This might sound extreme, but I would posit that the radical linguist and political gadfly Noam Chomsky can provide as much insight into how to raise a willful toddler as any so-called “parenting expert.” The most important intellectual alive today (according to the New York Times) will not babysit your monster and probably won’t be giving any public addresses on bedtime routines. But his analyses of American foreign policy and his critiques of the relationship between the government and the government are trenchant when you’re attempting to rule over a would-be despot.
For instance, Chomsky claims that free societies committed to neoliberal capitalism reduce democracy to a multiple-choice quiz in the form of elections. Larger questions about the structure of the economy are omitted from public debate. What does this suggest for parents? Toddlers can be manipulated into believing they have an agency they fundamentally lack. The Chomsky-inspired parent lays out a list of permissible choices while maintaining the illusion of freedom. At bedtime, when your pajamas-clad monkey is attempting to escape, give her two options.
“Would you like to lie on your tummy or your back before I put the blanket on you?”
This feels like a choice, but it’s a constrained selection.
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Chomsky is similarly helpful around screw-ups and scandal, which is to say tantrum-inducing parental behaviors. Chomsky tells us, distraction is a useful technique for population control. This turns out to be true of toddler control as well — doubly so because toddlers tend not to be super sophisticated. Facing a political issue? Refusing to buy ice cream? Said something inappropriate? Redirect. As any astute parent (or statesman) who recognizes the beginning of a toddler meltdown (or great-power skirmish) knows, sometimes a moment is all you need to deflect approaching catastrophe.
Then there’s the big one, manufacturing consent. Let’s assume you don’t spank. Overt oppression is out of fashion. But you want the kid to do what you want the kid to do. What is the modern parent to do? Turn to the father of modern linguistics, of course. Chomsky asserts that, unlike a totalitarian regime, a democracy does not use violence to control its citizens. Instead, it relies on media propaganda to manufacture consent for policies that would otherwise be hard to swallow. This means that cough syrup should be treated much like the Vietnam War. It’s all about leverage and expectations.
“It’s fine, you don’t have to drink this,” you say. “But your throat boo-boo will go to your legs and you won’t be able to walk to the park tomorrow.”
This is, obviously, not the case. But it’s hard to disprove without taking on massive risk. This technique, though difficult to master, will let you implement unpopular policies such as bedtime and broccoli while keeping the rabble – i.e. your child – in line. Also, and Chomsky would be the first to point this out, lying works.
“Wine is like milk for mommy,” you say, “but it’s bad for little boys and girls.”
It’s not hard to get away with these things. Especially when you consider how quickly claims are forgotten. Toddler amnesia, like social amnesia, ensures that the not every issue is revisited. So one can behave in bad faith and get away with it simply by moving forward. That old dog went to a farm upstate, right? Of course, there’s a problem here in that one does eventually get found out. Even a good lie has a limited shelf life. We know now that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The lie worked, but not for long. And after the lie came consequences.
According to Chomsky’s theory of linguistics, we are all born with the capacity to acquire language. At least some part of human nature is not putty for parents and propagandists. By extrapolation, you should have faith that your many failures as a parent cannot stifle your child’s spirit – and that demagoguery cannot dupe the people forever.
Zia Ahmed is a stay-at-home American dad in London.
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