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Monday, October 20, 2008


Parents are obnoxious.

When confronted by the childless on any topic, and forced to try to explain their opinions, prejudices, and premises to an increasingly incredulous and smarmy audience, parents will sometimes drop a big nasty bomb on the conversation:

You'll understand when you have kids.

This isn't obnoxious because it's a conversation-ender (although it is that), nor because it is utterly dismissive of the other perspective (although it is also that). It is obnoxious because it is a cowardly shorthand for what parents really mean:

You have yet to mature, and your opinion on this issue is as self-serving, and self-involved, as a child's. Finish growing up and stop looking at the world as an imposition, a third period class you have to take while you'd rather be spending time with your own brilliant self.

But as obnoxious as it is to use the "when you have kids" shorthand instead of just saying what one literally means it is also a side effect and sign of the very maturity parents lament as absent in those who mock their sincerity.

I thought I had a great idea for a project once. Pondering the politeness that pervades the polis I thought it would be fun and interesting to think about the very worst thing I could imagine saying to someone, either a stranger walking by on the street or my closest friends. Easier, of course, to think of the most horrible accusation possible when considering friends. During the process I realized just how darkly I could view the world and the people in it, and I had to admit that I held some fairly disgusting opinions about people, even while at the same time holding them in high esteem. This realization made me feel miserable. Not in the "sad" sense of the word, but in the "wretched, deplorable, shameful" sense of it. It was shaming to know that I could have those thoughts about people I purported to care about.

Now I'm pretty sure that we're all capable of those thoughts. But we don't all express them. That we have these weapons at our disposal and choose, every day, during every interaction with someone, not to use them is precisely the difference between maturity and immaturity. Maturity is the recognition that authenticity for its own sake, for your own sake, is as unwarranted as hurling feces at people.

There's a weird stage some people (including myself) go through, that involves a little regression toward childhood. Not genuine childhood, but a fantasy of childhood. We imagine, presume, hope, that childhood was the last time we experienced our own authenticity, when we last felt like we owned or controlled the world. In our post-adolescence (not "maturity", not "adulthood") we witness constraints, lies, manipulations, ugliness, and we long for the world to just leave us alone to do our thing. I can see in Erin's spontaneous expression and in her fearlessness the inspiration for these later, post-adolescent dreams. But wallowing in authenticity, rooting around in spontaneity, is a depredation of the innocent ownership of childhood. My fun and interesting project, to imagine the worst possible thing to say to people as they walk by was authentic, yes. It was honest, insofar as it is an actual manifestation of my self and not some fabrication. And it was freeing in a way that I could imagine a child is freed when running around on wet grass after being imprisoned during a deluge. But it was also unworthy.

Because what the child has that I lacked was a view of the world, my world, the world I am owner and part of, as basically good, and wonderful, and built for experiencing and spontaneous dancing. Whether this view of the world is true, or even validated by the evidence, every damned day, is controversial. But what's not controversial is this: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." (Wayne Gretzky, folks. It's not an accident that he is the Great One.) If you don't try to see the world as good, and worthwhile, then you will make it impossible to see good in it. Miracles are few and far between, and if you wait for the world to impress you despite itself you will always be disappointed in it. And smug.

As a child matures into an adult the stage after the pupal is once again full of dancing. Parenthood accelerates this, but isn't a magic pill: some people dance like Stairway is coming on next whether they are parents or not; and some parents will never dance. But for some, for many, for most, for the sake of dancing, and of having partners with whom to dance, we put our weapons down, and we say to those on the sidelines who laugh at the dance "You'll understand when you have kids." It's an obnoxious rejoinder, but one that takes the least time away from the dance.

Some days it's harder to dance than others, and I just want to stand on the sidelines and throw feces at people like an angry monkey. And some days I fail utterly and I just do throw feces at people.

But some days I'm reminded of the dancing.

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

(Thanks to Jozet at Halushki for Tweeting this video the other day. It really helped.)


PsychMamma said...

I love Matt and his dancing. Some days, when I'm down, I click on the link just 'cuz I know it will make me smile.

My 2 y/o also loves the clips and we often end up dancing. It's hard to resist.

Thanks for reminding me. I'm gonna go dance.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. Your twitter said that it wasn't funny, and it's not. But, it is truthful and well-written and DEAD ON.

I'm 24 years old and don't have children, yet. But I have spent a considerable amount of time around children and have a lot of experience with them. I also helped raise my brother and sister during a very dark time in my family's history when my mom was in too deep of a depression to do so herself.

And that statement has been made to me. It is rather demeaning and, you're right, immature. It pissed me off and cut.

I will have children one day. When I do, I hope that I'm never ignorant enough to slap at the people who care enough to say something, even if I don't happen to agree with them.

Also? There's a whole other flip side to this coin. What about the people who say this to women/men that are infertile and unable to have children? My best friend is 34 years old and due to medical problems, had to have a full hysterectomy two years ago. She will never have children, but does that make her opinions on how to raise them and WHATEVER, null and void? I think not...

Thank you for being an enlightened parent and, again, for writing this. I'm so glad I found your site! (Through Attack of the Redneck Mommy).

Maria Melee said...

I love that video. It makes me cry every time I watch it.

This was a thoughtful and interesting post, Backpacking Dad. Thank you for sharing it with us.

I've sometimes said "you'll understand when you have kids" and while it definitely sometimes means exactly what you've said, sometimes I've said it referring to some of the insane ferocious bizarre emotions that I was only capable of feeling as a parent. Stronger love but also much, much stronger anger--that feral need to protect.

ChurchPunkMom said...

great post.. and i love that video. :) said...

My kids and I watch that video daily now. I'm glad you like it. It gives me real hope that beyond any bipartisan anything in life - not just politics, but anything - there is still that which enables us to see each other as "human", even beyond our own prejudices....more importantly, even beyond the other person's prejudices or world view.

Now...let me reread your post later tonight and stew in it for a while. You got all deep and meaningful on me right at dinner time when I have one ear on listening to the potatoes boil.

Aunt Becky said...

*applauds loudly*

Thanks, BPD. said...

Whoops...I meant "partisan". My potatoes doth boil over when I try to cook and write at the same time.

Martin said...

As someone who has been on the receiving end of that exact line, more than once, I'm (pleasantly) surprised you've broached it.

In fact, in some bizarre coincidental way, this is exactly what I've been hoping to find somewhere, anywhere, for the last few long days.

A moment to consider what you say to someone, a friend or stranger, is never too much to ask.

I don't know what brought about this post from you, but I thank you for it.

Swirl Girl said...

This certainly made me smile!

Dancing , like balloons are the great human leveler .


Mandy said...

I've seen a bunch of those videos and love them all! Thanks for the smile.

I have thrown that phrase out before (but mostly in private with David). If I use it with others, it's because they can't understand my perspective... like why I don't want to go to the movie that starts at 10:30pm, etc. I guess I could find a different expression!

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Don Mills Diva said...

There is a lot of stuff in here that I will probably need to re-read to fully appreciate.

I'm not sure I have said that to anyone, but I have felt it. What I think what I meant at those times, though, is there is a depth of emotion I'm not sure you can understand if you haven't devoted your every waking moment to the well-being of another human being.

Kyddryn said...

I am quite fond of Matt and his worldwide dance frenzy. He has been criticized for not using his time and energy for more mature ends, and for "selling out" by advertising a particular product on his next round...but so what? It's his to do. And it does (oddly) make me smile (so it must be OK).

Beautifully said, BPD.

Shade and Sweetwater,
K (who not only dances, she sings)

anymommy said...

Just had a nice dance session with my kids this afternoon and I've loved Where's Matt for a while. Great post, I could quote a cheesy country song, but just for you, I'll restrain myself.

Catherine said...

In a time of deep grief, you reminded me of hope. Thank you.

Lunasea said...

That's one of my favorites.

Hope you're feeling better!

Jo said...

Thanks for the video link! :-D Much needed - it brought a smile to my face and a little tear in my eye...

Anonymous said...

We love Matt and his goofy dancing over here, as well as his whole story. As I was watching it, because I never pass up a chance to watch it, as soon as my 4 year old heard the music, she started doing her version of the dance. Priceless.

And this post is spot-on. Thank you.

CaMaTaDaLisMa said...

Okay - what the hell did you just do to me? I've never seen Matt or his dancing. And now I've got this dumbass smile plastered on my face that I can't seem to make go away. And darn it - It's Tuesday. I'm not supposed to be this happy on a Tuesday.

That's in the words of Dieter from SNL - its time to dance (or something along those lines - it was the 90's - I can't remember exactly how he said it).

Anonymous said...

Wow! I am usually a lurker - I don't even have an awesome blog of my very own...but I had to come out of hiding to say that this post was really inspirational...loved it.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I don't have any words, except thank you. This was much needed today...probably has been much needed the last several days.

for a different kind of girl said...

The dance is a pleasure.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

I have always held my tongue and really thought those words out loud in my head ...but refrained from saying
Great post and video!

Anonymous said...


Backpacking Dad said...

psychmamma: I'm with you now. I keep watching the damn thing over and over.

amber: well, really the shorthand I'm talking about here is when parents are met with smarm, not really in other situations. Although I know some parents also throw out the "you'll understand when you have kids" line in other circumstances, and then it's obnoxious for similar reasons, but not quite identical. And to say it to someone who wants but can't have kids? That's pretty despicable.

mommy melee: yes, we use it also when we aren't being defensive.

churchpunkmom: I can't believe I didn't know about it.

jozet at halushki: it's a damn good video.

aunt becky: *bows*

xbox4nappyrash: I'm a little disgusted that somone would use it on you. Knowing your situation or unknowing? Presumably you weren't be a smarmy shit to them about something; I doubt you would ever ridicule their sincerity about their kids, and that's really what this post was about. What the shorthand means in that situation, and what is going on in the background.

swirl girl: balloons? Like, if you get enough of them even the biggest person will float?

mandy: or keep it. I mean, it's obnoxious, but so is someone who will give you shit about not wanting to go to the movies at 10:30.

redneck mommy: you're welcome.

don mills diva: yep. that too.

kyddryn: oh god, there's "sellout" critique of him? jeez. back off the dancing man :}

anymommy: well, now I want to know what cheesy country song you'd quote.

catherine: no thank you.

lunasea: much better.

jo: sap. :}

fishygirl: I love that other people know this video already and play it for their kids.

tami: now is the time on Sprockett's when we dance.

anonymous: What the hell kind of troll are you to come on my blog and say that to me when I didn't do anyth.....oh. Uh...:} Thanks :} I love anonymous commenters who aren't trolls.

auds: you're welcome

FADKOG: totally a pleasure.

anita doberman: I've let them out before. I'm awesome.

dc urban dad: and hallelujah.

Martin said...

I've had it said face to face unknowingly, probably at times when I was being both sincere and a smarmy shit if truth be told.

I've had it said online knowingly, when I was being sincere.

Funny old world.

Anonymous said...

Having the ability to call out one's greatest weakness because they trust you enough to let you know what it is, is like knowing how to kill someone with your thumb, just because you know how doesn't mean you do it, it's just not nice.
Well said.

miko564 said...

This seems like a horrible story to tell after your thoughtful/insightful essay, but I'm nothing if not inappropriate...

My father, the minister, (this just adds to the unbelievable quality of the comment) had a friend who DID carry out his social experiment. His friend believed that people only see what they expect during the day, he told my father he could walk around with his penis out, and nobody would notice because they wouldn't expect to see THAT. Dad, being a godly man, told him he didn't have the fucking guts.

So, for an hour in a restaurant/bar my Dad's friend carried on in a normal restaurant/bar kinda’ way, with his "package" outside his pants...nobody noticed.

Thanks, for setting the stage for me to make my first comment here so very distasteful, I appreciate it.

Laura said...

Lurker here delurking to say "I LOVE to dance!" :)

Very cool video, thanks for sharing.