I’ve been thinking a lot in the last six months about children. I don’t mean in the political sense of “Let’s do it for the children,” but in the real-world sense of what it means to raise happy and emotionally healthy children who can be entrusted with the future of the human race.
It was one simple idea that started me down this trail, but it’s led to places I didn’t expect. I was listening to a historian talk about the recent world financial crisis. He made a simple off-hand remark that companies such as banks are run with an eye on the next quarter of the year when they ought to be run with an eye on the next thousand years. He moved along to various other points, but I’m not sure I heard anything after that.
I was captivated by the question of how I would live the rest of my life if my eye were on 3011 instead of 2011. What plans would I make if I were making a plan for what my family might achieve over hundreds of years instead of what I might personally achieve over a life of mere decades?
This thought experiment led me to consider what would be necessary to build a family that had long-term objectives and values that some of them would choose to pursue. It was such a revolutionary thought that it changed everything about the way I plan things. I’m not so worried now about what I can achieve in my own life. I’m much more concerned with the question of how I can lay a foundation for future generations to build on. Suddenly, it feels less as though it’s about achieving things for my own ego and much more about leaving something that can have a chance of helping to change the world for the better.
If you’re thinking in terms of future generations building on a foundation, it suddenly becomes even more important what kind of offspring you have and how you raise them. Over the past six weeks or so, I’ve written a lot about changes I see coming in the world and how we can seize opportunities to change the world in a post-statist era. But right now, I just want to talk about the matter of children.
Three things have really focused my attention even further on what it means to raise the right kind of children. I could point to a number of different influences, but I’m going to specifically mention three things that weigh on my thoughts today and have led to me thinking about the issue heavily all weekend.
First, I heard about Bryan Caplan‘s new book about six or eight weeks ago. Caplan is a libertarian economist whose first book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter,” was a favorite for me a couple of years ago. His second book takes the unpopular position that many of us should be having more children, not fewer. It’s called “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.” (Here’s an interview with Caplan about the book on EconTalk, which I think is where I first heard of it.)
Caplan’s idea is that most people are afraid that their parenting is going to somehow ruin their children if they don’t limit the number of kids they have and become “helicopter parents” in order to give the kids a decent shot at life, but he says the quality of your parenting is pretty close to irrelevant in the long term. He says that parenting can make a difference in kids’ short-term behavior, but that their long-term behavior is pretty much set in their genes when they’re born. He’s obviously getting in the middle of the nature/nurture debate and coming down heavily on the nature side, which he says is the counter-intuitive conclusion of the research he looked at on twins and adoption. (Plenty of psychologists would disagree, I’m sure, and Kaplan has been careful to say that he’s not talking about abusive parents, but rather middle-class parents in the First World who are actually trying to be decent parents.)
The second thing that focused my attention right now was a friend and his wife having a baby this week. There’s nothing noteworthy for me to tell you about the birth. They had a little boy who looked suspiciously like every other newborn baby in the world. They have the same kinds of pictures of them doing things with a new baby that everybody else in the world does with a new baby, except better pictures since the father is an excellent photographer. But even a routine addition of a new baby to a family is a dramatic event when you pay attention to it, even though such births affect millions of people around the world each week.
The third thing that caught my attention was the most dramatic. On Friday, I learned that a woman I’ve known for years is “scared to death to have kids” because she’s “terrified of screwing them up.” This woman is one of the last people on Earth who you’d suspect would feel that way. She’s beautiful and brilliant. She’s witty and charming. She’s very capable and confident in pretty much every way you can think of that matters. She tries to be ethical and caring, and she has a long history of working well with children. So why is this beautiful and brilliant woman terrified? She simply knows that there has been some mental instability in part of her family — and she’s seen other mothers create problems for their children with their mental issues — so she’s scared to death of the responsibility of having children and either giving them lousy genes or somehow being a lousy mother and raising them poorly.
Taken all together, I haven’t been able to get this subject off my mind today. You see, I’m ready to have children. I’ve put it off for years, partly because I didn’t think I was ready and partly because I was afraid of somehow ruining my kids. (That’s me crying on the right there. I guess I was afraid of having kids who were similarly unhappy.) I come from a family that’s a poster family for the Dysfunctional Family Association. If you look in the dictionary next to the phrase “dysfunctional family,” there’s a picture of us. Honest.
The picture at the top of this story is my mother holding me in the yard of our suburban Birmingham home shortly after I turned 2. She loved me — and the two sisters I eventually had — but she had some issues that hadn’t yet reared their collective head. She would eventually spend six weeks in a mental hospital when I was 5 years old and then she eventually abandoned my father and her three children, leaving us with serious emotional issues that continue to haunt us to this day. At least, that’s the conventional story I believed for most of my life. There’s some truth to it, but I’ve learned a new interpretation in the past couple of years.
My sisters and I grew up with my father. He did an excellent job of taking care of us and was constantly making sacrifices to give us what we needed. He ironed our clothes and cooked our meals and taught us the things we needed to know — in an era when it was far easier and more acceptable for a man to ship children off to some female relative to raise for him. I give him a tremendous amount of credit for much of what he did, and I don’t have any question but what he did the very best he could and had our interests in the front of his conscious mind at all times.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that everything about him fits the profile of someone suffering from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). He hasn’t been to a counselor, so he’s never been diagnosed, but a psychologist told me years ago that she was certain he suffered from it. After reading extensively about it for a couple of years now, I have no question that it’s true. (Narcissists exist on a wide continuum. He’s not the classic narcissist who’s easy to identify — and narcissism in the clinical sense doesn’t mean what we generally think of when we colloquially say the word.) What’s more, understanding the things I’ve hated about him for my entire life gives me a new lens through which to interpret my history — including what happened with my mother and what’s motivated some of my own baffling, self-destructive decisions over the years.
If you met him, you would like my father. He’s not a monster. Not in the least. He’s charming and apparently quite loving and caring. It’s only after you start understanding the underlying problems — and the resulting self-esteem issues — that you start understanding how his condition affected my sisters and me. But this is long enough already without a serious attempt to explain the details of how narcissistic personality disorder affects a parent and his children.
My mother came from a family with a history of mental issues. She had an uncle who killed himself. There was at least one other suicide, if I remember correctly, but I don’t remember the details. Her mother tried to kill her father in a fit of rage when my mother was a teen-ager. My mother was a bright, attractive and popular girl all through high school and college. After she and my father married at the end of college, they were happy for five years. Then I came along. The family dynamics changed, apparently because my father started trying to enforce his view of what my mother should be in a number of areas — always trying to force her to be like him. I can’t say for sure since I wasn’t there, but I’ve been doing a lot of reinterpreting in the past couple of years, based on things my mother told me years ago and things I’ve learned about my father.
As I grew up, my father shaped the views that my sisters and I had of my mother. I won’t bore you with specifics, but he worked hard to poison our views — probably without even realizing it. He was manipulative and controlling, sometimes in a nasty way and sometimes in a contrived way that seemed loving. In his narrative, he was the hero who was saving us and she was the bad, psychologically sick parent who wouldn’t do what she was supposed to do. I’ve come to see things very differently. (That’s me with my father as a child.)
My mother certainly had her psychological quirks, but she was quite sane. She was even a good mother as long as she could be. But my father’s controlling, manipulative behavior pushed her away and wouldn’t allow her to take her kids with her. The problems they had weren’t because they had children. The problems came about because my father wanted to be “normal” and be what everybody else was. My mother was creative and a bit eccentric. My father tried very, very hard to force her round peg to fit into the square hole he defined. He drove her to a breakdown and to abandon us, but I kept the creative and eccentric genes she had at her core. Unfortunately, I also had the rest of my childhood (and even adulthood until I cut off contact with him last year) for him to beat me down and try to make my round peg fit into his square hole, too. (I’ve invited him to talk about things with a counselor, but he has declined, on the grounds that he’s too old to change anything. I think the truth is that having to be really honest scares him to death.)
The people I love and appreciate most tend to be brilliant. They tend to love to read. They tend to love ideas. They tend to be very creative. But they’re first and foremost feeling creatures. They generally tend to be a little crazy. But those are the people who are passionate about life and who hold the real possibility of changing the world.
There are few times in life that I’ll quote copy from a TV ad as art or as something worthy of emulation, but there’s one from 1997 that can still make me tear up every time, because it feels as though it was aimed straight for me and other crazy people who don’t fit into the holes the world tries to pound us into. The ad was from Apple. It was the opening statement of the “Think Different” campaign. (Watch it here if you’re not familiar with it. Especially if you’re a creative or eccentric type who’s spent his whole life feeling out of step with the world, it might be a bit emotional.) Here are the words:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes — the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
(Completely as a side point, I lifted a couple of lines from that spot in a political short film six years ago.)
In my experience, the world generally breaks down into two types of people, to one extent or another. There are the “normal” people and there are the “crazy ones.” It’s a trade-off. You can have mundane, everyday, simple-minded people who aren’t going to do anything new or different or dream anything big and new OR you can put your money on the brilliant and crazy geniuses who dream and fall down and fail and keep getting up — and who ultimately change the world. I know which ones I want more of.
There’s nothing wrong with “normal” people, so don’t think I’m running them down. I probably don’t understand them anymore than they understand me. Most people fall into the “normal” category. They do most of the routine work in this world. They do most of the repetitive tasks that the crazy ones aren’t capable of. They run the factory assembly lines. They fill most of the office cubicles. They even fill most of what should be creative positions such as teaching children. Because there are so many of them, they make the standards the rest of us are judged by. But it’s the crazy ones who ultimately “push the human race forward.”
If you’re one of the “crazy ones,” the moment you start living in their world — and trying to be one of the “normal” people — is the moment you start dying. It leads to living life as simply a series of obligations punctuated by fleeting pleasures. It’s an empty and meaningless way to live if you’re truly not “one of them,” because by our standards, they’re living a “little plastic life,” as Sam Phillips memorably put it in a song.
If you’re one of the crazy ones, look at your parents’ lives. If you’re crazy and creative, some part of that came from at least one of your parents. It’s as much a part of you as your skin color or eye color. It is you. And it was part of one (or both) of them at one time. They had dreams and hopes and fears about themselves. If they’re like most people, they eventually gave up and joined “the normal world.” They became homeowners and respectable members of middle class society who dressed the part and looked the part and went to the right parties with other normal people and fit wherever society expected them to be. They lost the fire that had once burned brightly inside. If you try to deny the “crazy” in you and judge yourself and your thinking by their standards, your fire is going to go out — and you’ll just exist for the rest of your years wondering why life couldn’t be what you imagined it could be when you were still stumbling around to make contact with the craziness inside of yourself.
Maybe the problem is that we’re trying to force creative and weird and emotional people to fit into a mold that they don’t fit and never can fit. When the “crazy ones” try to live like “normal people,” they’re setting themselves up for failure — and it’s that failure to be true to the person within that causes problems, not a genetic disposition, in almost all cases.
(Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about the kind of crazy that causes a mother to fry her baby in a microwave oven or the kind that causes her to duct tape her child and tie him up in the dark as punishment. If you’re “one of us,” you know the kind of crazy I’m really talking about — and it’s not that kind.)
More than most people like to admit, life is a series of tradeoffs. (Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about it in an essay called “Compensation,” which I’d urge everyone to read, even if you won’t agree with all of it.) There are no perfect lives. There are no perfect people. If you’re bright enough in some areas, you almost certainly lose something in other areas. If you’re smart enough, you’ll even lose some ability to interact well with the world socially. If you’re filled with enough creative spark, you’ll be different enough that people will call you crazy and you’ll feel all alone — even if they sometimes attach the word “genius” along with it, too. It’s how you deal with being different that causes the most serious of problems, not the matter of being different itself. If you feel that you’re wrong to be different — and if you don’t have the kind of support that lets you feel understood and fulfilled — you’ll end up as a suicide case, too, because you won’t be able to exist forever in that “little plastic life.”
I’ve let fear stop me from having the family I wanted and the life I wanted, but I want a wife and children — as exemplified by the parents and their three children that I snapped a picture of going into my church awhile back. It’s only been in the last couple of years — as I’ve come to understand some things I didn’t understand about myself and my family of origin — that I’ve gotten over that fear. Now I just have to find a woman to be the mother of these “smart, beautiful children.” Unfortunately, that requires someone who not only meets my very high standards, but who can put up with me — which is probably the toughest part.
Most great artists and innovative geniuses are crazy to one extent or another. Salvador Dalí was quoted as saying, “The only difference between a crazy person and myself is that the crazy person believes they are sane. I know that I’m crazy.”
I know I’m a little bit crazy, and I’m completely at peace with that. It has its advantages and disadvantages, but it’s who I am. I can’t be content with the “little plastic life” with plastic people in plastic subdivisions. I want to be on the cutting edge of changing the world — and I want to have children who grow up knowing that it’s OK for them to choose to be weird or different or crazy, because they’re the ones who are going to continue the work of changing the world after I’m gone.
It’s important what I do in the next 40 or 50 years, but it’s even more important to leave the right children and grandchildren to continue the work I’ve started — so maybe the world of a thousand years from now can be a more free, more civilized and more God-honoring place than it is today. That goal gives me an exciting reason to live and work for what I believe in — and it gives me a great incentive to have children and honor whatever they happen to be.
Note: The regular installment of stories from the McElroy Zoo will return next Sunday. Thanks to those who’ve written to ask.