I’m in no position to tell you how to raise your kids, only how my wife and I raised ours. Since our daughter was very small, my wife was determined that she would always feel seen for who she was. I agreed. I taught my daughter all my enthusiasms, but did not cling to any expectations of who she should be. I allowed her to be my teacher.
Our daughter has done very well. In high school she was an accomplished dancer and actress and top student, and she’s now halfway into her first semester at a college that appears to suit her.
There’s nothing more tedious than having someone boast to you about their kids, and that’s not my intention. Even if it were, my daughter’s success would reflect scant credit on me. My wife was far more attentive day-to-day in her care, and even she would agree that through sheer luck our job has been easy.
So I’m not so interested in the question of what I did that was right but what I did that wasn’t wrong, a question that I mulled over this past weekend as we made the five-hour trip to our daughter’s school for parents weekend. Coincidentally, I had started reading a book on my Kindle that touched on the issue of how parents alienate kids from themselves, Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway.
Aside from the occasional gender-political aside that struck me as odd and wrong, I found this book to live up to the hype and the honors it’s received, namely the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards, among others. It’s short, and critics cite this as a flaw, but I found it appropriate.
The book explores a strong metaphor that deserves focused attention: namely, a person’s selfhood as a fantasy world that uniquely suits them.
It’s an obvious idea, lying in plain sight. I’ve said many times over the years that I write to create a world I can live in. I’ve been obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons since I was an adolescent, and I’ve been striving to understand and return to the beginner’s mind that I had when I first encountered the game and it set my world, at least briefly, into an ordered beauty I’d scarcely guessed at before.
Rather than a single fantasy world, McGuire posits a fantasy multiverse based on the same Cartesian-landscape graph as the Dungeons & Dragons Outer Planes, with Virtue and Wickedness standing in for Good and Evil, and Nonsense and Logic for Chaos and Law. (I did my own similar exercise in fantasy-multiverse topology here: What World Do You Live In?) Various children can be drawn into fantasy worlds that are sympatico with their personality, and each experience’s their fantasy world as a paradise, notwithstanding that it might be hellish for the natives: one’s fantasy world suits their temperament and aptitudes; it gives them a perfectly tailored sense of purpose and belonging. When children are forced back into the mundane world, they pine for what they’ve lost, but one fantasy-world expatriate masquerading as a mental-health worker has created a boarding school where the children can share their experience of exile and maybe even return to what they invariably consider their true home.
The children share more than just an experience of having lived in a magical world: they also grew up under the shadow of parental expectations. They were not seen for who they were, and so the real world is for them colored by those expectations and the self-alienation they represent. (The fantasy-world metaphor also implies fixation and self-absorption that I would guess the author will further explore in sequels.)
This is one of the truest fantasy books I’ve read in a long time. Exile and alienation from our own ideal world is the condition of every human being. As I said in my post on Jung and the Self, our entire universe is a projection of our unique expression of the human genome. We are all adjacent universes, joined tenuously by our ability to conceptualize shared ideals (in the sense of ultimate, unattainable horizons of abstraction) and form fleeting bridges across the gaps of our experience and essential selves. Our heaven can easily be another’s hell, and the heavy burden of a parent is to strive to see a child for who they are, to love even what we do not really, and ultimately can’t, understand, and not to infect them with what we might need them to be.