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.

Fuchsias

Fuchsias As I mentioned briefly in March, I’ve forayed into the visual arts for the first time this year. I have a faint echo of a self-image – lingering from adolescence I suspect – as hopelessly, lopsidedly verbal, too clumsy for the physical world, whether it’s in gross or fine motor, even though it hasn’t strictly speaking been true for some time. But visual aesthetics were definitely totally new to me till I plonked down money for watercolour supplies at Art Friend in January this year. It’s been a deeply rewarding journey learning new skills and ways of thinking, even as I’ve also hurtled a little wildly between attempts and media. Anyway, all of this is just a preamble to my (probably unreasonable) excitement about having recently acquired some pastels and tonight produced some fuchsias. I’m quite sentimental about fuchsias.

Just Mercy

This morning I finished reading JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson of the US-based Equal Justice Initiative. It’s a book that enlarges the reader, for sure. I didn’t know there were so many ways for my heart to break. Part of me wants to buy a copy for every school library in Singapore.

It’s not that I didn’t know, before, how dreadful the death penalty and the US penal system are, or how awful race relations are in that strange and yet strangely familiar land. I used to work at a prison reform organisation, so many of the issues are not new to me (something which made it hard for me to fully appreciate, say, THE NEW JIM CROW as a fresher reader might). But in the warmth of Stevenson’s stories, the directness of their no-nonsense telling, rather than academic or forensic education there is… transformative human connection. I’m botching this sell. Just read it yourself.

(I actually had the opportunity to very briefly meet Stevenson in the outfit I used to work for. I had at the time only a much sketchier concept of why he matters so much. I wish I’d been more informed of what a great honour I was enjoying.)

No axe fell

In Singapore we are so convinced, on a level that is very much more emotive and even affectionate than it is logical, that brutality is all that stands between us and chaotic lawlessness. Both state brutality, and brutality of other kinds, like brutality toward one another and toward children. A lot of LKY’s pronouncements reflected his fundamental conviction that some vengeful law of human nature punishes people, punishes societies, for kindness, for ‘softness’; and in an authoritarian state dominated by him, this conviction has seeped into all our minds. My own journey away from this orientation involved many steps, but a key one was simply living for some time in a place which was matter-of-factly kinder and gentler in many ways. And no axe fell. The result of kindness was just kindness. Imagine that.

The Guardian: Fifty years after the last hanging, the UK has fallen out of love with the death penalty

Children, Wake Up

This will surely destroy any vestigial appearance of literary seriousness I may have, recommending Star Wars slashfic, but I am absolutely loving the incredible work on characterisation in Children, Wake Up, a series that begins with three chapters of Kylo Ren/General Hux pornography (uh… yeah), continues with five chapters of romance, and is currently taking off with 28 chapters of political (?) drama. I found the huge clumsy “HEY THIS IS STAR WARS” elbow digs in Episode VII trying, but the reversal of the parent-child dynamics was an emotional masterstroke. The fact that Kylo Ren is mildly comical only made it all the more poignant. This fanfic series is doing a fantastic job of exploring the potential in that.

Otherwise, for the first time in a very long while, I haven’t really been reading, so there is little to report from the world of text. This is mostly because I’ve taken up watercolour painting and am mildly obsessed with trying to get the lighting right on some succulents right now. I’m sure literature will return eventually, but not yet, not yet.

In that world

You know, we’ve been here very recently. Just last year, many quarters raised serious concerns about the treatment of children and young people by the criminal justice system. People asked questions about the potential emotional and psychological impact of arrest, investigation and charge; about the lack of attention given to the mental health of young people in contact with the criminal justice system; about the cavalier approach of the authorities towards the state’s obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child; about our collective readiness to demonise young people with the silencing hand of authoritarianism.

I refer, of course, to the disagreeable unfortunate named Amos Yee.

Imagine a world where those questions had been taken seriously. Where the state and society had looked honestly and searchingly at how best to implement CRC, and to ensure mechanisms that would genuinely centre and prioritise children’s and young people’s well-being in all interactions with state bodies, even when they are cast as potential wrong-doers. A world where we had listened, and cared, and started the hard work required for a cultural shift.

In that world, how might Benjamin Lim’s experience with the police have been different?

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