Commentary Magazine


A Child's Guide to a Parent's Mind, by Sally Liberman

When My Baby Frowns at Me
A Child’s Guide To A Parent’s Mind.
by Sally Liberman. Illustrations by Kiriki.
With a postscript by Lawrence and Mary K. Frank. Henry Schuman. 145 pp. $3.00.

 

This book grew out of questions asked by young persons of seventeen to twenty-five as to why their parents were so impossible, and was written by a young woman who was graduated from college in 1950. Both questioners and authors are referred to as “children”—whether coyly or not, it is hard to tell.

We find a small amount of text on each left-hand page, illustrated by a line drawing, usually of symbolic character, on the facing right-hand page. Each page of text, written in the simplest possible language and apparently for children of elementary-school age (for example, the word “contradiction” is defined), describes some particular failing of parents and almost invariably explains that this failing is the expression of some motive that the parent hardly dares to admit to himself, or is not aware of at all, and which, indeed, is generally base.

These “children,” for example, want to know why their parents annoy them with questions as to where they have gone and what they have done; why their parents want them to read books, practice the piano, and “have the things they missed.” Now, some old-fashioned person might think that parents—at least some parents—perhaps annoy the children with their questions because they are interested in their children’s activities and wish to suggest more rewarding ones; or that they are sometimes bothered by their children because the children are being nasty; or that the parents want them to read books or practice the piano because, as older persons, they know that the enjoyment of civilized cultural achievements requires some initial investment of effort; or that they criticize the accomplishments of their children because these are sometimes childish.

But all such obvious explanations, we are told, will not do. Apparently, no explanation of behavior will do unless it finds more devious motives on the part of the parents:

Parents who wish their children to be talented want their children to be talented in order to compensate for the lacks they have discovered too late.

Some parents don’t give credit when credit is due because they don’t want to see the credit is true.

Many times parents feel a child is a BOTHER because IT is unbothered, and THEY would like to be unbothered.

Many parents feel left out when their child is interested in some thing out of their realm of experience so they strive to interest their child in their realm of experience.

And so on.

Now, if these child-writers took a jaundiced view of human motives generally, one could not complain. But they take a jaundiced view of only parents‘ motives; the author and her assistant children are never aware of the possible operation of similar motives in themselves when they ask’ such questions as: “Why do parents want to keep their troubles to themselves without ever confiding in their children?” or “Why are parents afraid to talk about marital difficulties they may have had or points of disagreement between husband and wife?”

Why, Junior, perhaps for the same reasons you want to keep your troubles to yourself! But oh no, Junior will never let his parents get away with that one. In their case, it’s because they want to appear perfect, to bolster up their own insecure ego, etc., etc. It’s quite enough to give any parent the willies, and since they’re in such bad shape already, our psychologically advanced children should have considered whether the publication of this information might not make a bad situation worse.

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There was a time when books addressed to children did not focus on the inadequacies of parents, but on the inadequacies of children. Children were taught to be neat, clean, polite, respectful, to suppress their as yet imperfectly disciplined animal instincts and grow up to be perfect ladies and gentlemen. Admittedly, under this regime parents often got away with murder, but it is time to ask whether the radical swing of the pendulum has not gone too far. A book like this—there are many others—takes it for granted that man is originally an angel and only culture is vile. Children are born perfect, but are corrupted by a culture full of contradictions, acting to mold them through the wicked, instrumentality of parents. So by the time they have become parents these innocents are no longer perfect and now corrupt the perfect beings they themselves breed. This book is intended to break this vicious circle. Since children by definition have no faults, it naturally concerns itself with the faults of parents, warns children that if they are not careful the contradictions of culture will get them as it got their parents (these contradictions seem to include such things as the need to make a living), and hopes they will become parents without ever having the nasty characteristics of their own parents.

This contemporary form of Rousseauism seems resolutely to ignore most of the facts of life: that children have to be socialized, that they don’t like the process, that the socialization of children is a bother to parents; that, further, parents generally love their children (in contradistinction to what their children generally feel for them), which means there will be some natural control over the forms of parental cruelty described in this book; that parents often wish to transmit a complex cultural heritage to their children and that this process, at least initially, is likely to be painful for both parties. A good part of all this unpleasantness, these new Rousseauists ought to realize, is necessary if we are not all to become the animals that children are when born.

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