I used to hate children. Or perhaps more specifically, I used to be one of those people who said I hated children by way of saying that what I really hated was assholes. I have always, of course, as an only child and seriously dedicated bookworm, hated loud, outgoing people who interrupt my reading time. I had a boyfriend threaten to break up with me once if I didn’t stop yelling at him whenever he dared to address me while I was reading. But children, loud children, wild children, selfish little monsters – those were simply the most visible assholes in my vicinity at the time. So usually, as shorthand, I’d just say I hated children.
See, before I lived where I am now, I lived in a sort of mecca of a certain kind of upper class white professional urban procreation-oriented person, a place located in a borough of New York that begins with a B and ends with an N. The place where I lived had a several artisanal coffee shops displaying local artwork and selling things like “stout cake” and “organic home-made oreos,” wherein I regularly had to step around, over, and sometimes narrowly avoid the serious injury of, the spawn of such folk.
Numerous articles have been written about neighbourhoods like my former one, of late. And unless they appear in the fawning New York Times Style Section (which I like to think of as an ongoing subversive attempt to inspire class warfare between white people in New York), they usually tend to be underwritten by the overall theme of, “Would you get a load of these fucking people, Jesus Christ, etc.” I would like to say that my time among these people led me to the conclusion that they were not as awful as this media coverage would have you believe. But after the day where newly unemployed me was standing behind some women engaged in deep and serious conversation about the psychological effects their future solo trip to Paris would have on their left-behind offspring, I decided my generosity on that score had been exhausted.
But of late I have had to confront my personal prejudices against people with children. For the last few months I lived in Brooklyn, out of a confluence of personal circumstances, I ended up spending my Thursdays with a friend of mine who is also a commenter on this website. (Out thyself, if you wish, in the comments.) This friend has two young children: R., who is just about to turn three, and O., who is just under one year old. On Thursdays my friend, who worked from home, had little childcare assistance, and I got into the habit of hanging out with her to help her out with the children.
R. and O., I want to say first, are among the world’s most adorable children. R. bears a significant physical and spiritual resemblance to Scout Finch, and O. looks like a Gerber baby. O. doesn’t talk yet, but he does smile whenever you look at him and adores water, bending into the spray like a contortionist at the local playground fountains. He will have a difficult time getting a word in edgewise with a sister like R., in any event, who tends to natter on all day on any subject that interests her. The first Thursday I arrived, feeling somewhat trepidatious about potentially spending time with children when I thought myself “not good” with them, she examined my band-aid covered shin (a recent hiking snafu had left me with vampiric-looking holes in my flesh), then looked at me gravely and said, ‘I hope you feel better soon.” Every week thereafter she would comment on the ongoing status of my healing, right up until the last time I saw her, when she said, again, “You are not wearing band-aids any more.” She also had running commentary on my toenail polish colour (“It’s still purple this week”), her demands for the day (“Now I will watch Peppa Pig”),and future pets (“I want a pink porcupine, but it will hurt my hands so Daddy will have to hold it”). R. is a bit of a tiny lawyer – there are stated reasons for everything she does. She once apparently told her parents she could not yet learn her letters because she was “too young.” (I intend to use this excuse in future when people want me to do things.)
All of that adorableness aside, however, those Thursdays were hard work. R. is still in the process of learning that rules which apply to other people also apply to her, for example. Though this is cute when she admonishes her mother and I for chewing with our mouths open, it is less cute when one cannot convince her to eat her breakfast, leave her brother alone (she likes to maul him), take a nap, or go places she doesn’t, in the moment, feel like going. O. tends to yell when you leave his line of sight, and crawls incredibly quickly, and has a strong sense of what things people don’t want him to play with accompanied by a strong desire to play with exactly those things. And though I never saw either child have a tantrum that lasted longer than a few seconds, by the time I’d leave to go home in the late afternoon, I usually needed a nap, and often a shower.
I say all of this because while my time with R. and O. once and for all convinced me that maybe it was not children, but in fact assholes, that I hated, more than that it showed me something that I feel gets lost on all sides of debates like this recent one at Feministe over the public role of children. Children, you see, are people too, and this means not just one thing. I often hear people adapt the old feminist sawhorse that, “Feminism is the radical proposition that women are people” to children’s rights, as I did in the title of this post. But like all slogans, I feel like that line obscures as much as it reveals. Being a “person” shouldn’t be, it seems to me, simply a status that accords one freedom. It also accords one responsibilities, important responsibilities. Including, for example, the responsibility to behave with regard to the feelings and needs of others, both in coffee shops and, later on, in legislatures. I don’t know whether this is simply my having trouble looking across the divide to an American way of seeing things, but I’ve never quite understood why it is that the recognition of children as people should involve only the recognition of children’s value, and exclude any recognition of their destrctive tendencies. I recognize destructive tendencies in adults too, don’t get me wrong – it’s exactly my point that full humanity involves failure as well as success for everyone – not simply people of a certain age.
In any event it’s that responsibility, I think, that’s often at play in the cultural/media narrative about misbehaving children in white gentrified Brooklyn, for example. It’s frustrating to witness, first hand, children being taught that their needs and wants are superior to everyone else’s in the room. Because children who are taught that, I think, do not grow up to be particularly caring adults. They grow up, generally, to be the kind of people who believe that personal freedom is the be-all and end-all of existence. And to a certain extent, I think the ability to teach your kids to “express themselves,” without regard to the rest of the world, is one that is rooted in privilege. Only people who are white, rich, able-bodied, are able to express themselves without risk of retaliation. When your child does not have those privileges, they cannot simply believe that the world is what they make of it. I’m not trying to imply, of course, that allowing children to “express themselves” ought to continue to be reserved for children of privilege. I’m simply saying that perhaps there is a role, in self-expression generally, for the consideration of others. And I’m saying that there can be a soft version of what I’ve come to think of as the “latte critique” of a certain strain of modern parenthood – “Your child is interrupting my latte” – that says the issue here is not so much the latte, is not so much the occasional tantrum or blowout, but the general attitude among a certain class of people that their children deserve a superior class of respect and care to everyone else – including, in many cases, other people’s children.
Of course, this all ought to be distinguished from critiques of parenthood, or mothering, generally. Because there is, in a classist, racist, cissexist, heterosexist world, nothing monolithic about mothering that one can easily observe. It doesn’t operate the same for everybody, and I think that criticisms of parenthood have to come to terms with those substantive differences of experience. Sady, for example, is right here when she admonishes folks to remember that non-white women have entirely different substantive experiences of parenting in this culture than white women, and so come at the subject from entirely different epistemological standpoints that ought to be given voice in these conversations.
But by the same token, I don’t understand a defense of parenting that is monolithic. It has always struck me that, for example, radical mothering is a strange bedfellow for the Brooklyn “yoga parent” set. Yes, it may be true that the class-privileged white mother would spout some similar rhetoric about caring as an ethic and children’s rights to full human status – but it’s also the case, and I can tell you from being there, that the vast majority of such women hand off their children every day to women of colour, in many cases thus prioritizing their own children’s needs for care over those of the nanny’s children themselves. (I rarely see these women agitating for state-subsidized daycare, is what I’m saying.) I assume that I’m not telling any feminist defenders against the “latte critique” something they don’t already know; I guess what I’m asking is why the assumption that all mothers share some kind of bond of reasonableness and fealty to their fellow mothers is one that must go unchallenged in these discussions.