On Being A Bully

In the long list of personal moral failures for which I will have to atone, participating in schoolyard and dormitory bullying–even if only briefly, and in attenuated fashion–must rank among the very worst. The only exculpation I can offer in my defense is that I was young, but all bullies in school are; I’m afraid there is little room for forgiveness here. More to the point, I’ve never forgotten the stricken look on the faces of my victims; they will haunt me as few other memories of mine do. I remember both their names; I hope they’ve forgotten mine.

In the fifth grade, my class included a young boy who seemed ‘different’ from us; he dressed a little oddly, spoke in a slightly different voice. He was, in short, a ‘painted bird.’ His minor dissimilarities, his tiny quirks and idiosyncrasies, were enough to produce an avalanche of ridicule directed at him. I watched all of this with a bemused air; I had suffered from some bullying myself earlier, and I knew I didn’t like it. I sympathized with him, but I did not intervene. Neither did I join in. And yet, watching his watching his trials and tribulations did not make me more sympathetic to him, more eager to come to his aid; instead, it seemed to produce a weakening of my moral fiber. One day, in the schoolyard, as we milled around in the break, the hazing grew worse; my classmates seemed to be taking turns in harassing the kid. And then, finally, I snapped; caught up in the madness, I laughed at him, pushed him around, I joined the gang for a little bit of fun. Fortunately, he ran away, off to a distant corner, seeking relief till the bell announcing the end of the break rang. His expression that day jolted me out of my brief exultation; I knew what I had seen, and I knew it was not a feeling I would ever want to be subjected to. I never harassed him again; at year’s end, I changed school and never saw him again either.

In the ninth grade, shortly after I had begun what would turn out to be a two-year stay at a boarding school, I found another ‘victim’; this time, a youngster who had become the target of choice for those in my dorm. He was a ‘freak,’ a ‘weirdo,’ his pinkie finger, thanks to an old injury, standing upright and provoking peals of hilarity; no one spoke to him, and the few interactions he had with others seemed to be dominated by mockery and ridicule. Again, less honorably, trying to fit in, trying to make new friends, trying to show I belonged here, I joined in; it was how I thought I would show I could hang with the rest. My joining the gang of his tormentors only produced a hurt look or two from this youngster; he had, after all, stayed out of the fray when I had been hazed on my arrival at the boarding school. I was a bully and an ingrate, a thought which soon brought an end to any participation in bullying on my part. I retreated, chastened, alarmed by my failure of kindness.

These transgressions were perhaps minor, but they still serve to induce shame; I was often bullied and assaulted in school; the thought that I could ever have done anything to create a similar atmosphere of terror for another youngster filled me with despondence then, and it still does. Now, as a parent, I await the higher grades for my daughter with some trepidation; she will face challenges considerably more onerous than mine. I can only hope she does not encounter too many folks like mine who lost their bearings along the way.

Kids Say The Darndest Things: Every Child A Prophet

Like many other proud parents,  I post my child’s latest ‘wise pronouncements’ as my Facebook statuses, trusting they will evoke favorable reactions–mainly guffaws, and some flattering assessments of her precocity–from my friends. Kids do, after all, say the darndest things; and if we can soak some up the reflected glory for being responsible for bringing such a delightful child to the attention of this ‘ol world, well then, we are all the better for it.

Why do children’s pronouncements strike us ‘the darndest things’?

Incongruity, of course–the heart and soul of all great humor–has a great deal to do with it. We associate some words and pronouncements with the much older among us; to see them deployed by humans-in-training cannot but fail to evoke some surprised reactions; we associate some kinds of claims and statements and judgments with very particular sorts of social states of affairs, mostly serious; to see them wrenched out of those and deployed elsewhere, perhaps in the midst of an episode of lighthearted playing and rumbling is to encounter the drastically out-of-place; we associate the speech of children with tiny voices, fractured verbs and tenses, and attention to the ‘trivial’; to see it deployed for an arsenal of portentous words and statements, speaking of matters cosmic and spiritual, is to be exposed to radical disjunctures with the ordinary. We realize that the child is–among many, many, other things–an adult in training, trying on words and concepts for size, testing them to see how they work in conversations and social settings. Sometimes those trials take place in unexpected venues with unexpected audiences. We cannot but be surprised and amused.

The child is, always, a new observer of our time and place, and so, it is able to bring a new perspective to bear on what it experiences. These encounters bear the potential to produce poetic responses; we are made to see the world anew by the child. (This claim is an exceedingly common one to be made by parents; non-parents do not have the same response to a child that is not theirs; the binding of the parental relationship with a child seems to make possible the receptivity to this new vision.) The aphorisms that our children produce for us are often original; they often sparkle with the glint of truth that is supposed to be the heart and soul of a great aphoristic claim. We are aware that the resultant poetic claim might be lacking the requisite intention–under some theory of art–to make it a genuinely creative and innovative work of art, but we brush past that pedantic worry and let ourselves succumb to its power in any case.

Most fundamentally, I think, there is hope in our reactions to the child’s nascent wisdom. We are aware of adult follies and wasted potential; we are infected by disillusionment; we sense the possible novelty that lurks in the child, that promises and threatens to make this world over again, to set it, finally, right. We cheer, in welcoming anticipation. Every child a prophet indeed.

Reading Charlie Brown Comics, Contd.

My post yesterday on my relationship with Charlie Brown comics sparked some interesting contestations by Chase Madar and David Auerbach–in the course of a discussion on Facebook. With their permission, I reproduce some of their comments below and follow-up with some brief annotations.

First Madar says:

I’ve had the exact opposite reaction since reading Peanuts from a young age, and still find Schultz’s stuff funny and v consoling in its candid recognition of the cruelties of life and its embrace of a loser as a central, stoic-heroic figure, something all-too-rare in this ultra-Calvinist society that idolizes success, winning and happiness. (Plainly there was a huge appetite for Schultz’s glorification of the noble loser as it was such an enormous hit.)

My initial response–which Madar found ‘terrifying’–was:

Perhaps I was too morose as a child to find consolation in it, too convinced by my own experiences that there was nothing noble about the loser. If I may say so, my darker view of the success of the comic strip is that many of its readers did not identify with Charlie Brown but with his tormentors instead.

And David Auerbach wrote, as he noted his daughter’s liking for Peanuts:

I think there is something to the unfiltered, unironic treatment of childhood angst that really does resonate. She identifies with Linus, as I did: the intellectual spectator who still has a handful of gaping vulnerabilities (emotional dependency on the security blanket, unwarranted cosmic faith in the order provided by the Great Pumpkin).

I think part of what made Charlie Brown bearable was my sense, even then, that the violence done to him by others wasn’t as much the cause of his problems as the mental violence he did to himself. Even his treatment by Lucy seemed to be somewhat unforced: Lucy wasn’t some mastermind architecting his doom, she was just a petty and human bully. On some level Charlie Brown just couldn’t let go of the idea that Lucy could be other than she was. The infamous and brilliant Mr. Sack sequence provided me with some vindication for this view: all it took was the psychological crutch of a paper bag to completely change Charlie Brown’s entire worldview and briefly turn him into an inspirational winner. It’s that sort of tragic character that made Peanuts more cathartic than cruel for me. I still love it.

I found Schulz’s immense sympathy for these characters (even Lucy!) to be tremendously comforting. It was a world where pain happened, where people could be trapped by themselves and by others, but it wasn’t an *evil* world (good things *do* happen, irregularly)…just an unfortunate one. And I think it boosted my determination to break some of my (many) bad cognitive habits and thought-loops…with partial success.

Madar then followed up with:

Snoopy of course is the anti-Charlie Brown, a dynamo of unfrustrated and virtually unrestricted action and becoming: Joe Cool, Sopwith Camel flying ace, man of letters, womanizer (lots of off-panel girlfriends mentioned, even if he does have his heartbreaks, cf the dog with soft paws he fleetingly connected with during a riot at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm), multi-sport athlete. He’s pampered, spoiled, demanding, egocentric, not particularly loyal, almost always nonchalant.

At which point I made note again of my affection for Snoopy, and wrote:

Unsurprisingly, as I noted, Snoopy was my favorite character/aspect in/of Peanuts. I think our relationship to fantasy is underwriting our responses to Peanuts.

Madar and Auerbach’s alternative readings of, and takeaways from, Peanuts reveal a great deal. We bring expectations and frameworks of expectation and readerly backgrounds to our encounters with books; mine generated my interpretation of Charlie Brown. As a child, I read for escape, and occasionally, for enlightenment; I read for diversion. I read Greek and Nordic and Indian mythology in text and animated form; I read war stories; I read tales of adventure and exploration and mystery. These took me away, they transported me from the here and now. I do not doubt that Madar and Auerbach also read for escapist reasons; but clearly that orientation toward reading did not prevent them from generating their own idiosyncratic perspectives on Peanuts; these backgrounds of ours are not totally determinative of our reading experiences; we find what we might be looking for, or are attuned to look for.

Snoopy worked for me; he flew, he soared, he was oblivious to the humans around him, as I often wished I could be to those around me. He could make things happen just by dreaming about them. (As Auerbach noted, “He’s just the most skilled at using fantasy to escape the harsh patterns around him. Of course this would make him clinically insane by real-world standards.”) Snoopy’s behavior seemed ‘childish’ in some normative sense–where the norms are drawn from our imagining what children are like in our fantasies. The descriptive was very different; there, children are very often monsters. To others, and to themselves.

So I wanted nothing to do with children’s encounters in my reading; I had had enough of them every day in my waking hours. (Had Charlie Brown been presented to me in text or non-cartoon form, I would not have read more than a few pages.) They were zones of bullying, of mockery, of ridicule, of schoolyard rumbles and squabbles; sure, there was playtime and escape from parental discipline as well, but all too soon, I found pecking orders and force here too. When I read what would now be called ‘young adult’ literature, I only enjoyed them when reading tales of derring-do; their delving into interpersonal interactions and the petty jealousies and insecurities that sometimes animated their characters left me cold. I had enough of that around me. When I read Charlie Brown and saw the mockery and teasing of the other children, it merely seemed to confirm to me that my worldview was correct;  even then, as I read the comics, I suspected the reason this mockery had found its way into comic books–a source of amusement supposedly–was that people found it funny, a fact I found ample confirmation in the glee children found in others’ misfortunes all the time. Painted birds weren’t brave losers; they were outcasts, shunned, and mocked. Perhaps this was an excessively gloomy view of the world, perhaps I was committing the ‘mental violence’ on myself that Auerbach saw Charlie Brown performing. Perhaps that’s what made Charlie Brown so frightening for me; I saw myself in him.

On Being Traumatized By Charlie Brown Comics

I read many, many Charlie Brown comic books as a child; reading them was a sustained exercise in masochism. I hated them, each and every single page, but I kept on reading, from cover to cover. I would finish one, convinced of the utter, vicious, gratuitous cruelty of the world and its residents, and then, I would go get another one. Sometimes I would take one out on loan from a local library; sometimes I would borrow one from a friend. (Our family’s budget did not permit too many book purchases, but we were enthusiastic patrons of libraries, public and private.) I suspect this was because I could not shake off the dominant notion that comic books were supposed to be entertaining fun, even as my reading experience was providing numerous indicators that these comic books and their characters were anything but. That many of the cartoon strips I read and watched–like the Tom and Jerry series–were often such exercises in violent cruelty was only slowly becoming apparent to me.

The problem, of course, was that the Charlie Brown comics were not remotely escapist; they provided no bulwark of comfort against the outside world. They merely served to provide reminders of the schoolyard and its denizens, of which and whom I had had enough of during my awkwardly spent days. Witnessing the trials and travails of Charlie Brown provided no comfort, no solidarity; instead, I was merely reminded that indeed, the world was just as cruel as I imagined it to be, that even comic books had to bow down, tone down their silly frivolousness, and acknowledge this incontrovertible fact about it. So relentlessly downbeat were the Charlie Brown comics, so relentlessly downcast its central character, that I could not even bring myself to experience any solidarity or empathy with him.  I had had the wind knocked out of me; I was Charlie Brown, lying flat on his back, staring up at the sky, wondering how he could have let himself fall for Lucy’s football trick all over again.

As the reader might have surmised, I have returned to this excavation of my childhood experiences because my daughter has just encountered Peanuts for the first time. Truth be told, I was not sold on the idea of her watching the DVD of A Boy Named Charlie Brown and only agreed with some reluctance to let her do so. Clearly, childhood scars run deep. My only reassurance was that this being a Hollywood production, it would not dare entertain a truly unhappy ending. This intuition was confirmed:

The film was partly based on a series of Peanuts comic strips originally published in newspapers in 1966. That story had a much different ending: Charlie Brown was eliminated in his class spelling bee right away for misspelling the word maze (“M–A–Y–S” while thinking of baseball legend Willie Mays), thus confirming Violet’s prediction that he would make a fool of himself. Charlie Brown then screams at his teacher in frustration, causing him to be sent to the principal’s office.

I am writing this post as my daughter watches the DVD; thus far, she has expressed some dismay at the meanness of Charlie’s friends but also commented on how much she likes Snoopy; I look forward to a full debrief when the movie is over.

 

On Apologizing To Your Child

On Thursday morning, I inexplicably, irrationally, and ultimately, cruelly, lost my temper at my four-year old daughter; I wanted her to do X; she did not; I thought my request was reasonable; she didn’t think it was; and then, when on my demanding reasons for her decision and denial of my request, she could not comply, I snapped. I stormed off, fuming; she was left in tears. Even as I did so, I knew I had fucked up, and spectacularly. And yet, perversely, my irritation and frustration–which was really what my anger amounted to–continued to cloud my mind for a minute or two. As those feelings receded, I walked back into my daughter’s bedroom, picked her up, gave her a hug, and asked her if she was hungry and wanted breakfast. She perked up, and said she did. A second or so later, as I carried her into the kitchen, she said she was ‘sorry’; I said I was too; and we hugged again. A minute or so later, she was smiling and happy. (Her mood improved even more when I told her I would get her a ‘pizza treat’ later that evening.) An hour later, she had left for preschool, and I headed to midtown Manhattan to get some work done at the CUNY Graduate Center library.

But all was not well; I was beset with a series of nagging thoughts all day. My daughter hadn’t done anything wrong; she had said ‘sorry’ because she knew a parent was angry at her, and that’s what you do when your parental figure is upset with you. I had been in the wrong all along; once my initial request had been denied, I should have backed off. Instead–like a petulant child–I had insisted, and then later, browbeaten her with a series of badgering demands for clarification of her reasons, all the while intimidating her with my tone of voice and body language. My daughter had never needed to apologize; she should have demanded one from me. I was the offender here; my perfunctory apology and ‘make-up’ in the morning was not enough.

That evening, I picked her up from pre-school, bought some pizza, and we returned home to eat and watch–as promised–a couple of short videos on lions and tigers in the wild. As we ate, I offered a more elaborate apology: I said I should have listened to her and respected her wishes, that she had been right, and I had been wrong. She listened rather solemnly–or about as solemnly as four-year olds can–and on my asking if she understood what I was trying to say, nodded her head. We then went back to watching big cats do what they do best.

I knew there would be times when I would have to apologize to my child; error-free parenting is impossible. I’ve done so before, but I don’t think I’ve ever quite made my admission of wrong-doing quite as explicit as it was on this occasion. Truth be told, it was a curiously uplifting experience.

Letting Your Childhood Make Your Parenting Easier

To be a good parent, think like a child. Well, that was deep. Let me see if I can unpack that. First, think like the child you were, or imagine and remember yourself as being; in any case, this is the best you can do. Now, think about what your perception of your  parents was like in that time of your life–again, as best as you can remember it. Take as long as you like. (Some of us might need extended therapy sessions to induce such self-knowledge.) Got that? Good. Now, open your eyes, and look around at your parenting world: are you now open to the possibility your child might be perceiving the world–and your place within it–the way you  used to? And if that is the case, do you have any reason to imagine your child needs the  parenting you think it does?

I make these suggestions to reduce some of the parental anxiety that comes from a peculiar sort of overburdening of the child: ascribing to him or her fears, anxieties, needs, beliefs, that exist largely within parental fancies and imaginings.  The best antidote to such anxieties is the thought experiment I describe above. (Standard caveats about neurotic responses to my suggestions apply; neuroses will construct parental memories as feverishly anxious as they need to be in order to sustain present parenting patterns.)

I am drawn to make such claims because–as might be imagined, I revisited an episode of parental anxiety, and was able to mitigate it somewhat by casting my mind back as I described above. When I’m alone at home with my daughter, I often fret about whether she is sufficiently occupied, whether she can be alone by herself while I attend to something else that needs my time. Because I often suffered from loneliness in my teen years (and sometimes even later), my usually melancholic disposition drew me to project these same feelings onto my daughter, causing me untold worry if I were to ever consider stepping away from her; I would imagine her lost and bewildered, wondering what to do, floundering about helplessly in her isolation. But when I thought back to what my reactions were as a toddler when left to my devices by my parents–as far as such memories can be trusted–I realized I had been rather comfortable in those circumstances: I had daydreamed, played with my limited collection of toys, browsed through picture books, or just investigated perfectly ordinary physical objects in my surroundings. Interestingly enough, those times had been rather enjoyable; I wasn’t constantly having instructions pertaining to ‘reality’ thrust in my face, and could just play with the elements of the various fantastic worlds I inhabited. When I see how my daughter occupies herself when she is ‘left alone,’ I sense some of these diversions–or activities like them–occupy considerable time and space for her as well.  If that’s the case, she’ll be perfectly fine while I step away; in fact, she might even welcome it. (As interestingly enough, she has reassured me on occasion when I check in her to find out if it’s OK for me to ‘do my thing.’)

There are many ways in which our childhood is a burden for our parenting; there are others by which it can relieve some of its cares.

On Hoping For The Miracle Of Precocity

A few days ago, I met some neighbors, out for a walk with their son (who was riding in a stroller.) As we chatted, they turned to their son and asked him a question or two. Answers were not forthcoming. They pressed on, but there was no response. These questions were innocent ones: “What number is that?” or “Where do we live?”  A few seconds later, the young lad’s parents laughed a little nervously and said ‘Well, I guess you’re being a bit shy today, aren’t you?” We all laughed and bade each other goodbye.

Plenty seemed to lurk beneath the surface of that seemingly innocent encounter. As the young lad was prompted by his parents, I tensed, hoping for his parents’ sake that he would respond, eliciting approving chuckles from me and beaming smiles from his parents; I would then be able to able to congratulate him–and his parents–on his precociousness (and their role in nurturing it), his grasp of concepts vital for his continuing maturing as a human; they could bask in his reflected glory. But it was not to be, and the resultant disappointment was almost palpable in all of us.

It is entirely possible I was projecting my own worries and insecurities on my friends. I will confess to worrying–almost incessantly, like many other parents about me–about whether my child is keeping up with the appropriate developmental landmarks in the cognitive and physical domains (and sometimes the moral too.) In this context, the slightest suggestion of precociousness is seized upon as manna from heaven and shown off proudly. The failure of the child to ‘perform on demand’ like a well-trained seal is then cause for considerable disappointment. The benign type remains internalized in the parent; the malign type is directed at the child.

Matters are considerably worse if one lives, as I do, in a place like Brooklyn, Ground Zero for The Overachieving Child and The Overly Anxious Parent. Here, prodigies abound, reared by parents of seemingly unlimited intelligence, achievement, and ambition. They’ve read all the right parenting books; they know where all the city’s best offerings for children are; they seem to know how best to place their child on the Fast Track. You can recite as many mantras about accepting your child for ‘who he or she is’ but those nostrums fight hard to make an appearance when confronted with the worry that your child has to ‘compete’ with sundry geniuses and their superbly switched-on parents. You remain well aware that ‘good schools’ are hard to get into; that the world that awaits your child is not increasing in tolerance or kindness for outliers. Try as you might to take on board the various bits of parental comfort food that are sent your way by those who’ve been lucky enough to see their children flower and blossom into something approximating their parents’ hoped-for vision, the daily reality of dealing with the irregular ‘progress’ of your child continues to provide a steady IV line of incurable anxiety.

And much like the believers of old, we continue to hope for miracles, for displays of the spark of precocity that will reassure us all is well, that we are saved.