Sunday, October 28, 2007

Talking About Jail With A Four Year-Old

As L has begun to transition from questions exclusively about the world in front of his nose to moderately more sophisticated ones, I have had to wrestle with the problem of how to talk about the world in ways that a four year-old will understand. The trickiest part of this, I have found, is dealing with the surprising strength of the pull towards replies that are quick, simple, and (depending on which angle you wish to object from) politically inane, harmful and dishonest. I think I've done okay in resisting this pull, but it has been a bit of a surprise and more than a bit disconcerting to feel how close certain things that I don't agree with at all manage to get to the tip of my tongue.

Take the other night. I was giving L his bath. We were talking about nothing in particular and he came out with one of those delightfully random interjections that kids his age are prone to just because it happens to occur to them: "M. [a kid in his JK class] said the food in jail is really bad."

I conceded that it was my understanding that this was often the case, and questioned gently to find out how and why this observation came to be shared. I didn't get very far on that front, but it quickly became clear that L didn't know what a jail was, and he wanted to.

Well. I had a few seconds to come with a way to answer this.

I am ashamed that even if its passage across my mind was solely as a route to the "not a chance" pile, it still occurred to me that one way to answer it would be, "It's the place where they put grown-ups who do really bad things so they don't do anything else bad." That's the sort of answer I would've gotten at that age, I think, with perhaps the focus on "bad men" rather than "bad" acts.

This response is simple to say, easy to understand, and provides a straightforward framework to handle any follow-up questions it might inspire. It is also a complete and utter surrender to the way "jail" as a social institution gets sold to those of us who generally have the privilege not to have to have anything to do with it, rather than a good reflection of what "jail" actually is and how it functions in the world. Making that statement would be me doing my bit to reproduce undisturbed white middle-classness in L, with all its attendant blindnesses about its own privileges and its foundation in violence directed at Others. Which I know I'm doing anyway in a million ways I don't notice, but that doesn't mean I have to cooperate when I do notice.

So if I don't want to do that, what exactly is an appropriate goal to shoot for in formulating a better reply? It most definitely is not appropriate, or remotely realistic, to expect to enforce a direct reproduction of one's own views in one's offspring. I'm surprised at how many people seem to think this is possible, let alone desirable. I mean, people just do not work like that. When we take in information, from direct experience or mediated, it is always an active process -- there is a dynamic interaction between the new information and who and what we already are to create new meaning, even when the source is a very trusted one. Trying to browbeat a child's knowledge-creation processes into a direct, linear acceptance of everything a parent says is abuse, plain and simple. Personally (and especially given how many completely silly things I know I've said in my time) I think my role as being quite the opposite: to encourage L in taking an active and critical engagement with knowledge-making, i.e. thinking about things for himself. That is one important thing to consider in framing a response to a question like this.

Accuracy and honesty are also important goals. Accuracy is fairly self-explanatory, though honesty tends to be trickier, I think -- not only does honesty involve not conveying deliberate falsehood, it also involves refusing the temptation to be dishonest by omission and just sidestep tricky questions, as well as as the temptation to pretend neutrality or objectivity under the banner of "let him make up his own mind when he's old enough." It is not some simplistic choice between dictating opinions and pretending not to have them. I think it is our responsibility to answer questions as honestly and completely as we can, with our best understanding to date of whatever is being asked about, and admitting that we too are on a journey of figuring things out that will never be complete, that we get things wrong, and that sometimes we just don't know.


After three or four seconds of casting around for an approach, I decided to start with what I knew about the nascent theory of the state incubating within him: "So remember a few weeks ago when there were all of these orange signs with your buddy D.'s dad's name on them? And how we talked about how all the grown-ups in Ontario were getting a say in who gets to decide certain things about how Ontario works? And D.'s dad wanted to be one of those people?"

I went on to talk about how that something -- couldn't figure out an easy way to make the state vs. government distinction in the moment, so I let it slide for the time being -- that runs things can lock up grown-ups up and keep them in a building and not let them out. That's "jail." I went on to talk about how there were people who ended up there who did some pretty bad things, but that a lot of the reasons why certain people got locked up instead of other people, and why people were locked up at all instead of solving problems in other ways, had more to do with -- well, I kind of faltered when trying to find a way to express in fouryearoldese the idea that it happens to ensure that those who are dominant in the context of existing social relations maintain that dominance, but I think I conveyed the idea that there is something fishy that goes on, and it sure isn't centrally about protecting good people from bad people. I pointed out that how likely you are to get locked up has a lot to do with how much money you have and what you look like. I emphasized how badly people get treated in jail. I asserted that though lots of people see it differently, I think that the less that jail is used to respond to problems, the better, and that I think we should be busy figuring out how to do things in ways that would let us have no jails at all, though I admitted we didn't know quite what we would do in that case with the relatively small proportion of currently jailed people who hurt people really badly. At some point he spontaneously volunteered that the kids of people in jail must really miss them. Seeking to head off undue worry, I let him know that I was unlikely to end up there, but I also let him know I had spent two brief periods in jail before (26 and 3 hours, respectively) to try and chip away at the way that "jail" functions to construct people as "good" and "bad" in the typical white middle-class discourse he will eventually come across.

Anyone who has had a conversation with a four year-old will recognize that it was all a good deal less linear than presented, and he interjected and questioned a fair bit too. And I am not deluded enough to fail to appreciate that parts of it probably sounded to him like the "Mwah mwah mwahmwah" of the adults' voices in the old Charlie Brown animated cartoons. Even so, it was doing what little I could -- and I really do think parents have less power over such things than most accredited parenting "experts" and most parents themselves seem to think -- to unsettle a little bit the idea of "jail" and perhaps plant some seeds of wariness about all the harmful, mystifying nonsense that he is bound to encounter associated with and in part constructed by that idea.

Any one such answer is a tiny drop in the overall ocean of ideas and discourse and material influences that shape any particular human being, so one's performance in any individual instance of answering a question about the world from a little one should be evaluated after the fact in a very gentle way, I think.

Nonetheless, why, in general, are critical answers to such questions not more common, not easier?

As I have observed before, parenting is not the discrete sphere of life that it often gets portrayed as in a lot of how many people talk and write about it. We are not going to be able to come up in three seconds with good, critical answers to questions that we have never thought of critically for ourselves, so as in so many other situations, one of the most important parts of parenting well is investing effort to figure stuff out for ourselves first.

A second factor is that it is easy to be too concerned about saying things that your kid won't completely understand. I think that's a mistake. I mean, a genuine translation is crucial, because an answer that is technically complete but functionally communicates nothing is a waste of breath and will probably be pretty alienating. Still, working hard to avoid sacrificing honesty or completeness to any great extent because "Oh they won't understand" is also crucial, because I think that simplification in the name of being "age appropriate" is a big way in which the ideologies that inform our "common sense" get passed along even by people who might be more critical of those ideologies in other contexts. And speaking personally, I was given plenty of opportunity as a kid to listen in on and be addressed by lots of things I didn't really understand yet (albeit not generally politically critical things), and I think that was a good thing for me. It gave me a chance to practice puzzling things out, and it helped me get comfortable with having the feeling of not understanding while not being overwhelmed by it, which I think has been useful later in life.

More significantly, I think perhaps it is an indication of not taking the questions of children as seriously as they deserve. It is too easy to fall into treating them as interruptions to be managed. Sometimes it just isn't practical to answer well or fully in the moment, of course -- the traffic is bad, dinner is burning, the baby is crying, whatever. Sometimes, though, parents just refuse to treat questions from children as important, refuse to recognize that they are not annoyances, not pointless, but real efforts to figure out the world and how to live in it. This refusal is probably related to the more generalized disrespecting of the agency of youth and children in our culture. It would be easy enough (again, at least for those of us with the privilege not to be forced by circumstances to deal with the concept in the regular course of life) and probably pretty common to laugh off a four year-old's question about jail with "oh, you don't need to know about a nasty thing like that" or "don't worry your pretty little head over it" rather than treat it seriously and recognize that, like an adult, they wouldn't ask if they didn't want to know. Even if the details of any one answer are not retained, the general shape of what it can mean to think critically and explore the world conveyed by such answers over the course of years can be an important piece of parental modelling. (Which is an important way to think about it: as modelling our own journeys to understand, rather than dictating Truth from on high.) And how their questioning gets treated by us will definitely make an impression, and have an impact on their practice around questioning things in the future.

And finally, I think it is because it really is a difficult thing to do. Saying something that manages to actually communicate successfully to someone so early in their journey of figuring the world out while being honest and somewhat substantive, and avoiding dictating or preaching by keeping your language grounded and careful and admitting your own ignorance and limitations, is a pretty tricky thing. But it's actually kind of a fun challenge. And it can be useful too -- after all, what better way to force ourselves to sharpen our own thinking about the world?


T E S S A VEEEE! said...

Hey Scott
Thanks for your article/writing.
I haven't actually read it yet... but I am just about to print it off - do you know why!?

A group of undergrad students at McGill are using your writing on prisons as a reading for an independant group-study; we'll be discussing your writing on friday as well as two others. Please browse our website, and thanks for your contribution :)

Scott said...

Hi Tessa...that's very cool that you are using this piece in that way. Thanks for letting me know! And the independent study group looks like a great project...

SN 8)