Cheryl thought it first, apparently. Violet’s gotten into this habit of sleeping one day and being awake the next. It seems like a pretty nice life, to be honest.

I’ve been reading a lot of online parenting articles and blogs lately–well, a lot for me, at least–and it really seems like there are two competing, self-reinforcing, and (it seems to me) incredibly counterproductive tones. Articles are either:

  • full of panic, uncertainty, regret, self-flagellation and questioning as to whether they can parent at all, let alone well
  • defensively authoritative, occasionally accusatory, forthright mandates on how to raise your children

These are both broad generalizations, so I run the risk of just having conjured this out of thin air–this objection and criticism of my hypothesis is totally valid. If I’m wrong, please convince me that that’s the case. The fact is that these occur to a greater or lesser degree, from the most shrill to the most tender, but I think there is something fundamental at the root of it.

Evidence of this phenomenon:

Can a Lack of Sleep Set Back Your Child's Cognitive Abilities? -- New York Magazine
Bossy McBossypants (I love Catherine Newman's writing, by the way.)
Are Kids Getting Too Much Praise?
Will your Preschooler Need a Tutor? (Seriously.)

It drives me nuts. Before I go on, I should probably establish something. While I think hyperanxious parenting is wrong-headed, neither do I subscribe to the idea that parenting just comes naturally and parents should just chill out and do what occurs to them. Lots of people are stupid or inexperienced or even downright malicious.

Somewhere, though, around the Vietnam era, I think, we lost our collective sense of authority. My guess is that we actually realized how incredibly terrible authority can be in and of itself, when it is incorrect. I am considering the possibility that there was a systematic loss of faith in authority on a social scale.

This is really hard stuff to talk about and think about, by design, almost. It’s complicated and abstract and I think, ultimately, amounts to what feels like and what we may as well consider a fundamental spiritual shift. Religion was way into authority and when the world was religious in a big and serious way, which is to say, when the people who wrote things that got read by others, when the idea-makers were religious, authority was truly a big and serious deal. Feudal lords told their serfs what to do. Parents told their children what to do. Authority stemmed from on high, followed the chain of command all the way down into the right hand of the father and the switch there held was held to be, truly, an instrument of God.

Science takes authority out of the hands of individuals and puts it in the hands of Nature–from the point of view of scientists. It is great and fantastic for this reason. It makes progress more rapid because ideas are pitted against each other and they fight and may win or lose, but ultimately (by which I actually mean “in the limit”) there is no individual who is an authority. It is here where we learned to defer to the wisdom of numbers, and authority over any individual child became more diffuse.

There are, suddenly, if not “right” and “wrong” ways to handle your kids, there are better and worse ways. Malnutrition exists and can be prevented. Your kids should be vaccinated and a hug every now and again decreases the likelihood that they’ll go shoot somebody later–maybe not to zero, but still, we as a society would appreciate it if occasionally, in addition to spanking your kid, you let them know you love them.

One of the difficult aspects of science stems from the fact that human society is necessarily atomistic. While authority in the divine sense may not exist, expertise certainly does. If you want to have your appendix removed or know the difference between a charm and a strange quark or solve a third-order differential equation, you can’t just ask anybody. Well, the beauty of it is that you actually can, and, given enough time, a lot of people will be able to develop the expertise to tell you the answer or provide the service. Which is to say that simply because you do not have expertise does not mean you can’t get it.

Still. It’s pretty costly to get it. You have to observe the same stuff for a long time in order to really get it as well as somebody else gets it. Some people may never get it. And there’s a big fat undecidable proposition required for the whole endeavor: positivism. It’s undecidable because it can never be clear whether anything is true or causal or whether it just looks that way.

The two of these combined, philosophically, I think. Suddenly in the middle of the century, like say post-WWII, there’s a new “priesthood” — very deeply involved in the actual war, like the killing of a lot of people — made of scientists. While these scientists may not claim to be authorities over things they know nothing about, they do claim to have models that describe the world well, which translates poorly into English as knowing the “truth.” There’s a big hole when you try to claim that it’s the “Truth,” which is that one of the founding assumptions is the assumption that the “Truth” is knowable: positivism.

It turns out, for real, that it doesn’t “matter” whether the truth is knowable, if all you want to do is make a really good guess at what will be the consequences when you perform/observe a certain action.

I attribute the most recent part of this to literary critics. Post-structuralism pulled off a hell of a feat of equivocation by hijacking the fact that light travels at the same subjective speed but that time passes at different subjective rates depending on your frame of reference. They used that intuition to stake a claim that the fact that the Universe behaves in a way described by the General Theory of Relativity implies, in some fuzzy way, that the Universe is, generally, relative.

Maybe it seems like none of this stuff is relevant to your parenting or my parenting. I contend that that is not the case. When Barthes declared “The Death of the Author,” how could that not have had an effect on parenting?

It had a heck of an effect on individuals’ senses of identity.

It had a heck of an effect on characters in our stories.

Authority was revealed as a hoax, and with the Vietnam War, it was revealed as a dangerous, irresponsible, and morally bankrupt hoax. American culture was well-suited to accept this belief, I think, being composed primarily of the progeny and products of incorrigible contrarians. So a dash of French philosophy, some depressed post-war writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and later Saul Bellow, and even later, Don Delillo…

Out of time. It’s Halloween! More on this later.

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