The phrase “Because I’m the adult,” like its cousin “Because I said so,” is the stuff of parental lore. Although I suspect that in many contemporary homes this phrase is becoming absent or rare, in this post, I want to consider the “because I’m an adult” logic that still exists, despite the fact that we are often uncomfortable saying it. In a later post, I'll focus on what we imagine being an “adult” is and how that gives a parent their authority. Now, however, I want to think about why parental authority makes many parents uncomfortable. (Me too!)
One - I live and work and breathe in an atmosphere where the goal is often "dismantling" bad power structures. This impulse, of course, is not limited to just the academic sector - political work in the Western world against racism, sexism, speciesism, ablism (you get the idea) are about power relations too. Heck, complaining about a bad boss is about bad power relations. Here I'm interesting in how the movements of the 20th century to undo power abuse politically and socially have had effects in the domestic sphere. I suspect for many families ‘because I said so” and “because I’m the adult” are said less often than they were 40 or 50 years ago - or at least with a measure of self-awareness. Power is suspect in our world. That adds a certain dimension to the challenge of contemporary parenting. Many parents end up struggling to know how to be an authority to their children, or what degree of authority they should have.
Second - parents have special responsibilities and ethical duties to their children. This being said - in America we tend to see children as private property which means that one parents have this responsibility and it is not so much an “adult” responsibility as a “parental” one. When professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry publically challenged the notion of children being “private property,” suggesting communities (and not just parents) should be responsible for children, she was criticized. (Apparently by Republicans. I think the fear here may be that children become political property. However, Harris-Perry is not interested in that - unlike Plato and Betrand Russell, who suggested that children be raised in common nurseries. As scary as I understand the risk of children "belonging" to governments is in our world, the idea that communities enact care for children is NOT the same thing.
(P.S. I would recommend “Caring Democracy” by Joan Tronto. She argues that we need a political system that is more aligned with the private, home realm and less aligned with the economic sphere. Yes, it DOES kind of make me giddy.)
I believe the idea that children are privately owned, leaving only one or two people are responsible for them, adds to the difficulty of parental authority in contemporary parenting.
Yes, I think adults have special knowledge they need to pass on to kids. Yes, I think parents should be specially tuned into their children. (And yes, I think children have special knowledge that they can pass on as well.) Still, because parenting is isolated, authority and knowledge transference take on a unique shape. The risk that a parent is going to “abuse” their authority - BECAUSE I SAID SO! - is increased in isolation. Likewise, the risk that a parent is going to struggle to understand how to use their authority is increased. Parents struggling with authority may not do so because they are "weak," but because our world is deeply conflicted on how power should be dealt with.
I've begun to wonder if parental isolation might be influencing, perhaps even shaping, current struggles with parental authority. What do I mean by "parental isolation"? I don't mean stay-at-home moms who feel stir crazy and alone. (Although that is something I feel concern and care toward.) I don't even mean - but again am concerned about - technological isolation ("alone together" as Sherry Turkle would say). When I say "parental isolation," I mean a sense that nuclear units are firm and fast lines. That parents belong to children and children belong to parents and that is it. That we have no responsibility for others in our society. (Although being caring and giving to others is nice.) This, I worry, is the basic framework of our parenting in society, but that (like any system) comes with flaws. I want to recognize, of course, that we do occasionally cross those lines - when we give other parents advice about their children (risky!), when we let grandparents discipline our children, when someone besides us reminds our children to use their manners. These things often happen in communities - extended families, church families, neighborhoods. They are important moments that DO happen when parental authority is expanded and communities actively care for children. However, of course, you already know these kinds of communities are fewer less-stable/permanent than they were several generations ago. And I kind of suspect that our technological communities differ from these. In particular, I wonder if they limit how much we are SEEN while we see others - which alters our accountability and connectivity.
Isolation. Oh isolation. The Great and Terrible. Remember the wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? (For those of you book nerds, I will refer to the original text and not the film.) When Dorothy and her friends come to the Emerald City, the wizard is isolated. No one sees him. No one knows what he even looks like. When he does grant Dorothy and her friends audience, he makes them come alone - then he takes on a different form for each meeting. To Dorothy he’s an enormous head, to the Scarecrow he’s a lovely lady (with wings), to the Woodman he’s a horrible beast, and to the Lion he’s a Ball of Fire. They are terrified. Part of his power over them is continually remaining out of reach, unknown and unknowable.
After the Wicked Witch of the East is killed (and Dorothy and Co. come back), they meet Oz collectively - this time he appears only as a voice. As you know, Oz is found out with a little help from Toto. Here the film features the iconic line, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” This image has a certain power to me as a parent in a social media age - I see parents who are sometimes torn between their domestic worlds with children and their adult worlds online. They live in them simultaneously - and like Toto, its children who sometimes pull back the curtain (or, you know, pull on your sweater until you play with them). We often live in simultaneous worlds like Oz is here - projecting ourselves online or in email or over the phone while our real parental identities are much smaller and meeker on display for our children. But having technological presences isn't really what I'm talking about here. It's about roles. It's more like the man behind the curtain is a sense of a line that we draw around our families. A comfortable line, if I'm honest. I don't actually want other people getting into my business. I like my own space, particularly to parent. I like doing things my own way.
In the original text, when Oz is found out he says "I am Oz, the Great and Terrible...But don't strike me--please don't--and I'll do anything you want me to.” This phrase - “Great and Terrible” - and Oz’s fear is important. In fact, the “Great & Terrible language is picked up by Dorothy and Co., who call Oz the “Great and Terrible Humbug.” *And yes, according to the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1731–1791), to hum in English indeed originally meant 'to deceive'* “Great and terrible” is a suggestive phrase, reflecting the double-edged sword of Oz’s power. I wonder if our parental authority and isolation is BOTH great and terrible too. I'm not just talking "With great power comes great responsibility." Maybe, at least for now, there isn't another solution. Maybe nuclear family parental authority is the best we can socially do. But still, I'll be remiss if I don't keep my eye on it.
I imagine by now you’ve grasped the comparison I’m making between Oz and parental isolation. While I suspect this extreme situation of authority/hiddenness is not the norm for most (if any) parents, there is a certain element of truth to it. Contemporary parenting seems to demand a hidden-self, a safe private parenting. The terrible/great power Oz seems to need to keep himself safe - as a parent I sometimes feel the same need. However, this means that the Emerald City is less of a wonderland and more of a fortress. Even though there are good witches (north, south), Oz fears the bad ones (east, west) and so has closed himself off. He is - as it were - an isolated ruler (parent?) over his people. This requires them to wear, yes, Emerald colored glasses so that they imagine the fortress is a city rich with jewels.
In short, I'm worrying. I'm worry about how to make parenting less of a fortress kind of situation, one where I keep myself safe and private by keeping myself closed off. I'm worried about the effects of communities not caring about children, not watching out for them, not having a deep sense of responsibility to all children.
I'm worried about living in a world where loving your neighbors isn't a thing.
Who are parents accountable to? In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chau argued that the Western attitude is to make parents accountable to children. She asserts Chinese families believe that children are responsible to/for parents, not parents to/for children. Patricia Williams charged Chau - who was born in Illinois - of actually being influenced by “her aspirational American upper-middle-class-ness.” Neither author mentions that possibility that parental accountability could happen outside of nuclear family lines.
I'm not really sure what the ethical basis for parenting should be, or the ethical basis for nurturing others in society who are not in your nuclear family. Still, I think it's worth looking into. If, for no other reason, because I grow weary of teaching my daughter to do things "just because." I want to understand why we do this thing the way we do, and if there are ways we can maybe do it better. If there's a possibility of being more cooperative and less competitive overall.