A new orbit: Lessons from parenthood on trust

Note: This essay was first published as a chapter in The Birthday Book 2017: What should we never forget?, edited by Sheila Pakir and Malminderjit Singh.

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A new orbit: Lessons from parenthood on trust

The story goes that independent Singapore began, needfully, in paternalism.  Lee Kuan Yew is cast as the family patriarch – “Ah Kong”, reverently or derisively, depending on who speaks – declaring his government’s benevolent dominion over “who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use”.

This, it is said, kept the body of our young nation alive.  Some regret that it left our hearts and minds less developed, but no matter – now we are growing up and making space for different ways, secure in the foundation that the firm hand of authority laid for us.  Admirers praise the stern father figure who famously preferred fear to love; critics mourn the “infantile” citizenry.  

For me, as a feminist and a parent, this pat tale is illuminating for what it omits.  It takes for granted a certain vision of relating to children.  But there are other ways of parenting, just as there are other ways of governing.  

Many parents are consciously striving toward what we describe as respectful parenting.  We seek to shed the view that children are lesser or incomplete people, whose conduct should be managed purely to produce outcomes unilaterally predefined by adults as desirable.

The child is a whole person, whose individual perspective must be respected.  Children do not enjoy developed adult brains or the benefits of experience, but this gives adults no inherent right to deference.  Child feelings can seem outsized and uninformed, but it does not follow that they merit dismissal.  

We cannot control who children are; we can only choose what kind of relationship we offer them.  Their values are shaped through that relationship if we earn their trust, not by fiat.  Do everything “right”, and they will still surprise us with who they become.  

This can be frightening.  It is reassuring to cling to the illusion of control.  But only embracing this risk gives children the chance to be themselves, and therefore to truly connect with us.

A key insight of this form of parenting is that labelling has power.  Call children “naughty” or “lazy”, and they see themselves through that lens.  More subtly, they respond to the model of their personalities that our parenting projects, expressly or implicitly.  Imagine them as manipulative, as seeking domination, and this perception bleeds through in our actions and communications.  They pick it up.  If we parent by reference to worst-case spectres conjured by our fears, instead of responding attentively to the specific child in front of us, we sow distrust in the relationship.

Citizens are not the children of public institutions, and some use of coercion is inherent to the nation-state in a way that it is not to families.  But it is nevertheless instructive to apply the insights of parenting to governance, because both involve the use of powers with unusually deep abilities to shape self-image and relations with others.  

In discussing social needs with policy decision-makers, I meet a remarkably consistent projection of the citizenry.  Authorities are highly exercised by the idea of abusive system gaming by the sly fox who has learned all the rules just to cheat.  Often, confronted with how policies can cause hardship, they are sceptical about the accounts of ordinary people: “There’s something they aren’t telling you” is a popular refrain.  Clear harms raised – families torn apart by migration regulations, people struggling with poverty – are rarely as real as the spectre of this liar.

One group of decision-makers were amused at my observation that the citizenry might be harmed by a restrictive policy because many earnestly play by the rules, instead of pushing to squeeze every last advantage they can.  At another moment, a different decision-maker suggested that if foreign spouses faced marginally fewer barriers to employment, citizens might marry foreigners en masse at the behest of their employers.  What does it imply when this absurd proposition is taken seriously, but the very idea of rule-abiding citizens is laughable?  

Why would a people honour rules that are designed around the belief that to do so is naive?  What is the impact on citizen confidence in institutions, when decision-makers pervasively communicate distrust, including through opacity?  One clue may be found in the work of political scientist Eric Plutzer, who found a strong connection across different US states between more inclusive food stamp programmes – which communicated less distrust of the public – and greater political participation in the form of voter turnout.  People cannot become invested in a national enterprise that has little faith in them.

Sometimes our institutions seem to disclaim the idea that relationships have any power at all.  Like the parent who does not take time to transmit their values via positive connection, we instead pursue compliance only through surveillance and punishment.  For instance, students in universities have long engaged in organised sexual harassment in orientation activities, such as being pressured to perform push-ups over one another.  When a particularly dramatic example emerged in 2016, with participants being quizzed about their “sluttiness” and whose bodily fluids they would like to consume or facing forfeits such as enacting scenes of incestuous rape, there was widespread talk of investigation, expulsion, blacklisting, policing.  But there was much less appetite – even from institutions whose mission is to educate – for engaging the cultural roots of the behaviour.  Instead of merely suppressing one manifestation of mob misogyny, we need to understand how and why it has become commonplace among young people, and invest in nurturing better values, which can counter it head-on.

Just as in the parent-child space, the relationship of power and labelling between public institutions and the people operates with profound consequences, whether we wish to see it or not.  When those with power orbit psychologically around notional figures that they distrust, at the expense of engagement with people before them, there is a deep impact on our collective images of social relations, which cannot straightforwardly be undone by other incentives or blandishments.  We urgently need to pay attention to this, because ultimately – and most visibly in times of crisis – the nation itself, no less than any family, is only the sum of the relationships that create it.

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