Talking Philosophy With Kids At The Brooklyn Public Library

This Sunday afternoon at 4PM, I will be participating in a Philosophy for Kids event at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (in the Info Commons Lab); the event is sponsored by the Cultural Services Office of the French Embassy. I’ll be functioning as a kind of Philosophical Advice Columnist taking on, and considering, the following question with an audience made up of six to twelve-year old youngsters):

A friend of mine has a three-year old daughter. Every piece of clothing he buys her is pink and floral. Every toy is a doll or makeup kit. He’s already started joking about how she won’t be allowed to have a boyfriend until she’s 30. This all makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I don’t know whether I’d be crossing a line if I said something. Can I let him know how I feel?

After I posted this announcement on my Facebook page, a friend asked the following question–in what seems a rather irate tone of voice:

The bigger question is why someone should think that they have a right to even think about how someone else is raising their children in the first place, let alone believe that have a right to interfere.

This is a very good question. The straightforward response to it is that because we live in a community, a society, our actions always carry the possibility of bearing on the welfare of others, no matter how self-directed or ‘personal’ they might seem; it is a libertarian and liberal fantasy to imagine that we are isolated islands in the social sea; we are caught up, inextricably, in the lives of others, and they in ours. A family bringing up their child in a sexist or racist environment is raising someone who might very well inculcate those pernicious doctrines and then act on them–to the detriment of someone else’s child. We form political communities directed toward the common good, even as we strive to maximize our individual welfare; the challenge of figuring out how individual freedoms and self-determination can be safeguarded and enhanced while ensuring the rights of others are not infringed on is a central challenge to political and moral philosophy.

To make this discussion a little more personal: I’m the father of a four-year old daughter, and I try my best to bring her up as well as I can to prepare her for the challenges that will undoubtedly confront her in a patriarchal society. My task would be made incomparably easier if the parents of male offspring brought up their children to be sensitive to such considerations as well; it undoubtedly takes a village to raise a child.

This afternoon, I will not pretend the question raised above has a straightforward answer, and will not attempt to provide one to my ‘discussion group’; instead, I will try to draw out some of the central issues involved, perhaps by engaging in some level of abstraction so that the general form of this particular query can be exposed, and the difficulties of answering it can be confronted directly. I’m looking forward to it.

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 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.