(Brace for lengthy preamble:) I’m teaching a section of the freshman orientation seminar again as an overload. The class is the usual product of episodic collective decision-making, a hodgepodge of boilerplate pedagogical imperatives trailing admirable goals and good intentions behind them like toilet paper stuck to shoes. There’s not a lot of clarity about what the class is for or how to accomplish it, or rather there are various clarities which produce a muddy tinge when mixed together. This means I can mostly do what I want with it, so I’m happy.
There’s a book and a textbook, neither of which I picked but both of which I like fine. The book is Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field, about a plucky team of Latino kids, many undocumented, who momentarily overcome their destiny as cheap labor for consumer America and win the North Carolina state high-school soccer championship. Its narrative is engaging enough and its points about aspiration, fairness and Othering are obvious enough to engage freshmen right at the margin of the academic habitus.
The textbook is Ethics and College Student Life, which uses case studies to encourage ethical reflection across a range of principles (categorical imperative, utilitarianism, community, relationship, character growth). Among the things I like about this book is that the cases are mostly not easy stereotypes of right and wrong, and therefore to make any headway with them it’s necessary to unpack the conventions, dispositions and values that cluster with formal ethics to create situated ethical reasonings.
Well, for some reason I don’t remember ‘helicopter parenting’ was in the air at the beginning of the term, so I started with that as an informal talking-point to introduce the students to the procedures of coordinating abstract thinking with concrete examples. Most of the students have been helicoptered to varying degrees, adding further value to making that ‘normal’ relationship a matter of reflective investigation for them. I bracketed the good/bad kind of moral judgment to take the sting out of the discussion and offered a more ethnographic view of ethics as practices aspiring to universality. The question was then, what kind of people and relationships do helicopter practices create, and what kind of world do they aspire to?
The resulting discussion was a rough first day on the trail, so I won’t linger on it except to say that the students were engaged and began to see the fun of using their noggins in new ways. Where I’m going with this post is to note that the ethic of helicopter parenting is another of those places where the infinity standard pops up. There is always more you can do for your child, infinity.
Which is new for ‘people like me’ since I was a lad, when we (the suburban petite-bourgeoisie) were still making the transition from the low investment, children-as-asset paradigm to the high investment, children-as-status-display paradigm that is now virtually complete.
Along these lines, as captain of a USTA tennis team I’m befuddled to find that it’s sometimes hard to line guys up to play on evenings and weekends (which is pretty much when there is for working adults to play) because they are attending the organized sporting events of their offspring. Huh? As I understand it, there is some pride for the parent who never misses a spectation opportunity, and some shame in being the parent who does. The standard of parental attention seems to be infinity. Now by way of contrast, I remember reading a Rolling Stone interview with Tip O’Neill about how proud he was of his generation of Democratic legislators for the workplace legislation that made sure fathers wouldn’t routinely be working 80-90 hour weeks and thus never see their kids. And even later, when I was growing up, walking ten miles to school through the perennial snow uphill both ways, and I was on the high school tennis team (we played in the snow uphill both ways), I’m pretty dang sure my parents never came to a single match. This might have damaged my delicate psyche if anyone else’s parents had come out, but to my recollection they did not. (No doubt years of expensive therapy could implant those memories to get me caught up with the state of the art.)
There was a late bus to take me home from team practices and matches. It was sometimes an hour or so between the end of something (I was also in some school theater and so on) and when the late bus went, so I waited. The late bus wound around all creation to take various kids to various homes; I was pretty far out in farm country so that was another hour, give or take. If I missed the late bus for some reason I knew I could call and Mom or Dad would come get me, when they got around to it after they finished what they were doing. This also involved waiting. Necessity seeks its virtue, and mine is patience. I’m also used to thinking of other people’s agendas as having some value independent of my immediate convenience.
The main point of these organized sporting activities of my youth, as far as I can tell, was to add a few hours onto the time when parents did not have to pay attention to their children.
To practice out of season I would ride my bike about 5 miles to the courts, play a few hours, then ride home. My idea of privilege was to not have chores at home that I was shirking; it did not occur to me that my parents should be available to drop everything and give me rides to the courts, nor did they make any visible point of fretting over the very real chances that I would get sideswiped into the ditches on our narrow country roads or that I would not have a good time. Necessity’s virtues were that I was in fine physical condition without a lot of fuss, independent, and pretty good at entertaining myself. I got what seemed to me like plenty of attention and it never occurred to me to doubt that I was loved and valued.
Every parenting system involves trade-offs. Independence is nice for low-density social settings but can involve some inwardness, a kind of cultural autism, that makes higher-density sociability awkward and energy-intensive. In contrast the helicoptered kids tend to be trusting, open and easily sociable. And because they’ve never had to make do and are used to their needs being met on demand, they drive a consumer economy much better than the frugal self-reliance I grew up with. From that latter perspective, it’s a good thing that their personal boundaries are rudimentary and their expectations unlimited. It will be interesting to see how they translate being the recipients of their parents’ infinity standards into their own parenting practices.