Books: “The Good Father: On Men, Masculinity, and Life in the Family” by Mark O’Connel

The Good FatherIt is great when you write a blog post about somebody, then that somebody shows up in the comments and clarifies his position thus starting an interesting conversation (both in the comments and via e-mail), then you realize that his book-signing tour is bringing that somebody to your town, so you go there and meet that somebody in person and have a great conversation, which inspires you to write yet another blog post – the one under the fold….

It’s too late and I am too tired to write a long post on this, but I know I won’t have time tomorrow. All dirty, scrungly and unshaven after a day of house-cleaning I sped along I-40 (poor car, it was struggling to speed) to Raleigh for book-reading by Mark O’Connell at Quail Ridge Books.
I managed to get there right on time – just time enough to go and introduce myself before the event started. Now, in the times of horse and buggy this would be impossible, but in the age of Internet it’s a different story: we greeted each other as friends – we have “met” on the Internet before, after all, in the comments thread on my post about Teen Sex, Hooking Up, Femiphobia, etc.
Yup, I got the book (which is now happily signed), but have not read it yet. I am reading Lynn Ponton’s book about sexual behavior of teenagers first (review coming up soon). If I knew Mark was coming to town I would have read his book first, but QuailMail announced his visit only yesterday, so I came unprepared.
Mark’s book is about being a father and what that means, particularly when the society is sending mixed messages about what it means to be “a man”. Of course, I am very interested in the feedback between evolution of family dynamics and evolution of national political dynamics, but the reading was focused mainly on fathering in the sense of childrearing. The audience was, perhaps, more interested in family level than in the societal level. Almost all people in the audience were women (where were the fathers?), many of those of “a certain age” (apparently friends of Mark’s mother), so the questions, though very good, were focused mainly on the changing childrearing styles.
I felt that Mark also did not want to venture too far into politics. After all, he was in North Carolina and was not sure about the political leanings of his audience, so he played it safe. Of course, someone (me?) should have told him that Quail Ridge Books has trouble trying to sell its few copies of Hannity, O’Reilly and Coulter, while Krugman, Lakoff and Co. are flying off the shelves. I bet there was not a single Republican in that audience.
I was also very pleased (and a little shy/embarassed) that Mark made everyone look at me in the beginning when he pointed at me while saying he is glad that some people in the audience have spent a lot of time thinking about gender, and later appeared to expect (and wish for) a question from me. Of course, I would not be me without saying something out loud in a public forum… Does this make me an “influential blogger”?
Anyway, before I go to bed, just a couple of comments on the stuff he said.
Mark defined the difference between authoritarian and authoritative in an interesting way. To be authoritarian is to use too much force for wrong reasons (e.g., to make a child do something for selfish reasons). To be authoritative is to use the right amount of force for right reasons (e.g., to make a child do something for the sake of the child). I like that distinction a lot, but I am afraid it conflicts with the way some other literature uses the terms. For instance, the two terms, defined this way, do not map one-to-one on the Lakoff’s division into Strict Parent and Nurturant Parent. Lakoff’s Strict Parent is authoritative in this sense, not authoritarian, as such parenting is honestly geared towards helping the child make the best of what opportunities life may bring. This childrearing philosophy is wrong as it is based on wrong ideas about human nature, child development and human behavior, as well as behavior of the society, but it is nonetheless done out of honest belief that it is the best for the child. It is not selfish.
On the other hand, with our focus on the two Lakoffian categories (because they neatly map onto two core political ideologies), we forget that there are more than two parenting styles. There is also an Abusive Parent (definitely authoritarian), a Neglectful Parent (too physically or emotionally absent to have any authority), and a Permissive Parent (too weak and non-confident to have much authority).
It is the Permissive Parent that the Right stereotypes the Left with, as the Core Conservatives (Regressives) are cognitively (and/or emotionally) incapable of comprehending Nurturant Parenting – it is too complex for their mental developmental stage. Thus, they talk about the “Nanny State”, “everything-goes liberal philosophy”, “moral relativism”, etc. – all reminiscent of Permissive Parenting, not Nurturant Parenting that liberal ideology really maps to.
It is interesting what longitudinal studies show about long-term effects of these five styles on the destiny of the children (e.g., drug use, crime, incarceration rate, gang activity etc. vs. getting college and post-graduate degrees, getting rich etc.).
The best outcome is from the Nurturant Parent style which is authoritative.
The second best outcome is from the Permissive Parent style which is non-authoritative.
The third is the Neglectful Parent, which is non-authoritative.
The fourth is the Strict Parent, which is authoritative.
The worst is the Abusive Parent, which is authoritarian.
So, being authoritarian is clearly bad, but being authoritative is not in itself sufficient for succesful childrearing: if you follow Dobson because you believe that is in your child’s best interest (you are doing it with most noble intentions), you will still screw up your kid. Having no authority is better than having a wrong kind of authority even if it is not authoritarian. I am assuming that other adults and peers take over as main influences if the parent is non-authoritative, while a Strict Parent has a strong but wrong influence on the child. But other adults and peers will reflect the beliefs of the community the kid is growing up in, so if you live in an exurb or village, even your peers may use rough Dobsonian treatment on you, while if you live in a college town, people around you are likely to be more nurturant resulting in a more positive outcome.
Perhaps I am wrong in equating “good intentions” with “good reasons” and Strict Parenting IS authoritarian, i.e., it applies too much force for wrong reasons (though out of good intentions). In that case, the Abusive Parent is just a bit MORE authoritarian than the Strict Parent, and being authoritarian, as a principle, leads to poor childrearing outcomes. I believe that Lakoff thinks this way about the five categories.
Of course, the five categores are far from being clearly delineated. In most cases there are two parents, each with a different style. The two parents also have a specific dynamic going on between them that influences the way the child is raised. As Mark noted, it is difficult to see your mother as nurturant (even if she really is) if your father keeps saying that she is a cold evil person.
Mark noted a study (I wish I had the reference – Ed: Mark provides them in a comment on the original post) that shows that in two-parent families fathers tend (insert complicated statistics here) to be more assertive/aggressive, i.e., playing a role that is more traditionally associated with being a father and a man, while mothers tend to be more nurturant and “feminine”. But, in single-parent families a shift occurs. Single mothers become more “fatherly”, and single fathers become more “motherly”. People are flexible in their behaviors, at least to some extent (how about Carrie’s mother from the book/movie “Carrie”?).
Now that same-sex marriages are becoming a norm (Wingers’ fiery rhetoric indicates they know they have lost yet another battle for white-male-straight dominance), it will be interesting to see what kind of dynamic they develop. Are they going to do a “division of labor”, i.e., one spouse imitates a traditional father’s role while the other imitates the mother, or are they going to BOTH assume something in the middle, something like having two single parents? Are two-men families going to be significantly different from two-women families?
Unfortunately, Mark had to sign a bunch of books, and I had to run to my lab to a computer on which I can read some blogs I cannot load at home, so we could not stay and chat forever afterwards, but I have his e-mail address now and he reads my blog, so we can continue the conversation. And I will read his book very soon and report here [Ed.: I have no idea why that never happened – I really should write a review of his excellent book, in which one can, by paying attention, find important information about the way one’s parenting style reflects one’s worldview/ideology and affects the childrens’ future worldview/ideology].


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