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Monthly Archives: November 2008

Considering Childish Things

Posted on by Paul Roth

I should be working on my book right now and certainly if this were the germ of a new novel idea, I would do everything short of hitting myself in the head with a frying pan to ignore it. I might even get that pan’s handle in my grasp just to warn myself. But the idea that occurred to me this morning as I was reading a friend’s blog over breakfast is that what is correct for adults is not necessarily correct for children, even though truth is always the truth. So, this is an aside to clear my mind of these words before I get back to the meat of my book.

My friend’s note was about a child of special needs who participated in a game and was allowed to win by his child peers because of those special needs. My reflexive response, as it usually is, was to consider how I would have wanted that experience to unfold had it happened to me. As I was beginning to grow indignant at anyone throwing a game just to make me feel better, I realized that i was imagining myself right now, as an adult, in that situation. I was thinking about it without proper context.

I’m all for absolutes. I believe in absolute truth, I believe in absolute evil (bears), I believe in the theoretical absolute zero, and I believe that if I drank vodka, I’d probably like Absolut.

But I don’t think that children are the same as adults, and so I don’t think that the question of “Should a person be allowed to win in order to make him feel better?” is a complete question as it eliminates the distinctions between those stages of life. “Should an adult be allowed to win in order to make him feel better?” I say absolutely not. “Should a child be allowed to win in order to make him feel better?” After I’ve thought about it today, I say a conditional yes. If being allowed to win will help the child grow into as complete and confident adult, more so than being justly defeated, then yes.

That qualified response right there exemplifies the difficulty of parenting. Certainly, there are clear goals and absolutely correct purposes in raising a child. But the nurturing and psychological therapy that is inherent in being a good parent means taking each situation into consideration as it relates to those goals. Look to the goals each time as you consider what is good for your child on this occasion. The reason why the road to Hell is paved with good intentions is that people pay so much attention to the intentions that they don’t look up to see where they are leading. The Good Intention Paving Company has completed several roads; it’s not their fault they get all the flak because so many people just followed one of them.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I Cor. xiii. 11. (punctuation added by me because I wanted to)

As a child, I feared many things and many experiences. I feared getting hurt in a variety of ways. There are some children who are bold and some who are timid, but rarely have I found any who are completely devoid of irrational fears. It is a part of the magical thinking with which we play as children that our minds test the rationality of the universe around us. If we say this, what happens? If we pretend we are this, what happens? If we try to do this, what happens? Left to their own devices, children will find that some things hurt and other things are fun, that lying to themselves may feel reassuring but won’t change reality. They may learn the truth of single instances, but without experience, they cannot learn the truth of broader scope. Just because one time you tried to ride a bike, you fell over and hurt yourself doesn’t mean that you will every time. But unless there is outside experience that can contribute that information, why would a child think so? A parent helps children through those painful experiences by providing the trustworthy reassurance of true information learned through greater experience. Yes, it does hurt when you fall off the bicycle, but that only happened because you haven’t figured out the balance part of it yet. But you can do it and when you do, riding in the wind can be very fun!

If a child is not allowed to win at a game once in a while, how are they to know that it’s possible for them to win at all? The reason why good educational toys for children begin with very easy challenges and increase in difficulty is to provide that experience of a game that a child learns he can win at first. Then the child learns through increasing difficulty that he can overcome more and more demanding obstacles.

This is quite different from a circumstance where a perfectly capable adult is given a game to play and because his companions feel bad for him in some fashion, allow him to win. Adults are, in part, adults because they understand that life is full of challenges that can be overcome through personally applied effort. They have learned that if a given effort is insufficient to succeed, then they need to apply a greater amount or greater skill of effort on subsequent attempts. Confident adults understand that if they reach their limit in approaching an obstacle and still cannot overcome it, then that is their limit, full stop. Mature adults feel good in the striving and feel acceptance of their limitations and certainly feel proud in overcoming the obstacles that they do, all with honest self-examination.

I do not believe it does any adult good to receive an unearned success. It shakes one’s belief in the rationality of the real world. It encourages you, in the worst way, to think like a child. The wise adult sees lucky windfalls as happy meaningless coincidences, and undeserved rewards for an unpossessed merit as a source of shame to be declined and avoided. If someone tells me that I have a nice voice, I thank them but I don’t feel any pride in it, just a vague happiness in the coincidence of having a decent vocal structure. On the other hand, if I’m told that I sing well, then I thank them and feel glad that I have practiced and managed to carry a tune. But, if someone were to tell me that I am the best singer ever, I would feel little or no appreciation at such an obvious lie, even if it were earnestly meant to be a complimentary hyperbole.

In my friend’s note, the implied circumstance was of a child with learning disabilities who may have never won a game before. Happy though he may have been, perhaps he never thought of himself that he could be a winner. I am glad that he was able to learn, at least once, that he had the possibility of winning within him. There was no reason, in my friend’s tale, to believe that this child had been pandered to before or after the single game and I do not mind thinking the best of him and his parents and his life. In fact, I applaud his father for allowing this boy the opportunity to face challenges on his own and grow as well as he could. There was every likelihood, the father well knew, that his boy would lose, and yet that loss would have included the experience of participation and the challenge inherent in sport. These are growing pains and are needed in a full life. I like to think that had the other children simply played to the best of their ability, and thus the disabled child had not tasted success, the father would have been encouraging of the attempt alone.

I don’t envy responsible parents for taking on the incomprehensibly difficult job of helping a child to grow well. I don’t know that I could do it well at all since my default mindset is one where I don’t consider a child’s viewpoint. I still play with toys on occasion and enjoy children’s stories more often than not, but I do so with the knowledge that these are temporary escapes from the challenges of being grown up. When faced with the rigors of day to day life, I make the difficult choices that are needed. I do this at work, in my personal life, and in my social interactions, for in my mind I have put away childish things.

I am glad to have read about a good parent today. I am glad to have had an opportunity to challenge my own thinking about what it means to be a good parent and not just treat children like tiny adults. I honestly think this is a new realization for me and it may color my views to come. I have quite a few friends who seem to be doing remarkably well at parenting and I applaud them all. I don’t know if I want to be one, let alone if I could do it at all well. Could I pull out those childish things and keep them close enough in mind to consider that what is right for me is not right for a kid? I feel too selfish today to want to share my life with someone who would need so much and think so differently from me. Still, I wonder.

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Excerpt from the Book

Posted on by Paul Roth

It was a snowy day in Maryland. The rarity of snowy days wasn’t from lack of cold or lack of precipitation so much as from lack of kindness by The Weather. There were plenty enough rainy days, foggy days, drizzling days, hailing days, sleeting days, icy days, and far more gray days than one would think from the local meteorologists’ sunny dispositions. But it seemed to Alan as though there were hardly ever any days when he would just wake up and look outside at serenely blanketed ivory landscapes. Today was one of those rare days and he could not wait to lose his milky dog in the drifts.

Alan climbed, ran, fell out of bed and dressed as quickly as he could. Chalk lifted her head at the noise and then uncurled herself from the corner of her crate to emit a slow yawn as she stepped delicately out onto the wood floor as if fearing its cold support.

Alan jogged into the kitchen to grab a quick glass of orange juice before his chilly adventure. Chalk plodded slowly behind her owner down the hallway and stopped once she could see his reddening face gulping at a glass. She sat down, yawned again, and tilted her head at this unusually active creature before her.

Alan rinsed out the glass, stuck it into his dishwasher, and attempted to slam the device closed. Perversely, it bounced open again. He tried harder and faster for a couple of repetitions as the dishwasher’s door just kept bouncing back open more and more forcefully. Chalk stood up and slowly wagged her tail, indicating a willingness to help offset by a lack of understanding about what the big deal was.

Alan took a deep breath and closed the dishwasher slowly and carefully, this time with success. Chalk sat back down. Alan moved quickly to the coat closet and took out his big orange winter coat that Maggie called “The Traffic Cone”. Maybe she was calling him The Traffic Cone when he wore it? As Alan put it on, Chalk stood up and began to wag her tail in earnest. She recognized that coat! That was the coat that meant she was going to play in the cold, wet, fluffy blankets! Should she stay here? Should she run to the door?

Alan managed to coordinate putting on his coat and walking to his door simultaneously, though not without minor injury along the way from the coffee table. He was going to ice it in just a minute. Well, snow it. With his shoes on and his coat zipped and one glove on and the other glove in a pocket and a leash in his hands, Alan called, “Here, Chalkie!” and instantly realized he’d made a mistake. Chalk’s ears stood up as straight as they could as she heard her name and then, responding to the agitated high pitch of his call, proceeded to react appropriately. A hurried dash, a great lunge, and a successful pounce completed with a tangle on the floor. This was almost as much fun as the wet blankets.

Reminding himself that this was his own fault, Alan struggled to keep his voice calm as he said, “Good girl, Chalk, that’s just what I meant. Now, let me get up so we can try again.”

Having a dog as large as Chalk was convenient for many reasons. This time, she made a decent support structure as Alan steadied a hand on her back to help him get up off the ground and stand once more. He patted his dog on her head and said, “Thanks.” He tried again, this time calmly starting off by directing his dog to sit (which she did) and then connecting her leash to her collar and directing her to wait for him to open the door (which she did). Alan walked out onto the small cement landing outside his door and, holding the door open, called for Chalk to join him (which she did). A moment to make sure he had his keys and lock up and then they were off on their adventure.

There was a grassy hill beside his house that ran up to an open space behind a neighboring apartment complex. The open space bordered some woods where one could often spot deer along the edge or foxes running across. That seemed an ideal place to enjoy this winter wonderland. First, a quick walk around his neighborhood to take care of business in their usual, regulated fashion. Then as they completed the circuit, instead of going back inside, Alan started sprinting up the hillside he had targeted with a shouted, “Chalkie, release!” Chalk ran with abandon.

Happy, wet, cold, warm, silly, messy chaos erupted as man and dog derived enormous pleasure from painting an abstract expressionist tribute to Jackson Pollock behind several quiet buildings. The medium may have been the message or the message just may have been “Hooray!” The art went on for almost an hour.

At last, Chalk seemed to have tired of picking up snowballs with her teeth and Alan had grown tired of picking out clumps of snow from his pants, and they began their heroes’ journey home. Upon reaching the top of the hillside together, they both paused and looked down the now very steep slope to their goal and their house.

“I may not have thought this through all the way,” admitted Alan aloud.

“Huff, huff,” was Chalk’s considered response.

“That’s easy for you to say,” continued Alan. “You have four legs and could probably get down this much more easily than I can.” He paused. “Come to think of it….”

Alan made sure the leash was fastened to the immobile ring on Chalk’s collar rather than the slip-tight ring and then told his dog to Stay. Her continued huffing appeared to be in agreement. Then her master, pleased with his own cleverness, began to edge down the hill while releasing small increments of the leash. At ninety-seven pounds of mostly muscle, Chalk’s only visible response to the additional weight on her leash was to lean back from the crest of the hill. Here was a newly discovered convenience.

Quite tickled, Alan said, mostly to himself, “Good anchor, good anchor!”

As he reached the end of the four foot long leash and grasped the handle carefully, Alan could see that there was still probably another fifteen feet or so before the slope of the hill curved sharply to an end. He quietly and carefully called up to his dog.

“Okay, Chalk, now slowly… Slowly… Come… Slowly…”

Chalk edged forward a bit and looked down at her master. And then stopped.

“No, it’s okay, just do it slowly… Come on, Chalkie—oh, crap!”

As soon as she heard her master tell her to come, Chalk followed orders and began to walk down the hill. As soon as she started moving, though, she slipped just a little and responded by picking up speed. This cycle of slipping and speeding rapidly continued to increase in magnitude as Chalk actually slipped and ran and slipped and ran down the hill, passing Alan in the blink of an eye.

“Bad anchor! Bad anchor!” called out Alan as his precarious perch was entirely lost. He was quickly pulled forward past his center of gravity and then onto his chest and face which served as the runners for his impromptu body-sledding down the hill behind his great big sled dog.

For her part, Chalk had continued her run down to where the ground was level beneath her before slowing to a stop and seemed quite pleased with herself for not falling. Ever the compassionate companion, when Alan finally did slide to a halt behind her, she trotted back to her master and affectionately licked the back of his head.

Alan lifted his head up to spit out some combination of what he hoped was just snow, mud, and grass. “Bad anchor,” he repeated quietly once more before collapsing back into his face-down resting place.

Chalk sat down to wait.

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Miss Independent in a Short Skirt and a Long Jacket

Posted on by Paul Roth

I think that I can legitimately say that I still have good relationships with all of my ex-girlfriends from the past six years.  All both of them.  It doesn’t seem … Continue reading

Using Your Powers for Good, not Taxes

Posted on by Paul Roth

There is a difference between believing in an ideal and forcing others to act as if they do, too. I believe that it would be a good thing if everyone … Continue reading

I did not vote McCain. I did not vote Obama.

Posted on by Paul Roth

I did a quick survey of my facebook friends’ statuses.  I may have miscounted and I expect to see changes through the day, but certainly the gist is this: 193 … Continue reading

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