Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Too Much Time

During a family celebration this past weekend, my dad related an anecdote I'm sure I've heard before but hadn't thought of in a long time. He said when he was a kid he was once made to dispose of his entire comic book collection by putting them in the incinerator.

When I asked him whether it was a punishment or something, he said it had simply been determined that he spent "too much time" on comics, and for that reason he had to throw them away. He recalled it as being pretty traumatic. Hmm.

I don't recall my own parents dishing out any particularly creative or traumatic punishments, but I do remember once being threatened with having my books taken away. I think this might have been because sending me to my room as a punishment was ineffective since one of my favorite things to do was hang out in my room and read, and it's not much of a punishment if one of my favorite pastimes is available to me while I'm in there. But I still interpreted this punishment as incredibly unfair and sort of back-asswards, because what parent punishes their kid by not letting them read? Don't they WANT us to read?

I think part of the issue was that I was perceived to be rereading books I'd read already, and they were "empty" books without much educational content. They were just for fun, but even if you're reading for fun, if it's a book you for some reason get treated like this is a wholesome and constructive activity. But if it's comic books? Not really.

I had lots of special interests as a kid. I continue to have special interests as an adult. Many adults who have special interests turn those interests into something potentially lucrative--or at least, if they have a job doing something else to make ends meet, they're "allowed" to have interests that aren't constructive. I liked to make up silly stories as a child and now I write books as an adult. I spend a lot of time on it. I wonder how much time would be "too much time" if I was a child.

The particularly odd thing about my dad having to throw his comics out is that he didn't say he was getting bad grades or that his interest was leading him to hang out with kids who were a bad influence or even that the comics were considered a waste of money, though maybe he didn't fully understand why comics had been dubbed unworthy of his attention. From how he told it (which may have been incomplete, I don't know), it was just a sort of arbitrary line he'd crossed into being too interested in something that was not valued by the authorities in his life, and it "had to be" put to a stop. At my family gathering this weekend, my cousin once removed was there talking about his baseball card collection, which he sold to collectors as an adult and made enough money to pay for two years of his daughter's college tuition. I'm sure my dad's lost comics would have been pretty valuable too, but I'm not just talking about money-wise. I always wonder about these things and how they affect us for the rest of our lives.

For instance, Captain Underpants author Dav Pilkey got hollered at by his teachers as a child for drawing gross pictures, and he was once memorably told that he could not grow up and draw silly superhero comics for a living. That's exactly what he does, though. And I imagine most people who have that job as an adult were children with a special interest. We laugh at those teachers now, saying you had no idea who you were putting down, but what about the people who didn't ignore the criticism, or the people whose authority figures were more insistent and more aggressive about taking their passion away from them?

We really only say stuff like "little did they know" when children who are punished for their interests become adults who pursue it anyway and become wildly successful. We don't really seem to examine the phenomenon for what it is--what its effect is on every kid who spends "too much time" on something adults don't understand. Obviously I don't think every kid with a special interest is going to grow up to be successful in a field related to it--for instance, I'm reasonably sure my dad would not have drawn or written comic books as an adult, though there are also marketing and business organization–related ways to be in the comics field--but I'm tired of standards for kids being so focused on what is supposedly educational for them. When you're an adult, you get to play. Other adults often don't ask you to justify how you play; you can spend a ton of time on the golf course without ever winning tournaments or going pro, and you can spend every weekend on the couch watching sports, and you can get drunk as a pastime or go to Bingo religiously or engage in activities that don't add up to anything you can cash in at the end of the day.

But even though it's understood that kids need to play, there's often this point at which adults decide its impracticality and unrelatedness to their own values make it a dangerous pursuit or a waste of time. Adults make some weird choices about what uses of time are a waste, too; I can certainly say that many of my homework assignments as a child wasted my time, but everybody made it clear that those time-wasters were necessary evils and that asking me to endure the same math drills and empty writing assignments day after day was not unreasonable in the slightest.

If your kid is spending so much time with his books that his grades are in the toilet and he won't help with housework, by all means, lay down some laws and control his hobby for him until he can learn moderation. But if the only motivation to take it away is that he loves this hobby a lot and devotes a significant amount of attention to it . . . I hope parents in this situation reconsider, or at least develop a less permanent consequence than intentionally destroying what they love.

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