Richard Powers’s Radical Parenting Classes
Being a successful parent is often a combination of skill and luck. It would be great if raising a child was more of an equation: find the perfect algorithm for making decisions, and your child will have a happy childhood before they become a responsible and compassionate adult. But most parents learn that no matter how much they try to shape their children into perfect people, children have their own identities – their own spark, their own flaws, needs, idiosyncrasies, and desires.
BOOKS AT A GLANCE
When parents deal with the individuality of their children, they tend to be somewhere between the active attempt to shape the development of their children and the freedom to discover themselves (with slight guard rails where necessary). This dynamic is set out in The Gardener and the Carpenter by child psychologist Alison Gopnik. Gardeners, writes Gopnik, are more of a laissez-faire type: While they are invested in the success of their child, their focus is a little more on the child’s happiness and self-fulfillment. Carpenters, on the other hand, see the child as a “future adult” who must be shaped through careful preparation. Theodore Byrne, the main character in Richard Power’s new novel, Confusion, would likely fit into the astronomical category. For him, his child is a science experiment and childhood is a long way. “They share a lot, astronomy and childhood,” explains Theodore. “Both are long-distance journeys. Both are looking for facts that are beyond their reach. Both theorize wildly and let the possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humiliated every few weeks. Both act out of ignorance. Both are confused by time. Both start forever. ”
Theodore thinks childhood and parenting are astronomical in part because he is an astrobiologist. He is also a widower with a young son named Robin. Like his father, Robin is something of a scientist: he wants to know the Latin names or other little things for all the flora and fauna he observes. For Robin, life is an interesting game of empiricism, and his precociousness, youthful curiosity, and outspoken observations of the world are contagious. Theodore responds to his son’s questions and requests with patience and openness and promotes a love of nature through extensive camping trips that drive from her home in Wisconsin to the forests and mountains of the Appalachians to watch birds. Here they are talking about things like the state of the world; remember Alyssa, Robin’s late mother; lament how human folly ruins the environment; and speculate about what life is like on other planets.
However, Robin is also plagued by disabilities that have made it difficult for him to get along with his peers and concentrate in school. At home, even slight disappointment can turn him into a fit of anger. The doctors have never been able to make a conclusive diagnosis for this; Asperger’s, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and ADHD are all mentioned – and because of Robin’s volatility, his doctors and teachers want Theodore to prescribe him psychoactive medication. As a father, Theodore defends himself against a society that often regards children as a problem to be solved and child-rearing as a form of wealth management. But when Robin hits a boy with a metal thermos for suggesting that his mother’s death was more than a tragic car accident, Theodore knows his son needs help.
That help comes in the form of Martin Currier, a neuroscientist and friend of Alyssa (whom Theodore suspects was also her lover). Martin asks him to include Robin in an experimental psychotherapy study called “Decoded Neurofeedback” (or DecNef) that he is leading. In it, he plans to use visual cues to help Robin practice mindfulness, which would allow him to regulate his emotions. Martin suggests training Robin with data on his mother’s emotional states – data that Martin recorded when Theodore and Alyssa tried the experiment years earlier. Theodore reluctantly agrees.
Once you start DecNef, the changes in Robin are immediate and dramatic. Things that used to provoke tantrums in him now roll off his back. He’s calmer at school and at home. He’s also starting to show some surreal aftermath, sometimes suggesting that the experiment connected him to his mother’s ghost. Theodore watches Robin mention things Alyssa knew but shouldn’t Robin, like a tattoo she had or certain birds singing.
In a recent interview with Ezra Klein, Powers claims that amazement and humility are closely related: “The more amazing the world becomes around us, the more we need to share the limelight with these other overwhelming things.” what Theodore is gorgeous, his son. Robin sees the world with such clarity, and Theodore wonders if the society that wants Robin to conform should actually be more like him.
R.Breastfeeding a child with special needs while mourning the death of his wife is no easy task for Theodore. Robin is constantly asking questions to which he already knows the answer: how his parents met, how he got his name. Concerned for the well-being of his son, Theodore answers these questions calmly, forced to relive his own trauma over and over again while maintaining his composure and remaining patient. A sad memory can turn a good day into a day of sadness and stress, so the emotional burden of dealing with Robin’s moods can be draining. Powers shows that parenting is a duty filled with both mundane and tedious daily chores. In many ways, Bewilderment is an attempt to examine the difficulties that arise from these tasks: How can one be a parent in a world in crisis? How do you teach a child to be “normal” when climate change, mass extinction, animal suffering and human poverty seem persistent? The crisis is personal too – without his wife’s help, Theodore wonders if he’s doing the right thing for his son. Robin becomes a minor internet celebrity when a journalist shows him in a documentary about how the DecNef experiment changed him; but as a father, Theodore doesn’t want him to be a spectacle.
Confusion also deals with the coexistence of humans and animals in the midst of these ecological and political crises. The Byrnes find life on earth sacred, and before going to bed Theodore and Robin recite Alyssa’s prayer, “May all sentient beings be free from unnecessary suffering.” But prayers alone will not make the world right, and the novel spends a lot of time researching Robin’s fears of animal life: he refuses to eat meat, starts a project to paint every endangered species in North America, and starts a solitary protest at the moves of Congress. While Robin’s neurodivergence can sometimes cause problems, Theodore fears that adapting to this society would lessen the spark in him. Yet Powers shows that our ability to deal with the world doesn’t make its disasters any less difficult to deal with.
Throughout Powers’s career, his fiction has consistently delved into nature and our connection to it. He uses science to study philosophical questions of love, innocence, freedom, responsibility, and salvation. In Overstory, Powers showed that the splendor of nature often remains invisible to us. In Generosity he asked us to consider whether important parts of our personality are simply genetic or whether we hold more secrets than science can explain. In Bewilderment we meet a father who doesn’t have all the answers. But Theodore is sure of one thing: He doesn’t want to force his son to conform to “this Ponzi scheme of a planet”.