What Cults Taught Me About Parenting

When I was home with my first child, friends inundated me with suggestions of helpful parenting books.  You know how it goes, one person kicks off the mania and then suddenly, everyone is pregnant.  It is like the blind leading the blind.  We’re all confident we won’t make the same mistakes as our parents but then, no one tells you you are going to make a whole bunch of new ones.  This is where parenting books come in.  They promise you solutions tied up with glossy ribbon – they make fear palatable.  I never did read any parenting books, too scared.   I was already manic enough trying to digest the fact the hospital had sent home an infant just hours old with two adults that didn’t even know how to strap him into a carseat.

The weeks and months that followed were a personality overhaul to say the least.  Selfishness out, maternal suffering in.  I will disclose here that in those first six months I took care of a total stranger.  The babbling baby that was my son stared at me with both shock, amusement and distrust.  Distrust was usually followed by horrible wailing because he realized he was in the hands of total idiots.  Looking back, I  feel bad for the kid, what a horror being stuck with newbies for parents.

One day, having finished mutilating a bowl of food, he suspended the dish over the side of his high chair, stared me dead in the eye and dropped it and the remainder of its contents on the floor.  He remained silent, alert, and watching as I stared back.  Aha, I thought, this creature is definitely my son.  That moment was the turning point.  I realized I had a human on my hands, someone with intent.  How was I going to deal with the coming months and years as this cerebral kewpie doll was going to attempt to lay waste my resolution and self respect?

I sputtered along for the next few years, gleaning any useful tidbits of parenting advise from friends or family I deemed useful.  I still couldn’t be bothered to read any parenting books.  By then, all the reading had been done for me and my general impression was that every great parenting book was great for one type of child.  A hundred books probably covered off a hundred personalities and that was just fine, but I didn’t have the time or inclination to figure out which book gave me all the explanations to my son’s maddening quirks.

Then the second child came.  This would require a totally different book.  The other parents had warned me.  Each. One. Is. Unique.  Damn.

As fate would have it, we found what we needed on a family holiday with our 6 year old son and 11 month old daughter.  We stayed in a vacation rental, situated inland from the California coast, snuggled along a country road away from television or satellite reception.  The good people who owned the rental had stocked a variety of DVDs for our viewing pleasure.  Alas, the owners were also retirees so their DVD preferences swayed heavily to Meryl Streep, birding, and movies that had been shot in the local California scenery.  Desperation drove us to choose the most interesting looking cover which turned out to be a gem:  49 Up.

Wikipedia summarizes: “The Up Series is a series of documentary films produced by Granada Television that have followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. So far the documentary has had eight episodes spanning 49 years (one episode every seven years)…..”  “The children were selected to represent the range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the explicit assumption that each child’s social class predetermines their future.”

And it did, mostly.  Two children from the most affluent families, in their interviews as 7 year olds, listed off the prep schools, public schools and universities they were going to attend, echoing verbatim their fathers’ scholarly manifesto.  They each maintained a respectable amount of wealth through their chosen endeavours.  The relative success of the other participants concerning family and career loosely reflected the sliding scale of their socioeconomic backgrounds.   It appeared those born to education and wealth stayed educated and wealthy by unwavering faith in their destiny.  More importantly, parental forces outlined their destiny for them early and then constantly reminded and reinforced.

Watching the documentary, I was struck by the naive confidence of the pre-preparatory school boys.  The boys had adoringly sponged up their fathers’ rhetoric and would blindly follow suite for the entirety of their lives.  From one perspective, naive confidence is the hallmark of many 7 year olds.  My son just turned 8 and he’s pretty confident he knows more than me.   From another perspective, you could argue their blind servitude to family  edict was bordering on cultish.  On that argument, I discovered cults generally follow three precepts:

1)Utter devotion to the group.  Translation:  children are pretty devoted to their families in the early years.  My children think our family is the best.  We have the best food, the funnest activities and they couldn’t imagine living with anyone else.

2)The cult’s inner process usually reveal some aspect of behavioural, thought, emotional or information control.  Translation: I boss my kids around and tell them how to behave.  Under 10 years of age, it usually distills down to being kind and generous and picking up after themselves.  I commonly avoid information I think will be particularily horrific like Jewish death camps or pedophiles.

3)Total loyalty and unquestioning obedience to a charismatic leader.  That’s me.

Now that I had acquired the basic tenets of a cult, I realized I was on my way to successful parenting.  Basically, my husband and I were in charge and we could brainwash anything into our children’s impressionable minds. We began in earnest.  Dinner conversations went something like this: “Which university are you attending? Have you come up with a financial plan to pay for tuition?”  Or  “Drugs are stupid.  They will destroy your brain.  You will not be able to have a good life and you will wind up poor and destitute.”  So far, my 8 year old is hell bent on saving money for university and he is terrified of taking aspirin.  My 2 year old demonstrates unfailing devotion as she relentlessly follows me around and laughs at all my jokes.  Times are good in our humble little cult.  Now if only I could get my husband’s unquestioning obedience……





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