Monday, April 16, 2007

Common Knowledge

As a teenage babysitter, I looked with dour disapproval upon parental beer-drinking. To be sure, I didn’t often witness such behaviour, but when my neighbours enjoyed a cold one with some friends before heading out for the evening, I was shocked – not by the alcohol per se, but rather by their apparent ignorance of the code of parental behaviour. Beer was a beverage to be consumed in six-packs at bush parties attended by underage teenagers. Parents, on the other hand, were meant to have an occasional glass of wine or sherry before going out to movies and restaurants attired in the parent uniform of black slacks and wool sweaters or khaki trousers and button-down shirts.

Children are the ultimate conservatives. Their view of the world is shaped by so limited a sphere of experience that their sense of what is normal is determined almost entirely by what is familiar. Parents don’t drink beer. There is only one right way to pronounce the word tomato. Summer vacation means a trip to the lake in a tent-trailer. When experience reveals that such norms are not universally adhered to, a child’s first response is ridicule.

I’ve never let my best friend forget the way she reacted the day I admitted (at age seven) that I didn’t know what a Winnebago was. She could not conceal – or, to be more accurate, made no attempt to conceal – her amazement and scorn at such depths of ignorance. She had known about Winnebagos for years. Everybody knew about Winnebagos. I, on the other hand, felt that the word was not only unfamiliar but also wildly improbable. Rationally, it seemed most likely that there was no such thing as a Winnebago.

It takes many years to build up a reliable sense of what knowledge counts as universal – we are constantly modifying and refining our store of collective information, learning what we can take for granted and what we need to explain. For years, I could depend on my students to recognize a Star Trek: The Next Generation reference in a lecture. Nowadays, I still use such references, but not because I expect my students to understand them – instead, they’ve become an opportunity for self-mockery, a chance for everyone to enjoy a good laugh at my expense. The cultural gap between me and my students widens each year, so I keep ditching information from the "shared" file in my head, narrowing down my definition of what counts as common knowledge.

Growing up involves not only the acquisition of knowledge but also the skill of estimating the knowledge of others. Toddlers and preschoolers, on the other hand, have not only a limited store of knowledge but also a vast and endearing confidence in the omniscience of the adults around them. Momish wrote recently about her daughter’s frustration at her grandmother’s lamentable ignorance. How can a fully grown adult not realize that "masha masha!" is meant to elicit a command performance of "Macho Man"? Sheesh. It’s an important milestone, that first realization that some words constitute a private code. I am occasionally alarmed, though, by just how many of my children’s words have meanings that do not carry beyond the doorstep of my home. At my house, the word "crazy" means "shake your head back and forth so that your hair whaps you in the face." "Snappity snap!" means "time to do up your coat." "Grocery" means "broccoli."

Such pseudo-knowledge is balanced by that strange collection of arcane facts my children accumulate from books and television. They can identify an orangutan and a lemur by sight; they know that porcupines are prickly and that a big brass instrument can be called a tuba. They are wholly unaware, on the other hand, that dinosaurs are extinct, often confidently identifying iguanas and crocodiles as dinosaurs and refusing to be corrected. They have no real grasp of concepts like school, ice skating, or planting a garden, yet if they were to encounter my eight-year-old self laughing uproariously at the notion that there’s a breed of primate called "orange uh-tun" there would be no bounds to their scorn.

Some of our childhood conservatism clings to us even in adulthood. I am still startled, sometimes, at grown-ups of my parents’ generation who defy my idiosyncratic expectations. I am no longer repelled at the idea of a parent – or grandparent – drinking beer, but I am always taken aback to find retirees who use the Internet or play the lottery. Occasionally when I’m reading blogs I’ll come across a comment from the blogger’s mother and I always have to grab my ears to prevent my head from spinning all the way around.

Perhaps one reason our culture is more than usually conservative in its expectations of mothers is this throw-back to our knee-jerk childhood reaction to anything that defies the norm set by our own families. The honest and spontaneous distaste that some people evince in response to the idea of mommy-blogging may arise from nothing more than the fact that their own mothers didn’t blog. Children perceive their parents through the lens of their own needs and preoccupations; they may be dimly aware that parents have their own lives, their own subjectivity, but they do not allow that knowledge to affect their natural egocentrism. Becoming a mommy thus transforms not only our sense of self but also our perceptions of our own mothers and of mommyhood in general. But for those who do not make that move, who do not become mommies themselves, there is little to interfere with the impulse to reject the unfamiliar, to take one’s own mother, and perhaps a few other moms from the neighbourhood, and define that as the norm against which all mothers are to be measured.


DaniGirl said...

I love the idea you express as the conservatism of childhood. So true!

Funny, I seem to have a fairly large "mothers of bloggers" readership - I can think of at least four or five who have outed themselves to me. Just yesterday I was speaking to one blogger's mother who was saying that reading my blog both aggravates her terribly (that so little has changed in the work-life balance struggle) since she was a new mom 34 years ago, but how deeply some things still resonate for her. She said she is particularly relieved to see mommy-bloggers connecting with each other, because when she went back to work when her first child was a tender 5 weeks old, you simply did not talk about your children in the office, and doing so was a classic career-limiting move. (I can't imagine *not* talking about my kids at any age, let alone when I was barely 5 weeks postpartum and still couldn't find my way to the shower without making a production out of it.

It was a great conversation, but I didn't expect to be able to mention it so easily. Thanks for the timely post!

Suz said...

This is very interesting and I, too, love the concept of children as conservatives. To speak to your last point, I've noticed a true change in how I regard other mothers and myself since having children, being aware for probably the first time of how much a tight-rope walk the making of decisions and regulation of behavior can be. Until I became a mother, I knew what the rules were and was genuinely perplexed at all these women who didn't seem to be able to follow them. Who would have thought that just as I needed it, that this rule-book would seem to vanish and I would be making things up as I went along, writing the rules that my children would internalize probably until they, too, become parents.

Mimi said...

I was like that too: if I didn't know it, it didn't exist. And also, my parents were omniscient.

Now that I'm a mother, I find myself constantly reevaluating my own mother in the light of my own developing experience. For me, I think this is just another kind of egocentris: all mommies, even my own, are now remade in my image.

And, none of my students has ever seen an episode of Three's Company. That's bad. Worse is that the X-Files are totally before their time too. It's time for me to retire.

the end of motherhood said...

After spending a lot of time being very reliable for my kids, I have really enjoyed introducing the elements of surprise and change.

They start out conservative because it helps them understand a world that is wildly complex and unstable. I hope that my kids move from the rigidity of conservatism to a more fluid ability to integrate in a deep way the knowledge that all life is change.

slouching mom said...

Occasionally when I’m reading blogs I’ll come across a comment from the blogger’s mother and I always have to grab my ears to prevent my head from spinning all the way around.

I have felt just this way. My own 79-year-old father, while not blogging, has a facility with the Internet that boggles my mind.

NotSoSage said...

My goodness, woman, you are brilliant. It's true...I think we first learn to make sense of the world by putting everything into boxes and growing up is a series of experiences that means stretching those boxes or breaking them down altogether. And there are often boxes left to break, at any age.

I think it's funny that my toddler thinks that I know *everybody* in the city of Toronto. Despite much evidence to the contrary. She still asks, of anyone who passes us, "Who's dat?"

And in terms of shared or not-shared experience, I had a discussion about this the other day with my parents. I was talking about a magazine article I'd read where an 18 year-old who was a member of the Young Conservatives described starting his own business, buying $8 packs of stationery and then selling them around his neighbourhood for $12 and saying, "If I can do it, anyone can." Uh, yeah. Anyone who has $8/pack in his pocket to begin with. I hope that young man grows up to break down a few boxes.

Beck said...

WE grew up in different worlds. I remember watching - quite dispassionately - a friend of my parents do cocaine on our coffee table. I must have been five.

My own grandmother is completely online and sends me daily emails - she hasn't quite mastered everything, so they tend to look like "dEar Becccky I liked youR blog today." I save every one.

Kelly said...

Hmmm. This is an interesting idea: children as the ultimate conservatives.

Though you understand why it may be hard for me to think of my little ones as Cheney-incarnate.

Perhaps tiny Goldwaters?

cinnamon gurl said...

I didn't know what Winnibegos were for a long time too... I even remember seeing a reference to it on Night Court or something but I didn't know what it was... it DOES sound like some mythical creature, like the sasquatch or something!

(Totally not the point of your post, I know...)

Lawyer Mama said...

I was also ignorant of the Winnebago. You're not alone.

My grandparents recently joined the email age & I'm always startled to see an email from them. I don't think they read my blog though. God, I hope they don't!

Mommy-Like Days said...

Winnebago was so 70s. My new test is to find out if a potential friend knows what a class C is ;)

mcewen said...

My 80+ mother in law [not that kind of a mother in law] is now on-line. When we phone home once a week [uk/usa] she is full of questions.
If I can be half the woman she is, I'll die happy.
Great, thought provoking post.
Thank you

Jenifer said...

I love this idea. I can say at six I have seen Papoosie Girl reshape her own boxes already. She will say things like, "remember when I was 4 and I thought XYZ" it is so unbelievable that she can do this already. She is aware that her boxes are limited and understands when she needs to toss our or add in something new. It is utterly fascinating.

As for my own mother she has a black belt and two tattoos and while they are products of her life after my childhood I still get what you are saying. I am so grateful for my mother now, in a way I am certain I never would have understood if I never had children. I owe her everything she struggled as a single parent for many years - she really was a rock. For this I am eternally grateful.

flutter said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Kids are also the eternal optimists.

Momish said...

Ah, yes, how you so hit the nail on the head AGAIN! It is funny, but similar thoughts went through my head during that "masha" episode at my mom's. There are so many times since I had my daughter that I have been forced to take a step back and picture my mother (at even a younger age than me) and see her a woman in her prime and not just a mom, nothing else.

It is humbling and often has me going back to my mom with so much more compassion and respect that would have been lost forever if not for having a child.

I love all these comments, by the way!! You always bring out the most interesting conversations with your posts.

I am still laughing over Beck's comment and your reaction to other online "grandmoms". It blows me away too! But I know if my mom had internet access, she'd be my number one fan at her young age of 70!

Mad Hatter said...

I was #5 of 6 in my family. My older siblings were always lording my lack of knowledge over me. I spent the first 20 years of my life convinced I knew nothing whatsoever. Looking back on it now, their influence likely made me one of the more worldly children in the playground. My Uncle Lloyd owned a Winnebago. It's funny how "Winnebago" used to be like "Kleenex"--a corporate brand that was generalized to a type. Now we have RVs but it seems to me that Kleenex is still winning the tissue war.

TrudyJ said...

Your post reminds me of what CS Lewis said (I think in Screwtape?) about fish knives -- a rather sexist remark which I think is just as likely (today anyway) to be true of young men as young women, but he talks about young women with little exposure to the world thinking the kind of fish knives used in her parents' home were really the only "proper" fish knives -- and drawing the analogy that many of the assumptions we grow up with, including our religion in many cases, are based on that same kind of prejudice. OF COURSE that's what it means, because that's what it's always meant in my family. It can be jarring to have those preconceptions shaken up.

I also have the problem of no longer sharing cultural references with my students. I used to be able to teach simile and metaphor by contrasting "Life is a highway" with "Life is like a box of chocolates." Now neither seems to resonate much with the young people I teach.

nomotherearth said...

This may be a bit off topic, but I was hoping to use this expectation of what is "normal" to my advantage. Like drinking water (as opposed to pop) is normal. Making a priority of exercise is normal. We'll see how that goes...

I was teaching a drama class for kids under 12 and mistakenly made a reference to Princess Leia. Never do that again.

Susanne said...

Brilliant post. And it reminds me that I have spent the better part of at least three students lessons during the last week to explain the different Star Trek series and the movies. This is important cultural knowledge.

Kyla said...

I told BubTar, "I don't know EVERYTHING." and he said "Oh yes you do, Mommy. Stop joking!" *lol*

Outside the movies on Friday, I saw a group of 4 older ladies (60+ in age) smoking in a circle. It struck me as hilarious!!

edj said...

I love this post. It's so true. Oddly enough, I was just thinking about my own limited view of the world as a child, and how I judged others and found them wanting.
I also remember how sad it was when I realized that I could no longer know, instinctively, every single word Elliot was attempting--when he started preschool, he had new experiences, and I couldn't always figure out what he was saying, if that makes sense. Before that, I defined his world, and had shared all his experiences.

Catherine said...

I did the VERY SAME THING as a teenage babysitter. I still remember the moment I found IT in the fridge of my favorite client/family's house.

And, I remember playing "Wheel of Fortune" on an old Apple IIe computer (remember those, anyone?) and the top prize was a Winnebago. Everyone in my class was so excited to "win" one but I will confess...I hit the fact that I too had no idea what that was.

I've often used this childhood conservatism/unisversalism to describe what happens to us again as adults as we begin to explore other cultures and worldviews. We have assumed that ours was universal - of course we did, how could we have known better? - and then go through a very similar process towards understanding...