Friday, July 29, 2016

just say no to freakonomic parenting

There’s a lovely passage in an essay by Cynthia Ozick about the trick of personal identity. She is writing about seeing herself as an old woman, and feeling a certain “generational pang” about seeing young people rise up in the literary world that she has long been part of.
“All the same, whatever assertively supplanting waves may lap around me – signals of redundancy, or of superannuation – I know I am held fast. Or, rather, it is not so much a fixity of self as it is of certain exactnesses, neither lost nor forgotten; a phrase, a scene, a voice, a momment. These exactnesses do not count as memory, and even more surely escape the net of nostalgia or memoir. They are platonic enclosures, or islands, independent of time, though not of place: in short, they irrevocably are. Nothing can snuff them.”
This exactness of the person is what so painfully escapes me, what so painfully is missing, when I read about parenting. Amy Davidson, in this week’s New Yorker, reviews what is surely the stupidest guide to parenting ever monstrously given birth to by a publishing house: “The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting: How the Science of Strategic Thinking Can Help You Deal with the Toughest Negotiators You Know—Your Kids” 
The title is merely the diving board of bad: from Davidson’s account, it gets badder and badder. Davidson’s review is a roundup of parenting books, and all of them share the characteristic that there is no exactness in them – either for the kids or the parents. The only desire the parents have is, apparently, order and peace. This is the setup from the getgo.
“Say that you have two children, or maybe three, and that they fight for what’s theirs. The contested objects are many: cake, Lego sets, the right to various household electronics or to name the family dog. And the children aren’t pleasant about it: they torment each other, and engage in guerrilla tactics distinguishable from those of ruthless insurgents only by their disregard for stealth, which might at least allow you, the parent, a little peace and quiet. Each of them has a story about fairness and what he deserves.
The idea that contested objects are just there, and that adults are making no territorrial claims through those objects, seems pretty laughable. But it is laughable on a very political order: notice how the blank parents here are on one side, the side of the self evident, and the children on the other side, the side of the insurgents. Sound familiar? Yes, it is neo-colonialism coming to your living room. In that political environment, the freakanomics guide to childrearing is perfectly appropriate, since neo-liberalism is based on the premise that exactness is an obstacle – individuality is entirely defined by consumer choice. No voice, gesture or place that is immune from creative destruction and substitution.
Davidson, happily, is not endorsing the “game theorist” view of family management in her article, but she does, less happily, picture a family setting as a sort of blankness in which the libido plays no part. Parents are perfect little death drives, repetitious little automaton who only want peace. The peace, apparently, of deathly order. Children, as is weirdly common in articles about children, exist only as monsters of disorder. They are either stuffed and cute, or monstrous and quarreling. There is nothing to be thought about them – they do not give rise to thought.  Exactness here doesn’t have a place or name.
We are a long way from Spock and Dolto. I don’t like the journey, frankly, but I do find it noteworthy, inasmuch as it so exactly reflects the political moment.  
“What the book shares with the current parenting moment is the sense that trust is a commodity that’s in very short supply. Thomas, for example, is getting reasonable grades “in his elementary school’s gifted-and-talented program,” but is he really doing his best? Or is he “fibbing” about how hard he’s working, “thinking about Minecraft” when he should be hunkered down with his book project? Raeburn and Zollman suggest deploying the “principal-agent model” to manage the case of “possible underperformers such as Thomas,” with the caveat that, if the incentives are too great, he’d have good reason to cheat. Without measures like “perfect monitoring” and “credible threats” (“Parents and caregivers can use each other as Doomsday machines”), children will give in to a tendency to lie. In the world of game theory, this is not so much a moral problem as a practical one. Without constant child-control manipulations, the middle-class home will fall apart, and there are no limits to the anxiety this creates.”

I cant stand it. I just cant stand it, to quote charley brown quoting sam beckett.   

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