You and me, and baby makes infinity

by Carl Dyke

(Brace for lengthy preamble:) I’m teaching a section of the freshman orientation seminar again as an overload. The class is the usual product of episodic collective decision-making, a hodgepodge of boilerplate pedagogical imperatives trailing admirable goals and good intentions behind them like toilet paper stuck to shoes. There’s not a lot of clarity about what the class is for or how to accomplish it, or rather there are various clarities which produce a muddy tinge when mixed together. This means I can mostly do what I want with it, so I’m happy.

There’s a book and a textbook, neither of which I picked but both of which I like fine. The book is Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field, about a plucky team of Latino kids, many undocumented, who momentarily overcome their destiny as cheap labor for consumer America and win the North Carolina state high-school soccer championship. Its narrative is engaging enough and its points about aspiration, fairness and Othering are obvious enough to engage freshmen right at the margin of the academic habitus.

The textbook is Ethics and College Student Life, which uses case studies to encourage ethical reflection across a range of principles (categorical imperative, utilitarianism, community, relationship, character growth). Among the things I like about this book is that the cases are mostly not easy stereotypes of right and wrong, and therefore to make any headway with them it’s necessary to unpack the conventions, dispositions and values that cluster with formal ethics to create situated ethical reasonings.

Well, for some reason I don’t remember ‘helicopter parenting’ was in the air at the beginning of the term, so I started with that as an informal talking-point to introduce the students to the procedures of coordinating abstract thinking with concrete examples. Most of the students have been helicoptered to varying degrees, adding further value to making that ‘normal’ relationship a matter of reflective investigation for them. I bracketed the good/bad kind of moral judgment to take the sting out of the discussion and offered a more ethnographic view of ethics as practices aspiring to universality. The question was then, what kind of people and relationships do helicopter practices create, and what kind of world do they aspire to?

The resulting discussion was a rough first day on the trail, so I won’t linger on it except to say that the students were engaged and began to see the fun of using their noggins in new ways. Where I’m going with this post is to note that the ethic of helicopter parenting is another of those places where the infinity standard pops up. There is always more you can do for your child, infinity.

Which is new for ‘people like me’ since I was a lad, when we (the suburban petite-bourgeoisie) were still making the transition from the low investment, children-as-asset paradigm to the high investment, children-as-status-display paradigm that is now virtually complete.

Careful not to oversauce.

Careful not to oversauce.

Along these lines, as captain of a USTA tennis team I’m befuddled to find that it’s sometimes hard to line guys up to play on evenings and weekends (which is pretty much when there is for working adults to play) because they are attending the organized sporting events of their offspring. Huh? As I understand it, there is some pride for the parent who never misses a spectation opportunity, and some shame in being the parent who does. The standard of parental attention seems to be infinity. Now by way of contrast, I remember reading a Rolling Stone interview with Tip O’Neill about how proud he was of his generation of Democratic legislators for the workplace legislation that made sure fathers wouldn’t routinely be working 80-90 hour weeks and thus never see their kids. And even later, when I was growing up, walking ten miles to school through the perennial snow uphill both ways, and I was on the high school tennis team (we played in the snow uphill both ways), I’m pretty dang sure my parents never came to a single match. This might have damaged my delicate psyche if anyone else’s parents had come out, but to my recollection they did not. (No doubt years of expensive therapy could implant those memories to get me caught up with the state of the art.)

There was a late bus to take me home from team practices and matches. It was sometimes an hour or so between the end of something (I was also in some school theater and so on) and when the late bus went, so I waited. The late bus wound around all creation to take various kids to various homes; I was pretty far out in farm country so that was another hour, give or take. If I missed the late bus for some reason I knew I could call and Mom or Dad would come get me, when they got around to it after they finished what they were doing. This also involved waiting. Necessity seeks its virtue, and mine is patience. I’m also used to thinking of other people’s agendas as having some value independent of my immediate convenience.

The main point of these organized sporting activities of my youth, as far as I can tell, was to add a few hours onto the time when parents did not have to pay attention to their children.

To practice out of season I would ride my bike about 5 miles to the courts, play a few hours, then ride home. My idea of privilege was to not have chores at home that I was shirking; it did not occur to me that my parents should be available to drop everything and give me rides to the courts, nor did they make any visible point of fretting over the very real chances that I would get sideswiped into the ditches on our narrow country roads or that I would not have a good time. Necessity’s virtues were that I was in fine physical condition without a lot of fuss, independent, and pretty good at entertaining myself. I got what seemed to me like plenty of attention and it never occurred to me to doubt that I was loved and valued.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every parenting system involves trade-offs. Independence is nice for low-density social settings but can involve some inwardness, a kind of cultural autism, that makes higher-density sociability awkward and energy-intensive. In contrast the helicoptered kids tend to be trusting, open and easily sociable. And because they’ve never had to make do and are used to their needs being met on demand, they drive a consumer economy much better than the frugal self-reliance I grew up with. From that latter perspective, it’s a good thing that their personal boundaries are rudimentary and their expectations unlimited. It will be interesting to see how they translate being the recipients of their parents’ infinity standards into their own parenting practices.


14 Comments to “You and me, and baby makes infinity”

  1. I think it’s a generational thing, that kind of excessive concern and hovering around children. OUTLIERS (love the cartoon!) says it’s a class issue now, which I took to mean “If you really CARED, you’d be at the game.” I wonder if he’s right or if he’s just preaching to a whole choir of helicopter parents who now can say, “See? I told you so.”

  2. Yup, there’s certainly a class issue, mediated by performance and display; a conspicuous consumption in the twofold form of the conspicuously useless child devoted entirely to expensive leisure, and the conspicuously needless availability of parents, framing both their child’s and their own distance from crass necessity. So what’s cared about is not (only) the child, but the impression that’s being managed and therefore the maintenance of the class front. Which could well be necessary, since there’s very little but symbolic capital in the accounts of the suburban middle class.

  3. “Which could well be necessary”

    As necessary as a dike holding back the sea. Hence the helicoptering since any fault lines portend a catastrophe. Takes a lot of energy to keep that castle up in the air. Heh, enough mixed metaphors? I can add a couple more. I think that Zizek would say: something something welcome to the desert of the real something something the return of the repressed something insert obscene joke here something something. 😉

    Does helicoptering turn to teaparty rage when the ground shifts and it looks as though one’s class: white, Christian, suburban, has lost status? “I spent all that energy maintaining appearances and now it’s all falling apart. It can’t be my fault, it must be the fault of that usurper in the White House.”

  4. “Takes a lot of energy to keep that castle up in the air.”

    We must both have in mind that original Star Trek episode with the floating city being kept aloft by the exploited and poisoned workers.

    “Does helicoptering turn to teaparty rage when the ground shifts and it looks as though one’s class: white, Christian, suburban, has lost status? ‘I spent all that energy maintaining appearances and now it’s all falling apart. It can’t be my fault….'”

    Yes, well said. The thing is though, it’s not just crass resentment; there’s a real void of community and meaning in the lives of these poor slobs; their worlds are really threatening to crumble, and they’re chasing stability in whatever shortsighted ways their narrow perspectives allow them. I’ll take obsessive parenthood over fascism and the KKK any day, although the overlaps and effective drifts bear careful watching.

  5. Sociological question: Has anyone ever done a study comparing parental habits among religious and non-religious people? The hypothesis is that the former will have a stronger support group in time of need. They will have community and feeling. Are they, then, less likely to be helicoptering parents?

  6. John, that’s a great question. Short answer is, I have no idea. If I could venture a hypothesis, though, I’m inclined to think that suburban American religion is too optional to provide the kind of deep structure of meaning and regulation that would make it an effective antidote to anxious overparenting.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve looked at Bellah’s Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, but if I remember correctly it might be somewhat on point.

  7. To me it remains an empirical question, motivated in part by a sense that one of the real blind spots of us liberally inclined intellectuals is failure to recognize how important and central a religious community can be in people’s lives.

    In my case I grew up in a family where the only acceptable reason for not going to church on Sunday was being sick in bed, the parents sang in the choir and taught Sunday school, my dad was on the church council, and the annual church picnic was in our back yard. I felt smothered and drifted away via philosophy and anthropology. My brother couldn’t stand being in the same church as my dad but found one of his own. It is now one of the largest churches on the Virginia peninsula, with a school, a nursing home under construction, and full cradle-to-the-grave support for its members a primary goal. Besides regular church services and social events, my brother and his wife attend a weekly small group, for a pot-luck dinner and bible-study plus talking about each other’s problems in a safe and confidential (what’s said in group stays in group) setting.

    My sense, given the success of megachurches around the country, is that there is a lot more of this stuff going on than we unbelievers are willing to admit.

  8. Two things come to mind. First, I remember reading about a study a few years ago that compared “strict” parenting with “permissive” parenting. Turns out that the strict/permissive continuum didn’t predict much; the real question was whether the parenting was consistent. Was this behavior consistently reinforced, or regarded as bad, or whatevs. Of course, I don’t remember exactly to what consistent parenting led, but I still found it interesting, and I suspect that helicoptering or its opposite probably have some similar effects.

    Second, I vaguely remember another thing–possibly also a study, but I don’t remember–that is related to the question about when people go teabagger, i.e., when does someone feel at a loss, rageful, etc. IIRC, which IMN, the relevant personality characteristic was ability to deal with ambiguity. People who do not like ambiguity are more likely to get cranky about the status changes to which you’re referring. And I’ve noticed a variation on that theme myself: “I worked hard; I followed all the rules; therefore I Deserve X.” And, really, we all have some of that going on, but some of us view the rules of the socioeconomic/political/anthropological “order” as less-well-defined, I suspect.

    Which eventually brings up the question of privilege again, but I don’t really have time to tease that out properly now.

  9. Narya, I’m led by my interactionism (the self is an emergent formation of interactions and situations) to think that there’s a link between your two paragraphs. The crass hypothesis would be that children of permissive parents are good with ambiguity because they’ve had so much room to work things out for themselves, while products of authoritarian parenting handle ambiguity badly, because all their habits have been rigorously locked in to an unambiguous command-and-control model. Their world is very orderly but very sensitive to perturbation. This is the ‘authoritarian personality’ sometimes favored in explanations of Germans’ vulnerability to Nazi propaganda.

    But as your second paragraph suggests, I’ve known people from loving, consistent authoritarian households who cope quite well with ambiguity, although not by embracing it. They expect the world to be a jumble but they carry around a deeply-rooted ethic of their own and function in crazy social settings like rocks in a stream.

    Similarly, I’ve found that children of wifty permissive parenting can be highly anxious, clutching fiercely to some system of truths that they’ve cobbled together from the flux of their lives and reflexively distrustful of any ordering process that does not fit their narrow template.

    We know that successful brainwashing involves a process of destabilization in which the victim is discontinuously harassed with confusing stimuli until she becomes desperate for any kind of stable, ordered input. The description of John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war is a case in point, and his resistance to it can no doubt be ascribed to a deeply-rooted ethic installed through the consistency of his authoritarian upbringing. This would also be a value of religion, of course, to get back to John’s excellent point, but religion does not work this way if it is optionalized and turned into a question of which church throws the best potlucks and is easiest to commute to.

  10. Thanks, Carl; that’s where I was trying to go. Your last ‘graph is also interesting in light of the Times article on Tuesday (I think) about how nonsense helps the brain find patterns. Here. Which kind of makes sense, too; perturbations are useful, at least up to a point.

    I remember I had a philosophy prof in college who characterized human behavior as “pattern-matching,” which of course also implies pattern-finding and pattern-creating. Despite the imperfections of that analogy, I have found it to be surprisingly useful over the years.

  11. “perturbations are useful, at least up to a point”

    Noen and I talked about this a bit on the bells and whistles thread. Maybe worth reviving here:

    noen said September 17, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Reading Kafka Improves Learning, Suggests Psychology Study

    According to research by psychologists at UC Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia, exposure to the surrealism in, say, Kafka’s “The Country Doctor” or Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” enhances the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions. The researchers’ findings appear in an article published in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science.

    “The idea is that when you’re exposed to a meaning threat –– something that fundamentally does not make sense –– your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSB and co-author of the article. “And, it turns out, that structure can be completely unrelated to the meaning threat.”

    Yay for David Lynch! Personally, I think I do understand Lynch, or at least have a foothold into his territory. I’m gonna have to go watch Blue Velvet again.

    Now it’s dark.

    Carl said September 21, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Yeah, I think good teaching is reality therapy. Double-dipping this Watzlawick quote here, “The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions.” For people with this delusion anything ‘outside their box’ appears surreal and threatens meaning. The trick is to progressively trouble the obvious without fully engaging the defenses.

    noen said September 21, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    So I take it that lecturing dressed as a giant cockroach and then intoning “This is no dream” would be out then?

  12. The primary goal of the interdisciplinary Human Development program I taught in at Cal State-Hayward was to teach the students to cope better with ambiguity / be more resilient. It was loosely inspired by William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development in college students.

    As I said to Noen, the trick is to use non-sense to stimulate category-failures that allow/force students to develop new sense-making strategies, without just overloading them and causing seal-offs and meltdowns. In practice the HDev faculty scatterplotted between the axes of throwing the students into the deep end and letting them sink or swim, vs. carefully metering out little shocks of confusion with lots of buffering nurturance. My view was that one size does not fit all, so some students I dunked and some I delicately spritzed. The giant cockroach would work great for some and shut some others right down. But intoning is always good.

  13. Third response to the cockroach: eyerolling. But that’s because I have a Bad Attitude.

    Also: I do not like David Lynch. I saw BV nearly 20 years ago and hated it, though I don’t remember all the detailed reasons. I can say that it was likely because it seemed self-indulgent and vaguely misogynist and not particularly interesting. Which I think is my overall point here, i.e., there should BE a point. Absurdity for the sake of absurdity is boring to me; life provides enough absurdity.

    Also also: Though Joan Didion can get on my last nerve, she said something that has always rung true to me and that is relevant here. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I don’t personally think everything has Meaning, including our lives, but I do think that we try to create narratives, however disjointed. As LW would say, we try to reach a point where we can say that we know how to go on.

    Also also wik: Phillies up, 5-0, as I type.

  14. ‘Who trained your moose’ — the original ‘who’s your Daddy’? Anyway if you’re going to drop wry references to Monty Python’s absurdist schtick it’s absurd to do so in comments in which you assert that absurdity for the sake of absurdity is boring. So, like, my compliments.

    Lynch works best, I think, as popular, entry-level mindfuck; sort of the training wheels of avant-gardism. As such it has its place; when I saw BV I was in college, disco had given over to punk which had quickly degenerated into new wave, and so it hit me at a good time. It looks self-indulgent to cognoscenti because it’s tropically paint-by-numbers with only Lynch’s libidinal quirks to give it any zip. Among the latter is a generic sort of misanthropy that makes everyone look bad, so misogyny is certainly in there.

    “Twin Peaks” was big in Italy when I was there doing my dissertation research. I thought it was pretty entertaining in a more-fun-than-Mash-or-Cheers kind of way in English; in Italian and through the lens of European fascination with the U.S. the pastiche of dark American underbelly cliches became genuinely surreal.

    That trade for Lee looking better and better, huh.

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