In loco parentis

Who is really well placed to act in loco parentis?

That was a big deal question when I was in college. Mothers and fathers sent their children off to far away institutions, some of them hoping that the college would act for the welfare of their progeny as they would have. That hope is captured by the Latin expression, which means, “in the place of the parent.”  This was not very often the wish of the progeny, as I recall, who were all to happy to be away from home and free to begin crafting a new identity. [1]

Is the sense of the word place that I want to use today. For me, Wheaton, Illinois where I was an undergraduate, was a different place than Englewood, Ohio, where I had lived with my parents. But that’s not really all “place” means. In very status-oriented settings, where there might be servants to take account of, “place”could mean both things at the same time. Here’s an example from Dorthy Sayers’, Busman’s Honeymoon.

“Bunter,” said Lord Peter Wimsey, “You’ve got some beer for Puffett in the kitchen.”

“Yes, my lord”

Mr. Puffitt, reminded that he was, in a manner of speaking, in the wrong place, picked up his curly bowler and said heartily, “That’s very kind of your lordship. Come on, Martha. Get off your bonnet and shawl and we’ll give these lads a ‘and outside.”

And even today, we will hear someone say, “Of course, it’s not my place to…” Most often, that means that some appropriate person—often a parent—should do something that the speaker thinks should be done.  The little tag “Of course…” indicates that the person is putting himself or herself in loco parentis and knows that isn’t quite proper.  It is not his “place.”

Because I’m your mother, that’s why

This familiar appeal to authority can be heard at the very end of many parent/child transactions. [2] This is not new information to the child. The child knew this was true all along and may even have known that this final discussion-ending pronouncement would be used eventually and may even (even) have been counting the steps until it arrived. The child knows this is his mother; he knows the mother is in distress; he is riding and perhaps celebrating, the waves of the events that precede its use.

loco 1And what are those “waves of events.” As specific tools, they vary, of course, from one parent to another, but as kinds of tools, they are pretty common among parents who are trying really hard to be “modern” [3] and “positive.” These tools involve amazing levels of “polite request” and “expressions of appreciation” for the children’s compliance with those requests that sometimes occurs. The tools involve praising a child for doing something he has no sense of doing at all. This has the effect of weaponizing the child, who now knows what behavior he is currently foregoing and therefore what behavior will bring him the attention he craves.  The kid who was perfectly happy looking out the window, learns, for instance, that he has been passing up jumping up and down on his seat.

All this politeness and all this reinforcement of “positive” (really, just “not negative”) behavior are attempts to postpone or to avoid getting to that last stop at which the mother says, “…because I’m your mother.”

A MAX mother

Let me use, as an example, the events that brought this to my mind most recently. I was riding a MAX train—that’s light rail for you non-Portlanders—a few weeks ago. I was trying to keep my bicycle, hanging from a hook behind one of the seats, from swinging out into anyone’s path, so I didn’t see the mother and her three children get on. They established themselves across the aisle from me; there was at least one child in a baby carrier the size of a town car and there were two older children running interference.

I am going to be critical of this mother’s interactions with her children not because they were so egregious, but because they typified a style I have seen in use for some years now and which I particularly dislike. [4]

The first thing that caught my attention was the use of “Please” and “Thank you.” To a loco 2little girl standing on her seat, the mother say “Would you sit down please?” and, when the little girl sat down, “Thank you.” Why is that a good thing to say, I wondered.

And then, to the little boy, who was sitting beside her looking out the window, “You’re doing such a good job of sitting in your seat, Jason. Thank you.”

Why do parent talk like this to their children? If you imagine that they are, basically, a group of peers out on a trip, it would be easy to say that politeness is better than impoliteness, courtesy better than discourtesy. And that’s true, of course, but when you lay out those alternatives, you are buying the premise that these are peers out on a trip. It is under those circumstances that courtesy and discourtesy are the important notions. And in this scenario, no one, please note, is in loco parentis.

And if you are a young mother who is a fan of this style of child-rearing, you will certainly want to object. The most common objection I have heard is that it is better than “the alternatives,” by which the defender normally means abrasive, punishment-oriented parenting. But, of course, that is “the” alternative only if you hold to the “peers out on a trip” model, in which no one is in loco parentis. I don’t like that ugly threatening parenting style either and I don’t want to do anything to justify it.

Whatever parenting style is used, I would like to see it justified by saying that it works. That is a better justification, I think, than that it is polite.  It achieves the desired control of the children’s behavior, it makes available to the children all the kinds of experience that are appropriate in the setting, it protects passersby from the din of unceasing parenting, it leaves the parent in good enough shape to all the other things she needs to do. Those four are the effects I have in mind when I say that a style of parenting “works.” [5]

Does all this “politeness” work? No. I don’t think it does. I think it teaches the children that what the mother tells them to do is, essentially, a request for a favor. This puts the child in a very uncomfortable place. He may grant it, in which case, the mother owes him something. What? He may refuse to grant it, without any notable consequence to himself (until, late in the series, we begin to approach “Because I’m Your Mother!”). The child is being trained to regard what his mother tells him to do as the starting point of a protracted negotiation. Very often, this negotiation is much more entertaining than any other course of action available to the child–much more than sitting quietly and looking out the window, for instance.

I began to think about this some years ago when the suffix “OK?” began to be added to requests and even to orders given to small children. [2] It may have been that the first use of the added tag, “O.K?” was to soften the sound of what otherwise would have been an order to one’s children. That’s what it sounded like to me at the beginning. But as it became a longer and more emotional add-on, it took on the role of seeking permission. “Sally, sit down on your seat, is that OK with you?” [6]

So a child in this scenario, is empowered to place a tax—think of it as a tax on the attention of the mother— on every transaction. The child receives the income generated by the tax; the mother and the siblings pay the tax. The passersby pay the tax as well. It is asking a lot, I think, to require that the child will forego this very attractive situation and most children don’t, particularly when no one is in loco parentis.

What would work better

loco 4What would work a good deal better, I think, is for the parent—we have been considering the mother here, but there is no reason it couldn’t be the father—to take the role of the parent, to be in loco parentis. That means that she has special authority to organize the behavior of the group, to dole out rewards and punishments as needed. She can be as sweet-tempered as the situation allows her to be, subject to getting the work done successfully. And let me remind you that “successfully” has independent metrics for the safety of the children, the health and welfare of the mother, and the safety of non-belligerent parties, such as neighbors and passers-by.

“Because I’m your mother, that’s why” is changed from the fraught and unhappy last stage, to the presuppositions of all the interactions the project requires. “Because I’m your mother” is taken for granted in all considerations bearing on the health, safety, and welfare of the group. It is not an excuse for bad manners. Rather, it provides the extra space in the relationship where politeness can be offered without the danger that it will be taken as appeasement. When the children are, as in the example above, “taxing units,” the costs of all the transactions will be driven up.

A Wise Man Once Said

Finally, I’d like to remember the reflections of one of my favorite pediatricians. He was in practice for a long time and as someone who dealt all day every day with parents and children, he was in a position to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Over the years, he became wary of prescriptions about child-rearing that were too specific or that promised more than they could deliver.

He said that all the good parenting styles he saw—many, many different styles—had two elements. They had clear standards that the parents and the children understood in the same way and they provided consistent loving support to the children as they negotiated and then internalized the system. Those two things.

Now in fact, this pediatrician is my older brother, Karl. I say that only to give you a chance to disregard my use of his wisdom on the grounds that I am related to him. But Karl shared that insight with me a long time ago and I have used it as the basis of my own thinking about this problem for a long time as well. So my advice to you is, before you disregard it on the basis of our family connection, try it on and see if it works as well for you as it has for me.

[1] Even those of us who knew that loco meant “place,” smiled to ourselves as this distant extension of parenthood was called “loco,” a point we thought was too appropriate to deserve further comment.
[2] I don’t remember using it, myself, although some of my kids read this blog and will correct me if I am wrong, and I don’t remember hearing men resorting to “…because I’m your father” in the same way. Maybe the role discrepancy doesn’t get as wide as it does for mothers.  Or maybe I just haven’t noticed.
[3] I think that mostly means, “not the way my mother was.”
[4] Before you waste the energy pointing out to me that getting a bunch of small children safely from Point A to Point B is hard enough and that she may have had a very tiring day before the episode I saw, let me grant all of that. I don’t mean to be critical of the women I saw on the train. She did call to mind an approach to parenting of which I do want to be critical.
[5] I did my own years as a parent of three small children and I know that you can’t always manage to achieve all these goals. Still, I think it is important to keep them as goals so you will be able to keep track of the tradeoffs you will be forced to make
[6] Originally just OK with a very slight upward inflection to indicate that it was a question, but fairly quickly, a much more elongated O-Kaaaaay? with the drawn out a- and a much greater upward inflection. The short OK might have been a request for confirmation that the direction had been received. The long one sounds like supplication to me.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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