Thursday, April 10, 2008

Part of This Morning's Lecture

(It's the last day of classes: time for a little nihilistic despair!)

Bub has been going through a boundary-testing period lately, flatly refusing to carry out basic instructions. If I say, "Time to go to the car, Bub!" he replies, "No, I don't think so. Not now. I will never, never do it. I'm not going."

Fortunately, children are easy to trick. "Bub, would you like to wear your boots to the car, or your Shrek shoes?"

"No boots!" Bub hollers, grabbing his Shrek shoes and sprinting to the car with them.

Perhaps more noticeably than the rest of us, Bub has a powerful need to believe that his actions are self-initiated, that the things he does are done freely, in pursuit of his own ends. The classic parental gambit of giving him choices allows me to hijack that trait and use it to control his behaviour.

In the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the title character (who will grow up to become a Columbine-style high-school shooter) has many clinically significant traits of sociopathy, but at least as important is his preternatural ability to see through these gambits. He is a difficult child to raise in part because he utterly rejects the counterfeit freedom that most of us learn to accept in place of the real thing.

In that way, Kevin is like Bartleby and Sarah (the French Lieutenant's Woman), characters who can also be dismissed as insane because they see the bait for what it is and opt not to take it. (They prefer not to.) Charles continually offers Sarah the illusion of choice: he will arrange a governess position for her in London OR Dr. Grogan can find her a post somewhere else. The giddy freedom! The whole world is open to her if only she will stop asking for anything beyond a life of petty domestic drudgery, educating other women's children under conditions that render her conveniently invisible. Sarah is understood to be acting in a way that is irrationally contrary to her own interests when she rejects these tempting choices and insists instead not only on doing nothing, but doing it - like Bartleby - in a highly visible way.

At the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sam (Charles's former valet) moves up in the world by becoming a window-dresser in Mr. Freeman's large department store. His breakthrough innovation is to arrange the ties in a striking array, using them to spell out the words FREEMAN'S FOR CHOICE. An enterprising young capitalist, Sam instinctively grasps the substitution upon which our society depends: our willingness to accept choices (of ties, jobs, or footwear) in exchange for freedom.

So which do you like better - mothers as the new gentry, or mothers as the front-line workers from whom our children first learn to accept the illusion of freedom in place of the real thing?

37 comments:

minnesotamom said...

While I like the thought of opening the world of enterprise and freedom to my youngin', it may bring bitter disappointment for the rest of her life.

Also, the latter seems to work better for behavior manipulation, which at some times, is...needed.

Chaotic Joy said...

I think that people who chose to live within the illusion of freedom, pretending not, or actually not seeing it for what it is are happier. Like Bub, so happy to choose Shrek shoes.

Laura said...

Good post, I'll be pondering this for a while.

Beck said...

I think the whole notion of free will is deeply flawed, and so the sooner we learn that our choices are limited and rightly so, the happier we'll be. The idea of limitless choice causes much suffering.

susiej said...

Even if we do choose to teach them the illusion of freedom; life will come crashing down. A toy is broken, a friend hurts them... life is like this. It continually bursts our illusions.

Cyndi said...

Lots to think about this morning.

Mimi said...

Yikes! You're cy-ni-cal today, Dr. Crankypants.

Hm. I'm going to just agree with Beck. I dispute the idea there really is a 'free and unlimited' choice in this world. Worth noting that Sarah Woodruff is not a happy person--not that she should become a governess, but what she's left with is a choice to say no, not a positive choice, and so she'll live with some unpleasant consequences. No choice is without consequence.

the mad momma said...

what beck said. i know thats a lazy answer, but thats how it is.

kittenpie said...

Good god's pajamas, I hate the defiant phases. My response often enough is to say, when it's the case, that this is not a choice. Because some things just aren't.

But oh my, I'm happy that shoes are an option again!

Jenifer said...

I'm with Beck and Mimi on this one. Every action/choice has a consequence and I think even young children can understand that connection.

Yes, you will have to point it out over and over, but both my girls completely understand that their choices have a consequence and even if they choose something that will bring an undesired consequence that is their choice to make.

allysha said...

I think we do have complete freedom of choice. But not freedom from the consequences of those choices.

I also think that as parents it's our responsibility to teach our children that. Also I have no problem with having rules and enforcing them, so giving Bub a choice within your perimeters is perfectly acceptable to me. That's how children learn to operate in a society with other people.

Kevin, I assume, eventually pays the consequence of his desire for what he perceives as real or ultimate freedom.

Are the gambits he thinks he sees through really a lack of ability (for whatever reason)to relate to others and to take into account how his actions will affect them?

Isn't part of growing up about learning how and when to exercise freedom while considering those around us?

Interesting post. Thanks.

Swistle said...

1) I don't think we DO have unlimited choices.

2) I hate everything that teaches children otherwise: the whole "if you can dream it, you can be it!" and "you can be anything you want to be!" school, which is not only disappointing, but implies that people who work in unpleasant jobs have chosen them deliberately instead of more lucrative, satisfying professions.

3) Where was I going with this? I seem to have become distracted and riled.

Pieces said...

Gah--so depressing. This is what mid-life crises are about. My husband is in the middle of it right now--that realization that there is absolutely no choice or freedom right now. We are living a life dictated by all the supposed choices we made up to this point and now any "choice" we make is just a facade.

So I like Beck's answer too. Believing that we have the freedom to choose anything at anytime is a lie to begin with. The trick is to make the wisest choice among the few that are presented to you.

So I'd go with the Shrek shoes too.

the new girl said...

I think that the illusion of freedom for little ones is like a set of training wheels. As they grow and can 'balance' more readily, the wheels come off and a more genuine freedom is available to them.

Chris said...

This is great! I can use some your points for the Lit Class that I'm teaching.

Great Blog

Bea said...

Yup, Sarah, Bartleby, and Kevin are all deeply unhappy people, and the only free alternative they can find to the deal the rest of us are willing to take is the freedom of total negation - doing nothing, being nothing.

I'm not as depressed about all this all this post makes me seem. Sure, we sometimes believe we're making free choices when in fact those "choices" are simply a smokescreen to prevent us noticing the tentacles of social coercion closing around us ... but that doesn't mean that freedom is always an illusion. In a way, the determination to resist all forms of coercion becomes itself a trap, especially in Kevin's case.

Still, I wonder how much entrapment I'm wholly unaware of in my life right now simply because so much of my attention is preoccupied with choosing colours for the new house from the thousands of available paint chips...

Bea said...

Another point: I think consequences are completely separate from the idea of freedom (though the two can be easily confused). At issue is the source of our actions: do our actions proceed from some inner motive, or are we manipulated by others? An act can have terrible consequences and yet be wholly free if I commit it without coercion and based on values that I recognize as mine.

When Bub goes out to the car wearing his Shrek shoes, has he simply been hoodwinked? Or does he comply because he has gotten exactly what he was asking for - the opportunity to exercise some decision-making power, to influence his environment in some way. Did I simply trick him into forgetting his earlier objections, or did he yield those objections as unimportant in comparison to the bliss of self-determination that is inherent in the act of choosing one's footwear?

allysha said...

Have you ever read "Mediated" by Thomas De Zengotita. Really interesting. He talks about how in our post-modern age we have so many choices we can become paralyzed by them.
Paint chips are post-modern! :)

Gwen said...

This reminds me of the scene near the end of No Country for Old Men, where Carla Lee refused to play the game at all. It made no difference in the outcome, whether she chose or didn't. Still, I liked her for her refusal. I similarly refuse to play by not choosing. :)

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

My son is 6 so I'm moving on to a different gambit: the promise of freedom at some future date.

As in: Today you MUST accompany me to retrieve your sister from daycare. But you'll be able to stay home alone when you can do X, Y and Z. (Place an emergency phone call, for example.)

It puts the power in his hands, since XYandZ are accomplishable tasks; but they're also not the least bit interesting to him. So he sees he's made the choice himself: he would rather not learn the skills required for independence, so he's still dependent. I make that kind of choice all the time...

Anyway. I'd bet anything that Bub's real concern is control. I wonder what he'd do if you told him what time every morning he needs to get in the car. Would HE remind YOU that it's time to go to school?

Luisa Perkins said...

Oh, I don't like that choice at all!

Alpha DogMa said...

I think the key to your gambit with Bub is the limited choice. "Here are 2 options, you decide" versus "of all the shoes in the world, which pair do you want to wear?"

Too much choice limits my freedom because I'm overwhelmed. I don't need to go to Walmart and have my choice of 13,000 different kinds of feminine hygiene products. I want one type that works, that isn't too expensive, that doesn't insult my intelligence (Have a happy period.). Dry weave. Crinkle free wrapper. Flushable applicator (that you can't REALLY flush). No applicator. Compact applicator. Super. Super Duper. Super Duper The Dam Has Broke. It is all too much.

Blogversary said...

OH sure I pick tonight to start reading your blog when my mind is too tired to say anything intelligent.

I think we have free will in accordance in how we live outwardly or with our reason.

nomotherearth said...

On my more cynical days, I believe "freedom" is the ability to choose your own prison. Lovely prison it may be, be-ribboned and be-curtained, but a prison it still is. How depressing is that?

Would you recommend We Need to Talk About Kevin, then? I've been looking at that for a while now.

Bea said...

Nomo - Yes, definitely. I found it terribly gripping, but haunting (fair warning).

Anonymous said...

I don't think Bub was manipulated picking out his choice of footwear. It WAS a choice, whereas getting into the car was not. Many things for a person under age 18 are not choices unless laws change. That's life.

Our choices are limitless but we do have to live with them until we choose again.

Jeesh am I ever not deep.

Amanda said...

Mm-hmm, my Avery tells me, "No, I'm ok," when I ask her to do something. It's interesting, because it offers the opportunity to demonstrate that yes, despite not getting her way, she can still be ok.

Bon said...

hmm. i think i'm attached to my own self-definition as a very minor sociopath, though i am always trying to make negation of societal imperatives add up to more than nothing, which is...entertaining. and then discovering i've only negated the letter of the law, when at heart i'm upholding the spirit like a bastion of ye olde school. especially as a mother.

what i wonder is when and where do i draw the line, and move from front line worker in the "socialization" of my offspring to supporter of his chance to make choices not boundaried by my perspective, my authority? probably a long time from now.

Alicia said...

I seriously need to start reading again. I had to read your thought provoking post 3 times before I could really soak it all in. I love this line: "He is a difficult child to raise in part because he utterly rejects the counterfeit freedom that most of us learn to accept in place of the real thing." As I've mentioned before THIS is my son. Sometimes I am tempted to mold him into ways that would be easier to handle because he's so tough. But then I think he SEES things the rest of us spend our lives trying to see, that's part of what makes him frustrated. I don't want to teach him to put blinders on. Great post!

Janet said...

I think you just shifted his focus from the car to the shoes. And it worked. I do it all the time.

I read We Need to Talk About Kevin, which I agree is a gripping read whose ending still haunts me. I was left pondering whether he was a true sociopathy or a product of his mother's apathy for all things motherhood.

Bea said...

Janet - What I found so haunting were the hints at Kevin's vulnerability and humanity - especially the episode when he was sick and briefly allowed himself to cling to his mother. Was there a way she could have broken through his defences and diverted him from the path he was on?

Yesterday, though, Bub came up to me whimpering a bit because something was in his eye and it made my blood run cold.

Carrien said...

I prefer to think of it as practice for when my children do have real freedom, with real consequences. At the age they are, they don't have much freedom. In the end, I can pick them up and place them screaming and kicking in the car. The choice of shoes helps them to learn to choose in an area where their choice, in fact, is allowed by me to have power.

But this doesn't show the whole story. While they may live with certain boundaries and non-negotiables, their response to their environment is entirely free. I can not force them to be happy or sad.
For a literary reference I'll again point to Ivan Denisovich-Solzeneitzen(sp?)

We talk often about how our freedom ends where another begins. We can't make our friends like us or be kind, but we can choose our response to them when they are unkind. We can choose whether or not to play with them, whether to forgive or be angry. But we are not the only ones with freedom and so we don't get to impose our will on our world exclusively.

I also consider it training for the time when they realize and use their growing freedom to impose consequences for anti-social/improper behavior. While the consequences I impose now as their mother are entirely artificial, when they are adults the consequences will be just as real as the new found freedoms. They must learn to choose wisely where it is still safe to do so.

So, in summary, I do not think that what mothers do is teach our children to accept the illusion of freedom, rather we teach what to do with the freedom that will one day be theirs, real freedom, that affects real people, everyday.

At least, that's my parenting goal. I will teach them that they are free and I will teach them to make the most of it.

Merle said...

Freedom can be hazardous to your health (Haidt, 2006). Emile dirkheim (late 19th century) studied the factors that affect the suicide rate. His findings can be summed up as: constraints. People who have fewer social constraints, bonds and obligations are more likely to kill themselves. People need obligations and constraints to provide structure and meaning to their lives (Haidt, 2006). We need to interact and intertwine with others; we need the give and the take; we need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995)

Right now are you are training Bub to accept the illusion of freedom or how to live in a world of necessary constraints?

Bea said...

Beautiful APA-style documentation, Merle! ;)

rivergirlie said...

it seems to me that you can analyse motherhood in marxist terms. you move from being a member of the (childfree) bourgeoisie, alienated from the means of production to actually being the blasted means of production yourself!
freedom is an illusion - the only available choice is whether or not to subscribe to the myth.

Sarah said...

What I though was so sad about the book We Need to Talk about Kevin was how inevitable the ending seemed.

Her Bad Mother said...

"a powerful need to believe that his actions are self-initiated, that the things he does are done freely, in pursuit of his own ends.'

That's WB, too. We've learned that we have frame everything in such a way that it at least sounds as though the action we're soliciting is determined by her (so - instead of 'please give Mommy the butter,' it's 'would YOU like to give Mommy the butter?')

I have moments of reservation about what might amount to lessons in rhetoric (as the Aristotle and plato understood it), but still. What you have to do.