Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

When to quit

Janet and I started watching Junebug tonight, and after half an hour I just had to throw in the towel.

I used to find it very difficult to give up on anything I was reading, or watching, or listening to . . . somehow I thought I would never be able to have a complete opinion about something if I only got part of it. I remember, when I was young, that I had a certain dread when I was about to start a book by someone I had never read before -- I was worried it might not be any good, in which case my compulsion doomed me to reading a bad book for next few hours or days.

I lost that compulsion somewhere. I'm still remarkably generous in the amount of attention I give a questionable piece, especially in a remote-control, channel-surfing age. But I have my limits, and I'm starting to learn what they are. Junebug only reminded me of my criteria:
  1. A book, movie, or play has somewhere between 15 minutes and half an hour to audition for my attention.
  2. On rare occasions, the work will do something so silly, stupid, or nonsensical that I will be able to dismiss it out hand in those first 15 minutes.
  3. More often, though, the sin is one of omission. The work will lose me if, in those first fifteen minutes, I:
  • Don't understand what's going on; or
  • Don't care enough about one or more the characters to be interested; or
  • Don't sense the point of the whole piece; that is, does this work have anything interesting or important on its mind?

Junebug lost me on all counts. It was only finally, after half an hour, that I had any sense of what the premise of the whole movie was about -- some sophisticated outsider art dealer meets her backward North Carolina inlaws. Before that, I'm just so in the dark about who these people are, how they are related to each other, or why I should care. Even once I do understand the characters and the relationships, there is not a single person I care about. The NC family is generally mean to each other. Not that people have to be nice to each other to get my attention-- I mean, The Lion in Winter is nothing but non-stop meanness, but it's so clever, so witty, so elegant, and so full of mind games that you're still sucked in. The Junebug family was just mean in a coarse, ignorant, unappealing way; it was the kind of encounter you might have with a family at the grocery store, the kind that makes you grateful for the family you have.

And even all of that could have been forgiven if I sensed that this movie was trying to say something. It certainly acts like a movie that has something to say: all those looooong still-life shots of living rooms and front lawns, and seemingly mundane activities like inflating a mattress, and the generally slow, desultory pace of a movie that's not in a hurry to tell its story . . . it seems to say, "listen, feel what's going on here." It makes me appreciate Broken Flowers all the more, because that movie used all the same tricks, but it actually worked. When I spent a minute and a half staring at Bill Murray sitting on a couch, I still felt like something was going on, and I wondered about that man, and sensed his struggled, and I understood what was at stake in his life at that moment. Here . . . I was just staring at an air mattress inflating, and thinking, "So what?"

So, I am left with little or nothing to say about Junebug, other than: a movie about an unendurable weekend with unlikeable inlaws should not feel like an unindurable weekend with unlikeable inlaws.

Friday, May 05, 2006

How do I love thee?

I'm a little surprised that I could get this far into Unconditional Parenting without someone, at some point, asking the question: what exactly is unconditional love? Or, for that matter, love of any kind?

Kohn only describes unconditional love in terms of what it's not -- it's not conditional, dependent on circumstance. It is not subject to logical cause-and-effect: we love our children "for no good reason." He says we love them "for who they are." But what does that really mean? Where does this love come from?

Most people accept love as an empirical reality. Like dreams, it is something most everyone seems to experience, so most never go to great lengths to try to prove it. And yet, this is the question the best theologians and philosophers struggle with. C. S. Lewis and Kierkegaard both wrote whole books on the matter. And all the heavy hitters seem to agree that, if love is to mean anything more than selfish affiliations or biologically programmed affections, then it has be transcendent. It comes from Somewhere Else.

Doesn't this talk of unconditional love sound suspiciously like Grace?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Discernment versus Judgement

In reading the book Unconditional Parenting, and in some emails and discussions that have followed it, I've found the need to clarify the distinction between discernment and judgement. I think an understanding of this distinction is the very soul of the unconditional parenting philosophy (even though Kohn himself might not express it in these words.)

Judgement is a bad word these days. Most people with any sense of sensitivity will say "Don't judge." (I will, for the time being, bypass the whole irony that "Don't judge" is itself a judgement.) Judgement almost always carries a pejorative connotation now; to be called judgemental is an insult. This has lead many to renounce all comparative observations at all, lest they "judge" someone. The moment someone says, "Oh, don't do that, that's bad," they are immediately castigated for (gasp!) judging someone else.

I think the fans of unconditional parenting are even more likely to fall into this trap. In there sincere desire to display unconditional love for their kids, they refrain from saying anything that might stink of a sincere opinion or belief.

But here's where I think the virtue of discernment might save us from the evils of judgement.
Discernment says: "That's wrong."
Judgement says: "That's wrong, and therefore I love you less because you did that."
Discernment says: "That's a sin."
Judgement says: "That's a sin, and therefore you are less worthy of God's love because you did that."

It's very similar (though not precisely like) the Christian notion of "hate the sin but love the sinner." It's one thing to recognize the sin (literally, the error) of a person's action; that is valid, essential discernment. It only becomes judgement when it extends into condemnation of the individual.

Now, in my reading of Kohn, it appears that he believes that a statement of discernment almost always implies a judgement. As far as he's concerned, it's impossible to say, "Good" without also meaning, "Good, and therefore I love you more." No doubt he's right much of the time: people really do mean to convey judgement of the individual along with their objective assessment. But it isn't necessarily the case. (If you think it is the case, then I invite you consider the possibility that that is your own mental projection on the words, created by your own conditional self-love.)

Have you ever been around someone who's sensitive to the point of being "touchy"? It can be infuriating at times, because there will all kinds of things you say that are meant to be merely informative and helpful, but which the person immediately hears as criticism. You might say, "you misspelled X," but what they hear is "Jesus Christ, you dumbass, can't you even spell a word as simply as X?" If someone is fundamentally insecure, they will parse everything they experience this way, trying to turn it into an attack or affirmation of their being. That doesn't mean they are really being attacked . . . unless it means that they are attacking themselves.

This is just an extreme illustration of what I am talking about. If you hear judgement in the words, "Good job", is that because the words inherently convey judgement? Or because you projected the judgement into the words?

If, on the other hand, someone is secure in their being, they don't hear criticism where there is only discernment. They don't even hear praise where there is only confirmation of correctness. A child who is unconditionally loved doesn't even hear the things from which Kohn is so eager to protect them.

This is where I find the height of the irony in Kohn's stance. His primary complaint is that parents don't pay attention to the inner feelings and motivations of the child, that they are too focused on the child's behavior . . . but then his critique is entirely of . . .(ulp) . . . parental behavior.

I'm not sure if there is going to be a behavioral shortcut to all of this. In the end, I suspect that the way a child comes to feel unconditionally loved is not by what is literally said or unsaid by the parents, but rather by actually being unconditionally loved. And that is only possible when the parent is capable of loving themselves unconditionally.

And . . . just to keep this interesting . . . I am going to assert that the only way such unconditional love is possible is through spirituality. But more on that tomorrow.

More than motivation

Ok, I found another philosophical stumbling block on my way to Unconditional Parenting . . .

p. 14 “Perhaps you’ve met parents who force their children to apologize after
doing something hurtful or mean. (“Can you say you’re sorry?”) Now, what’s going
on here? Do the parents assume that making children speak this sentence will
magically produce in them the feeling of being sorry, despite all evidence to
the contrary?”

Well, actually . . . yes, I do expect the speaking of the words to have an effect on the child’s state of being. Kohn’s critique of raw behaviorism – the idea that only behavior matters and internal states are irrelevant – is merited, and needed . . . but that doesn’t mean that you can discount the fact that actions can and do have an effect on internal feelings. The arrows go both ways: feelings generate actions, and actions also generate feelings. I agree that ideally we want to inculcate in children the thoughts and feelings that lead to right action. I also believe there is some merit in going the other way: using habitual rote action to train feelings. Augie has often said that it was “easier to act your way into feeling than to feel your way into acting.” There is a Chinese saying: “When you’re angry with someone, give them a gift.” Meaning: it is impossible to stay angry with someone when you do something good for them.

In sports, everyone recognizes the importance of strategy – choosing the right plays, understanding your opponent, anticipating the strengths and weaknesses of your players. There is also an equal appreciation of “the fundamentals” – that is, technical execution. This has nothing to do with strategy, and often nothing to do with thinking at all. And the way you improve execution is to drill. The whole idea of drilling is to make the appropriate action so natural, so automatic and ingrained that it becomes unconscious, spontaneous, and effortless. There are some aspects of behavior – courtesy, attention, bearing – which I would like to be unconscious, spontaneous, and effortless. And just as with football players, those skills are learned by drilling: by practicing, again and again, consistently, the right behavior.

Do we expect football players to be able to snap the football merely with their good intentions and empathy for their fellow players? No . . . we understand that it takes practice and drill. So why do we expect that our children to master technically demanding maneuvers like cleaning their rooms or apologizing for mistakes without practice? I have no doubt that Aidan would never learn to say "Please" and "Thank you" if we didn't insist, again and again and again, that he do so.

Ok, I don’t want to go off the deep end here. (I can feel audience eyeballs rolling at the mere mention of football.) I still like Kohn’s basic thesis. I’m not going to start acting like a drill sergeant with my kids. But I do believe there are times to force your kids to do things, whether they feel like doing it or not . . . maybe even because they don’t feel like it.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The contradictions in human nature

Most debates in the realm of politics and religion boil down to one's conception of human nature. The two poles of the debate are:
  1. People are fundamentally Good by nature, but are corrupted by outside influences (society, parents, media, peers, etc.)
  2. People are fundamentally Bad by nature, but are capable of Goodness by outside influences (society, parents, media, peers, etc.)

So (and these are very broad generalizations here, so bear with me) political liberals tend to be on the People are Good side, and political conservatives tend to be on the People are Bad side.

In the realm of child-rearing, this polarity shows up in the Authoritarian school versus the Unconditional Parenting school. (Warning, generalizations ahead.) The Authoritarians believe that children will be inherently lazy, selfish, stubborn, etc. and require firm discipline to teach them to be disciplined, generous, cooperative, etc. The Unconditional Parenting school would say that children are always trying their best, that when nurtured correctly they spontaneously manifest the qualities we desire.

I thought, when I started writing this, that I would be able to place myself somewhere on this continuum, and justify it, or at least make an interesting argument about it. But I've tried writing the next paragraph six times now over the last hour and half, and I keep saying, no, no, that's not right either. Every time I think I've got it cornered, I realize that I have to unpack all the terms: what do we mean by "Good" or "Bad", exactly? What do we mean by "naturally?" (I'm not turning into a mushy relativist here, far from it . . . but I keep realizing that not everyone is going to buy into my notions of Good or Natural, and so they stand to be defined.)


Expecting the Best

I mentioned in my last post that I "expect the best" from my children, and since Donna asked about it I see the need to clarify . . .

Does "expect the best" mean that I literally anticipate that they will always be little angels, full of compassion and goodness? Well, no, that would just be stupid. Not only would it be completely contrary to experience, it would also be a recipe for perpetual anger and frustration. All resentment ultimately originates from unmet expectations; you can't feel resentment unless you started out with some expectation that has been thwarted. In that sense, the only sane perspective is to hold as few expectations as possible. As my mom is fond of saying: "An optimist can never be pleasantly surprised."

Note that this most emphatically does not mean you should "expect the worst." Pessimism (i.e. "I'm expected the worst") can quickly shade into cynicism (i.e. "I'm expecting the worst, dammit.") "Expecting the worst" is a recipe for neurosis. Anything that goes well is poisoned by the expectation that it won't last. It means having to sweat every last detail (even the ones you could reasonably expect to go well) because you don't believe anything can happen well without your direct intervention or supervision. Pessimism is exhausting.

So, expecting too much is stupid, and expecting too little is stupid. Expectation in general is unadvisable. So what does that leave us? In a word: Stoicism (in the classical Roman sense, not the macho "feel no pain" sense). The Stoics recognized that the only sane attitude to hold in the face of reality is acceptance. Life is beautiful; let it in. Death is inevitable; so why act like you thought you were going to live forever? Acceptance allows you to be fully present in the moment.

So if expectation is so bad, what the heck do I mean by "expected the best" from my children? Fundamentally, I think high expectations is a core aspect of respect. Having high expectations is one the ways you can acknowledge someone's fullest capacity. It's easier to see this by looking at its opposite: what happens when you have low expectations of someone. Suppose someone, in word or deed, indicates to you that they have a low expectation for your capacity: "Oh, I don't think you can lift that." "I don't think you could keep up with us." "Here, you take the easy puzzle." If someone does that to us a little, we feel slighted; if they do it a lot, we feel mortally offended. "Screw you. I'm better than that." Conservatives have spoken in recent years about the "soft bigotry of low expectations," and I believe it. Nobody likes to be treated like children . . . even children.

Conversely, when you have high expectations of people, they feel acknowledged and flattered, and they usually do there best to meet those expectations. (Kohn might argue that people only do that because they have been conditioned by conditional love to seek to meet others expectations. There might be some truth in that, but I seriously doubt that's the whole story.) Most people, whether loved conditionally or unconditionally, like being thought of as capable, and do what they can to perpetuate that state. Note that this is not conditional love -- it's not "I won't love you if you don't clean up your room" or even "I'll love you more if you do clean up your room." It's simply: "Let's go clean your room."

My own mother summarized it this way: "As much as is possible, without going beyond their understanding, speak to children as you would speak to adults. They will see it (correctly) as a sign of respect, and they will usually acknowledge it and reaffirm it by giving you respect."

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Thinking Through Unconditional Parenting

I've started reading Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, which is mandatory reading in the Attachment Parenting circles these days, and something Janet and I find ourselves talking about a lot. The basic thesis is: most parenting books and techniques focus on eliciting desired behaviors from our children (going to the potty, being quiet, doing what they're told) rather than trying to turn them into the kind of people we want them to be (self-directed, self-disciplined, compassionate, considerate, etc.) Kohn is revolting against the reductionist, behaviorist, authoritarian model of parenting that focuses entirely on the child's behavior and assumes that parents' immediate utilitarian goals are always valid. Instead, he asks parents to focus on what's going on inside the child, and to work with the psychological realities of the child's life. Rather than using rewards and punishments to "reinforce" desired behaviors, parents should seek to evoke in their children the internal motivations we want them ultimately to have as adults.

Kohn has about 90% of me convinced. I agree with his basic premise: our goal of raising powerful, capable kids does not necessarily jibe with our immediate desires to get them to do what we want them to do. There are a lot of tactical questions, though, where I'm still fighting him in my head and in our home laboratory.

Kohn is correct when he says that our assumptions about parenting are largely derived from our assumptions about human nature. If we believe children are trying the best that they can, and that they naturally want to do good, then we parent them one way; if we are cynical and assume they will press every advantage to take as much from you as they can and need to be "whipped into line", then a completely different parenting style emerges.

The problem is, as much as I come from an ultimately optimistic spiritual perspective, it is heavily tinged with a mostly pessimistic view of human nature. I know that even the most well-intentioned of people (especially myself) are prone to laziness, selfishness, and rationalization. I have a "trust but verify" attitude on most things -- I will expect the best from my children, but also prepare for the worst. I think they will be mostly honest and good-willed . . . but sometimes they may need to be reminded of their best intentions. Most locks and alarms are not really intended to prevent entry -- they are there to "keep honest people honest." In the same way, I think parenting needs to be mostly based on communication and mutual respect, wholely in line with Kohn's "unconditional" approach . . . but sometimes, there will still be the need for reward and punishment, and arbitrarily enforced or reinforced behavior.

I haven't completely articulated these thoughts in my mind, but I will be revisiting the ideas often as I work my way through the book. I especially invite those who know more about this stuff to prove me wrong.