The Physics of Family...
Last weekend I babysat for a friend of mine. It was his wife's birthday and he wanted to take her out for a night on the town. Of course, as he's a grad student, a "night on the town" is a grand affair that might possibly involve a dinner at the swank Red Lobster... or, failing that, Fazoli's. I say this not to mock, but more to express my simultaneous admiration and sympathy. In any case, I was responsible for his children during this evening.
Now I should mention that this isn't the first time I've babysat for him. During my first year as a grad student my hypothetical-roommate and I would babysit as a team, during which we became known as Uncle Drek and Aunt Maya. And yes, my roomie has always been male. I just don't think the kids had any better ideas how to refer to us. In times past my friend's youngest child has alternated between being fascinated with me, and terrified of me. This most recent time was a "fascinated" day, which made the babysitting experience easier.
So, I spent four hours playing with two young kids, as well as watching them play with each other, and was constantly struck by how well-behaved they are. Now, my friend when he reads this will doubtless snort at the idea of his children being described as "well-behaved," but in actuality they are. I spent time as a camp counselor watching over boys only a year or two older than my friend's son and they were far worse behaved. I am referring particularly to the boy who attempted to beat a cabin-mate's head in with a steel flashlight. Certainly my friend's kids have their moments, as we all do, but the quality of their behavior speaks well of the efforts of their parents. These are children who are clearly getting the love and guidance that children require and are the better for it.
Not that this will save my friend and his wife from the inevitable parental hell of "Teenage Children," but at least they can feel confident about their performance up until that dreaded day.
A few days after this, I had the chance to sit down for dinner with the parents of my good friend Jordan. I've mentioned Jordan before, most prominently regarding the VP debates. In any case, I hadn't seen his parents for some years so it was nice to visit for a while. Over the course of this dinner the talk obviously turned to Jordan himself. You know how it goes, they tell me embarrassing stories, show me his baby pictures... all the things you want to have in order to annoy your guy friends. In short- we chatted about all things Jordan.
And yes, Jordan, they DID tell me what you did when you were nine. Although how you managed to get that into such a small space, I'll never understand.
Now, it's important to know that Jordan is one of the most genuinely nice people I know. He's someone who always seems to see the best in people, and persists in that, even though it sometimes gets him in trouble. Personally I think it's part of why we've been friends for so long- I'm quite a bit more cynical, so we balance each other out. On meeting Jordan's parents, it seems quite clear why he is this way as they are both generous, open people. I made this observation to Jordan's father, but his response was interesting. He told me that, as Jordan was growing up, he (the father) often felt like he had to be a better person in order to live up to the standards set by his son, and not the other way 'round. He didn't mean that he had to set a good example for his son, he literally meant that his son was such a kind, generous person, that he felt compelled to try to live up to that example. It was quite possibly one of the most touching moments I've witnessed- I actually almost felt my cold, black, cobweb-draped heart try to thaw for a moment or two before lapsing back into its usual sullen silence.
It strikes me as interesting the way that parents shape their children, but it seems often unrecognized that the opposite also happens: children shape their parents. It is as though there is a sort of Newtonian physics at work in family- for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every time that parents shape their children, those same children sculpt their parents in return. Perhaps this is why parenthood is such a transformative experience- it is the construction of set of social bonds more intimate, and more frequently used, than virtually any other. How could any participant in such a thing not be dramatically altered by it? This is not to blame children equally for poor family life of course, parents are capable of exerting quite a bit of force under most circumstances, but the family is a social system in which parents and children mutually shape each other.
This idea makes me a little sad at the moment. As I've said before, I was raised fairly conservatively. My sister and I have both grown considerably more liberal, her more so than I, but our parents seem to have grown more conservative at the same time. I had assumed that I only perceived them as getting more conservative as I grew more liberal, but perhaps that isn't the whole truth. Perhaps they HAVE grown more conservative as a response to the movement of my sister and I. As I said: for every action, perhaps there is an equal and opposite reaction. Perhaps in some families this odd physics binds them together, but in others it drives them apart.
In a few months I will return home to my parents for the first time in over a year. I will be returning for the holidays, and to see my sister married. By then either George W. Bush, or John Kerry, will have been elected President (Or we'll have decended into civil war. I'm hoping one of the first two options, personally) and so my father will either be gloating, or will be sullen and petulant. Love him though I do, I can honestly admit that whatever ragged shred of interpersonal maturity I possess does not come from him. Regardless of what happens, however, and how annoying he gets, I must labor to remember this: my family is a system. My reactions will exert a force. I must direct that force in a way that makes things better for us all.
Or at least in a way that gets me some peace and quiet.