Family affairs

One of the unfortunate aspects of having children is that it’s occasionally necessary to consult parenting books. We do this during crisis: when real-life situations overwhelm our confidence in our parenting skills or when one of the kids reaches a developmental turning point. Reading these books is usually a dreadful experience, as they tend toward clinical enumeration of developmental milestones, New Age solipsism, or feel-good humanism. Despite their philosophical leanings, the point of all of them, stated or not, is to supply parents the tools needed to (micro)manage and control their children, ensuring their docility and obedience.

A few days ago, one of our kid’s teachers gave us Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn, who recognizes this and goes about criticizing parenting and parenting advice that take controlling children as the guiding principle. He calls this conditional parenting and notes its economic character:

Ultimately, conditional parenting reflects a tendency to see almost every human interaction, even among family members, as a kind of economic transaction. The laws of the marketplace–supply and demand, tit for tat–have assumed the status of universal and absolute principles, as though everything in our lives, including what we do with our children, is analogous to buying a car or renting an apartment.

Kohn adds that it shouldn’t be this way, that “the family ought to be a haven, a refuge, from such transactions.”

Kohn’s insight offers a nice materialist dimension completely lacking in the parenting-advice industry, but claiming the family is exempt from social laws is a reversion to beautiful-soul idealism. As a mechanism for social control like work and school, why should the family be a priori immune from capital’s prerogatives? I’m all for the creation of autonomous spaces and discourses that attempt to bypass social limitations, but making moralistic exclusions is an act of redesignation, not creation.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books show that, fantasies of exemption aside, the family is subject to capital’s transactional logic. After the Baudelaire siblings–Violet, Klaus, and Sunny–lose their parents in a fire, they bounce from caregiver to caregiver, constantly pursued by Count Olaf, a distant family relative who wants to dispose of the children so that he can gain control of their fortune. Each time they reconstitute their family–either through finding happy residence with an adult or through the unity they achieve when combatting Olaf’s schemes–economic arrangements are brought to bear on them. In nearly every book the preadolescents are made to work to support themselves, an enacting of capitalism’s productivity demands, and are subjected to vile bosses and horrible working conditions (one book is called The Miserable Mill). Mr. Poe, who looks after the children’s fiscal affairs and arranges for their care, is the face of the financial sector, trying to minimize expenses and commanding the children to not ask too many questions or make too many demands. Even the children’s leisure-time passions are exploited: Violet’s inventions, Klaus’s knowledge, and Sunny’s ability to chew things are used either by capital to increase profit or by the children to escape the predicaments capital puts them in.

When the Baudelaire children manage to escape, capital, in the policing figure of Count Olaf, regroups and resumes its assault. Olaf is a master of disguises and connivances, evincing an endless supply of capitalist strategies to re-form and reassert itself. Historically, the family has acted as an agent to enforce its imperatives, not as “a haven, a refuge.”


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