February 10, 2014

Parental discipline discussion led by Mr. Rogers (1982)

So many pieces of folk wisdom in this informal discussion among parents, led by Fred Rogers, that would trigger the Child Protective Services alarm these days. Try it and see. The helicopter parents have your place bugged, waiting for you to slip up at indulging your kids' egos.

Some notes:

Disciplining your child included spanking back then. (NB: this was for the liberal PBS station, not even a culturally conservative one.) It's one of the clearest signals the kid can receive that he and the parent come from two separate social layers, or are playing different roles, where the parent can strike the child but not vice versa (unless you're really cruisin' for a bruisin'...). In an age where parents want to make their kids feel like they already belong to the same social group as the parents -- "the family," "mankind," or whatever -- they refrain from displays of the asymmetry in power.

Several of the parents were convinced that their kids wanted somebody to be an authority figure, to set boundaries, and to administer punishment when the lines were crossed -- and in a way that only a grown-up could punish. The parents' hunch was that this gave the kids a feeling of security, like there's someone competent and powerful enough who's in charge of what would otherwise be a rudderless and chaotic world, where the children would be utterly at the mercy of fate.

A recurring reason that the parents gave their children for why they were being harsh with them: someday you're going to be a grown-up, and I want to make sure you're prepared to assume the duties of that role. Discipline was part of the broader preparation of a child to transform into an adult. E.g., "Someday I won't be there to hover over your shoulder and tell you what good manners are." One little girl who's interviewed recounts a time when her mother told her that she was being harsh because that way the girl will learn what mothering consists of, so that she will make a good mother when it's she who has matured into that role.

That one really blew me away -- can you imagine today someone explaining to their kid that they need to learn what mothering or fathering is, so they'll make a good parent when it's their turn? "God no, I'd never say that. I wouldn't want to frighten them! They're not going to be a parent for another 25 or 30 years anyway -- they can learn later."

One father said that after a heavy-handed approach had failed with his son, he took his wife's advice to act disappointed in his son, as though his poor behavior had let down his dad, someone who had high hopes for him. It worked. In this strategy, too, the father is telling the son that he expects him to be a man someday soon, and that there are certain expectations to be met if he's going to do well in that grown-up role.

That's a good way to sum up the entire style of parenting in the '80s, and how different it was from the Dr. Spock message of the Mid-century, or the Dr. Phil message of today. There were clearly drawn lines between the roles of child and parent, but the child was expected to transition into an adult, hence much of parenting was preparation for the rites of passage they would face.

The smothering mothers of the Mid-century and the helicopter parents of the Millennial era thought otherwise. There were no clear-cut lines of authority between the roles of child and parent -- they were all part of a great big happy family, Team Johnson, mankind, or whatever. Children are made to feel bad for not being a cooperative team member -- which assumes that they are already a member of the same team as the parents. That is, kids are not going to transition from one group into another (children into adults), so parents don't need to give them all that preparation for navigating so-called "rites of passage."

This infantilizes children (see the Millennials), but it assuages the OCD and anxiety that helicopter parents have about awkward topics like puberty, rites of passage, one-way authority, and so on. Rather than prepare for these awkward transition stages, confront them, and then be done with it, they want to keep postponing puberty etc. so that the parents will never have to feel all grossed out. Show your children some respect and love, and help them get through those stages, whether it makes you feel awkward or not.

What are parents treating their kids like, then? They don't totally treat them as co-members of Team Johnson, that's just the illusion. They still feed, clothe, and house them. Still answer their calls for help. Still give them toys to divert their boredom from not being able to play outside. Still give them the occasional pat on the head, and rub on the belly. And still make them wear ID tags in case they ever get lost (the kids being incapable of finding their way back home).

In short, it isn't child and parent, it's pet and owner. Pets are not expected to grow and transform into the same role as the owner (that'll be the day). They're too defenseless or helpless to ever take care of themselves, so they'll always need the owner to keep close watch over them and provide for them. Naturally the owners will have their pets spayed or neutered, so the owner won't have to confront all that awkward business about the cat going into heat, the tomcat prowling the neighborhood, and so on. To do otherwise would be the height of irresponsibility. Today's parents would therefore not see their kids' kids as "my grandchildren" but as "the litter of my pet, who I guess wasn't as spayed as the vet assured me she was."

How do these changes reflect the changes toward cocooning and falling crime rates? Well, if the parent expects the kid's world to be socially isolated, then why bother teaching them how to interact with others (i.e. genetic strangers)? The kid's social circle will focus on his nuclear family for most of his life, and parents are more tolerant of bratty behavior than strangers are (Hamilton's Rule), so he doesn't need to learn good social behavior that much.

OCD also rises in cocooning times (see this list of related trends). There is something awkward, anxious, and OCD underneath the way parents view their kids today -- particularly regarding the maturation process. Just the word "process" makes it sound like it has a schedule and drive all of its own, and control freaks won't accept that. The maturation process must be subject to parental manipulation, or else all hell would break loose.

And if the parent expects the kid's world to keep getting safer and safer, then why bother giving them the training that would prepare them for a dangerous world out there, where the parents aren't always going to be around to step in and protect them? Back in 1982, parents sensed that a child who was socially naive and incapable of action would make the easiest target for kidnappers, child molesters, serial killers, and cult recruiters. But now that those evils are imperceptible, the parents feel they can afford to let their kid grow up naive and dependent.

One final thing to note, and that's how dissociative everyone appears, albeit some more than others. I mention this anytime there's real-life footage of everyday interactions from the '80s or early '90s. It looks like for them everyday life is an out-of-body experience. As the crime rate is plateau-ing or at its peak, the world seems so topsy-turvy that it's hard to believe it's all happening for real. Even those small children interviewed have thousand-yard stares, as though they'd just gotten back from Vietnam.

Contrast that with how precise and deliberate folks are today, or how crisp and focused their attention was in TV shows from the '50s. I don't know how else to describe it, they just seem like they're in much more conscious awareness and control of their mind and behavior, way back then or right now. In between, people look almost like they're running on auto-pilot, guided by instinct. Still going through the impressive social behaviors that human beings are known for, but not showing as much introspection or deliberation as our capacity for reason and abstraction would lead us to expect. They're more focused on other people around them, and just letting their thoughts come out.

1 comment:

  1. Is there a follow-up showing how the kids turned out without being intrusive into their lives?


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