[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: 2009-09-19 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.



October 2009


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