PAULthinksmusings by a feminist
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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.

About Paul Roth

A vegetarian, agnostic, lindy-hopping, dog-loving tv-watcher who likes to read his own words.
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