Guest Post on the Anxiety of Parenting


[This was originally written as a letter of advice to friends, but it occurs to me that someone else might benefit. If you don’t like what I’m saying here, ignore it and move on--there’s nothing less edifying and pointless than people debating parenting.]

Rather than being very long-winded and monopolize your time in conversation (well, we can always do that too!) I thought I’d just sketch out some random thoughts as the two of you begin on this great adventure.

One thing I definitely have to get out of the way here is that, yes, my kid did commit suicide. We know this. This could either color things as “here are the horrible mistakes to avoid” or, perhaps, why should we listen to anything he says? What could constitute a more disastrous failure? And rather than just ignore that elephant, I should say: despite all kinds of understandable irrational guilt, I don’t really think my son’s death says much of anything about me as a parent. Lots of teenagers flirt with the idea and even make half-hearted attempts, and I’m inclined to think the success of his attempt was a fluke and thus the whole thing was something of an accident, like being hit by a car. He had issues, but I think they had more to do with other factors.

After getting off to such a cheery start... I do think that I made some mistakes, and that they are very very common mistakes. I don’t know if they are entirely avoidable through prior awareness or not. Also, some people will say that what I’m considering mistakes now were never mistakes at all. I guess the short version is: take anything I say with a grain of salt, which I don’t really need to say because you would anyway. As they say, your mileage may vary. Most of what follows won’t be relevant, if ever, until much later.

I guess the first thing I would say, one of the more superficial things, is this: people attracted to libertarianism often have issues with authority, and rightly so. So much of adult life involves people wrongly treating each other like parents or children, with unfortunate political, and not just political, results, that it is tempting to overgeneralize and conclude that because adults ought not to model their relations on parent-child relations, that therefore parents and children shouldn’t either. From this, some people get the idea that it’s important to never approach a child as an authority figure, to always treat them with respect as if they were little adults, to always offer reasons for everything you do, to (to whatever degree possible) not coerce them in any way.

Gradually over time I became convinced that this was a mistake, and a mistake that has roots in a deeper mistake (the “I’m going to fix my childhood by doing what should have been done to me to someone else, my child”--more on that below probably). I don’t know if one can generalize--children may have different temperaments which make different things work for different children. But in the case of my oldest, explaining why things had to be a certain way by using reasons created a tendency towards sophistry and a lack of self-discipline. He didn’t just take the reasoning on-board the way an adult would, but rather took it as a sign of weakness that could be pushed back against, a sign that you could talk your way out of things.

In short, it didn’t work. And the tendency to want to try to make it work was rooted in my own false belief that exercising authority, setting limits without argument or consent, etc. was necessarily arbitrary and hostile just because my parents (my father) had been. But firm, fair and consistent isn’t tyranny, isn’t necessarily destructive. The more confident you are with your own authority, the more your limit-setting can be cheerful, without anger, consistent, etc. I suspect, though I’m not sure, that when a parent does not seem to really exercise authority, this creates a certain anxiety in the child, that you aren’t really taking responsibility either, can’t be relied on. Part of being an adult means “we’re on our own.” But to send the message to the child that the child is on their own is a kind of abandonment in a way.

Anyway, this is the part of my experience that I think will strike people as most controversial, and so take it with a grain of salt. Because I was afraid of doing anything negative, I often avoided doing things that were positive, and providing structure suffered as a result. Short version: you’re in charge! That’s OK! If you’re fair in the exercise of your authority, they won’t blame you for it later. I always think of this in connection with this wonderful moment in Talladega Nights (great Will Ferrell comedy) where the two kids, who are hilariously awful (one of them is screaming “Anarchy! Anarchy! I don’t know what that means but I love it!”) come up against Granny when she says “I am declaring Granny Law.” Something about her tone when she says that seems perfect to me, not angry, just clear and firm. So: declare Granny Law.

The second thing, or maybe second and third things: to the extent that we are dissatisfied with how we are raised, we harbor an unconscious fantasy of correcting our childhoods by being better parents than our parents were. But there’s something subtly wrong with this fantasy, because it depends on the idea that your child is really you in disguise. If they are, then you are unconsciously trying to raise the child to achieve results for yourself that have nothing to do with the child qua real and separate person. Initially this can motivate you to be wonderful, being the mother or father you never had, but the whole drama falls apart if the child does not assume his or her role of being you. Eventually this can lead to a kind of resentment that leads to anger and conflict. If the child does things that undermine your efforts to fix your own past, you can get angry with them for not cooperating.

By contrast, if you are not trying to fix your own past, what they do or do not do can be interpreted in light of what’s best for them. It’s difficult to explain this without drawing on the terms “selfishness” and “selflessness” in a way that won’t go down well with Rand fans, but the problem here is not selfishness, it’s narcissism. If you over-identify with the child, it can make you extremely solicitous of their welfare, which at first seems good, but when they get older and start to define their own identities, their individuation can seem like a betrayal because they are refusing to play their own role in your own drama, the role of you made young again.

This thought occurred to me this morning, and it will sound really really weird! But ideally you should treat a child the way you treat a pet... but a pet who is gradually transforming into a human being. We care for our pets, but we don’t identify with them, we do not look to them for validation, we never say “after all I’ve done for you, you turn on me now?” In fact, sporadic irritability aside, no one is more patient than a pet owner who just got bitten or scratched by a pet... because it doesn’t mean anything other than what it is. It is, in a sense, easy to care for pets because we can’t identify with them fully, can’t look to them for validation, etc. And when all those things are taken off the table, you can just do what is best for the pet, which is what you’re supposed to do with them... and then take pleasure in watching them thrive and grow.

This is all related to another thought, or perhaps it is a version of the same thought: parenting is not a contest. No one is keeping score. It’s not a performance in the eyes of someone else. There is some tendency to drift into a kind of second-handedness in parenting. But if you’re trying too hard to be a good parent because on some level you feel like you are being judged, it can get in the way precisely of being a good parent. Again, it’s tempting to talk about selfishness and unselfishness here, which is not quite what I’m getting at. Parenting is, ultimately, not about you. It’s about the child. It is the activity of helping someone become a human being in their own right. This is related to the fantasy of correcting one’s own childhood: if parenting were about correcting your own childhood, then it’s about you, not about the child. Seeing it as the task at hand, rather than proving something to yourself about yourself actually makes you do it better... and then later you can pat yourself on the back for being awesome. There’s something about trying to be awesome which undermines itself here.

There’s a thing that happens to a lot of people, and which doesn’t happen to some people, and which the culture does not like to talk about: many people experience an emotion in relation to their child that is just like “falling in love” with a romantic partner. This is absolutely normal... but the complete absence of it is absolutely normal too. Don’t stress about it either way. The being-a-parent thing is going to be happening in any case.

This is something of conventional wisdom, but it’s really very true and tremendously important: the best thing you can do for a child as a parent is to live well yourself. All the time you are around them, you are modeling behavior, and they assimilate far more from example than from instruction. If you take good care of yourself, they will imitate that, and do well as a result. A big part of this is, do not for a minute think that, now the child is more important than your spouse. Having a great relationship with your spouse is one of the greatest gifts you can give, because the child will model their own relationships on that. Also, it is tremendously reassuring to a child to know that they are in an environment suffused with love. It doesn’t all have to be directed at them. They benefit enormously from seeing love in action, from seeing happy parents. So if there is any temptation to think, now my relationship must take second seat to this child rearing stuff, except in the most trivial and obvious senses, resist that. The child loves the fact that you love each other, learns to love from that, and feels infinitely safer knowing that.

- R. Kevin Hill*

*Kevin is a friend and a philosophy professor down in Portland. He writes books about Nietzsche (rather good ones in my estimation).