The first thing any parent must come to terms with: There's no such thing as a happy childhood. No matter what you do, how much love and care you supply, how many toys and distractions you provide, a childhood will never be happy. Why? Because the content of a childhood is unhappiness. What's being a child? It's being something you do not want to be—incomplete, unshaped, future-bound. A boy or girl is not a terminal point but a person who is caught in a long and slow progress to a better, more perfected, more complete thing: an adult.
Children can get nothing right. Their bodies are a total mess. They bump into things, they fall all of the time, they bang their heads against anything that's right in front of them, they drop anything they get their blind fingers on—cups, plates, chopsticks, pots. And yet, they want to have control: Girls want to hold a glass of milk and not spill it all over themselves; boys desire to run and not trip, catastrophically biting the dust—busted lips, bruised knees, scraped palms, eyes swollen with tears. But their bodies will not listen to them. They and their bodies have poor chemistry. The boy is in the body, but the body, which is constantly changing on him, is not in the boy.
"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these," said Jesus in the days of the Romans. Was he serious? Children can't blow their noses or control their voices, and they cry at every opportunity. Only a man who did not have kids could wish such a thing—a heaven packed with children. Do not listen to prophets who praise "the wisdom" of infants. This is total bullshit. There's not an ounce of wisdom in these little people. They have very weak thoughts and can barely express these weak thoughts. Indeed, can we even imagine something worse than a chatty child? The boredom these types induce has no other match anywhere else in the vast world of human communication. As a father, one must do his very best to convince a boy/girl that he/she is not at all interesting and that it's much better to keep their thoughts to themselves—and if the need to express something is too great, then pick up a toy and relieve this urgency on it. Toys are always there for you; they are the ideal audience for a child's inspirations.
Kids say the dumbest things. A good father, a father who really loves his young ones, discourages them from communicating anything but the basics: I need food, I'm cold, I'm sad, I'm in pain because of this bump on my head. Parents who fool their poor children into believing they are interesting have done them a great disservice. Often, nothing can undo or mend this damage, and the child grows into an adult who says anything to anybody because he/she has been long convinced that anything that falls out of his/her mouth is made of gold. Such adults are almost always lonely and turn to animals for friendship.
Children are by nature unhappy and uninteresting—and there's where you find the essential wrong in pedophilia. It's a love for something that is unfinished, for something that is longing to be something else (an adult), for something that is essentially not there to be had. A child is always changing, but the pedophile longs for the opposite of change—for the total arrest of the child's development. He/she dreams of freezing the boy/girl in time, like an insect in an ice cube. Humbert Humbert, the most famous pedophile in English literature, longed for an eternal Lolita, an eternal 12-year-old girl, an eternal unhappiness. Humbert Humbert would have been in heaven in Jesus's heaven.
My daughter is playing in her room. Her developing imagination has built a small city out of toys. This world is under her control. Things move because of her power. This toy talks to another toy, and my daughter is the conductor of this and all the other conversations, exchanges, and events. She's this city's lights. The real city rises outside of her window (we live in downtown Seattle). That's the other world—the regime of adults. Adults play a prominent role in her little city, but they are under her control in the way that adults control her in the real city.
Human children are stunningly useless. All they can do is play and wait for their turn to be big and in power. She is fed, clothed, and taught to think and communicate by her parents' world. She brought nothing into it but a body. Everything is provided for her.
I enter my daughter's room, and she stops playing. I have broken the spell. I can see on her face that she wants me to leave the room so her imagination can revive her halted toys. But not so quick. I want to ask her a question and, after all, I am in control. All I need is a straight answer and I'll leave her be. What is the question? It's not so strange or hard (always keep things simple with children), but I need to know what she thinks about her childhood: Is it a happy or sad one?
My daughter is 6 years old at this point. Her eyes are big, and her contempt for my intrusion fills every part of those eyes. But I need her to answer this question. I want to make sure she has a good sense of what it means to be what she is now. "I don't know... I can't answer that... What are you talking about?"
I ask her to think for a moment, think about her friends, her foes, her family, her pets, her sleepovers, her memories—all of it. Think, sum it up, and give me an answer: good or bad?
So she will not tell me. She will not say what I already know. I already know what kind of childhood she is having, because all childhoods are the same. I leave her room, and she is relieved and her little city is revived.
Children are not only unhappy and uninteresting, they're also talentless, and it is the duty of the father to let them know this as soon as possible (this goes for mothers, as well—always tell your child that their gifts, talent, brilliance are all in the future and not at all in the present). An example: For many years, my son loved to draw. I had no problem with this. He was free to draw all that he fuzzily saw: the trees, the stars, the crow's nest on the top of the branches beneath his bedroom window.
My son also used to have the need to show me and other adults his drawings. This, of course, I had a problem with. Why did he think these crude images that hardly resembled the things they were supposed to represent could be of any interest to an adult who was not doing scientific research relating to child development—someone who has been trained to make some sense of these scribbles? I did my best to let my son know how I felt about his drawings: They were terrible and that was not surprising because he was a boy. (If he were an adult and drew like this, I'd be concerned; if he were an adult chimp and drew anything at all, I'd be very impressed.) But at the age of 5, his hands and mind were basically putty, and the things he drew did not reflect the world outside but this inner puttiness. Only when he had mastered his body and mind could he hope to do anything worth showing adults.
My honesty would sometimes make my son cry, and I'd look at him with eyes that said this: Enjoy your crying for now—and I know children enjoy this crying business, as it's one of the few things they do exceptionally well—but when you are finally a young man (meaning, a real person), you'll have to stop the nonsense with the tears and learn to draw something that can actually impress people, something that looks like a bird or a cloud and not the confused state of a raw mind. (Human brains don't stop growing until age 21.) My son eventually stopped showing me his drawings and also crying (he has not shed a tear since he turned 10, and he is now 14) and our father/son relationship greatly improved.
The next thing a parent must come to terms with: There's no such thing as a happy parent, either. Almost no joy is to be found in any part of parenting—it's all work and worry. You must never forget that the brain of a child is totally useless, and so the child and its body are entirely dependent on your brain for survival. Your brain operates for two people, and the growth of the child, its slow development (and humans are so, so slow—just look at chimp children, out and about and doing their own thing in no time), should be a gradual decline of this dependency. A father longs for the day when he can finally just think for himself, instead of always monitoring, checking, rechecking if the child is about to enter a yard with a violent dog, or climb a tree and fall like a coconut, or eat something that's usually used to clear a crap-clogged toilet.
If you think I'm speaking from just my own experience—which you might think was an exceptionally bad experience, as I might have had exceptionally disagreeable children (I don't, as it happens)—please read Gary Marcus's Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. Near the end of that informative book, you'll find this passage, which concerns the work of Daniel Todd Gilbert, a social psychologist positioned at Harvard: "Although most people anticipate that having children will increase their net happiness, studies show that people with children are actually less happy on average than those without. Although the highs, 'Daddy I love you,' may be spectacular, on a moment to moment basis, most of the time spent taking care of children is just plain work..." Studies conducted by Gilbert also show that parents rate the happiness of raising children "well below sex and movies."
So why do parents even bother with these balls of confusion and constant stress, instead of just abandoning them in front of some witch's door in a forest? Gary Marcus's answer: "We tend to remember the high points better than the daily grind of diapers..." But this is not totally correct. Parents never forget those diapers: the slimy shit, the overwhelming stench. Saying, "Daddy, I love you" does not disperse those horrible memories.
Finding girls' underwear in the woods,
I stop with my children and stand amazed
Sex starts with the family. Michel Foucault says as much in The History of Sexuality. So what role does the father play in this development? There are two: With girls, it is the regrettable role of the oppressor; with boys, it is the regrettable role of the liberator. With girls, it's all about making them put on their clothes after years of freely running around the house naked. Young girls love this sort of thing more than boys and will not bring an end to it without a direct command from the father (finger pointed at them: "Put on your clothes; you're not a baby anymore"). Well-brought-up boys stop the nonsense on their own ("I'm now too old to run around the house naked—I must focus on my drawing").
So as a father, you have no choice but to put your foot down and be the first oppressor of your daughter's sexuality, which at a young age is only the bud of an Edenic and inchoate nudity. Because you made the command, because you expelled her from paradise and made her ashamed of what is clearly natural, you will have to pay dearly. Expect nothing but the worst revenge from her. It will happen when she is in her teens. You will have to close your eyes, open your mouth like that man in the painting by Edvard Munch, and bear it like a storm. The best outcome: Calm returns and a new bond is established between the two of you. The worst outcome: You end up like Laurence Fishburne.
With boys, who tend to forgive you for the first, direct command as an oppressor ("Enough of this breast-feeding; you are too old to be sucking your mother's breasts"), it comes down to homosexuality. A heterosexual father must make sure that his son is not in the closet, and if he is in the closet, he has to tear the door of the closet off its hinges and free him. You want him to come out with it, declare that he is gay, and move on.
But there is a problem: Fathers who try to liberate their sons from the tyranny of heterosexuality, to give them a space to express their sexual predilection, are often rejected. The son keeps claiming he is straight, that he likes girls. And no matter how many times you tell him to be who he wants to be, he will not listen to you, he will not accept the noble offer. But you have to do it; you have to be the one to liberate him from anything that might inhibit development. The end result? You are convinced your boy is gay, and he is determined to hide his homosexuality from your eyes for the rest of his life.
Not long ago, I was sitting with both my kids in the living room. I was reading a book and my daughter was trying to knit something—it was very slow going and almost impossible to see what would become of all that wool that was steadily leaving the order of a ball and entering the chaos of her creation. My son was next to her doing nothing in particular (he had become a teenager). Then, I caught him looking at her knitting with interest. He noticed that I noticed his interest and he tried to affect disinterest (even disgust) in what his sister was doing. I put my book down and put my foot down: I told him that if he became openly gay, he could knit freely in the house and I'd buy him all the wool he needed to express himself. Just come out and be open—be free!
As he had many times before, he refused the offer. He claimed he was straight. He said he likes to visit a local girls' high school (he attends a boys' high school). He went to his room and started playing a violent video game. I told him that if I ever caught him knitting, I'd cut his allowance. I was not going to have a closeted person knitting in my house. That's more than ridiculous. My son ignored me.
If your son is straight, do not talk to him about the birds and the bees. Let a sex- education course deal with that. If there are no such courses, then say this and leave it at that: "Look, Son, I'm not old yet. Do not make me a grandfather. If you can do this for me, I will raise your allowance."
An excellent observer of chimps and their daily doings in the jungle recently explained to the readers of Scientific American that chimp mothers deliver their babies on their own, at night, behind some bush. The reason for this secrecy is not fully understood, but chimp births are, for one, much easier and less deadly than human births (in a state of nature, that is). The reason human births are so dangerous is because our enormous heads have great difficulty passing through the narrow passage between the womb and the world. In fact, human sociality might have its roots in this danger—unlike chimps and gorillas, human females need assistance during birth, and that assistance is not possible without trust. The parturient human must trust the helping human.
Let's not forget that most primate females cannot and dare not trust anyone in their group with their baby. Infanticide is a constant threat. Dominant males and rival females will tear a mother's baby apart if given the chance, and so it's always very close to her.
Now, why bring all of this up in the context of human fatherhood? It is true that in the Western world, human infanticide is now a thing of the past—however, it was a common practice in Germanic Europe as recently as the 16th century (the punishment for committing the crime was drowning in a sack containing snakes, a cat, and a dog—see Woman and the New Race by Margaret Sanger). A father can no longer kill a baby simply because it looks funny or because he is having a bad day. That is the old father. The new father, the father who is a member of a massive social organism, has another role: He must be the stranger in the house.
When the human mother needs help in childbirth, it usually comes from a relative, someone in the family, someone she knows and trusts. And the human mother also brings the child up with other mothers. This is called alloparenting, and some anthropologists, such as Sarah Hrdy, believe human altruism, the glue of human sociality, has its origins in shared parenting and assisted birth. But the kind of sociality that stems from alloparenting and assisted birth is limited to kin sociality. These small groups don't require institutions to enforce and generate laws. Our contemporary type of sociality, on the other hand, is huge and requires that we interact peacefully not only with relatives or close friends but also with strangers.
In the past, someone close to or in the family assisted the mother's birth; now it is a stranger. And when the child arrives at home, they must not forget this stranger. He must always be there, always doing something (cooking, reading, watching the telly). That stranger is the father. The child wants to know him but can't. There is something he is hiding. He says very little. He comes and he goes, this stranger in the house. The mother is close and warm. The mother holds and cuddles. The mother has lots of milk. And just when everything is flowing and feeling so good, there appears the stranger. He is walking across the room. He has a glass of wine in his hand. He is chewing a stick of dried beef.
Who is this figure, and why does he stay here all the time? And why is he in bed with the mother every night? And why does he smack her butt all the time?
Eventually, the child calls this stranger "Papa." He/she learns to live with him and even trusts him. The stranger is not so bad after all. But the child never fully understands him or feels she has anything in common with him. Once in a while, the child notices the stranger is staring at her. The child does not like this one bit. It makes her uneasy. What is Papa thinking? The stranger is thinking about Benjamin Franklin. He is thinking about that unforgettable day the famous American observed the first balloon rise in the sky, in 1783. And some French nobleman, who was also watching, asked, "What possible use are balloons?" And Franklin answered, "What use is a newborn baby?"
Yes, you, my child, are totally useless and uninteresting and yet something in you can grow up to become an engineer with the vision to place a human on the moon. Papa is amazed. The city—its planes, trains, telecommunication systems—all came out of useless you. The child gets too spooked by staring Papa, stops playing with her toys and retreats to her bedroom. Mommy is from her world; Papa is from another planet.
Then, one fateful day, it was time for my daughter to go to school. Time to meet and be in the public. We left the house, we walked to the school bus stop in Chinatown, we waited at the corner of Main and Sixth with other kids (most of them watched by old Chinese women). The yellow bus arrived. It was packed with noisy strangers, and the driver was a stranger, and the people in the classroom at her school were strangers. Everyone was more like the father than the mother. The mother was the inside; the father the outside. And the outside is beyond the circle of kin. It is a state of strangers. I had prepared my daughter to live as a human, which is to live among unknown and unknowable and unrelated people.
"It should be noted that, on the whole, children love their parents less than their parents love them," Hegel writes in Philosophy of Right. Hegel got many things wrong (history is not directed by a ghost), but this he got right. Children are unhappy, parents are unhappy, and then there is this final letdown: Children, even if they become adults, cannot love you as much as you love them. After all of that, all of the suffering and slimy diapers, you are stuck with all of this love in your heart, and most of it will never be returned.