Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Toddlers vs. Conservatives

A friend of ours is studying child language development. She asked us to note down words and phrases that Liko uttered during a 12-hour period. Here's a random sampling, for your amusement and edification. (For parents anxious to make comparisons, Liko is 26 months old. )

Baby, baby singing.
Cold. Cold.
Hold it. Mommy hold it.
Dump. Dump it. Milk.
Thank you.
More - all gone.
Got it, raspberry.
Moon, moon, sun, sun, sun.
Too hot. Too hot.
Dip, dip, dipping, dip, dip things.
Play ball. Liko play ball.
Bye, fire.
Beepbeep. Horn.
Guy sing that.
Sound banjo makes.
Hold them, George.
Daddy don't go. Come.
School - Sasha crying.
I saw a didgeridoo!

The last two lines require explanations.

Back in July, we attended the Didgeridoo Festival in Reno, NV. A didgeridoo is an aboriginal Australian musical instrument. It made an impression on Liko, who excitedly cries out whenever he sees one in a book. I'm still amazed that he can pronounce "didgeridoo."

As for "School - Sasha crying": Sasha is a little girl in Liko's preschool who terribly missed her mommy, and cried and cried. Liko, who also cried and cried when I dropped him off, started talking with us about Sasha at night as he went to bed. After a few nights of this, he said, "Liko crying." Why? we asked. "Daddy left." We asked him if Sasha's mommy came back. "Yes." We said that his mommy and daddy would always come back too and take him home. "Yeah!" Did he have fun at school while daddy and mommy were away? "Yeah!" Did he have a favorite teacher? etc.

Here's what's incredible (to me) about this story: Liko is clearly relating his feelings to another toddler's, remembering things, verbalizing his memories, and using his memories to put things in perspective. I'm proud to say that this is fairly typical of my son, who is exceptionally empathic and compassionate for a toddler; he often tries to clumsily comfort crying babies on the playground (a gesture that is not always appreciated).

I thought of this as I was wasting time reading conservative parenting books - recall John Rosemond's words, quoted here on September 24: “One does not have to teach antisocial behavior to toddlers. They are by nature violent, deceitful, destructive, rebellious and prone to sociopathic rages if they do not get their way.”

My son is none of those things (not yet!) and I don't know any toddler who is as "violent" as Rosemond describes. Sure, Liko cries and stamps his feet when he is upset; sometimes he blindly hits and kicks. But when he does that, I don't see "sociopathic rages" - I see a confused growing boy who is still learning how to deal with and express his feelings. A true sociopath has no feelings. Sociopathology is a mental illness; toddlers are not mentally ill.

Discipline is necessary and so is punishment, but discipline is not synonymous with punishment. It's a distinction the conservative parenting gurus I've read fail to make. Worse, they see evil where there is none. Toddlers are not yet socialized, but the capacities for empathy, compassion, and cooperation are already there and blooming. Conservatives would say that I am merely beguiled by my child, but I see such qualities in all of the dozens of toddlers I know. They are beautiful. I love the way they run, with every part of their little bodies moving independently of the others, and the way they laugh and explore. Toddlers want to share and help; they don't always know how.

Not only does the conservative portrait of toddlerhood fly in the face of my personal experience, it also defies all scientific research into the topic. (I can feel the one or two conservatives who might be reading this shutting off; as the books I've read make clear, they see science as the enemy.) In a 2001 study, UC cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik discovered that 18-month-olds understood that another person's tastes might be different, and shared foods if the other person demonstrated a liking for it, an important first step in developing empathy. Nancy L. Marshall at Wellesley College found that "when toddlers saw a teddy bear suffer an 'accident,' their faces showed distress and concern. They also responded by trying to help or comfort the bear."

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany found "that preverbal toddlers as young as 18 months old understand when adults need their assistance and will do their best to help out, even for no reward." "The current results demonstrate that even very young children have a natural tendency to help other persons solve their problems,” says the study.

And so on and so forth. I found dozens of studies that identified prosocial qualities in toddlers, corroborating what most parents - those whose minds aren't warped by conservative ideology - know intuitively.

When people describe "Daddy Dialectic," they most often seem to use the word "thoughtful." I do try to see the other person's point of view and I try to play fair when disagreements arise, and my colleagues Chip, Tom, and Chris do the same.

And I believe that I'm remaining fair and thoughtful when I say that conservatives - who posit themselves the authorities on morality, family life, and parenting - are today promoting lies and half-truths about parents and children, in the service of an authoritarian ideology. At this point - with oceans levels rising, Iraq falling into the abyss, and evidence for evolution mounting, to name only three examples - it astonishes me that any thinking person, anywhere, would elevate their half-baked ideas over what science, reason, experience, and conscience have to say.

It's time for liberals and progressives, especially those of us who are parents, to stop retreating and take the fight to people who see us as their enemies. We're in a struggle we can't afford to lose.

[The photos that appear with this post are of my wife as a toddler, courtesy of my mom-in-law.]


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say that toddlers are 'prone to sociopathic rages' (that would be sociopaths), but they are--by nature--deceitful and destructive. They are selfish, as are we all. To think otherwise is idealistic.

Toddlers are also sweet and caring, and it is these tendencies which need to be encouraged and nurtured. We lean toward the selfish because it's easier, and seems to make us happier in the moment. And toddlers live in the moment.

Our son is sensitive and compassionate. He doesn't like to see others in pain or sad or disappointed. But he didn't come to this conclusion on his own.

When a child is first born, everything is about him. Feed me. Change me. Hold me. A child will never recognize the needs of others unless he's taught to recognize them.

(You talk of taking 'the fight' to conservatives, and yet it's we who see liberals as enemies? C'mon. That's neither 'thoughtful' nor 'fair'.)

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

First of all, Jared, I want to really thank you for hanging out at Daddy Dialectic and sharing your thoughts. I started DD as a way for me to vent about being a stay at home dad, but the purpose has gradually expanded to promote more flexible images and ideals of fatherhood. It's important to me, however, that those images and ideas are subjected to criticism and feedback. One of the flaws of the blogosphere is that people tend to sort themselves into self-affirming communities; the best result is that the blogs are entertaining but not challenging; the worst result is that they are simply turgid and masturbatory.

Anyway. I'm definitely not saying that toddlers do not exhibit the antisocial qualities and behaviors that are intrinsic to human beings. Of course they do, and I'm glad. Selfishness helps us to survive as individuals and a species; anger also serves a purpose. My point is that it is misleading to emphasize those antisocial qualities over the prosocial qualities, at the service of a political agenda.

And I think it results in some very bad parenting and policy prescriptions, which need to be publicly challenged with a coherent alternative. That's what I mean when I say that liberals and progressives need to take the fight to conservatives - from my perspective as a progressive parent, I don't feel we can afford to let conservatives continue to monopolize the discourse on families and parenting.

It's also possible, as your post implies, to overemphasize the prosocial qualities in the service of a political agenda. Doing so can lead to all kinds of goofy and even dangerous ideas. (Ever hear of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, aka, "Danny the Red"? He was a famed French/German anarchist who worked in the anarchist Frankfurt Kindergarten. After that experience, he said something like, "Anarchism for kids is fine, as long as it doesn't mean letting them do whatever they want..." or words to that effect. Once we were having dinner with an anarchist. He said, "I don't think children should be in school." Where should be? asked my wife, a teacher. "Out in the streets," he replied, "taking direct action." We just laughed.)

Anonymous said...

My son, at 16 months sounds very much like Liko about now - lots of short almost-sentences, filled with expressions of wonder and excitement about the world. He even says "Take turns" when really he means "it's my turn" :) I absolutely agree with your assessment of toddlers - they really are compassionate little creatures who are trying to make sense of what it means to be an individual person in the world and relate to others in the environment they know. Sometimes they are very sweet and sometimes they seem haphazardly selfish when really they are only learning to express themselves.

As for me and my wife, we do consider ourselves to be quite progressive and liberal, and we eschew unnecessary punishment when we don't think our child could comprehend that what they did is wrong. We're not afraid to say "No!" when he throws a waffle at the waitress in the restaurant, but we also understand that it will be a long time before he really understands what being rude even is and so 'discipline' often stops there.

But I was am a little disappointed to hear such brash generalization about "conservatives". I think that like any ideology there are extremes, and there are lunatics who identify themselves with an ideology and promote some orthogonal idea in the name of that ideology. It seems like the author of "It takes a Parent" is one of these cases.

The conservatives I know are very diverse, and take many different approaches to parenting. I may disagree with some of their ideas, but its hard for me to make brash generalizations about them. Their means of parenting doesn't necessarily correlate with their political beliefs.

Just as you can have politically active progressive parents who can't empathize with their own children, you can have small-government conservatives that treat their children with the utmost respect and caring.

I've really enjoyed your last few posts because as a "Back slapping liberal" (as my wife calls me :)) I haven't really been exposed to parental advice like you've quoted here. And frankly, the advice just gives me the willies.

But I just can't draw the same liberal/conservative lines - I think that only encourages us to look for disparities between "liberal" parents and "conservative" parents rather than having at least one area with healthy shared experience where we can have reasonable dialogs between these groups.

Keep up the posts though! I hadn't even thought about these issues until reading them here...

Chip said...

hmm, it seems to me this is a serious case of projection. These conservatives seem to be projecting their own self-perception and image onto the toddlers. That's the problem, conservatives assume everyone is like themselves, and since they need authoritarianism to keep themselves in check, they want to impose it on the rest of us as well.

This however is truly bizarre. Anyone who actually has spent extended time caring for toddlers knows that yes it can be frustrating but they are NOT "by nature" deceitful!! People have to LEARN to be deceitful, and there's absolutely no evidence that it's "natural". ANd they are NOT destructive either. Neither of my kids as toddlers were like that nor were any of the toddlers I knew and know.
I have to say I'm really left speechless by this stuff. It is scary, given that some people actually take this stuff seriously.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Alec (and also Jared): It's important to draw a distinction between friends and neighbors who might call themselves conservatives, and the people who form the intellectual and political leadership of the organized conservative movement - those are the people I'm quoting.

Your conservative neighbor on the left may Ned Flanders, benign and friendly, who spanks once and a while but doesn't like it at all. Your conservative neighbor on the right might be the mother from the movie Carrie, sadistic and fanatical. They're as different as night and day, but maybe they're both better parents than you are, you pot-smoking, porn-watching liberal slacker.

Of course, most of us don't fit any of these caricatures - we're just parents who love our kids, struggling to do our best according to our values. As I've said elsewhere, I think it's really important for us to connect on that level and proceed from an essential shared respect for children and the role of caregiving. Conservatives are not monolithic and neither are liberals and progressives - here at DD, we spend way more time criticizing people like Morgan Steiner and Hirshman who are more or less on our side, than we do people like Dobson, Hart, et al. We don't stay silent out of a false sense of solidarity; we keep the discussion going and hopefully help ourselves and readers think through the Great Problems of the Day.

It's fair, when you talk about liberalism or feminism or whatever, to try to identify what the underlying philosophical foundation that unites people who call themselves liberals or feminists. It's fair to talk about the organizational structures, like Planned Parenthood or NOW, that link the feminist movement and press its policy agenda.

And it's fair to look at the diverse people who form the coherent conservative movement and ask yourself what most defines them, what ideas and values they most share in common - and what impact their movement has on the world. Dr. James Dobson is not just another conservative, like your nice neighbors. "When a thank-you call came from the White House" after the 2004 election, reports Slate, "Dobson issued the staffer a blunt warning that Bush 'needs to be more aggressive' about pressing the religious right's pro-life, anti-gay rights agenda, or it would 'pay a price in four years.'... Dobson has talked about bringing down the GOP if it fails him." Dobson isn't a fringe extremist within the Republican Party. In many respects, today people like him are the Republican Party, and he knows it. This is a powerful man, who makes his living telling parents that it is their duty as Christians to hit their toddlers with sticks.

There is a direct relationship between supporting corporal punishment and supporting the use of torture in the so-called War on Terrorism. This is not to say that spanking is the moral equivalent of torture. It is not. If you want to spank your kids, I can accept that. But the fact remains that today in America the people who argue for corporal punishment are the same people who support the use of torture, secret detentions, etc. Likewise, there is a direct link between belief in a strong, strict father, and support for secret surveillance programs. "We just have to trust the President...Father knows best." This is not pernicious speculation or a brash generalization on my part. I'm not politicizing something innocent and spiritual; I'm pointing to intellectual and organizational continuities that are obvious to anyone who looks for them. This is the entire point of my quote of Mike Gallagher's book, which draws the same connections. Conservatives are not ashamed of these continuities; they're proud of them. They point to them as points of difference with liberalism. It's what they use to rally their troops. They're right about those differences, and those of us on the left need to do the same and make clear the alternative that we are offering. And even as we acknowledge what we share in common with our opponents, we still need to fight for that alternative.

(If you call yourself conservative and you don't like being associated with Dobson, Abu Ghraib, etc., you need to speak up. If you're a Republican and you feel like your party has been hijacked by religious fanatics, speak up. Don't stay silent out of a false sense of solidarity.)

There's an election coming up. Don't forget to vote! And don't forget to remind your friends and neighbors that they need to vote!