Parents, peers and other benevolent plagues

Originally posted on

I’ve been reflecting on how people get into drinking and smoking and drugs. And by extension, how my life has come along so far.

Unintended damage caused by protective parents and authorities

When you’re a kid, every parent and teacher and authority will, understandably, tell you what you cannot do, what your boundaries are, what you must or must not do.

They will also lie to you or deceive you about a bunch of things– religion, sex, drugs, alcohol, poverty, death and so on. They do this partially to protect you from the ugly, messiness of reality, and partially to save themselves a lot of grief.

They might have set out with the intention of answering all your questions and telling you the truth of everything, but the reality of parenting is difficult and painful and nobody can do a perfect job. (Louis CK and Michael McIntyre have covered this reality humorously.)

A part of them wants to make sure you don’t get hurt. A part of them even wants to keep you cute, simple, helpless. (Paul Graham has written about this really nicely with Lies We Tell Kids).

When you first discover this, it’s easy to get angry with your parents about this. But as you grow older and begin to have responsibilities and obligations of your own [2], you realize that adulthood is a lot harder than childhood, and that parenthood must be even harder.

So you sympathize with them– or if they were really, really messed up, at best you might understand why they were the way they were, even if you can never quite forgive them. Acceptance is a worthy thing to work towards.

The seductive peers and the (often misleading) promise of escape

In contrast to all of that, the first person who offers you your first cigarette or drink tends to appeal to your independence. They’ll ask, “Why are you worried about what other people think?” It’s a question you might not have even thought to ask until that point.

And they’re usually really sweet in those moments. They’ll look into your eyes and treat you like a full person, a full adult, not a child, not an obligation. They seem sincerely interested in you, your struggles, your concerns.

It is INCREDIBLY flattering. It goes beyond “Wow, you’re pretty.” It’s more like “Wow, you’re YOU.”

And so I think when people say yes to cigarettes, to unprotected sex, to staying out late, THAT’S what they’re saying yes to. Every kid knows cigarettes are disgusting. We do scary, dangerous and unfamiliar things because for the first time it seems like someone truly cares about us- not just our grades or our health or the labels on the pedestals they put us on. [3]

Some people dismiss all of this as childish rebellion- and yes, it is. But it’s so much more than that, too. It’s a naive, ignorant and tentative step towards independence. When do you learn who you are otherwise? When do you learn to live for yourself?

Owning a decision is a powerful, heady thing, even if it’s a really stupid decision. Tattoos, piercings, boyfriends, whatever. “I will what I want.” [4]

Moving forward: encourage self-exploration and self-determination in yourself and others

If all of this is true then we can imagine what the healthier alternative must be like. When adults treat children like people, with their own minds and interests and curiosities. Encouraging them to explore their OWN interests, not just what Daddy wishes he was good at as a child. The parent or authority’s job isn’t to decide for the child outright, but to provide an environment and context in which the child can explore and learn and grow.

And here a bunch of nice pictures come into my mind.

  1. Kahlil Gibran’s poetry: “Your children are not your children / They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”
  2. A Truly Great teacher who really cares– the teachers that everybody remembers their whole lives. A football coach and his heartfelt pep talk. That darkroom scene in Boyhood with the photography teacher. Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet’s Society.

If you have a young person in your life, pay full attention to them and ask them what they’re interested in. And it’s genuinely interesting! Every person is a glorious kaleidoscope of curiosities, shaped by unique perceptions and perspectives. You’ll see the universe in their eyes.

And the scary, terrible thing is that these things can be really fragile. A few dismissive sentences can crush it outright. (See: ZenPencils: Kevin Smith — It costs nothing to encourage an artist)

So you have to be really gentle with people’s dreams. Never tell them that they’re stupid or wrong. Just ask them if they’ve thought about X, if they’ve thought about Y, and so on.

AND really, this applies just as much to adults too, just that we tend to take a little longer because we’ve often internalized a lot of BS over the years and we forget what we care about.

So, what do YOU want to do with this precious, fleeting life? I’m all ears.


[1] Here I find myself thinking about the Rapunzel movie, Tangled. Analyzing this will probably take up an entire post by itself, but really quickly– it involves a girl being imprisoned in a tower by a woman who pretends to be her mother, and has songs like “When Will My Life Begin” and “Mother Knows Best”. I’ll probably expand this into a separate essay.

[2] I have come to believe that it’s important to introduce children to responsibilities and obligations as early as possible. And it’s very important to be precise here– it can’t just be arbitrary things that parents impose on children “to teach them lessons”. Kids tend to know when adults are simply lording over them. The challenge is to help the kids pick responsibilities and obligations that THEY want, because it helps THEM achieve what THEY want.

I’m naive and ignorant here as a non-parent, but I think even things like household chores could and should be framed in the child’s self-interest rather than just “DO AS I SAY.” After all, there’s a real relationship between parent and child, isn’t there? If the child helps the parent do something, the parent is freed up to do something else, aren’t they? So can’t the parent frame this trade as something ultimately beneficial to the child? But of course, Louis CK and Michael Mcintyre have pointed out that I’m an idiot for thinking that it might be so doable.

[3] One of the painful parts of growing out of adolescence is realizing that that too is an illusion. That the tantalizing promise of escape is often just a new set of blinders and chains. That’s the truth that our parents and teachers learned and try to share with us, but it’s hard to see that. So I think stories and movies that communicate this effectively are really important. It will be good if this were a part of our broader cultural understanding, something that we appreciated as true independent of our relationships with our parents and authority figures.

Here now I find myself thinking about Frozen, where Anna falls for Hans, but it turns out that Hans really just wanted the kingdom and didn’t care about her at all. I think we all know what it’s like to be used by somebody that we thought actually cared about us. Of course, reality is rarely so black and white– we’re all using each other to some degree, the question is is the outcome mutually beneficial, or is it exploitative and destructive?

[4] As we get older it becomes clearer that a lot of youthful interests are driven by peer influence. And that’s quite rational, isn’t it? You’re going to live amongst your peers, so we’re wired to inherit the group’s interests. It’s only a while later that you learn that it probably makes sense to find out who you are outside of the group that you probably inherited rather than chose.

There’s a lot to dig into here. We don’t often choose our peer groups very deliberately– they’re usually chosen for us by circumstance, and we tend to be compelled to stick with them because of “loyalty” or some other instinct or social pressure. One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to be deliberate about the peers we associate with. Again I think parents try to teach their kids this, but they probably often do it in an overly dictated way– you don’t want to choose for your kids outright, you want to ask them what they want out of life and what sort of friends they think they ought to hang out with.

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