Eating Cake

As Good As I Could Be: A Memoir of Raising Wonderful Children in Difficult Times, by Susan Cheever (Simon & Schuster, 192 pp., $23)

Having thrown out all the old rules about raising children, today’s parents must “make it up as they go along”-which leaves a lot of room for mistakes. Susan Cheever has been appropriately terrified, since she first gave birth to a daughter 18 years ago, that she might not get it right. Her well-written memoir about being a parent-a sequel to her previous bestseller about being a child of novelist John Cheever-speaks to the experience of many raised in the ’60s and ’70s, who now have children themselves.

Typical of the ’60s intelligentsia, Cheever’s parents optimistically believed their children knew best, and jettisoned their role as authority figures: “There were never any limits on where I could go or what I could do. My parents seemed to believe that I knew how to behave as well as they did.” Susan’s school did not share this belief, and she was “almost kicked out” for violating rules she contemptuously found absurd. Happily, she was transferred to the Woodstock Country School, where they let her do what she wanted. Cheever herself later became a teacher at a similar alternative school, believing that “the key to teaching was to abdicate the fortress of phony authority.” But when she became a parent she discovered, to her great surprise, that kids are “hungry for rules” and “want order.”

Cheever is not advocating a return to the ways of our grandparents- which she says have been destroyed forever, “for good and evil,” over the last twenty years. Instead she proclaims that today’s child-rearing generation has been given the task of “reinventing parenthood.” Our grandparents ruled by “divine right,” but we must create “loving authority,” which is “flexible and humorous.” Cheever seems to believe that before 1960 all children were treated like Oliver Twist: “They were whipped if they disobeyed. Their schools were more like prisons than playgrounds.”

As a psychologist (and father), I have observed that today’s parents operate under two fallacious and mutually contradictory assumptions, both apparent in this book. On the one hand, they believe that children are little adults, fully capable of reasoned judgments about their behavior. On the other, they believe that children are simply big infants, incapable of tolerating even the most minor frustration.

While Cheever decries the “little adult” fallacy in principle, her behavior suggests that she buys into it. When her daughter announced in fifth grade that she was going to become a witch, Cheever, as she proudly recounts, not only tolerated this decision but allowed her daughter to build an altar in the closet. When her daughter’s father and stepmother banned witchcraft from their apartment, her daughter decided “with much heartbreak all around-she didn’t want to spend the night there anymore.” Since when do ten-year-old girls have the power to divorce their fathers-conveniently, when he enforces rules she doesn’t like? Cheever did her daughter no favor granting her this destructive power. When we give children control over adult decisions, they feel out of control.

A Chocolate Cake
A Chocolate Cake

When Cheever does set a limit, she does it like other modern parents, with neurotic ambivalence and self-doubt. When she was five, her daughter wanted to paint her room black, with carpet to match. Lacking the guts to just say no, Cheever told her daughter that the store had run out of black paint. Thirteen years later she still obsesses over this decision: “Maybe that was a mistake. She’s 18 now and still wearing black.”

Evidence of the “big infant” fallacy quite literally stares us in the face. On the front and back covers of the book is a picture of a teddy bear nicknamed “Me,” who is the subject of the book’s opening chapter, entitled, “the real Me.” All children choose what the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called a “transitional object,” a precious mommy substitute-usually a blanket or stuffed toy-that helps them make the shift from infancy to childhood. Normally it is adopted at two, loved fiercely, and then abandoned by six or seven, when it is no longer needed. As her daughter’s beloved Me became tattered with wear, Cheever panicked. She reported dreams to her psychiatrist in which Me “disappeared or disintegrated as I watched helplessly.” Rather than allow the precious Me to decay naturally, Cheever bought dozens of bears for spare parts, and secretly repaired him at night, for years. To this day, Me sleeps at the end of her grown daughter’s bed. Cheever’s mantra in this book is that once she became a parent, she had to grow up. Apparently, it was to ensure her daughter wouldn’t have to.

But has Cheever grown up? She seems bewildered that her stepdaughter holds against her the affair Cheever had with her father, which resulted in the breakup of the young girl’s family. “This seemed unfair . . . I hadn’t exactly invented adultery . . .” No wonder her advice for raising “wonderful children” sounds like a recipe for creating narcissists.

When Cheever’s son was four, he had an hour-long tantrum on the floor of Grand Central Station. Upon disembarking from a train, he had asked his mother for cake; she then dutifully took him through the station in search of the object of his desire. When the man behind the deli counter began to slice him a piece of chocolate cake, he screamed, “I want cake,” meaning the entire thing. Cheever was reduced to helplessness. “In retrospect it seems to me I should have bought the whole cake and taken it home in a box.” What? That would have rewarded the tantrum-the worst thing she could have done.

Cheever thinks that tantrums are a “dialogue” in which children communicate their needs, and her sympathy is with the suffering child who can’t always get what he wants: “Being a child is hard because there are so many no’s . . . they live with a level of powerlessness that would make many adults explode.” If her “powerless” son was powerful enough to humiliate her in Grand Central Station for an hour, surely he was strong enough to live with just one slice of cake. What Cheever misunderstands is that a tantrum is a power struggle, one the child must lose to win the benefits of a healthy character. The alternative is character disorder-a narcissist who feels entitled to the whole cake.

Our generation has indeed reinvented parenthood along the lines Cheever suggests-that much is apparent to anyone who has spent an afternoon at a mall or soccer field, and heard parents plead with their surly offspring. We have lost the authority to civilize and socialize children, and, sooner than we think, our big babies will be running the world.

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