Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Teaching Children Lessons

Adam and I were watching TV the other day and the commercials came on. Somehow, we got around to talking about how to treat commercials when Sam is around.

Adam brought up the subject by saying that he is very careful not to say negative things about commercials in front of her, because commercials are good, and allow us to watch and listen to all of this programming for free. My response was that I found that disingenuous, because, although it may be true that commercials are not evil (as anti-man, primitive-worshiping morons claim) it can still be true that one can be annoyed by them, or find them distracting, or any number of other valid complaints. I told him that I didn't think he should be trying to teach her this kind of "moral lesson" by faking his true response, and that she would learn the abstract issues later.

But then Adam corrected me (and I probably should have known better than to think what I did). He said that he would not put on an act for her to "protect" her from bad ideas, but that what he was doing by not disparaging commercials was checking his own reactions to them. He thinks that a disdain for commercials is really an out-of-context emotion - a dropping of the whole context of the good that commercials represent, while focusing on some narrow moment of irritation.

Thus corrected, I still disagreed with him that irritation at commercials was necessarily an out-of-context emotion. But I no longer felt that he was doing anything wrong in regard to Sam, even though he would be acting differently than I would be.

Thinking about the implications of this, I generalized and came up with this formulation: if you feel that you should alter your "natural" behavior in front of your child, there is an easy way to check whether that feeling is valid - if you are doing it as an act of self-improvement, for your own sake, it is probably valid; if you are doing it to teach a lesson, or primarily for the child's sake, it is probably an error.

That's an example of selfish parenting. It's also an example of the real way in which "having children makes us better people." It's not because we have to sacrifice, repress, compromise, give up, and suffer, all in the name of some warped version of love. (The idea that this would make one a better person is enough to make my head explode.) It's because children help us to see ourselves objectively. Hopefully we are already morally ambitious, and recognize the benefits of self-improvement. But it's not always so easy to see the ways in which we can improve. When you have children, you see yourself through their eyes. Innocent, honest, trusting eyes - the clearest mirror you will ever have. And valuing that mirror is selfish parenting, too.


  1. I like it, and the process you demonstrated here!

    Though to focus on the narrow concrete, nearly every commercial I see is awful. I actually enjoy clever ones especially when they advertise interesting products and pay for the show I want to watch. But most of the time they are idiotic.

  2. Though the point in this post is more about teaching a child, I do have something to say about commercials. The fact that advertising as such is good and necessary doesn't mean that every particular instance of it is worthy of respect. If I were to go to an art museum that turned out to be full of twisted metal and globs of paint, I wouldn't hold back my condemnation because "art is a psychological need and a spiritual fuel." *That* would be taking things out of their proper context. In fact, it's this very error that keeps bad art in business. I certainly wouldn't, due to that particular museum, condemn art as such, but that doesn't mean that it's improper to condemn most of the "art" that's out there.

  3. Jennifer, I didn't go into detail about my husband's position, and I don't really want to get into that subject, but what you're saying is not his position at all. He isn't against criticizing any particular commercial - he thinks it is an out-of-context emotion to extrapolate from irritation at one particular commercial to, "god, commercials are annoying." And that would indeed apply to art as well. If most art is bad, you still wouldn't go around saying, "I hate art. It sucks." But he and I didn't talk about it much so I don't want to put words in his mouth. I just don't want what I wrote to be misunderstood.

  4. These are some great thoughts, and ones, ironically, I often argue to my husband.

    There are some cases, however, where I believe one should think hard about the lesson they are presenting to the child. After all, as parents, we are not just people, not just family, we are educators too. Everything we do is an opportunity to help our children form a view of the world.

    My husband and I have agreed that we should not express our negative views toward the government and its proper (though corrupt) agencies, such as police. Under a proper government, police would be an extremely important and valuable institution, one we would always be willing to help do its job. Today, we are more afraid of the protection, than we are of the criminals.

    Projecting this view to our children, without the context, would produce an individual who is cynical and distrustful. Explaining the proper function of police, for instance, without yet introducing the bad stuff to a four-year-old, would give them the proper sense of life, safety and benevolence. Once that is firmly in place, we can move onto the details and the negatives. I wrote a blog post about a related issue on Martin Luther King's day, a holiday that makes my skin crawl, yet celebrates something actually wonderful in terms of ideas: Martin Luther King Day

  5. Kate, that is a perfect analogy, I think. Interesting! But, I still hold to my position. If I truly felt fearful of the police, I would not hesitate to allow my child to see that, despite the fact that the police are theoretically a proper function of government. If things were that bad, I would want her to know the concrete first, and then I would help her see the ideal and proper way later. But I honestly feel good about most policemen I see and we tell Sam all the time about how they keep us safe. Those are our honest opinions.

    In another political analogy, I certainly do express my disdain for politicians around my daughter all the time. What I don't do is bash any office of the government, such as Congress as a whole or even the office of the President. Again, these are my true opinions and feelings. I think Obama is a terrible president and I criticize things he does all the time, but I don't speak (in my daughter's hearing or elsewhere) in a way that denigrates the presidency--at least I try not to--sometimes I do indeed have an out-of-context emotion and reaction. But that is Adam's point.

    When Obama is on magazine covers and she asks about him, I tell her who he is in a respectful way and tell her a bit about what his job is. When she sees the White House and wants to go there to meet Obama, I don't drop context (Adam's point) and start calling him names or telling her how she would hate him or anything like that. I tell her that he is a very busy man and has a very important job and that he doesn't have time to meet everyone who comes to visit. This is not distasteful for me to do. I do respect the office of the president, so it does not feel forced or unnatural. If it did, I think I would have to agree with Adam, not that I need to put on an act for her, but that I might want to check my own premises.

    One example where I am having to do just that is in the area of foul language. I thought I was ok with it and even wrote a fabulous post on the subject, but now I'm feeling a bit of discomfort when I hear Sam drop the F-bomb, and I'm tempted to feel that I should change my own language so that she doesn't pick up bad habits. (I've probably said the F-word in front of her three times - I'm not saying I speak like a sailor or anything.) This tells me that I have some unresolved conflict about it and need to figure it out. Maybe I'll post on that at some point. But my point now is that I'm still following the same principle - if I feel like I need to modify my behavior for her sake, then I'm probably wrong in some way.

  6. Ah, ok Amy. Nevermind then. :^)