of course is where Helen's analysis of the gendered nature of this stuff comes into its own again."

Yes, exactly, I hadn't quite got there: with the concept that it's a woman's role to be "the responsible one" (which also ties in with what Ariane has been writing recently about power dynamics in the home - do html tags work in these comments? I kind of assume they do, but in case they don't, I'll just paste the link: http://shonias.blogspot.com/2009/08/ceding-power_29.html ) and men are allowed to do "boys will be boys" stuff.

Date: 2009-09-19 04:15 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] shonias
My reader is organised alphabetically, which means when I get behind, I don't always find the stuff I want to read very quickly. Bugger.

Anyway, the concept of "good parenting" being based in protection is one that irritates me in the extreme. Since I is one, I find that the instinct to protect them (which is, I think, very selfishly driven, at least in my case) is very strong, and I have to fight against it. The fact that there is an attitude that glorifies the "All they need is love and protection" model of parenting adds to the fight, but realistically, I am fighting myself more than the outside world. I mean, obviously, there is a need to protect them in an age appropriate way. I shan't be letting the not-quite-2yr old cross the road on her own just yet. But not letting them find their boundaries, find out about the world? Gahhh, drives me coco bananas.

The potential thing is a tricky one. As is the "hard road" argument. I would be a little sad if someone close to me was trans, because it is damn hard to be trans in this world. I wouldn't love them less or wonder where I went wrong, and by realising that it would be so hard for them, I also realise that this needs to change. I don't want less trans people in the world, I want it to be easier. I want it to be a non-issue, at least culturally. You know, like you wear glasses to be able to see better, you do what's appropriate to feel right in your body. I'm a pragmatic idealist, I guess.

But there is a fuzzy mess between wearing glasses and wanting to "fix" everything outside a narrowly defined norm. I don't think anyone would argue that reading glasses are obnoxiously normative, but treating homosexuality as something to be fixed definitely is. How do we develop a way of identify what's just helping and what's redefining? Messy.

In terms of resilience, I skimmed your conversation on Twitter, and I was pretty astonished by what is presented as resilience in some places. The resilience stuff I've mostly been involved with has been based on supporting kids to embrace difference as what makes people cool and interesting. To make them feel confident enough in themselves to defend themselves as they are, and not to confirm to avoid being a target. There has been an inkling of that idea in some of it - carrying yourself with confidence rather than appearing timid which I have always had some issues with. It's all good and well for me as a text book extrovert to learn to carry myself that way, but I don't know if that's asking more introverted people to be someone they're not. I don't know. But in the end, the main point of the resilience stuff I have been involved with is that if you are bullied, it is because the bully has a problem, not because you do.

Potential is the thing I have the most problem with. Many disabilities do involve a reduction in a person's potential, and others in a complete reshuffle of them. I can't reconcile that we should not do what we can restore those potentials. I fully acknowledge that this doesn't have to be done by removing the "disability" itself, but by fixing why that difference reduces potential. But not all disability is socially created. The desire to have children may be highly socially reinforced, but it is also deeply personal. I just can't see how helping people meet that desire is a bad thing. Again, there are a bunch of socially created problems for people with Cystic Fibrosis, for example, but in the end, the disease is in and of itself a Bad Thing. Curing it is not socially normative, it's making people's lives clearly better.

I'm not suggesting that you are arguing that we shouldn't cure disease, I'm just wondering how you think we find the line in the sand? My personal line in the sand is as transient as the name suggests. Every time I hear another well thought out argument it shifts this way or that.

Sorry for the very long comment, I think this is a fascinating intersection of social justice, psychology, medicine, parenting, media and sociology.

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