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I Can’t Use My Own Childhood to Parent — But What Choice Do I Have?

Nostalgia about your own childhood is tricky.

We had to hide the Ewoks in the basement. 

A few weeks after picking up a vintage 1983 Ewok Return of the Jedi storybook from a used bookstore, my wife and I jointly came to the unfortunate conclusion that the book was too insipid and annoying to keep in circulation. Our daughter is at the age where we can (sometimes) get away with this; a hidden toy or book sometimes is forgotten if removed from play for long enough. Some parents have a toy jail, we have book jail for the true stinkers. And this Ewok book (bizarrely written by Bunnicula genius James Howe) is just the worst. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that I bought the book in the first place, revealing a core paradox of parenting: You can’t rely on childhood memories to figure out how to parent even though you have to rely on childhood memories to figure out how to parent.

Think of the Ship of Theseus — a boat goes on a long journey, it gets all of its planks replaced, and so, when it arrives at its destination, it’s arguably, not the same ship. My memories of childhood — cuddly Ewoks, a weird tipsy father, a school teacher mother — have been reworked by my imagination and by experiences that now mediate those first impressions of the world. Those memories are only real in the present and, perhaps more to the point, broadly uninteresting in the context of my daughter, a different kid growing up in a different world.

But what the hell can I do with all that? I mean, you’ve got to go on something. Well… maybe not.

We all see ourselves in our children. My daughter, for instance, has a performative streak. She’s not shy. She’s confident. She cranks up the music on the record player and starts her own dance parties. Surely, this comes from her artistic parents, right? Her mother is a poet and her father is a writer of essays and some fiction. And her dad also was a debater and performer and a general in-front-of-people stander for decades. Clearly, something rubbed off and clearly, because something rubbed off, what made me happy will make her happy.

But it doesn’t and won’t. 

Savvy parents know it’s a fool’s errand to try and make a kid love your stuff. But what else is there? You want to give them the best and that’s what you think is best. In other words, I think it’s cute that my daughter likes Ewoks and R2-D2, but sometimes I’m worried that’s only because I was brainwashed by my parents (and George Lucas) into liking these things when I was a child. I think it’s cute but I also recognize that it isn’t. I’m giving my daughter the chore of reckoning with my past. It’s outsourcing and it’s selfish.

But maybe that’s not totally fair. Mass media is mass media and on some level the whole thing is a fait accompli. When asked why he watches Wrestlemania, Werner Herzog said: “the poet cannot avert his eyes from the world.” So far, my three-year-old does not have an automatic affinity for Frozen even though we have certainly given her plenty of opportunities to like Frozen and its music. Right now, she actually prefers the new Strokes album, but, again, the anxiety of her father’s influence might have something to do with that. 

But you can’t share everything.

When my daughter and I danced together to The Strokes this weekend, we were both happy. When she watches Peppa Pig, the only person who is truly happy is her. In some ways, this should be a comfort. When my daughter expresses interest in things I think are completely terrible, I don’t tell her those things are bad, but I’m sure she can gauge my contempt. Been there. I always kind of knew my parents didn’t really approve of my obsession with The Real Ghostbusters cartoon. They never said this. They allowed me to videotape the show when I missed it. They bought me all the toys. They never once said anything bad about the show or the toys. But I know they hated it. (They were wrong. It holds up.)

I try to hide my feelings about the pig in the room because I don’t want my daughter to have the same lingering feelings I still have about my parents’ cold, silent disapproval of the rattail version of Egon Spengler. And, yet, even in my silence, somehow, I’m doing an impression of my parents. That means, on some level — even subconsciously — I’m trying to create a childhood for my daughter that resembles my own. It’s not an exact replica, mind you, but kind of a curated emotional museum. Here is a thing I liked (Ghostbusters) here is a way I interacted with my parents (silent disapproval). I’m the narcissistic curator of a rolling exhibition.

Empirically, I know in the long run, all these questions will seem foolish by the time my daughter is old enough to tell me where to shove my Nancy Drew hardcovers. At some point, despite the best efforts of parents, children become their own people. Right now, my daughter likes the music from the original Ghostbusters. This, I suppose, is some kind of massive, intergenerational fuck you to my parents. I’m savoring it for the moment, but that moment will pass and the fuck you will come for me.

When my daughter dances and sings “Who you gonna call!?” I can’t help but see myself in the first-grade talent show, microphone in hand, asking my peers the same question. For now, the answer is the same, you call upon your comfortable past experiences. But that answer will change over time. My daughter will call upon different people and call upon different life experiences.

I want her answer to the question “Who you gonna call?” to be “daddy!” But, that won’t always be the case. Paradoxically, I’m living for the day when the answer to that question will be the name of a person I haven’t even met.