Parenting As Philosophizing

My daughter turned five a little over two weeks ago. Like most ‘new’ parents, my wife and I duly made expressions of surprise at how fast these five years had rolled away: long days, short years, and all the while, a rapidly transforming human being and person to marvel at. My daughter has changed physically and psychologically; her metamorphosis in this half-decade has provided adequate basis for the claim that personal identity is a mystery, a chimera to only be helplessly grasped at; her physical appearance and dress, which still provokes many to ‘misidentify’ her as a boy, speaks eloquently to how we may construct gender through minor changes in external presentation. Her verbal capacities have grown, and so a steady stream of pronouncements that amuse, perplex, delight, and confound us, issue forth on a daily basis; she has elementary reading and writing skills, and is thus pointing in the direction of a whole new world that she will begin to explore this year. There is much here to wonder at, clearly.

She’s not the only one changing though. My daughter has been changing me even as she does. These changes cannot be captured by the usual ‘look at all the gray hair I have now’ proclamations; many of them are merely tiny moments of astonishment at oneself, at coming to face with a capacity or incapacity or cruelty or kindness not hitherto noticed; yet others are quieter, slower transformations into a newer way of understanding my place in this world now that so many of my older priorities, anxieties, and urgencies have been reconfigured. Some are made sharper and more demanding and insistent; yet others have been quietly relegated to obscurity and irrelevance. Some anxieties about unrealized professional ambitions have eased; I have found new objectives in parenting to draw me onwards and upwards. I have stopped cursing the lack of time for reading and writing; I have learned to recognize that I read and write differently–and often, better–now because of the presence of my daughter in my life; this is a blessing not to be discounted. (Needless to say, reading Freud as a parent is a novelty all its own.)

My daughter is, most crucially, making my philosophizing an actual lived activity; in bringing up my daughter, I have had a chance to see philosophical doctrines that I have only theorized about previously spring to life; I understand them anew as a result.  Indeed, the truth of some is only ‘conclusively’ established in the laboratory of parenthood; the child is where all too many philosophical theories come to grief. My many political standpoints are informed by my role as a parent, as are my ethical ones. I find occasion to wonder, all over again, about the central existential issues that drew me to philosophy in the first place, and notice that my deliberations are marked by an acknowledgement of the meaning and value that my daughter has already brought to my life. I see things differently now; I’m a different kind of philosopher, interested in directions and possibilities I had not considered before, possessed of a voice and imagination that seems new to me; I thank my daughter for making me so.

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.

Some Parental Wisdom, Easily Dispensed

I’ve been a parent now for some 1281 days. In that time, I’ve learned a few things and been disabused of many misconceptions. Here is a potted summary:

  1. Parents are important, but they aren’t the only game in town. Your child is being exposed to a great deal else: other children (the dread ‘peer group’); non-family caretakers (daycare workers, school teachers); the sights and sounds of your neighborhood; the rhythms of your household and the relationships it contains. Your child takes all of this in, and her reactions to it all help construct her self and her experience of her life. Do not fall for the bullshit notion that your relationship with your child is the most important of its life or yours; it’s one among many. This can be both frightening and empowering; keep these in balance. If you can.
  2. Your child will always remain a mystery to you; and you, in turn, will remain a mystery to your child. Do not try to know more or possess more; recognize and respect the limits of this relationship. Think iceberg; think how much happens away from view, hidden in inaccessible recesses of body and mind. Deal with this epistemic barrier.
  3. Remember your own childhood; remember that you had a sense of your life that was quite independent of your parent’s conception of it. Remember the distance between your life and your parent’s; that same distance exists now.  Do not try to make your child learn everything about you; do not try to learn everything about your child.
  4. For fathers: mothers have a distinctive relationship with their children. Respect its specialness, its distinctiveness, derived from a very particular physical bond, further cemented in some cases, by extended, intimate, nurturance.  Do not be grasping; do not be envious; do not strive for that relationship. It is what it is; leave it alone. You have your own relationship with your child; find out what about it is peculiar and particular in its own way, and help develop that aspect on an ongoing basis.
  5. Human beings are difficult; relationships with them are challenging and prickly. Your child is a human being; and it is all too easy to imagine you have some special understanding of its needs by virtue of some special talent. You do not; you have to work as hard as anyone else. Recognize that you will often be left floundering for help as you deal with your child, trapped in morasses of your own making, unable to safely navigate treacherous shoals of misunderstanding, resentment, and emotional confusion.
  6. You will always compare your child to other children; no matter how much you are told to accept your child as it is, you won’t. But that’s because you don’t accept yourself for what you are either; so understand that acceptance of your child will become a little easier if you are a little more accepting of yourself. Otherwise you will project your failures onto your child. Don’t go there. Leave your child out of it.

I don’t have a top ten list. Six of the best is good enough for now.

The Most Useful Algebra Lesson Of All

I first encountered algebra in the sixth grade. Numbers disappeared–or at least, were consigned to secondary importance–and letters, mysterious ones like x, y, z, took center stage.  A mathematical expression called the ‘equation’–an incomprehensible sentence underwritten by an esoteric grammar–emerged on my intellectual horizon. (Strictly speaking, my teachers were rigorous enough to call these things ‘linear equations’ but all I could remember was the second word.) The rules for manipulating it, and triumphantly emerging from these machinations with the value of x held high as a trophy for all to see were, as my descriptions above might indicate, utterly incomprehensible to me. I stepped into the water and I immediately floundered, casting about in panic.

Unwilling to seek help outside the confines of my classroom–I did not press my brother, two grades senior to me, or my parents, for assistance with my lessons or my homework, which I was often submitting incomplete and incorrect–I was setting myself up for disaster. The axe fell eventually. In the first of the year’s so-called ‘terminal’ exams–because they were staged at the end of an academic term–I obtained a grand total of sixteen ‘marks’ out of hundred. It was an ‘epic fail,’ long before that term had acquired any currency.

Unfortunately, my fame in this domain of academic achievement did not, and indeed, could not, go unnoticed. My grades were noted on a ‘progress report’ and I was asked to bring it back to school, duly signed by my parents.  When I, hoping to escape the wrath of my father, showed it to my mother, she took one look at my math grade and told me he would sign the report instead. (This transference of responsibilities reflected a traditional division of parental labor when it came to my education; my mother helped me with the ‘humanities,’ my father with the ‘sciences.’)

My ‘interview’ with my father did not go well. He was perplexed by my grade, but even more so by my exam answer-book. I had executed some bizarre, inexplicable mathematical maneuvers, strewing symbols and numbers gaily all over its pages, thus allowing my teacher to grant me a few charity points for visible effort. Most embarrassingly, my father was able to surmise I had cheated, for I could not explain why certain moves had been made by me. (Indeed, I had; I had sent several panicked sideways glances at my neighbor’s answer-book during that fateful exam.) My mother sat close by, watching this interrogation–and my discomfiture–quietly. I could see my father’s visage tautening, his nostrils flaring. A stinging slap that would inflame my cheeks and set my ears ringing was probably headed my way. This was a man who had brooked no incompetence in his subordinates in his days in the air force; he would not stand for this display of stupidity and confusion on my part.

My father finally spoke, “Go get your maths book.” I complied. My father pulled out a notepad and a pen, looked at me, and spoke again, “Algebra is easy if you follow the rules.” I had no idea what those were.

I soon found out. My father explained to me what variables, constants, and coefficients–fractional and whole–were;  he told me I had to “bring all the variables to one side, and all the constants to the other”; I was supposed to “change signs when you change sides”; and so on.  It was not smooth sailing: on one occasion, after I had failed, yet again, to internalize one of my father’s instructions and committed a howler, he, overcome by exasperation, turned to my mother and confessed he would like to throttle me. I quaked and quivered, but he did not make good on that threat. He did though, tell me he would not let me go to sleep till I had mastered the art of solving linear equations.

The night wore on. My mother went to bed. My father and I continued to work through one problem after another. Slowly, algebra became comprehensible; indeed, it made perfect sense, and even began to appear as a little bit of a lark, a sleight of hand, a riddle with a key that could be made to work for you, and not just wizards and magicians. It was entirely plebeian; the masses could partake of its pleasures too.

Finally, my father assigned a set of problems for me to solve and bade me go into the living room to work on them by myself. If I solved them correctly, I could go to bed at last. I got to work; my father began his bedtime ritual of changing clothes and brushing his teeth. A few minutes later, he opened the door of the living room to check on my progress: Was I moving along? I said I was.

Once I thought I was done, I took my work over to my father. For a minute or two, he sat there, looking impassively at my scribbles. Then, he looked up and said, “Good work; go to sleep. You’ve got it.” I complied again.

I never became a mathematician. But I never feared the ‘lazy man’s arithmetic’¹ again.


  1. Legend has it that this is how Einstein’s father explained the heart of algebra to him: ‘you just act as if you know what is.’

Parental Rage And Giving Babies The Bird

Rebecca Schuman–who often pisses off many on the Internet thanks to her writing on modern academia–recently made herself the target of a great deal of vitriol thanks to a post on Slate that featured her giving her sleeping baby the bird. The usual avalanche of abuse, characteristic of Internet furores, spilled forth: threats to report her to Child Protective Services, death threats, and of course, the ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ endearments that are so well-known to women who write online.

For any not-entirely-clueless parent, Schuman was simply articulating–in jest, with a pair of middle fingers–an emotion that is all too familiar: parental rage, one grounded in frustration with our little darlings, our angels, the loves of our lives. It’s not just ‘go the fuck to sleep,’ it’s also ‘will you please eat your fucking food,’ ‘sit still so I can put your fucking clothes on,’ ‘let’s fucking go; you’re fucking making me late for work.’ The number of f-bombs that have detonated in my cranium over the past thirty-two months would easily stock the arsenal of a mid-sized militaristic nation. And sometimes they don’t just go off in my head. (Earlier this morning, after carefully negotiating with my daughter the terms and conditions under which she would agree to eat her breakfast, I found out the contract had been torn up; but there was no one to turn to report this breach; and no way to convince the offending party that she had attacked the very foundations of a liberal society. Seethe, seethe, seethe; then subside.)

Lack of sleep and the mind-numbing catatonia it induces are to blame in part. So is the basic fact of parenting: a long, sustained encounter with a brand new human being, with all his or her personal vagaries, one seemingly put here on this planet to test your patience and fortitude. Schuman was merely expressing one facet of the emotions that surge through a parent who so desperately wants to sleep but is unable to; things will get much worse when that little ‘angelic’ infant will become a toddler with a louder wail, a fine repertoire of tantrums, and a functioning vocabulary with which to get sassy, talk back, and say ‘no’ an infinite number of times.

Quite honestly, I’m unable to understand the anger directed at Schuman. The folks who so raged at her were, at best, sanctimonious prigs; at worst, they were clearly misogynistic. For Schuman’s biggest mistake was to suggest–and this is not news at all–that motherhood or parenting is not an unqualified blessing. Unsurprisingly, it was a conservative woman twitterer who led one portion of the mob; for that demographic, even humor directed at the institution of parenting is sacrilege. And equally unsurprisingly, as will be evident from the nature of the abuse directed at Schuman, there was ample hypocrisy and just plain old incoherence on display.

Schuman will ride this one out; and when it is all over, she should publish a few photos of her baby giving her the finger right back. That’s what they seem to do on all too many occasions.

Bertrand Russell On Toddlers, The ‘Little Devils’

In ‘The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed’ (Unpopular Essays, 1960; Routledge Classics 2009, pp. 60-61), Bertrand Russell writes,

Children, after being limbs of Satan in traditional theology and mystically illuminated angels in the minds of education reformers, have reverted to being little devils–not theological demons inspired by the Evil One, but scientific Freudian abominations inspired by the Unconscious. They are, it must be said, far more wicked than they were in the diatribes of the monks; they display, in modern textbooks, an ingenuity and persistence in sinful imaginings to which in the past there was nothing comparable except St. Anthony.  [link added]

Lord Russell is here inclined to be skeptical of the notion of the ‘innocent monster’ that is suggested to us by the Freudian notion of the child being all Id and nothing but the Id–with no regulation by the Ego or the Super Ego–but I wonder if that was because he had little experience with toddlers, especially two-year olds. (Russell had four children–two sons and two daughters–but I cannot recall if he spent much time rearing them.)

The ‘terrible twos‘ is a modern child-rearing cliché; prospective parents are warned about it–with bloodcurdling tales–by those that have passed through its terrible gauntlet. My wife and I are almost there, for our daughter is almost two, but I’m inclined to think the Terror began a little earlier, around the eighteen-month mark. By then, our daughter had grown, and her increasing physical maturity brought in its wake many interesting embellishments of important behavioral patterns.

Her crying, for instance, became louder and lustier, reaching impressive decibel levels capable of alarming neighbors; she could now strike and scratch out with greater vigor; she could buck and convulse her body with greater force (one such bucking escapade, prompted by her reluctance to be changed out of her night-clothes–or perhaps it was a diaper change–resulted in her headbutting my wife and cutting her lip), and of course, she had learned to say ‘no’ loudly and emphatically (and endlessly) for just about everything (including, of course, that perennially popular target of rejection, life-sustaining and growth-producing food.)

My wife is far more patient and understanding, far more possessed of forbearance, than I. So it is with some wonder and considerable respect that I observe her interactions with my daughter, as she skilfully and gracefully negotiates the temperamental meltdowns that often occur these days. In contrast, all too often, I have to walk away from an encounter with my child, alarmed and apprehensive at the thought that I might be approaching an explosive outer expression of my inner feelings.

I should not overstate the monstrous aspects of my daughter, of course. She continues to amaze and astonish us everyday; she is learning new words all the time; she has learned some habits that I hope will persist into her adult life (like sitting in her play space by herself, ‘reading’ her many books); and in her dealings with other toddlers,  she is, by and large, not an aggressor or ‘snatcher.’

As I noted here a while ago, she will continue to change and acquire new identities; there will be a point in the not-so-distant future when we will look back, with the usual selective nostalgia, at even this often-trying stage of her continuing development.