‘Don’t Be Like Me’: A Parent’s Plea

Parents want their children to be like them; parents want their children to be better than them; and parents do not want their children to be like them.

Despite Hobbes‘ shrewd remark that most humans are content with their congenital endowments of intelligence and talent, we are often quite aware of our shortcomings, intellectual and psychological alike. (Our physical falling-short is quite brutally drilled into us from an early age onwards.) These infirmities afflict many ventures of ours and often leave us feeling ill-equipped to take on the particular vagaries and challenges of this world: “I am too diffident; I am not assertive enough; I do not speak up enough; I am too shy; I am too rude; I am not a good listener; I am too quick to back down.” And on and on. Some of these self-assessments are too flagellatory; some represent a hard-earned insight gained after long bouts of introspection, sometimes guided, sometimes independent.

Be that as it may, these self-assessments may afflict us with some alarm when we consider our offspring’s prospects in his or her life. We are happy and grateful that our genetic endowment of reasonably good health has been conveyed to our child, but we fret about whether her psychological inheritance might not be too much of a burden. How much, really, do we want our child to be like us when we consider our particular characters and dispositions to have burdened us considerably on our journeys? Don’t we, after all, wish we were constituted differently so that we could be stronger, more resilient, more temperamentally capable? What a terrible misfortune it would be for our child were it to be similarly afflicted.

I often accompany my little daughter to local playgrounds and neighborhood playdates. I watch her interact with other children her age; I watch her enter into bouts of contestation, partnership, sharing, dispute, argument, and reconciliation; I see her assert herself, back down, flee, hold her ground, get shoved aside. Sometimes she is hesitant, sometimes shy; sometimes she makes clear she prefers the company of her parents; sometimes she is bewildered by the little people with whom she is supposed to interact and make ‘friends.’

And as I watch her, I often catch myself wishing that she will ‘not be like me.’ I did not consider my ride through the gauntlet of childhood a smooth one; I often wished I had been equipped differently for, had responded differently to, its many challenges and reckonings. (And as I have noted, I have no desire to ‘do it over.’) I wish my child no part of the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, which so often colored my interactions with other children and which surely played a substantial role in the construction of the world view with which I am equipped today. I want my child to experience a world different and ‘better’ from the one I did; I sense the first step in the construction of that contrast is for her to not be like me. I know she won’t, but I want those differences to be the ‘right’ ones.

A Persistent Reminder Of A Hardened Heart

A few weeks ago, as I approached the entrance to the subway station I use on my way back home after a trip to the gym, I noticed a familiar figure standing by its stairs: a man of indeterminate age who stands at the top step, next to the door for a deli, asking for change from subway passengers and deli customers (his location is strategic and well thought out.) His normal tone of request is never aggressive; just a little plaintive with just the trace of a wheedle. And he is persistent, repeating the same plaint: his down- and-out-ness, his desperate need for the smallest bit–a penny, a dime, a quarter–that anyone can spare to move him along just a bit toward the desired goal of a full stomach.

On this day, his tone was significantly different. He had shifted into a more insistently repetitive tone: his vocal delivery of his plea had become a monotone, delivered once, and then followed up, immediately, with a precise copy on its heels: “Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have; Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have.” And on, and on. Whereas previously, he had only directed this plea to emerging or entering passengers and held his peace otherwise, now it seemed a tripwire had been hit, and he had been catapulted into a new state of being. He now sounded jarring and harsh, and the persistent repetition of his lament was now more invasive. It made me move quicker–past him, down the steps, and into the station. Anything to get away from that  Chinese water torture–it was like having a cup with a few coins rattled, again and again, in my face, under my nose, their jingling threatening to unravel me, bit by bit, thread by thread.

As I walked on, I remembered I had never, ever, given that man any of my spare change. I have, over the years, become impervious to the many beseechments that are sent my way in this great city: from those who lie on sidewalks, a cardboard sign detailing the precise state of their misfortunes, economic, personal, or medical; from those who walk into my subway car, announcing the loss of a job or home, the parlous state of their family and children, their hunger, their desperate desire to convince us that the money given out as alms will not be spent on alcohol or drugs. I have, more often than not, simply looked a little closer at the book I have been reading, and turned away. Perhaps I fear charlatans; perhaps I have become numb; perhaps I think my efforts at ‘helping’ are better directed elsewhere.

Now, I had fled from a scene of escalated desperation; I had turned away, again, unable to respond adequately to this nagging reminder of how, in this city with its fortunes and misfortunes, with its too-big-to-process tragedies and comedies, I had let my heart harden just a little.

The ‘Trivial’ Roots Of Resentment

Some three decades ago, I went to buy tickets for a major sports event. I was a teenager, eager to see top-class athletes in action; I woke early, caught a bus to the ticket box-office and joined the long queues that had already formed by the time I arrived. The lines grew and grew; tickets were sold slowly and inefficiently; the pushing and shoving began. There were policemen in charge of this mass of disorderly humanity; they decided to restore order by a series of pushes and shoves of their own.

I complied with orders: I moved, keeping my position in the queue. But clearly, I had not moved quickly enough. Suddenly, I received a hard blow to the back of my head. Stunned, my head spinning, I looked around to see what had happened. A policeman stood there, glaring at me, “What are you looking at! Move!” (This translated version sounds considerably milder than the original.) He was bigger than me; he carried a hefty baton that I knew could easily crack my skull open.

I moved.

I hadn’t done anything wrong as far as I could tell; I had complied with instructions; I had been in the wrong time and in the wrong place, in the firing line for an officer of the law, one easily inclined to descend to violence when things didn’t go right, when his easily exhausted patience ran out.  In the space of a few seconds, I had been physically chastised and humiliated; I had been put in my place; I had been reminded I had very little power when it came to confronting these guardians of the peace.

So I smarted and glowered and fumed. For days and weeks and afterwards, every policeman I saw reminded me of that day when I had been abruptly slapped upside the head and told to get my ass in gear. Later, in my university days, I heard a story of how a policeman had made the mistake of harassing two young men–out for a late night smoke and a stroll–who had decided to fight back. He didn’t have backup, and he had thought he could simply bully them the way he usually bullied his usual victims: the homeless, the initerant poor, the cabdrivers on a night-shift. They had grabbed his baton, thrown it away, and then delivered a series of quick blows to his head before running away into the night. When I heard this tale, I grinned and snickered. “Fuck that motherfucker. Serves him right. That’ll teach him a fucking lesson. He’ll think twice before he messes with some kids again.”

I was not a juvenile delinquent. I was not someone was repeatedly accosted by the police (though I had several more edgy encounters with them in my university days, all of them reminders of their ability to swiftly, crudely, bring blunt power to bear.) So I often wonder: if I could, thanks to one violent and disempowering encounter with the police, a humiliating and reductive one, develop such a chip on my shoulder, just how angry and resentful would someone get if such interactions were a daily or weekly occurrence?

I know, I know. I should have moved on. I should have brushed off that chip. I should have matured. But I wasn’t old enough to know better.  And again, I know, that the cop who got beaten by those youngsters probably cracked down a little harder the next time he saw a couple of ‘punks’, and made sure he took some buddies with him to crack heads.

But pushing folks around, rendering them weak and vulnerable, reminding their of their helplessness in the face of those who enjoy a monopoly on coercion and the exercise of state power remains a deadly recipe for the generation of resentment and anger.

Physical and Psychological Affordance

According to Wikipedia, ‘an affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling.’ (A photograph of a tea set in the Wikipedia entry bears the caption, ‘The handles on this tea set provide an obvious affordance for holding.’) Later we learn that James J. Gibson introduced ‘affordance’ in his 1977 article “The Theory of Affordances”he ‘defined affordances as all “action possibilities” latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual’s ability to recognize them, but always in relation to the actor and therefore dependent on their capabilities.’

I do not now remember where I first encountered the term–perhaps in my readings of embodied cognition literature  in graduate school, probably. It has always struck me as a marvelously evocative term, and one of those that almost immediately serves to illuminate the world in a different light. We are physical beings, minds and bodies united, caught up in a tightly coupled system of world and agent; the world provides us affordances for our particular modes of interactions with it; we modify the world, modifying its affordances and change in response; and so on. The dynamic, mutually determining nature of this interaction stood clarified. Thinking of the world as equipped with affordances helped me envision the evolutionary filtration of the environment better; those creatures with traits suitable for the environment’s affordances were evolutionary successful. Knobs and cords can only be twisted and pulled by those suitably equipped–mentally and physically–for doing so.  Babies learn to walk in an environment that provides them the means for doing so–level, firm surfaces–and not others. An affordance rich environment for walking, perhaps equipped with handles for grasping or helpful parents reaching out to provide support, facilitates the learning of walking. And so on.

But ‘affordance’ need not be restricted to understanding in purely physical terms. We can think of the world of psychological actors as providing psychological affordances too. An agent with a particular psychological makeup is plausibly understood as providing for certain modes of interaction with it: a hostile youngster, bristling with resentment and suspicion of authority restricts the space of possibilities for other agents to interact with him; the affordances he provides are minimal; others are more capacious in the affordances they provide. A psychological agent’s life can be viewed as a movement through a space of affordances; his trajectories through it are determined by his impingement on others and vice-versa; he finds his responses modified by those that the space allows or affords. As parents find out when they raise a child, theories of learning and rearing only go so far; the particular make-up of the pupil feed back to the parent and can modify the rearing strategy; the child has provided only some affordances that work with the child-rearing theory of choice. An inmate in jail is stuck in a very particular domain of psychological affordances; he will find his reactions modified accordingly.

Thinking of our exchanges with the world and other human beings in this light helps illuminate our dependence  and influence on them quite clearly; we are not solitary trailblazers; rather at every step, we are pressed on, and push back. What emerges at every point and at the end bears the impress of these rich relationships with our environment, both physical and psychological.