RuralRover @ Counselling in Northumberland has a fascinating piece in response to an “open letter” that a mother wrote to her 10-yr-old son, publoished in the Guardian today. I haven’t read the letter and don’t really wish to address it directly, but rather, turn my thoughts to the concepts raised by RuralRover’s thoughts. And to keep it on-topic, I’ll try to frame it as a writer’s perspective.
The theme that comes through most strongly is that old teenagers’ retort, “I didn’t ask to be born!”
And I got to thinking about what the assumptions and backstory have to be to make that a retort worth making. These ideas aren’t particularly new, and philosophers have discussed them for centuries. On the other hand, it is worth looking (as RR does) at what the ideas mean emotionally and in terms of our relationships with one another.
As a writer, the snippets of letter that RR quotes are fuel for a great relationship drama about youth vs parenthood. How the fictional family would reach its crisis point and resolve it is wide open, of course, and the author could make it dark or heartwrenching or heartwarming quite easily.
The writer is lonely, struggling, feeling underappreciated, looking for support from their children instead of the adults around them. This is partly, again, a lack of boundaries, but is also a cry for help, a desperate need that will try to cling to anything for support, no matter how inappropriate.
Such rich material for a gripping narrative. But a writer always needs to be able to appreciate the antagonist’s point of view as well as their protagonist: in las month’s Doctor Who Magazine, Steven Moffat actually made some sense when he wrote about why Davros is such a powerful villain: it’s because he isn’t just “evil”, he has a motivation, a vision of the world towards which he works, a determination to see his “offspring” survive in a hostile world. He literally shapes them into an image of himself, and thus are born the Daleks, and he works, again and again, to see them prosper. Even when they do not appreciate him for it. In his firts story, they turn on him and exterminate him. Later, they rebel and he builds a new species of dalek. And when they come back to him for help, regardless of previous betrayal, he welcomes them (though always seeking their obedience to his vision of their future).
This detour leads us to the idea that, in terms of a family narrative like the one presented by RR’s analysis, anyone writing the story would have to understand the child’s perspective on the world just as much as the mother’s pain and desires. When the child is seen as antagonist, the writer would seek to understand what a 10-yr-old is looking for in life, what values and needs motivate them? That’s the theme that RR develops, looking at the letter from a counsellor’s perspective.
But the question that got me thinking was, as I said, “why do teens say ‘I didn’t ask to be born?'” Philosophers have acknowledged that we don’t choose to come into existence. We find ourselves in a world not of our choosing, and with no say in the matter. But “I didn’t ask to be born” isn’t simply a statement of fact. It’s intended to imply some ethical or emotional truth as well, and it is always a response to a situation or statement, not merely a statement in itself.
As RR points out, the statement to which it is a response is along the lines of, “I did all this for you, now you owe me [your time/obedience/effort/love/respect].”
As someone who still remembers being a tormented, emotional and frankly screwed up teen, who said “I didn’t ask to be born” sometimes out of a wish to no longer exist as much as out of a response to others (yes, my depression goes that far back, though it took ten or fifteen years before I acknowledged it as what it was), I feel like I know this to be true.
The choice to bring a new life into the world brings the responsibility to take care of that life, even if the person they become falls somewhat short of the idealised version of them that motivated your choice. The idea that they owe you for a deal that they had no say in entering does seem rather autocratic. It is the tyrant’s “These people need my guiding hand, it’s only right that I should take what I want in return for my benevolence.”
But at the same time, we cannot say that young people cannot be called to account for their actions and how they exist in the world either. Respect, time, even to some extent obedience, are significant parts of people relating to each other. I include obedience because though I remember not fully recognising it when I was younger, adults compared to children do tend to have a bit more experience of the world and of how it (and people, and communities) work, and listening and following instructions can help navigate and inform.
It is the idea of a quid pro quo “I did this for you, now you must do this for me” that causes the problem. Instead of inviting children to engage as people, there is a sense of buying one’s own children, treating them and their emotions as tradable assets. When you make it about a trade, the person can rightly object, “I did not agree to enter such a trade”, and that’s how teenagers feel.
But to teach the value and respect for others in the moment, regardless of what they have or haven’t done for you or against you, that is a place of acceptance and of honesty. There’s a lot of functional things we have to teach to the next generation as well, to make sure they are prepared to function, and that sometimes we as children did not want to learn or did not understand the value of at the time. Yes, for the grown-up that’s a challenge, and seemingly unrewarding. But you shouldn’t do it for a reward.