Ebb Tide

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

I think that must be one of the most famous exchanges in the English language. The “it” that Frodo wishes had not happened is the discovery of the One Ring, the ring of power, but Gandalf’s rejoinder is much more general. “So do all who live to see such times…” he says. You are a member of a category and the way you are feeling about it is the way all the members of that category feel. But you must find a way to deal with it anyway.

Now…wizards, like Gandalf, live a very long time. Gandalf has seen “such times” overebb 2 and over and he knows what he is talking about. Frodo, like most of the rest of us, is living in the only time he knows. [1] And like the rest of us, Frodo is forced to take the presuppositions of his age for granted.

Peter Stearns, the social historian [2] has a way of approaching matters that is a great deal more like Gandalf’s than like Frodo’s. Stearns will study some small aspect of the whole social whirl and pay attention to how that one small aspect has developed over time. I’m going to reflect on his treatment of the notion of “obedience” today, but I’ll be back from time to time with another notion from his work.

Imagine that you are standing at the shore of the ocean in the middle of the afternoon on a beautiful sunny day and watching the “tide” go “out.” (How odd, you think, to put those words in quotation marks.  I thought so too.) And let’s say you know nothing at all about the influence the moon exerts over the tides on earth. You don’t know that the water goes out for awhile and then comes back in and then goes out. You don’t know the system.

ebb 1What you do know is that the water used to reach much further up the beach and now it is clear down to where you are standing and it is still going down, going “away.” You are horrified, let’s say, because you liked this part of the coast where the ocean “used to come” and you long for “the good old days” when the water—you don’t know to call it a “tide”—used to come all the way up to here.

It seem odd, I suppose, to imagine anyone who doesn’t know about “tides,” but really, who knows about grieving; who knows about “jealousy;” who knows about what a “real man” or a “real woman” ought to be like; who knows whether children should be obedient to their parents? All these are like the tides and we, who take for granted the sentiments of our own time, are like the guy who doesn’t know that “the water going out” is called an ebb tide and that it will all come back.

Let me illustrate by recalling what I can from my recent reading of Stearns’ treatment of obedience. The point of all this is that these ideas about obedience—is it a good thing or a bad thing, does it come at the expense of other important virtues, how is it to be inculcated— are broadly shared by your contemporaries. Whenever you were a child or whenever you were raising children or, more ominously, grandchildren, there was a set of ideas that was considered to be “common sense.”

Stearns says that agricultural families neeebb 3ded to have large families of obedient children.
That’s how the family was made an economically viable unit. So there is an economic infrastructure to the ethical demands of “obey your parents.” Notice how powerful it is when the two are joined. Obeying your parents is the right thing to do and besides that, you will all starve without it. Powerful.

The Industrial Revolution removed the economic infrastructure for many families. For these families, the admonition to obedience was still strong, but now it had to stand alone. After a period when urban and suburban children “helped out at the shop” or even “tended the vegetable garden,” the chores of children shrank to things like keeping their own rooms neat and taking out the garbage and washing the dishes. Household chores, in other words, instead of contributions to the family’s economic viability.

In the latter part of the obedience phase, there grew up an ideal that children should obey gladly. In my own mind, I suspect that there were some good reasons for this new emphasis and some bad reasons. The good reason is that when the cows had to be milked, all that mattered was that the kids got up at the right time and milked them. They could be a snarly about it as them wanted. But for the new work, the “chores,” it actually matters whether the kids “obey” sweetly and kindly or with grousing and foot dragging. The bad reason I am thinking of is that the parents and the people who wrote books about how to be parents sensed that the old “obedience” norm was slipping away and tried to prop it up with a new emotional resonance. “I’m obeying my parents (as I should) and I’m happy about it.”

As urban (and later, suburban) notions of what a good child is like, this happiness in compliance was joined to a happiness in independence. It’s not as hard as you might think. Once you start caring about whether the kids are happy or not—as opposed to just obedient or not—it is easy to join this virtue of any other virtue and “the child who can choose for himself” was the next virtue in line. So now we want children who make good choices and are happy about it. Obedience of the “look both ways before you cross the street” is still appropriate, but that kind of obedience is justified by the immediate context, not by the nature of the parent/child relationship.

ebb 4In the next phase, the helicopter parent phase, parents are responsible for the good choices and the consequent happiness of the children. Let’s just stop and think how far we have come from the farm family where the kids are plowing the back forty and gathering and selling the eggs. Now that the parents are responsible for the choosing that the child does—not, please note, for the choices themselves [3]—a child who is not choosing well or who does not play nicely with others or who can’t make the soccer team or who is not happy, is a problem that the parents need to do something about.

Does that seem weird? Not if everyone you know is doing the same thing. When everyone is doing the same thing, we are back to the guy who doesn’t know what tides are and who therefore mourns the “passing away” of what was once “a mighty ocean.”

Stearns historical approach gives us a chance to look at the matter more broadly. There is a very nice fit in the situation where the farm family has to make a living and so needs a lot of children who will do what they are told. There are good things and bad things about this scheme—as there are about any scheme—but the parts all fit together.

What we need in our time is an economic infrastructure and  an understanding of moral obligations that will do for us what the old agriculture/obedience construct did for them. What should we aspire to for our children? What does it cost them for us to aspire to so much? What does it cost us to aspire to that on their behalf? What do children actually need from their parents [4] as opposed to the things they want or things they think they have a right to?

I think it is an advantage to us all that the problem can be posed generally–that is Stearns’s gift– even granting that any particular family will have to come up with some response to that commonality that works and that is within their means. [5]

So it might be worth considering that the tide is now in, it is high tide, on such questions ebb 5as autonomy for children and choosing as the principal mode of self-expression and the complete responsibility parents have shouldered for the quality and the success of their children. If it is really high tide on all those things, then the demands they make need to be met in some way. Or perhaps they can be modified. Or even rejected.

Whatever is done, it will have to be done again as the tide begins to go back out and new structures will have to be devised. And I would think that even as we must work in the present we are given—just as Frodo must—still we may be able to get some relief from knowing that out children will face different demands and different collections of virtues.

And maybe letting them see us struggling with ours, will help them struggle more successfully with theirs.

[1] Sociologist Peter Berger makes the very good point that “society” is a show that is meant to be seen only once, and when you live a long time and start to see the same things a second or third time, you start to notice things you missed at first.
[2] “my guy,” as I said last month, on gender roles
[3] The law still has the old fashioned view about legal and financial liability.
[4] I will grant you the truth of the observation you are about to make that different children require different things from their parents. That is true. But it is also true that every child needs certain things, common things, although they might need to have them delivered in different ways. The unity and the diversity are both true and both trite.
[5] When my wife and I were raising children, we agreed about most things, but differed on the obedience question. I wanted prompt and effective obedience and I didn’t care all that much what emotional flavor accompanied it. One of my kids could say almost anything by way of complaint while he was doing what he was told to do. My wife felt that the emotional part of the act of obedience was important too. She really wanted happy obedience, although she would settle for silent obedience, if “happy” was too much to ask for at the time. I had no idea when she and I were having these discussions about childrearing, how well we represented the recent emphases of our culture.

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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