While Adam Smith was propounding the elements of capitalist anthropology – that it is in the nature of humans to truck and barter – Rousseau was imagining teaching a child different elements altogether. Rousseau’s Emile might break his furniture and his window – but he must bear the consequences of broken furniture and cold winds. “It is better that he should have a cold”, Rousseau says, “than be crazy.” Fou – by fou Rousseau meant, be like other children of his century.
Notice, though, that there is no substitution here – no trucking and bartering. There is no – if you break your chair, you can’t have dinner. Because this introduces both an equivalence – furniture/dinner – and a mode of thinking in which all objects dissolve into substitutes in an exchange.
Now, myself, I have always been impressed with the idea of ‘deal-less’ childrearing. Although I’m definitely not going to leave a window broken, I do like making it clear that there are natural implications for action, rather than implications that depend upon the whim of the parent.
With these notions, I was naturally setting myself up for failure.
A couple of days ago, I had one of those moments of parental discouragement. Adam did not want to take a bath. He did not want to so much that there were tears and tantrums. He did not want to so much that there was kicking. He did not want to so much that talking wasn’t working – nor a bit of yelling. There was a part of me that admired his stubbornness, I must admit, but mostly, I was getting worn down.
So I bartered. I told him that if he didn’t take a bath, we were going to put him to bed with no stories and with the lights out immediately.
You will notice that there is zero connection between taking a bath and telling a story. That is, until I made it. Until I made a deal.
Adam folded. This was a relief. However, I do feel like I am starting a pattern of easy discipline, of truck and barter, that can’t be good. On the other hand, Emile’s tutor was simply that – he seems to have no other function. While me, as a parent, I do have many other functions. I don’t have infinite patience. I for one thing wanted to start dinner. I had a schedule I was following that evening.
Well, I know you can’t raise a child against all the social currents that one lives within. But there are moments of … what shall I call it? Moral disarmament in parenting, I guess, that are discouraging. Or at least peal off a bit of the gilding of the little icon you make of yourself as the good parent.