Mysteries of Parenthood

Jessie Allen, School of Law, University of Pittsburgh

Chapter the sixteenth.  Of PARENT and CHILD.

This chapter is about “the most universal relation in nature.” (p. 434)   My nine-year-old universal relation climbed into bed with us the other morning to report a nightmare.  She was about to be eaten by a troll.  I murmured sympathetic nothings into her hair as she related her plaintive tale.  “And you were there,” she continued, a note of irritation entering her voice, “and you kept saying, ‘Just a little piece, honey’”! Blackstone’s legal schema assumes that parents’ natural tendency to protect their children works “so strongly as to need a check rather than a spur,” (p. 438) but in my daughter’s dreams, apparently, not so much.

Not so universally in life, either, of course.  The news was recently full of the story of the American mom who sent her adopted seven-year-old son back to Russia on a plane with a note explaining that his behavior was so terrible she didn’t want him anymore.   The media blitz that followed was focused mostly on the special problems of kids who have been institutionalized before being adopted and the incidence of “disruption” in adoptions when those problems manifest. But, really, isn’t what is so fascinating about this story that it fulfills a common, but usually empty, parental threat, namely, “if you don’t stop that, I’m going to send you back where you came from”?  Here was someone who followed through on the forbidden – and, for biological parents, impossible – impulse:  Return to sender! 

For the kid, the abandonment would have been just as total if his mother had gotten on the plane herself, leaving him behind.  Indeed, it might have been worse for a little boy in a strange country who presumably didn’t speak the language. But it would not have gripped our imaginations in the same way.  The parent who leaves practices an altogether familiar kind of abandonment. More than one in four kids in the U.S. today has a parent who lives somewhere apart from his child. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports P60-237 at 1 (2009).  In case you are tempted, as I was, to speculate optimistically that most of these long distance parents might nevertheless maintain close emotional ties with their children, note the Census Bureau’s odd and depressing table revealing that only slightly more than half of them even manage to come up with birthday gifts for the kids.  Id. at 11, Figure 7.  The story of the adoptive mother who put her child on a plane distracts our attention from all those biological parents, mostly fathers, who just walk away.  Narratively, if not logically, the scandalously defective adoptive parent validates our belief in a universal, unquenchable biological parental role,  which is an article of faith today as much as in Blackstone’s time.

For his part, Blackstone’s description of universal parental love naturalizes the legal imposition of parental duties.  According to Blackstone, nature precedes the laws requiring parents to maintain, protect and educate their children by “implanting in the breast of every parent that . . . insuperable degree of affection, which not even the wickedness, ingratitude, and rebellion of children can totally suppress or extinguish.”  (p. 435) So the laws mandating that parents provide for their children’s welfare are represented not as positive commands imposed by government but as reflections of the natural order of things.  Here Blackstone’s ambivalence about the sources of law takes a decided turn for the transcendental. In this scheme, child protection is “a natural duty, . . . rather permitted than enjoined by any municipal laws.”  (p. 438)  

I still remember when, in my early twenties, I read Phillipe Aries’s Centuries of Childhood.  It was one of the first times I confronted the likelihood that something I took to be natural bedrock might be culturally specific and fluctuating.  What could be more constant and naturally determined than the difference between children and adults?  But Aries argued persuasively that the idea that children were psychologically (and therefore morally) different from adults was a relatively modern invention – that in other times and places,  children were more or less miniature grown ups.  It was stunning.  The book didn’t much change my view of children, about whom, at the time, I was singularly uninterested  (OMG, I was so obnoxious: I used to tell my friends who had babies that when their kids were ready to discuss Hegel I’d consider hanging out with them).  But the larger moral of Aries’s book – that seemingly inevitable aspects of the natural world might instead be utterly mutable historical contingencies — was the beginning of a continual intrapsychic disturbance for me, a kind of nagging intellectual itch that has yet to resolve. 

In some ways, the Commentaries supports the view that childhood in the United States today is a more developmentally distinct and much more protected stage of life than it was in Eighteenth-Century Britain – at least where the law is concerned.  Blackstone reports, for instance, that seven-year-olds could be subject to the death penalty. (Bk 4, Ch. 2, p. 23-24)  Can childhood, and the parent-child bond, mean the same thing to us that it did in a society that sent seven-year-olds to the gallows? Then again, as a relative matter, the treatment of children may not have been so different.  In Blackstone’s time all felonies were capital crimes.  Hanging was the prescribed penalty for any serious crime of violence. In the U.S. today, only a tiny fraction of criminal defendants ever face a death sentence. Nowadays, incarceration is the punishment of choice.  With that in mind, we don’t have so much reason to see our juvenile justice system as developmentally distinct or progressive, just because we don’t sentence kids to death.  Only last month the U.S. Supreme Court held that a child who kills someone can be thrown in prison for the rest of his life with absolutely no possibility of ever coming out.  The big news was that the Court grudgingly ruled that children given life sentences for  “nonhomicide crimes” had to have some chance of eventual parole.  In other words, in the U.S. today, kids of all ages are still subject to the harshest criminal penalties routinely meted out to adults who commit the most serious crimes – just as they were in Blackstone’s England. 

Oddly, in the particular cultural corner of parenthood I inhabit, childhood looks both profoundly developmentally structured and interminable.  Parents are encouraged to compare every aspect of their children’s behavior and misbehavior with chronologically defined developmental norms, and every toy, game, book, or after-school activity is calibrated for its “age appropriate” audience.  At the same time, there’s a feeling that becoming an adult no longer requires putting away childish things.  Bars serve alcohol infused cupcakes. More than a few parents ride skateboards and scooters as they drop off their children at my daughter’s school.  I daresay almost all of us have items of clothing that our own parents would have scorned for their juvenile style. Besides warding off our own mortality, I wonder if incorporating childlike features into our adult lives isn’t a way to mask the inevitable separation that a developmental view implies.  If we can’t keep our growing children forever close, we can maintain a connection to childhood in our own lives.   I don’t find this idea particularly consoling.

One recent unusually chilly spring morning, my daughter ran out of the house and headed for school in just a sleeveless shirt and shorts.  I dashed after, remonstrating – but she outpaced me.  About two-thirds of the way up the block she turned and waved very slowly overhead, as though from the deck of a liner, and I waved back the lavender hoodie I was still clutching.  Oh, my girl!  Can it be that you are on your way out into the world, unprotected — and away from me — so soon!

First published June 21, 2010.