Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Whatchutalkinboutwillis? (The Bad Parenting Fallacy)

Hey there, internet! How was your week? Same old same old for me, just, you know, riding on dolphins, climbing large buildings with my bare hands, and pretending I do awesome stuff during the week so I won't feel like quite the normal old loser I so desperately try to not be but can't escape from and will eventually come to accept through a coming of age story that will probably be a Lifetime Movie at some point.

So this week is a special week, but not special in the sense of Super Special Saturday Bonus Post special. It's more like that Diff'rent Strokes episode about pedophillia, only much, much less uncomfortable. 

Um...Yeeeeeeeaaaah...*shuffles feet*

No, this week's post is special because, unlike previous posts, this week's topic neither comes directly out of my narrow expertise, nor is something I've exhaustively researched. It's the kind of thing I couldn't really get a whole lot of extremely useful information for by just talking to people, and would have had to delve fairly deeply into some psychology books to get a really really good handle on which, I mean you guys are great and all, but you try putting that together in a week. So, instead, this week's topic will be coming from my personal experience and observations, which probably means a few of you will get angry and disagree. I mean, facts on the internet get argued about all the time for some reason, so I definitely don't expect the insights of some no-name college student to be any different. That being said; let's dive right into it:

This Week's Topic Is:
The Bad Parent Fallacy

Ah, the Human Race. We have this fantastic ability to create the best stereotypes. Seriously, if we could box this shit up and mail it to some other planet, it'd be our chief export. We're just so good at it. I mean, obviously, there's the big ones; British people have bad teeth, Christians are terrible hypocrites, Muslims Jihad on everything, gay men want to sleep with everyone, black people steal things, white people ALSO steal things, but in ways that are much more almost legal, stuff like that. These are the ones we 'see' every day and actively resist, which is good; these are all terrible, damaging images which do not come close to true for the greater membership of any party. 

Those ones though, you don't really see them every day as much as you're aware of them every day. To an extent, we know these aren't acceptable and so avoid them except maybe in cases where we think it might be okay. More subtly however, there's a whole additional world of real, but very quiet, socially acceptable, stereotypes that you really do see every day. What do you imagine when I say "Middle Management"?

Source: Film. He Was a Quiet Man(2007)
"Does anyone here actually know what a TPS report is? Because I've worked here like twenty years and no one's ever explained it to me."

White, late middle-age, bald or balding, comically outdated clothing, and a perpetual look of "what?" painted on his face. What about "English Teacher"? Most of you are probably getting an image of a doddering, crotchety old lady who cared way too much about grammar and probably still thinks it's 1957. 

You could do this with nearly anything that comes conveniently pre-grouped; stay at home moms, single moms, kindergarten teachers, accountants, inner-city kids, rich kids, authors, strippers, and so on and so on. All groupings make your brain pull up a (probably fabricated) image of the predetermined characteristics of that group, true or not as they may be. This is because stereotyping, in its very most basic of form, is not an inherently evil or shallow thing; it's just a method of organization. We group things by their most prominent features because grouping them by all the little, individual features would drive us all crazy, so to compensate we group things we're more familiar with in more diverse, specific groups and group things more generally as we move outwards from what we know. 

One of the "You probably don't realize it unless you've done some real thinking about this" uses of stereotypes is as a sort of free-floating scapegoat. Again, there's the obvious ones: Gays are ruining marriage/our children, Republicans are the reason we're in debt, and I am so tired of these dolphins driving up the market price of handguns in my city, stuff like that.

Sea mammals simply do not understand supply and demand.

They become not just a cause of our problems, but the way we deal with them. Namely, by not dealing with them. So long as we have someone to blame, we can feel like we at least did the work of identifying the problem and maybe someone somewhere else will teach those dirty dolphins economics or something. 

This gets particularly nefarious when we start assigning blame to groups that don't officially exist in any tangible, sue-able fashion. Groups like "kids these days" "some crazy guy on the subway" and "uncomfortably religious people" These groups do exist in that there are people who fit that description, but you'll never see a Kids These Days United Lobbyist or a "Crazy Subwayites" minority rights rally. These are stereotypes created specifically to bear the burdens of the problems we can't properly handle, and you know what one of our favorite ones is? Bad parenting.
Yes! He finally got to the point! Jesus, that took forever.

I'm willing to bet that nearly all of you have a bad parenting story. Depending on your relationship with your own parents, maybe it's about you. Of those who it isn't however, I'm willing to bet that less than half of you could name the people involved. Generally it's a shocking story about how a mother couldn't corral her children in a very public manner or how a particularly, shall we say, unconventionally dressed teenager got in a shouting match with her dad over whether this was really 'her' or not. Often, these stories feed into our own personal biases; just this very day, in fact, one of my classmates insisted that if people knew how to raise their kids, we wouldn't be in the war on religion we were in today. Is that true? Depends on who you ask, but they used the acceptable stereotype of bad parenting to justify their belief that Jesus was under fire from the government. They even skipped the step where they supported their argument with an amusing anecdote.

Look, there's only so many contexts I get to use this picture in and dammit, I'm gonna cash in on them.

At this point, it bears repeating that I am not, nor have I ever been, a parent of a child. I say this because from this point forward, we'll be dealing directly with parenting and dealing with it through only the eyes of my own experience. Granted, my experience involves, among other things, being a regular caretaker of three barely to not at all potty-trained children, but I think that paid far too well to be considered parenting.

Now obviously, not everything that fits the superficial critieria equals a bad parent. In my experience, when you see that grocery store meltdown or that leash baby, one of three things are probably happening.

1) Everyone's having a bad day. Or a bad month. Or a bad year. They happen. Sometimes mom or dad is just too frazzled to watch their kid's every move and they overestimate themselves. Sometimes they're too busy dealing with grownup stuff that they don't have the time or patience to properly talk their kid down, so they feel like they have to resort to shouting them down. It's not great, it's not even good, but that doesn't make them bad people.

2) It is a genuine flaw they have. This is one of those little inconvenient truths that you never really talk about, but still get around. Truth is; everyone has a flaw that's ultimately going to affect their kid in a negative way; there's no way around it. No one is perfect, and their parenting will reflect that. Being responsible for a poop factory doesn't mean you instantly do all the hard work to get past all of your skeletons and imperfections; they're still going to affect you, so they're still going to show up in how you raise your kids. A few, even glaring, flaws, a bad parent does not make, though that one flaw out of context can sure make it seem that way.

3) That's kinda just how they do things. This is the hardest one to accept because it means acknowledging that people do things in ways you don't approve of and are at least generally fairly successful. Different people though, have different values and sometimes those values make it okay to dress your kids up like the cast of Jersey Shore.

I don't like calling them a cast. That implies that they can act, which implies talent, which implies higher brain function.

So we already discussed why people in general do it, but I feel like there's a deeper reason for parents to do it. Ask any group of parents about what you can do to prepare for having a child and you might get some actual advice, if you're lucky, but the general consensus will be that no matter how prepared you are, you're never prepared. Every mom and dad who's spent the whole night up with a baby that hadn't quite figured out when night time was yet can attest to just how much of a drain it is on you, followed by a knowing look. God, I hate that look.

The results for "knowing look" are surprisingly comprehensive. The results for "oh you" are pretty much just this guy.

Moving along, this is my theory; parenting is a total crapshoot. If you don't know what you're doing, then that's just about right, if you know exactly what you're doing, then you probably forgot something important. Naturally, this has a pretty predictable effect on one's self-confidence; it wreaks holy hell with it. So we build it back up the best way we know how; by tearing other people's down. You can see the effects of this in things like piano recitals, science fairs, and pee-wee football where parents are obviously way, way, creepily way more into it than the kids. It affirms that they're doing well because their children do well. Does it make sense? Not always, but it's less an appropriate measure and more a piano-shaped sugar pill. But if someone doesn't have immediate access to that, then the next best thing is assuring yourself that no matter how badly you screw up, at least your kid won't die of running because you overreacted about a candy bar.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not bashing this system; it works. Or, at least it works about as well as it can. In a world as crazy and diverse as ours, parents need that bit of assurance that they're doing well or, at the very least, that there's people out there doing it much worse than they possibly could be. When you're a parent, you're putting all of your ideals and beliefs into a tiny, child-sized vacuum and then launching that vacuum into space, hoping that what you taught them is enough to make sure they don't end up a total fuck up and, in the end, it comes down to doing something that you spent their entire childhood not doing; trusting them completely. This is huge, every single step of it, and if we have to pretend that everyone else is terrible at it to make sure we don't go crazy doing it, then hey; it works. 

Now internet, you and I both know that bad, terrible, awful, even laughably negligent parents exist out there. We see the results everywhere. The fact that they exist means that this blog post isn't really trying to change anything at all. We still need the tut tuts and the how-could-yous at our smaller slips and faults because not getting those are exactly how those actual bad parents are made; no one ever sat them down and told them that yes, there was a way to be totally shit at this job and by God, they found it. I'm not advocating that you get in everyone's business and try to raise their children for them. In fact, if you're the kind of person who does that, you're probably the exact kind of person who shouldn't have children. I just think that this is maybe the only example (at least the only one I've found so far) of a stereotype that, despite its hurtfulness, despite its unfairness, despite even its maliciousness, acts as a sort of glue that holds parents and the parenting community together. Without shitty parents, how would everyone else know exactly what not to do?

That was a lot of text with not a lot of jokes, here's some cats doing silly things to make up for it:

This week was...interesting. It's a little weird to be wearing my conjecture hat again and I'll admit; this topic may have been a bit out of my reach. Next week, I return to my comfortable place in History, Science, and Literature. As always, if you enjoyed this week's post, share it with your friends! Don't forget to cast your vote for what I'll talk about next week. Thank you, goodnight.


  1. I will agree with you on this, but most of the bad parenting I really bad parenting. There was the teenage mom I worked with who let her 3 year old watch R-rated movies with her, giggled when he cursed or talked about things that could make an adult blush, and also (I saw this firsthand) let him hit other kids he was playing with.
    Then of course there's my "mother-in-law's" friend who is a complete moron and has convinced herself and her kid that he can do no wrong! The kid was driving his loud, annoying dirt bike on somebody else's property and the woman's response to the complaint was "well my dad and grandfather were veterans, so he can ride wherever he wants!" ...what?
    I'm not saying your point isn't valid. It totally is. But the amount of real bad parenting out there is disheartening.

  2. Those are some pretty good examples, I won't lie. In the case of the first mom, I think that falls pretty closely to the third thing-that-usually-happens; that's just how they do things. She, whoever she is, thinks that either her kid can handle the material or that she can handle her kid's perception of it. What counts as offensive and damaging changes from person to person and while it may be unaccepable to a lot of people, she doesn't see it as a problem, and this is mostly subjective. I'm a big believer that a lot of the media that is widely considered dangerously deviant is only ever dangerous because people let it be or, even worse, indirectly encourage it to be. Maybe I'll write a post on that one week.
    In fairness to you though, teen moms aren't famous for grounding their children's perceptions in reality so...there's that.

    As for the mom with the mini moto-x terror, yeah, I totally agree with you. Just like it's possible to lock your kids down too much (see leash baby) it's also possible to give them too much freedom. Kids spend a good chunk of their childhood exploring the boundaries of what is and is not admissable and, unlike in the teenage years where this is largely internal, young children do it in a more practical fashion i.e. is it okay to ride my noisy dirtbike on someone else's property without permission and ergo is it okay to just do whatever without considering others. That lady's gonna have a hell of a time when puberty starts, God help her.

    Then again, if the relations you call morons are anything like the relations I call morons, you're probably making popcorn.

  3. I get what you're saying about the first mom but it is not cute when a 3 year old spouts something sexual every other sentence. It's actually quite disturbing. Of course, this is the same child I watched take another child's toy from out of his hands and then hit him when he tried to take it back. And she did nothing. "At least my boy can handle himself."
    I may just be biased though because my mother's a teacher, and I hear the horror stories constantly of what she puts up with. Nowadays, the teacher is always wrong. /sarcasm