Sunday, February 11, 2018

Minding the Children

There is some resurgence of faith in the notion that children raised with the full-time attention of one parent are better off. I too think it is so, quite broadly but perhaps not completely, for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are empirical and some based on my experience, but those from my experience tell me it is not only because school and daycare are such bad places.

Instead I would emphasize that parents who spend a lot of time with their children are by the sheer volume of time spent with them given more opportunities to be changed by them, by which I mean to orient themselves emotionally toward them, by which I mean to fall in love with them.

In contrast it seems plain to me that parents who try to add children to their existing lifestyle, spending with them only a few hours a day (if that), not only have fewer opportunities to experience that reorientation, but struggle more to make use of the few they have.

When the day's time is first squeezed down first by work and school, then by homework and domestic duties, there is not much time left. Still, it is possible to flourish in that remaining time, if it is left truly free and used wisely to cultivate the family, but more often than not it is filled with distractions and out-of-the-house social engagements.

Now limited time is surely a barrier toward having loving time with children, but it is not I think the only one. Equally influential but more pernicious is the resentment that can bubble up from so squeezing your kids into your old life. When you spend most of your day the way you used to before you had kids (i.e. working) and then need to start tending to them during the few hours you are home in the evening—when you formerly relaxed and when the kids now want and need much attention—which hours do you think you will resent: the old ways or the new? It's hard to open up to someone when, deep down and beneath your comprehension, you resent them.

Of course, some adults simply refuse to let the children change them even though they spend a lot of time with them. Too, some people even don't let their spouses change them. Such people don't want marriage so much as they want a merger of assets and they don't want children so much as obedient little reproductions of themselves to reflect well upon them, shower them with affection, and trot off when told.

I am not saying the change is easily forthcoming simply because you spend a lot of time with them. Sometimes we spend a lot of time with them but at every available moment turn our minds away.

Cell phones and television will distract you. Being fussy about housekeeping and domestic responsibilities will distract you. Not having your affairs in order, such as business arrangements and finance, will cause you worry and distract you. Poor relations with your spouse will distract you. Even high-minded thoughts and philosophizing will intrude and thereby distract you. The more you are attuned to other things, even necessary and good things, the farther you really are from your children, even when physically present.

Time, then, is merely the condition for change, not a cause of it. In my experience perception and reception are the essentials, or at least are of a great importance. Watch your children, with as devoted attention as you can muster, and their love for you will be self-evident, and by nature you will reach out to them with love in return. When you have prepared the way, a transcendent touch will happen and the branches of your lives will begin to entangle. In that moment, reaching out is the easiest and most natural thing in the world, but getting yourself and your life to the point where it can happen is difficult.

In fact it is not just difficult, but painful. As with learning, as Jordan Peterson has often pointed out, part of you has to die and you have to be the one who willingly kills it. You have to repudiate some part of your former self and embrace a better you—or at least a you which is better for your new circumstances—which takes courage. Life is not an additive process by which you acquire a spouse, house, children, and so on, improving in linear progression without loss. It is a process of transformation throughout which you gain and leave behind different things at different times.

This does not mean we should dote on and obsess over our children while neglecting all else, but that we should be mindful of our connection to them and sense when we are more stretched apart and when we are especially close. The former is a part of the relationship too, but why would anyone neglect latter?

This does not mean that you can't love them if you're not home with them all the time—and as I said, being home is no guarantee—but I think you are setting up roadblocks if you simply try to squeeze your children into your old ways. Parents, I think, know they are setting up these roadblocks and tend to justify them with explanations to which they hope you will assent. They point to how much time and money they spend on their children and see there demonstrations of their love, effort, and sacrifice.

This is how conscientious and dutiful people often look at the matter and they are not wholly wrong. Their commitment is commendable but the paradigm is wrong because what they are sacrificing is a portion of their old life, a life which they continue to let rule the family. They are giving up something, to be sure, but not what is needed, and because it is still a hard sacrifice, they think that it is enough. When such dutiful people say, as they seem invariably to do, that they would do anything for their children, I would like to add—but do not, for what parent has ever taken correction?—is except that which you have not considered.

I used to hold much anger for such parents, but now the thought of their predicament makes me quite sad. They have taken in the dogmas of the day: cliches about happiness, success, and fulfillment. They are lost and unhappy. Too they are hard to help, partly because of hubris and partly because it is a challenge, impossible for some people, to admit they have failed or are failing their children. Maybe they can be jolted out of their ways by a profound emotional experience, but their circles seem ferociously to reinforce the prevailing trends. So they plod on, ignoring the sadness in their hearts as they pretend to take pleasure in putting their children in that esteemed position of first priority.

But it is not enough to place them first among many priorities: you really do need some sense of their mystical connection to you. Only with that experience will the upheaval of selling your house, quitting your job, negotiating with your spouse, moving, drastically cutting your expenses, or doing whatever you need to do to be with your kids, seem surmountable.

You can't force a realization of such a thing, but you can at least start by being with them with a clear mind and open heart.

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