Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Linguistic parenthropology

I confess: Sometimes when I ought to be just a parent, I find myself drifting off and looking at the situation like a parenthropologist. Frankly, it is probably to Beanie and Bubbie's benefit b/c detaching like this prevents me from screaming (at least more than I already do - I admit that I am not a paragon of gentle talk and placidity 24 / 7), walking away without looking back, or cackling demonically as I charge my head over and over into the side of the house. Which is having its cedar shakes restained and the window and porch trim repainted, so I might need to charge into something else that is tattier. Like our neighbor's house.

The particular field of study in linguistic anthropology that interests me is language socialization, which describes the ways in which caregivers treat language as both the end and means of "teaching" their children appropriate / proper behavior. Think about the intense interest of American parents in the development of their children's ability to talk. Think also about what parents consider important to teach their children to say - like "please" and "thank you."

A lot of parenting simply is talk. Parenting books offer as much coaching on what to say as on what to "do." For example, StraightMan was raised in a household where "stupid" could refer to actions or things, but not people, including oneself, which is advice I have read elsewhere, and which I find sensible and sensitive, and try to follow. The same goes for "bad": I can say that I do not like Bubbie's behavior, I can tell him that he will eat his supper or else I am putting him to bed right now, I can tell him that he is upsetting, irritating, or annoying me. That is the point, I guess: To raise his awareness about the effects that his behavior has on my (or another person's) perceptions of him and as a result, behavior towards him as well. It all might sound a bit precious, but I think the significance of talk ought not be underestimated in parenting. To sound grandiose for a moment, it might be that we can model in how we talk and listen with our children the kind of social world that is possible to create.

I think a lot about the importance of parents and talk because whatever it is that we teach children, they take with them as they interact with other children and create (or recreate) a social world. Linguistic anthropologist Marjorie Harness Goodwin has written two books on girls' talk among themselves, He-Said-She-Said: Talk as Social Organization among Black Children (1990) and more recently, The Hidden Life of Girls: Games of Stance, Status, and Exclusion (2006), which I recently started skimming.

Here is a passage that especially caught me:

Dispute is an interactional accomplishment, and one of the most important loci for the development of friendships and peer relationships. Neither an aberration nor something to be avoided at all costs, it is, rather, constitutive of children's dealings with one another, establishes group cohesiveness, and provides a primary way that activities are constituted. Despite such recognition of the importance of conflict in everyday life, and in particular among peers, most contemporary feminist scholarship has not only avoided analyzing conflicts between women, but actively promoted a view of women as essentially cooperative (Goodwin 2006:33).

This prompted me to recall an exchange that I overheard during a play date at our house a few months ago. "I'm not mean," I overheard Beanie tell her friend. "You always want to make the rules." Her friend said, "You're hurting my feelings." Beanie said, "You always say that." Then her friend said, "I'm the guest so you have to let me." Stormy silence. I think at this point, I intervened with a snack.

At the time, I think I thought something like, are you playing together, or are you just going to goad each other the whole time? (Probably also something like, this was a mistake...) In fact, Goodwin notes, "Children observed in multiparty participant frameworks display an orientation toward sustaining and promoting rather than dissipating dispute" (33). Goodwin suggests, "Dispute for children provides a way for playing with language, asserting one's position, for displaying affective stance, and consequently, character, sanctioning violators, and rearranging the social order" (33).

Looking, as a parenthropologist, at the exchange I described above as an interactional accomplishment, it is clear that the girls indeed were sustaining and promoting their dispute (neither backing off) to assert their positions (whose rules would guide their play), and making their assertions on the basis of character (being mean) and affective stance (hurt feelings).

That said, I probably could do with less interaction and more accomplishment when I am the parent supervising the play date.

Still, I appreciate the reminder, from Goodwin, that after all, children get along differently than grown-ups do. In part, they still are learning how to get along: Even when they are as interactionally accomplished as Beanie and her friend, they remain novices. As such, they test some of the proprieties that they hear their grown-ups reference. In particular, what I think is interesting is that the idea of "the guest" ends the exchange (along with juice and Goldfish, which I guess could be read as an enactment of hospitality in this context).

Just the other day, during a play date with a different friend, the idea of "the guest" became referenced again, with different effects: This time, the two girls were talking about what their game should be. They had been playing "hamsters," but Bubbie came home and wanted his hamster, which the friend had been holding. The friend suggested that she could find a different stuffed animal for the game. Beanie offered to let her play with her hamster, and she herself would play with another animal. The friend said no. Beanie said, "You're the guest, so you should have it."

Eventually, they agreed that they both would play with other animals. Thus ended the game of "hamsters," and began the game of "puppies." We are talking, after all, about two six-year-old girls.

I guess they learn, these children of ours - and they can learn from each other.

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