Saturday, June 21, 2008

Lessons at the mall

Today I went to the mall with Nigel, and at one point I sat on a bench waiting for him. I was across from the checkout lanes for one of the grocery stores in the mall.

A young family was checking out as I sat down—father, mother, girl of about 10 (it’s hard to tell these days) and a small boy of about four. The father and children moved to the side as the mother paid. The girl moved off slightly, absorbed by the magazine she was holding.

“Come here,” the father said to the boy. He spoke softly to him, then picked him up. His son wrapped his legs around his father’s waist, his arms around his neck. They stood together like that for a few minutes, quietly talking with each other. When the mother joined them, the father sat the boy on the handle for the shopping trolley. As they moved away, the boy kept his arms wrapped around his father’s neck.

When I was that boy’s age, that scene would have been impossible for so many reasons. In the early 1960s, the social convention was that once children could walk and talk, fathers were to show little affection for their children, sons in particular, except on certain special occasions—Christmas, birthdays, and maybe a handshake on days of special achievement. It was certainly not to be demonstrated in public.

So I can’t remember a time when I held onto my father that way; perhaps I did, but before I can remember. But neither can I remember ever thinking that was something I would want to do. It’s so much better that nowadays fathers can express affection toward their children, and that children can receive it, and today was hardly the first time I’ve seen it.

When conservatives pine for some mythological “better” past, a time that existed only on black and white television progammes and in their own imaginations, what they’re saying is that they want that boy I saw today to be worse off. We’ll never know how much better off the world would be if my generation had grown up in a less frigid emotional atmosphere, but we know enough to realise it’s nothing we should ever go back to. That boy, and the millions of boys and girls like him, deserve better. It’s up to all of us to make sure they get it.


d said...

Yeah, my step-father (who is 40 years older than me), always thought children should be 'seen and not heard'. I hear he is more affectionate now with my niece, but little too late for me.

Roger Owen Green said...

Yeah, while my father wasn't as cold as your father apparently was, it has informed my behavior towards MY daughter Lydia.
BTW the word verification, I kid you not, is stifyes (stiff, yes).

Arthur Schenck said...

D: My own father became better and warmer has he (and I) got older. But he ran out of time, dying before he could get to where he apparently wanted to be. That was his tragedy, made worse, I suppose, because by then I'd moved on.

Roger: That's just it—my father wasn't cold, but he was very much trapped by the conventions of his day. I have no doubt that had he lived in a more modern time, he'd have been very different.

Still, it's good, I think, that people can take lessons from the past so that—literally—the sins of the fathers aren't visited upon the sons.