In my experience, parenting has offered some of the starkest lessons in how our culture lays out different smorgasbords of possibility to different categories of people, then obsessively observes the pursuit of different “personal choices” as a way of distinguishing “good” people from “bad” ones. Only a year in, I believe in the concept of “personal values” less than ever. I see collective values, generated and maintained socially, culturally, and politically, thriving in particular persons, often with the vigor and noise of some kind of rabid zombie flu, but I have never seen a “value” miraculously spring forth from a person’s inner being, potuit, decuit, ergo fecit, and that could therefore be read as a guaranteed barometer to that person’s moral fitness regardless of social context.
Last night, two of my favorite public intellectuals on children got into a thing on Twitter over “screen-time.” Tyler took issue with Raffi’s platitudes about how “tv harms children,” supplemented by his retweeting of several chirps from self-righteous “anti-tv” parents. I read Tyler’s exchange with Raffi with interest, but I couldn’t bring myself even to glance at the feeding frenzy of myriad tweeters on the issue of how [other people’s] bad parenting choices make [other people’s] kids bad kids.
It’s not at all surprising, because it’s one of our culture’s favorite pastimes, but it hurts to see the “Raffi community” descend into the smug exercise of separating the “good” parents/kids from the “bad.” Raffi’s Child-Honouring project is an important check to this way of thinking about families and people, and I consider him an important public intellectual because he insists we think about children and infants as whole people and full members of society, which is a radical proposition in a culture that prefers to see children as current social “drains” and potential future “contributors.” I understand and even sympathize with how Raffi is trying to think about how mass media and popular culture fit (or don’t) into family relationships and child development. Just yesterday, D and I talked about how we would like to resist distracting our kids with in-car DVD players on family road trips, because we too are thinking about how we want to incorporate “screen-time” into our family life. But it’s not because we think kids who watch DVDs in the car are somehow categorically worse people as a result—dumber, shallower, less creative, what have you—or that, by choosing to play movies in the car, their parents are instantly doing a poorer job of raising them than than people who do otherwise.
Honoring children by thinking of them as whole people has to include a model of “whole parenting” that resists reducing the practice of parenting to discrete acts and decisions that are more often than not the false “choices” of consumer preference. In other words, a theory of “whole parenting” would require that we not fixate on identifying the one thing we allow or don’t allow our kids to do, or the one thing we buy or do not buy for our kids, that determines both the moral tenor of the household and the prospect of the children’s future success.
The mythology of the “tv kids vs. non-tv kids” is pernicious in how it reduces a whole host of different social circumstances leading to how much television different kids watch—all of which circumstances are contributing to how the kids are “turning out”—to the seemingly simple parental “choice” of whether or not to turn the tv on. It’s also pernicious because, as Tyler pointed out in his initial tweet, it’s just not true. I think I was a pretty solid example of what these people would call a “non-tv kid”: an early reader, socially engaged, grade-skipping, creatively “excellent” to an annoying degree. I wrote my first “novel” at age six and headed off to an Ivy League university a couple weeks after my 17th birthday. I also listened compulsively to Top 40 radio since infancy, went through this phase of watching Weird Science daily after school for all of sixth grade, and watched a ton of television. I was “exposed” to all kinds of crap, and also, probably, some unpredictable art (have you watched the animated shorts from the old Sesame Streets lately?).
My point is that I am not an anomaly, but a perfectly predictable result of a particular kind of “whole parenting” situation (conversation, socialization, modeling and sharing of various interests and pleasures and values, some social privileges enjoyed, some social limitations negotiated) that has plenty of room for television or other kinds of “bad” uses of time and energy without derailing the entire operation. Honoring children as whole people means letting them exercise their own preferences sometimes, and giving them opportunities to make choices about how to spend their time and attention, and it is a foregone conclusion that for every time they blow your mind with how “interesting” their desires are, there will be another time when they opt for something appalling. I remember spending the entire return car ride from some family vacation—hours and hours, from high afternoon to the middle of the night—listening to the soundtrack from Cocktail on my sister’s red Sony cassette player with cheap headphones, just flipping the tape over and over and over. Yes: we owned the Cocktail soundtrack, and I liked it, and I still went to college.
This is not about tv at all, but about what we think parenting consists of, and how we talk about it as a community. The conversation becomes high-pitched when we isolate particular “choices” as breaking-points of children’s well-being, and then let the fraught discourse around these isolated issues—media and tech exposure; processed food; gendered toys and clothing—distract us from considering what kind of a life, for entire families, for entire communities, allows people including children to have the stability and integrity to thrive despite the inevitable social limitations, negative influences, and occasional “bad choices.”
My child is only a year old (as of yesterday!), and shows no preferences of her own regarding clothing, and I already know what it feels like to have a meltdown in the mall because you can’t find snowsuits in shades other than hot pink. I have had these Major Shopping Emergencies, where the quality of my parenting seems to ride on a fraught consumer choice. But upon reflection, I think any single one of these moments of choice about what to give my child, how to dress or feed or entertain my child, is insignificant compared to, say, how we model the importance of “tasteful shopping” to our happiness as people and as a family. Is it important enough that we need to spend whole days in the mall tracking down the perfect snowsuit to express our beliefs about gender equality? Because if it is, let’s not be shocked when the child becomes fixated on shopping and dressing a certain way (probably not the way we would choose) as her preferred means of “expressing herself.” Similarly, I think whether or not you allow your child to watch some cloying tv show for this hour or that matters less than how you model and police enjoyment in your household—is it something we find in various activities, even very different ones? Is it something we share? Something we respect, even if it’s not shared? Is a child allowed to enjoy something alone, something her parent doesn’t enjoy? Because if not, let’s not be shocked when she simply cannot understand why she must endure things the parents want (or “want”) to do when they don’t include her or aren’t fun for her as well.
Going all-in on prohibitions and mandates as the foundation of parenting is a way of avoiding critical reflection on how much of the work of parenting is done through how you are; on how your child’s well-being is as dependent as your own on social factors and limitations beyond your control; and on how part of your responsibility as a parent is equipping your child to handle the very things you most wish you could just shield her from. If you have to occasionally eat tacos out of a box and allow some tv-zombie time in your home in order to make time and recoup mental energy for everyday critical reflection and honest personal/family assessment, I think those are commendable choices.