The Popeye Philosophy of Being With Children


He’s homely, he smokes, and he could use a speech pathologist, but that doesn’t make him wrong. Popeye is wise when he says, “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam”.   Tautological, yes, but it is a meaningful tautology.  We are only that which we are.  This is hard to remember about ourselves, and even harder to remember about the children in our lives.  We can only be us.  Another way to say it is that contrary to what parenting books may suggest, your children are not unformed lumps of clay waiting to be shaped.  They are more like unfinished furniture, already set in structure, just open to some sanding and finishing.  For better and for worse, our children come to us as themselves. What impact we do have is strongest at the beginning of a child’s life.   The nurture of early infancy is profoundly important, and it decreases by the month thereafter. By the time we get them in preschool, dies are  largely cast.  Physical, intellectual, and emotional capacities as well as many components of personality and temperament come pre-installed, and barring horrible trauma (there is a wide range of trauma and neglect that can have huge lasting impact on a person’s development in every area.  I don’t mean to ignore this topic, I am just not dealing with it here), we cannot do much affect the outcome. 

There is a curious asymmetry in how much easier this is for us to accept about our children’s physical characteristics than about their seemingly non-tangible qualities.  No parent supposes that the right parenting techniques will shape their growing child’s physical proportions (Coming soon to a bookstore near you- “10 tips to long-fingered, small-eared children”, and “Have the bluest-eyes baby on the Block”) yet we often act as if the proportions of their character are entirely the parents’ doing. Currently Amazon lists many books that claim to hold the key to altering your child’s disposition such as making him more calm, attentive, happy and patient.   We take the forming of personality as a creative task, and we make ourselves feel responsible.

Brains, though, it turns out, are parts of bodies.  Looking at research in the nature/nurture debate, particularly those amazing studies of separated-at-birth-twins is a minor obsession of mine. (Except the separated twin thing which is no minor obsession!  They are both firemen!  Married to first wives named Linda and second wives named Betty! I am not really crediting genetics with spousal name choice, but still!!)

Does that mean then, that what parents and teachers do with children doesn’t matter?  Isn’t my ‘nature over nurture’ a kind of fatalistic determinism? If genes are destiny, why bother?  How can I keep doing my job if I really believe (and I really do) that I am not doing very much to make a boy into the man he will be?  Ah, but we adults do still matter profoundly and here are three reasons why:  First, since people have a gazillion facets, all of the genetic determination still leaves many human facets to ‘nurture’.  I tend to think it is the less major ones, but still, suppose your parenting and teaching have only an effect on 1% of a kid’s personality.  1% of a gazillion is still a lot.  1% of who a whole human being is still seems worth some effort. Second, though parents and teachers may not be able to do much about raw materials, they can do a huge amount providing support and opportunities.  Talents and capacities for joy remain untapped without the relevant exposure.  Meaningful lives are made when a person experiences deep connections outside of herself.   A child relies on her parents and teachers to expose her to those things or the pathways that lead to them.  

That thought keeps me inspired as a teacher.  One never knows which activity or discussion with spark a life-long passion in a person or open wider doors to meaning.  Though there is enough reason to think that my work and that of all parents and teachers does affect a child’s future, the most important reason for me to keep doing this work in light of my ‘determinist’ views is this:  Now matters enough.  Suppose I have zero effect on a child’s adult self.  That does not change the love I give him now.  That does not change the fun we have together now.  Yes, if I don’t tell her what the Torah is or help her figure out where rain comes from, she’ll probably end up the same, but so what?   It’s worth my time and effort to just be there for her as she is now.

Because here’s the thing: Abandoning the concept of teacher or parent as sculptor does not leave me feeling useless.  It frees me to give a child something deeply important: Total acceptance of him as he really really is right now.  It’s a hard thing to give.  I’m not saying I always succeed, and of course kids all still have skills that need building and knowledge to gain.  It’s worth a try though, to put down our sculpting tools and pick up a can of spinach, squeeze it open and toast to us all being exactly what we yam.