Monday 29 July 2002

The birth of pleasure?

Margaret Talbot casts an acerbic eye over Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure:

While I see a lot of four-year-old and five-year-old boys jostling for independence and testing out attitudes, I do not see many who are “separating themselves from their relationships” with the people closest to them. Moreover, some of the signs of intimacy that Gilligan admires in the relationships of young prelapsarian boys and their mothers are actually signs of children’s profound dependence on adults. Gilligan dwells on the observation that little boys (one could say the same of girls) perceive their mothers’ subtle shifts in mood—anger simmering beneath an even tone of voice, and so on—and wishes that men could be more like that. “I am hearing mothers describe their four-and five-year old sons as emotionally present and clued in to them in a way that their husbands are not,” she writes. As a woman named Rachel explains to Gilligan, speaking of her four-year-old, “Nobody pays attention to me like that. Jake is just, like, clued in. It’s like Mom why did you kind of use that angry voice with me?”

But surely small children notice “angry voices” and the like because they are utterly dependent on their mothers and on the emotional weather that the adult world establishes for them. Children are always looking for storm warnings, or for more auspicious signals—Will we go out for ice cream tonight? Are Mom and Dad getting along?—because the vagaries of the adult world are mysterious to them and completely beyond their control. (Indeed, Rachel describes Jake as her “barometer.”) It can be sweet and gratifying when small boys keep a close watch on their mothers’ moods, but it is also a function of the essential powerlessness of the child. Relationships between equals do not generally elicit or require such vigilant monitoring. Gilligan writes admiringly of Rachel’s refusal to shield her toddler from the tension that she was feeling at work because “to do so would have been to betray his love.” But transparency is not the highest duty in relationships with children. There are some things that children do not need to know.

(Link via Arts & Letters Daily)

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