Tom Peters Goes Off the Deep End

My friend Stephen has a theory, mentioned here before, that people without children cannot understand what it is like to have children. In other words, all those “hey, you should have kids… it’s great” advertisements that we the childed beam out are effectively “blah blah blah children blah blah” to those without. Stephen would maintain, I think, that some sort of switch gets thrown as soon as you’re caring for children, and that after that switch gets thrown, nothing is ever the same.

I tend to agree. I certainly know that nothing I imagined about having a child bears before bears any resemblance to what it’s actually like. Partly this means that none of the “we’ll never be able to have any fun again” paranoia didn’t pan out. And partly it’s that it isn’t possible to understand the whole “I will jump in front of a train for you” kind of love that child rearing engenders almost instantly.

Put another way, there is a great divide of understanding between people with children and people without. I don’t mean to suggest that people who, through choice or circumstance, don’t rear children are lesser people, simply that there are certain things they can’t sense.

Which is all to say that, after reading this observation from Tom Peters about his own life circumstances, I’m left, mostly, saying “huh?”

I’m pretty sure that he’s describing something substantial and important. And I’m just as sure that from here on the outside of his life looking in, it’s almost completely impossible for me to understand anything about it.

Something has happened to Tom Peters, and as a result he’s standing on the other side of a great divide of understanding. I’m not sure whether he’s capable of communicating where he is to me, or whether I’m even capable of listening.


al o'neill's picture
al o'neill on August 19, 2004 - 10:10 Permalink

The same ‘once x happens, a switch is thrown in your mind and nothing is the same afterwards’ idea also applies to fighting in a war. But I wouldn’t recommend everybody go and do it just to understand the feeling :)

Rusty's picture
Rusty on August 19, 2004 - 13:34 Permalink

empty new age man reads new age psycho-babble and mistakes it for substance. i don’t have kids and i haven’t gone to war, but i think those things are different than what tom peters wrote about.

oliver's picture
oliver on August 19, 2004 - 14:27 Permalink

There may be switches relating to all kinds of experiences, but I find it especially easy to believe in one relating to a parental impulse. I guess it’s only a just-so story to call such a thing “adaptive” and to say it would have been “selected for” over human evolutionary history, but it’s a pretty good just-so story, don’t you think? I also predict that if Catherine were to bring another child home one day for adoption, a switch in Peter’s head would prompt him to eat it. Of course, it’s not the kind of thing you can understand before it happens to you.

Alan's picture
Alan on August 19, 2004 - 16:00 Permalink

It is kind of nutty that someone could suppose we cannot understand others who participating in life experiences we have not. Wouldn’t this require all fictional art to be an transparent fraud, learning from example would not work and any type of community or family planning a pointless exercise? These things however are roff that such is not the case. We are obviously able to sympatize with the lot of others who are dying, who struggle with parenting when we are childless, who are subject to conditions we do not have. Each of us is a unique combination of such singularities but that does not make us unknowable to each other. We’d be living in existentialist silos if this were true. Who the hell wants to live in an existentialist silo?

Lisa Howard's picture
Lisa Howard on August 19, 2004 - 19:49 Permalink

Not all religious experiences are stupid. But sometimes people have religious experiences because they’re suffering from anomie. And some people appear to have bad taste in religions and/or are practicing a kind of secular religion. I would put the pursuit of UFOs in that category. Also, many of the various trends in self help seem to belong there as well.

oliver's picture
oliver on August 19, 2004 - 21:15 Permalink

Maybe it’s nutty to say it’s _impossible_ to understand another’s experiences (which I don’t think is what Peter said), but it’s not nutty to say that it can be very hard. That’s why we have anthropology, not to mention novels and Deborah Tannen.

oliver's picture
oliver on August 19, 2004 - 21:16 Permalink

and shuttle diplomacy

Alan's picture
Alan on August 19, 2004 - 21:34 Permalink

What is so hard about novels and diplomacy?

oliver's picture
oliver on August 20, 2004 - 12:47 Permalink

Novels are easy. My point was that it’s Madame Bovary herself who’s hard to understand, and so we need novels and novelists to help us. Also the shuttle diplomats themselves have an easier task than the antagonists in the dispute when it comes to understanding the person on the other side of the table. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.

Alan's picture
Alan on August 20, 2004 - 14:03 Permalink

Steping back from my argumentativeness, let me say this is actually one of the dividers for me in life. Many people who are as capable as any approach things as difficult. Others do not notice the supposed barrier they just walked through. I think it has to do with experience but also one’s perception of the subjective-objective divide. I am a fairly sympathetic gregarious guy and it would never occur to me that I could not understand the experiences of parenting before I did it. I have a pretty good idea of old age and dieing as I have assisted with deathbed wills, worked school summers in retirement homes listening and talking and am the child of a minister and a florist, again listening and talking. Not quite the experience of my doctor pals who at a certain point choose the manner of expiration but in the same ball game.

By paying attention to these experiences and the experiences of others, you learn. It is not difficult. It just takes doing, as Grannie would have said. If you enter the experience already confirmed in your mind that it is difficult, it will be. You get what you plan for.

oliver's picture
oliver on August 20, 2004 - 16:46 Permalink

What pushed your buttons then? Do you take Peter’s post to be in some insidious way advocating that people give up trying to understand other people whenever it seems hard?

Alan's picture
Alan on August 20, 2004 - 17:20 Permalink

Tom Peters Goes Off the Deep End
My friend Stephen has a theory, mentioned here before, that people without children cannot understand what it is like to have children…I tend to agree.

Not off the deep end. I think this is nutty for the reasons I explain above.

Lisa Howard's picture
Lisa Howard on August 21, 2004 - 19:07 Permalink

I have a confession to make. I don’t really love my children. They’re disgusting little trolls who drool and who will eat anything. And, as lovely as they are, they have all the brain power of cabbages.

Alan's picture
Alan on August 21, 2004 - 20:25 Permalink

I don’t know what you could possibly mean.