The Selfish Parent, Part Two

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, May 13, 2008

One Saturday afternoon before my wife went back to work, she watched the baby while I took Juniper to the art theater to see four Buster Keaton shorts with a live pianist (Daydreams, The Boat, The Balloonatic, and the brilliant One Week). This was her second cinematic experience (her first I wrote about here). We had so much fun together. For days afterwards we talked about all the funny things that Buster did. I never saw a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie until I was in my twenties, but as I started watching them I felt that I had seen it all before: and I had, sort of. The pratfalls and gags of early silent comedy had been recycled again and again by the cartoons I watched as a kid. As a parent I find myself overly concerned with narrative: before we get to cartoons, I want her to start at the beginning.

This past Friday I spent the morning with both kids wandering around the Institute of Arts. We have an established routine there, and Gram is happy to tag along. There's a Picasso that Juniper is obsessed with: I have to promise we'll see "the blue lady" before she'll agree to any trip to the museum. I always take the long way to the Picasso room, and when we get there the kid stands silently mystified on front of this painting, and soon the questions follow: "why is she sad?. . .why is she in jail?" We talk these things over, then spend half an hour in the Greek and Roman room, discussing the characters on vases and which gladiator helmet is our favorite. We try to find paintings with "girly colors" in the contemporary art wing. I am the guy I always hated standing next to at the museum.

I have a dog-eared copy of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney's The Rattle Bag that I keep next to the bath. It is bloated and misshapen, its pages soaked and dried ten dozen times. When she's taking a bath sometimes she asks me to read her "poms." I'll read a pom by William Blake or Ogden Nash slowly, over and over, until she memorizes it. Before bed she wants more poms. If you miss one word in a pom she's heard, she'll tell you.

You may think I'm being boastful. I actually hold off on writing about this kind of stuff most of the time. I get nasty e-mails every so often calling (1) me a snob; and (2) my kid a freak. True, and true. My daughter probably comes off as a future social outcast no different from some fundamentalist spawn whose bedtime stories are all from Deuteronomy. My kid is Carrie with a dad in browline glasses. I have some sympathy for vegans. I am intimately familiar with the desire to shield my kids from cheese. They are my kids and I will screw them up however I please.

But then I fear that I am parenting spitefully. Through this undeniable censorship I am providing them with such a meager buffet of options. It's not that I actually believe they're somehow better off than some kid whose parents aren't as paranoid about the modern children's media clusterfuck as I am. I do this partly because it helps me enjoy parenting. I fear that if I didn't exert so much control, I might find this business as mind-numbingly dull as some suggest it is. "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall," wrote Cyril Connolly (this website, I suppose, is proof of that).

But I admit it's not just about me. I also believe it's sourced in the same naive eagerness we all have as parents: I want them to learn from the lessons I've learned, the knowledge I've accumulated, so someday they won't have to go to all the trouble, so that one day they can surpass it all and go further. What I sometimes forget is that the most important lessons are often the ones you learn on your own. And the most joyful things in life are usually those you discover for yourself.

Francis Kilvert once wrote, "If there is one thing more hateful than another it is being told what to admire." The other day, all her pink skirts were in the laundry, so I pulled out a pair of blue jeans and forced them over her legs. She hasn't worn pants in months. Not since Hercules donned the shirt of Nessus has a creature writhed in such agony over the wearing of a simple article of clothing. Her performance was so authentic I could almost hear the hissing of the denim against her flesh as she turned circles on the carpet. This, I realized, was the resistance my child is capable of when being forced into something she does not want. I swiftly removed the cursed jeans, and patted out the flames:

"Sorry kiddo. All your pink skirts are dirty. Let's look in your closet together for something else. But you can choose."

"Okay Pops."

And for a few more years at least, I control what hangs in the closet.