Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Who can I Blame?

I'm sort of pissed this evening because I've been reading about a theory developed by Judith Rich Harris which suggests peer groups and not parents are the primary developmental factor. This is the first I've heard of this. Of course who you hang out with has something to do with your personality, your lingo, preferred sports and music, but do we look to anyone as much as to our parents for bad advice and political dogma and emotional abuse when we are kids?

"The evidence I've put together in my book indicates that parents have little or no long-term effect on their children's personality, intelligence, or mental health."
-Judith Rich Harris

Well, that throws my whole "burn the parents" campaign into the trash. I'm starting to think that she started with a thesis that would guarantee controversy so she could get on the map. And then she proved it and even became a kind of cause celeb for a few years in the Nineties. I mean, really? Parents have nothing to do with my personality? What? So, when people called my house and I answered and they said,
and I said, "No, this is his son."
"You sound just like your father."
"Haw haw haw."
"Even your laugh."
"A-Yah. Sho do eat them lobstah up. Har har, jus' us goofy Bleachah kids."

And it's true. If I played a recording of me and my father you wouldn't know who was talking. Recently, he heard me and my brother yelling about something and he remarked, "It's like listening to myself twenty years ago."
I chuckled ruefully and thought. "Yeah, it's almost like you were our father and we were paying attention to you."

It's weird because I don't see any trace of my father in my brother but there are three generation of facially furry Bleacher men who look like me, my father, my grandfather and a few uncles. The same chins and slim build and droopy, clueless eyes. But this theory by Harris kind of throws it all away. A Bleacher man born in 1890 was going to be shaped by his peer group and one born in 1971 was going to be shaped by his peer group. The family, if it can be called that, was pretty much there to throw us some table scraps and teach us how to start the lawnmower, which is about all that I remember. But that does not explain why I'm not a tap dancer or something completely different than a psychologist, which is what my father was.

Harris suggests it is the parents who are more influenced by their kids than the other way around. Really? So, my father got his sense of humor from me? Now the shoe is on the other foot. Every stock market blunder my father made (Go ahead and sell that Apple stock. They'll never survive the Eighties) is really my fault for being innately clumsy with investments.
I don't think I like being responsible for the career rut my father found himself in for 15 years. I much prefer blaming him for my inability to focus on tasks, take chances in love and my reluctance to start business enterprises. It's his fault! But no. Harris suggests that it was my peer group growing up in Boston and then Portsmouth.

Good lord. That never occurred to me because the group of cripple gang mutts and break-dancing, BMX riding, pot smoking, beer drinking, dip chewing, criminals and degenerates were never people I looked up to. I had no choice but find a few of them I could tolerate for a few years. I didn't want to take my headphones off and leave my room but at least once a day I was forced to go to school or take some pointless trip to toss a ball or break some bottles. I didn't think that meant I was being influenced. Because if that is true then I'm totally fucked. Not only did I not pay much attention but my memories of my peer group are something out of nightmares from a death camp...we were all trying to survive long enough to see the next Missing in Action sequel. Chuck Norris was my hero. Is that the problem? I identified with film heroes like Charles Bronson and literary cliches like Henry David Thoreau? I thought all my friends were props for my private theater from hell. But no, they were the very foundations of my personality and emotional health. That can't be true.

I picture a summer afternoon when me and Dan were waist deep in sea mud as we carried a steel canoe two miles on our shoulders across Little Harbor as the tide kept receding out of reach. That was formative? Or when Bobby and I came back from lunch at the printing warehouse and we punched back in. Then Bobby winked at me and we ran out the side door for two more hours drinking beer and eating pizza and watching Hardbodies and Hardbodies 2. "We'll just sneak back in and no one will notice," he laughed as he threw his chewed tobacco in my Coke Classic.
We snuck back in and both of our time cards had huge red words "SEE ME!" and our hours had been crossed out, effectively ending that career path

So, that was more important than my mother packing her bags and splitting for the Caribbean when I was 6 years old? Really? Watching my father deteriorate into a shiftless, jobless, long faced, weekend parent train wreck was simply casual window dressing? I should've laughed at him and said, "Judith Harris says that your misery and the dissolution of our family actually is meaningless, so you can hang yourself from the group home rafters for all I care. All that matters is the kids I play Whiffle ball with. C-yah, wouldn't wanna B-yah."

And all this time I just thought those stoned playmates were there to keep me entertained until I could get out of town.

And what does this theory say about athletic or musical prodigies? That trained abilities aren't related to personality, intelligence of emotional health. A well trained golfer like Tiger Woods would never exist without his father. But his father had nothing to do with his personality. Michael Jackson, in the hands of a gravedigger, would've been a laborer, a damn good laborer, but because his peer group included Motown giants he grew up a performer. But his parents didn't influence his goofy personality. Really? His private carnival, zoo and creepy sleepovers were unrelated to his parents?

I haven't read the whole book so I need help here. Any amateur therapists want to weigh in? There is no way you can convince me that Michael Jackson and Mozart or Alex Rodriguez were destined to be who they are because of their peer group. No way. How many Olympiads thank their parents? How many serial killers curse their parents? Isn't a good parent just a good coach, someone you sort of hate but who prepares you for the race? No, there must be an exception when it comes to athletics and music because parents have everything to do with physical abilities. Anyone can learn to play the piano provided they start when they are about 5 years old and practice for 8 hours a day for 10 years. If your parent wasn't there to remind you to practice almost no one would play piano voluntarily. Maybe that's a good thing since only Mozart talents would bother taking the time.

I want to give a conclusion for all of you parents with kids or kids who resent their parents. Does it matter what you do with your kids during your bi-monthly visitation? I mean, Harris sounds like a crackpot but many people in the psychology business take her seriously. I think that probably has something to do with it. Psychology. It's about as useful to survival as poetry. If you remove psychology (most of human history) then you still have people trying to find shelter and food. Add psychology and you get AN IMPORTANT ANIMAL WITH IMPORTANT MISSIONS WHO IS INFLUENCED BY IMPORTANT THINGS to find shelter and food. So, Freud and Jung and Harris all belong to the same group of self important philosophers who think everything we do HAS SOME ROOT CAUSE. Hell, if it wasn't for psychologists I probably wouldn't even think to blame someone for all my troubles. It's a vicious cycle: They tell me I've got a rebellion complex and I say, "Oh? It's your fault I've got a rebellion complex. By the way, what's a rebellion complex?"

So, they give me the ammunition to fight them and then tell me they have the cure. It's like a Trojan horse computer virus. Of course, I was surrounded by every psychology text in the world growing up. Stacks of books like, "Your Mother, Your Lover" or "Killing Dad and Other Fantasies" or "Freud Explains Your Troubles" or "How to Ponder Your Life Away"

It's like, these crackpot authors and psychologists were just good snake oil salesmen so their theories got bought and spread around. In First Century Africa a troubled teen would burn some leaves and chop the head off a lizard. PROBLEMS SOLVED! Today, we've got years of therapy...because...the therapist says it is what I need. Wait, the doctor is telling me I need his council? That sounds real fishy. That's like asking a dog if it's time for his dinner. Every psychologist wants to think he is useful. He's the new age shaman in the ugly tie and he's got bills to pay, but is any of this new age magic legitimate? I think it is too complicated for me. I'm a humor writer. I don't have all the answers. I don't even know who to blame for my hair loss anymore. Of course, I read about this theory in a book with essays about mk-ultra CIA mind control experiments so that should tell me something.

How about this: If you want to go to the ball park with your kid, then go to the ball park. If you don't want to go, then don't go, but you might want to point out the park to your kid and explain what baseball is. I don't know. That seems fair. If you are an exceptional athletic or musical coach then you have a good chance to train your kid to play sports or an instrument. If you fail to do this then he probably won't be as good as Tiger Woods or Mozart. He'll be in good company. But he could be a doctor or an engineer or a poet who constantly asks you for money. The choice is yours! And remember, if you are ever fired from a job or bomb at karaoke then you can blame your kid.

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.