On Encountering Resistance And Lovin’ It

This morning my four-year old daughter marched into our living room, and clutching a ‘storybook’–a collection of tales based on Disney’s Frozensaid, “Papa, this is my favorite storybook. I like it a lot. I know you don’t like it, because I know you don’t like princesses.” Having made this announcement, she walked over to the couch, sat down, and thumbing through its pages, began ‘reading’ aloud to herself. (My daughter cannot as yet read, but she likes to make up her own versions of the stories she has had read to her; needless to say, some rather interesting plot twists result in her recountings.)

I listened to her announcement and watched her ‘read’ with some pride.

She was right in surmising that I ‘don’t like princesses.’ I’ve often said uncomplimentary things about ‘princesses’ in front of my daughter: they dress up too much; their clothes won’t allow them to play in the playground, or go climbing or hiking; they seem to spend too much worrying about what they look like. When we see a video of a sportswoman or a female performing artists, I make sure to point out that the athlete looks nothing like a ‘princess’; princesses don’t play guitars or the drums; and so on. You know, the usual things a parent concerned about the relentless ideological assault of the pink princess advertising machine–the toys, the T-shirts, the make-up kits, the stories of being rescued by princes, the unrealistic body images of skinny, blond, white girls–would do. My daughter has clearly been listening and watching; she knows her father doesn’t ‘like princesses.’

But she does like the adventures of Anna and Elsa, and all the excitement, magic, monsters, and animals that seems to enter their lives. (I’ve still not seen Frozen and I don’t think I ever will but I’ve read out a couple of the stories from that book to her so I have some idea of what entertains my daughter.)

But over and above the fact that my daughter is capable of spending time by herself with a book, what about her remark made me regard it with some pride? Well, she does seem to have established some crucial distance between what I want and what she wants for herself; she doesn’t seem to be entirely reliant on seeking my approval–she did not, after all, walk up to me and plaintively ask me for permission to read her book. Rather, she acknowledged a disagreement between the two of us, and then went ahead and did what she wanted. (I would like to think she regards Anna and Elsa’s adventures as showcasing activities that the princesses I don’t ‘like’ don’t seem to engage in–those two get up to considerably more action than the typical princess–and so, in some ways, even her liking the tales in Frozen reflected my interactions with her.) I’ve often told my daughter that she should ‘do what she wants’ and not ‘worry about what other people say.’ Today, she did just that, and what’s better, she didn’t care about what someone in a position of authority had to say about what she liked and wanted to do.

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.

Parental Anxiety And Its True Subject

In ‘What The Childless Fathers of Existentialism Teach Real DadsJohn Kaag and Clancy Martin write:

Why do we put limits on our children? Why is a daughter not allowed to climb that tree or jump across a river?…Why are neither daughters nor sons allowed to run away? Father knows best….virtually all fathers think that they are operating in their child’s best interests, but we have been at this long enough to know, if we are honest or authentic, that most of us protect our children, at least in part, because we are avoiding or coming to grips with our own Kierkegaardian anxiety. The more we argue that it is about the kids’ safety, the more obvious it is that it is all about us. [link added.]

Kaag and Martin’s insight here is available to most parents by the briefest of introspections: examine your feelings as your child comes to harm, or even approaches it; pay close attention; what you are averse to is that terror you experienced when you first let the full range of possibilities that awaited your child fully sink in. ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ we say, but sotto voce, we continue, ‘Because I don’t ever want to feel like that again.’

Interestingly enough, I had an inkling of this aspect of parenthood as a child, when I witnessed my mother’s reaction to my brother after he had injured himself at the playground:

My mother’s face blanched as she saw my brother’s face. But she said nothing as she raced to the medicine cabinet and returning with cotton wool swabs, a mug of water, and some antiseptic solution, quickly got to work. She efficiently cleaned and wiped and medicated. And then, one of her swipes revealed that the blood on the face did not conceal a gouged out eye. My brother had not been blinded; he had gotten away with a cut above the eye.

At this point, my mother slapped my brother. It wasn’t a hard blow; but a stinger across the cheek, nonetheless. My brother, quietly undergoing the patchwork till then, stared back at my mother, astonished and hurt….Watching this little drama go down, I wasn’t puzzled at all. My mother must have been petrified when I had brought my brother home late, a bloody mess. She loved us, powerfully, a love that often racked her with deep fears that we might ever be hurt in any way. But she had suppressed every other reaction of hers in favor of immediately providing succor to him. With the most immediate wounds cleaned and shown to be non-threatening, her relief had combined with the anger she had felt at my brother for subjecting her to that terrible anxiety.  That slap followed. I felt sorry for my brother but I felt for my mother too. I knew why she had snapped. And slapped.

Perhaps I’m overstating the knowledge I possessed at the moment, but not by too much. I was about seven or so years old and I had had ample opportunity to study my mother’s  interactions with us. Her anxiety about us was transparent in action and word; as mine about my daughter is to me now.

Rediscovering Songs With Children: The Case Of White Rabbit

We like some songs more than others; we play them more often than we do others, wearing out vinyl, styluses, and cassette tapes till we hit the digital. Some songs grow stale; we find them overly familiar; but every once in a while, we return to them, and discover them anew. Sometimes it is because we hear an old favorite under the influence of psychotropic substances; sometimes in a new setting and place–perhaps while making love to a new flame, driving through new lands, talking to a stranger in a strange land, or hearing it piped through the awesome machinery of a magnificent audio system, which suddenly renders clear notes and melodies and lyrics you had never heard before.

My personal roster of rediscoveries must now include the renewed exploration of favorites with my four-year old daughter. And among these, pride of place must go to Jefferson Airplane‘s White Rabbit (a song written by Grace Slick); I first heard the song as an undergraduate, not bothering to pay attention to anything other than the song’s psychedelic feel; it prompted endless replays of a beat-up tape. Later, once I had discovered pot, White Rabbit was rediscovered anew; years on, once I had paid more attention to the lyrics, and also partaken of psychedelics myself, White Rabbit took on another new dimension. The years rolled on, White Rabbit became consigned to the past. I did not disdain the song; I did not ‘grow out of it’; but I did not seek it out either.

And then, my daughter was born. And earlier this year, on my birthday, my wife and I introduced her to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at Brooklyn’s Puppet Works. During the show, many adults in the audience, including me, giggled at the references to mushrooms, growing tall, strange visions, and indeed, the very idea of being transported to strange lands where all is topsy-turvy, and old verities are no longer so. My daughter was delighted with the tale; she quoted from it endlessly; and she was very enamored of the movie versions we subsequently exposed her to.

And so last week, as I sat down again with my daughter to listen to some music with her–in the form of a few music videos–I decided I would play White Rabbit for her. I found a version of Jefferson Airplane’s live performance of White Rabbit at Woodstock in which  the lyrics flash up on the screen and make singing along easier; which is what I did, loudly, bringing forth the most amazing expressions imaginable from my daughter–she loved the lyrics’ evocation of the characters and oddities of the land she had traveled to. I played the song twice and tried to get her to sing along the second time, and she did try, for after all, her favorite, Alice, was featuring in a wholly new kind of song:

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Call Alice
When she was just small

When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she’ll know

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head

Before I became a parent, I’d been told I would see the world anew through the eyes of my child; ’tis true, but you also hear it differently. I’m not going to be able to listen to White Rabbit now without thinking of my daughter–and Alice.

A Bedtime Story About ‘Immigration And Separation’

Last week, as is our custom at home, I read to my daughter before I put her to bed. (We pick a mix of ‘long stories’ and ‘short stories’ and settle on a number beforehand, one which has to be conformed to by a ‘promise.’) On this particular night, the ‘long story’ was Edwidge Danticat‘s Mama’s Nightingale; I did not know what the book’s contents were and only picked it up because, well, the author was Edwidge Danticat. That’s not entirely accurate: the subtitle did say A Story of Immigration and Separation but I presumed it was about an immigrant child feeling homesick for the home she has left behind. Perhaps, subconsciously, I had hoped to be able to tell my daughter about my migration to the US, my occasional nostalgia for an older ‘home.’

The opening passages of Danticat’s story soon dispelled these hopes:

When Mama goes away, what I miss most is the sound of her voice….For the last three months, Mama has been at Sunshine Correctional, a prison for women without papers….Every night after he makes dinner for us and helps me with my homework, Papa sits at the kitchen table and writes letters to the judges who send people without papers to jail. He also writes to our mayor and congresswoman and all the newspapers and television reporters he’s heard of. No one ever writes him back.

I’ll admit to hesitating when I read the bit about an imprisoned mother; I was reading to a not-quite-four-year-old after all. But I pressed on. My daughter’s curiosity about why this girl had been separated from her mother was not easily satisfied; I did the best I could to explain the surrounding context.

Danticat’s story is ultimately one with a happy ending–a family reunification–in which the young girl who is the subject of the story plays an empowered and leading role. I read–with some relish–those parts of the book in which the young daughter of the imprisoned mother is able to intervene in her mother’s case; there was ample opportunity here for my daughter to find behavior and attitudes worth emulating.

My story reading over, I noticed the book carried a postscript by Danticat, which I read aloud as well. In it, Danticat notes that she is the child of parents who migrated to the US before she could, that she was unable to join them because they were ‘without papers,’ a notion which fascinated her then and resulted in her writing this current story. And then at the end, there was a straightforward recitation of some grim numbers, an accounting of the tens of thousands of who have been ‘returned’ or ‘removed’ from the US–thus splitting many, many families asunder–by the Obama administration.

I have heard of, and read, those statistics many times; they have featured in many political debates I have participated in. But my relationship to them, despite being an immigrant myself, has always been a rather peripheral one. Not on that night, not with my daughter sitting on my lap. As I tried to finish reading Danticat’s postscript, my daughter looked at me in some surprise: my voice had caught in my throat, and I was unable to continue reading aloud. I tucked her in just a little more affectionately that night.

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.