“I just want my child to be happy, to have fun, whatever that means to them. My job is to facilitate their happiness, not make them live according to the arbitrary ‘rules’ of society.”
“I’m not here to make my kid happy. It’s my job to make sure they grow up to be good, productive citizens, with strong work ethics, who can function in society; ‘fun’ isn’t a part of parenting.”
Neither of these radical (but not exaggerated) parenting mission statements sit very well with me.
In the first we have a lack of recognition of the human as a social animal — which we very much are — and of how much joy is to be found living harmoniously with our tribe. There’s a reason “anti-conformists” and “non-conformists” tend to seek out and create groups of like-minded people: it is excruciatingly painful for most of us to be completely out of touch with everyone around us — we can survive and enjoy small or even large differences if we also have commonalities; without any way to connect with those around us, without any similarities, most of us wither and withdraw. Because humans are, at base, conformists, even when what we conform to is out of the mainstream. So stop talking to me about “sheeple” and deriding people with whom you disagree for “caring what other people think”. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get along with your community, and so much happiness to be found there.
Whereas in the second has a lack of recognition of the child as an individual and of how pointless a life without joy is. The more complex an animal’s neurology is — eg apes (such as us), dolphins, elephants, even dogs and cats and rats and really all mammals — the more there is the capacity for and the need for play. We live to play. We live for joy. We live, frankly, to be selfish and to strive for our own highest happiness. If we forget that “productivity” and “work ethic” and “functioning in society” are simply grease for our own joy — not necessarily passing pleasure, though that as well, but also the deep and rewarding satisfaction of creation and contribution and of the struggle itself — we forget our own nature as human animals, as great apes, as bearers of the most complex neurology on the planet1. “Fun” (in the sense of joy and play) is not the antithesis of work, but rather, properly, its companion.
I am bipolar. Most of my life, starting no later than a few years into puberty, I have experienced either depression or mixed states (the most unholy and hellish combination of mania and depression — think of it as “high energy self-hatred”). I have, therefore, a deep and abiding commitment to making sure my children are capable of — have all the tools needed for — experiencing happiness, because it has so often been entirely out of my reach. One of the key diagnostic criteria for depression is an inability to experience joy or pleasure: why would I want to teach my children life is supposed to be that way? Why would I want to tell them that joy and pleasure are optional, only accessible to them if they have time to squeeze it in between eating foods they hate I’ve decided they must eat and going to bed at the time I have set for them?2 I don’t. I want them to know that joy and happiness and the ability to experience pleasure is their birthright, and that something is very, very wrong if they are being told they must sacrifice these to be deemed “good people”.
And I’ve spent most of my adult life, because of my mood disorder, utterly unable to be “productive”. I have not had a “real job” in nearly a decade, and that one I was fired from and had to lie my way back into (because “I was sick with mental illness” is not an explanation many employers will take kindly to). I spent years where all I did was wake whenever, watch as much TV as I chose, go out whenever the fancy struck me, with nearly no obligations or responsibilities of any kind. And it was unbearably awful. Not just because I was highly mood unstable at the time, but because humans are not meant for idleness. Yes, we all dream of being retired, free to do as we wish — but not for nothing does the image of the happy retiree often include boat building or grandparenting or copious cardigan knitting. The only reason we think we want to do “nothing” is because we are taught from childhood that “fun” and “productive” are mutually exclusive, and we have to quit the one if we are to have any of the other. I want to teach my children to expand what we consider “productive” beyond that which fuels the capitalist machine and to help them reject our culture’s valuing of persons based on how much one is able to participate in the consumerist cycle. But I also want them to never forget3 that contributing to their community is inherently a worthy, fulfilling pursuit. Because being unable to — if, for instance, the combination of one’s ability and society’s expectations are incompatible — is no fun at all.
What I want — for my children, for myself, for all of us — is autonomy and community, productivity and pleasure, selfishness and selflessness. I want us to stop thinking of these as opposites, as incompatible, as mutually exclusive, as somehow separate each from the others. I want for my children, for myself, for you, to find the joy in struggling to balance each part in its turn, and to embrace our inability to ever quite manage it. I want a parenting statement that doesn’t fit well into a pithy, smug, superior-sounding quote. I want all of the above. I want to stop us thinking in “or”. I want yes. I want nuance and complexity and a definition of joy that doesn’t exclude hard work and tears and defeats. I want more.
What do you want?
- That we know of. ↩
- Which is not to say eating a variety of foods and getting sufficient sleep is unimportant or any parent who places value on these is in the wrong; what I am critiquing is the power dynamic of decrees-from-on-high these topics are so often framed as. ↩
- Because I believe children, social creatures that they are, are born knowing this. ↩