Having started questioning culture, I have inevitably been more mindful of it in the family context. And inevitably it has made me stop and reconsider.
For example, such a small matter, but should my daughter have to sit down when she eats? Her natural preference seems to be to hang off a chair, standing on one leg.
It is considered good etiquette to eat sitting down.
There are constructive reasons for this. It can stop her spreading food around, it can prevent her interfering with other people who are trying to eat, and by concentrating on her food without distraction she can show appreciation to the person who cooked it for her. Being hygienic and compassionate are very useful skills in life.
There are also harmful reasons for this. Say she is in fact clean and compassionate. As a father I can still tell her to sit because: I say so, people find it rude, I always sit and always have so you should too, it’s what I bought these bloody chairs for. In other words, standing up is just not normal…even if by nature she might be a ‘stander’.
There is a big difference between assimilating into your society (which is essential as we all need to get along without harming each other…perhaps even helping) and being conditioned to observe set rules without question.
We all have our own basic needs. I don’t mean food and shelter, I’m referring to those needs that make us our own quirky individuals (seeking solitude, moving about in order to think, hugging trees).
Conditioning overrides those basic needs and replaces them with things you feel you ought to do to be normal. Often I don’t realise when I’m doing the conditioning or when it’s being done to me…because it’s normal.
The requirement to sit while you eat tends to be seen as a universal truth, so it should not be questioned. Taken in isolation it may seem irrelevant, but taken in the full context of everything else I may be thoughtlessly conditioning my kids to do, it’s more sinister. I could be in the process of programming them like machines. And it strikes me that if you treat your children like machines, that repression will come back to bite them at a later date, in exotic and unforeseeable ways.
My quest involves learning to spot where the line is – where the conditioning starts – and walking that line more deliberately; caring a lot about people but not caring too much about normal.
And since seeing my daughter do it, I have started eating standing up sometimes. It’s brilliant.