Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Interstitial Parenting, Part Four: Teaching the Grays

I recently learned that two young adult men that I know - a cousin and a longtime family friend - have done the same faith-based residential rehab program. The cousin just entered, according to a recent email asking for prayer. The friend, according to another email, is getting married after over a decade of trying to get his life on track via the same program. I don't know all the details of either situation, but both lost control of their lives to alcohol and drugs.

Both of these young men were raised in politically conservative, fundamentally religious 'intact' families in which the father is the head and the mother does the reproductive labor. Both families reject alcohol completely. Both families, I'm sure, reject extramarital sex, same-sex marriage, comprehensive sex education, and abortion.

It must be so easy to raise a child from a conservative/fundamentalist perspective! Clear, concise answers exist, and you don't even have to think about them, much less come up with them on your own: Alcohol is a tool of the devil, so don't drink it. Sex is bad until you're married. You can only get married if you're heterosexual. Children should not learn about contraception because that will make them have sex. Abortion should be illegal because it kills people who aren't born yet.


Raising a child to see things in black and white does her a grave disservice as she becomes an adult. If you're raised with the mindset that everything is black and white, it must be incredibly difficult to deal with the inevitable grays of the real world. What happens when an aunt (let's say) reveals that she's going to spend the rest of her life with her female 'roommate'? What happens when a cousin ends up pregnant by the wrong guy at the wrong time? What happens when you discover that tequila is delicious and that having a few drinks lowers your inhibitions in a good way?

Moral absolutes don't help you navigate the inevitable ambiguities of life - they prevent you from doing so. You have to disown your lesbian aunts. Your cousin has to have a child she doesn't want and can't support. You can't have any more tequila and by golly don't have any fun with friends.

Twelve is exposed to lots and lots and lots of grays: In conversation, in the explanations she's given (there's lots of 'on the other hand'), in the way we make decisions (clothing production is evil, but we wear mass-produced clothes anyway, ditto for conventionally produced food), in the way household rules are made (we acknowledge adult/child power differences, but we make her do things anyway), and in the very topics R and I are expert in (critical perspectives on ecology and gender demand an articulation of ambiguities).

Twelve's conversational diet is (sometimes comically) varied and from multiple perspectives. On a recent camping trip with friends visiting from Columbia and Israel, topics of conversation ranged from torture methods used throughout history to the best method of cooking biscuit dough on a stick over a campfire to how to estimate the heights of trees. Granted, Twelve doesn't participate in every conversation and granted, the easiest way to estimate the height of a tree is to point R's laser range-finding binoculars at the top, but the point is that complex conversation and ambiguity swirls around Twelve all the time. Any statement is fair game for challenge or critique. In our household, it is nearly impossible to get away with making an unchallenged statement of position, fact, or even preference. You think abortion should be illegal? Okay, but you're going to need to explain yourself.

Conversations with Twelve are also characterized by the exploration of multiple perspectives. Yes, R and I do have moral stances and yes, we express them to Twelve, but she is also quite aware that there are other acceptable points of view. She also knows that many of our behaviors - particularly around food and clothing - are fraught with contradictions. She's getting fairly adept at pointing them out, too. "Why won't you buy the [item she wants]? You bought [item I've previously purchased]!" Because there are gray areas, sweetie.

I will admit that I occasionally use the 'Because I'm your mom and I said so' line with Twelve occasionally. And then we look at each other and roll our eyes, because I know Twelve's too smart to fall for that and Twelve knows she's too smart to fall for that. She demands logic, but - so far - when I acknowledge that I'm simply pulling the 'mom' card, she goes along with whatever it is that I'm expecting or vetoing. So far.

I figure that since adulthood is all about complying with the occasional pile of unnecessary-seeming administrative bullshit, it's not a bad thing for Twelve to be able to deal with that. Sometimes parents are irrational and sometimes the people who are in control are wrong. When her fifth-grade teacher told the class that sharp-shinned hawks hang out alongside highways and red-tailed hawks live in the forests, Twelve experienced this first-hand. Sharp-shins, you see, do not hang out alongside highways. They live in the forests. Those big birds that you see on power poles and fence posts along the freeway? You guessed it, red-tails. Twelve knows this, living with an ornithologist as she does, and from my excited identifications of red-tails on our travels. (In six years with R, I've managed to learn a dozen birds or so, and I get a real kick out of seeing the ones I know. Yes, it's annoying, but I don't care. Sorry.)

She didn't press the issue at the time, but we sure had a good chuckle about it at home, and it was an excellent lesson in knowing when there's absolutely no point in pressing the issue with incorrect authority figures.

I think (smugly) that Twelve's well on her way to being an incredibly annoying college student.

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