My 12-year-old son indulges in a lot of unpleasant behaviors. During Fortnite mania a couple years ago, for example, he said my wife and I were “fucking [him] in the ass” because we made him stop playing to go to his cello recital. He negotiates relentlessly, often pursuing the kind of flawed strategies that feature in articles about game theory: Can I have ice cream if I clean my room? Can I have the ice cream first? Now that I have eaten the ice cream, why should I clean my room? I am naming these habits not just because I want pity, as all parents do, but also to make clear that they are behaviors and not identity. I do not want you to write off my son as a type of person, because he isn’t anybody yet. That is my whole damn raison d’etre, here.
The other thing you should know for the purposes of this discussion is that my son and I are not biologically related. He has not met his biological father, who was 30 when he took up with my wife, who was then 17. The less said about this man the better, because he is not my son’s dad in any meaningful way. I am my son’s dad. I’m the guy who takes him to gymnastics and makes him clean his room and was recently called a bitch because I said he couldn’t have a butterfly knife, and around our house, what you do is who you are.
My efforts to convey this idea — that your behavior determines what kind of person you are, and not the other way around — have made me worry, for the first time, that culture might be damaging the youth. I don’t know if you’ve checked in on tween culture lately, but it is roughly divided into two parts: incredibly boring rap songs about anti-anxiety medication and short internet videos about types of people. I have no quarrel with the first part, but the second part is messing up how my kid thinks.
This idea — that who you are abides somehow outside of what you do — is the defining fantasy of our culture, and it appeals particularly to children.
Online discourse is presently shaped by what I call Type of Guy Theory. Its project is to name a series of essential identities that express themselves in certain behaviors — speaking to the manager, reading David Foster Wallace, breaking up with someone who writes for The Cut — but are not limited to those acts. The bedrock assumption of Type of Guy Theory is that identity exists independently from behavior; you are a type first, and you behave accordingly. For my money, the ne plus ultra of Type of Guy Theory is this letter to Slate’s sex advice column, in which a woman who describes herself as “repelled by heterosexuality politically and personally” but “also really into dick” asks where she can find men who want to have sex with women but are not heterosexuals.
This idea — that who you are abides somehow outside of what you do — is the defining fantasy of our culture, and it appeals particularly to children. The world of the middle-schooler is a world of types. My son talks incessantly about VSCO girls and Karens and other categories of people he has learned about from YouTube. He described a classmate as “the kind of person who borrows your pencil and doesn’t give it back,” i.e. she borrowed his pencil and didn’t give it back. For a while he tried to propagate a type of his own invention, “the Suzan,” whose behavior was ill-defined but tracked closely with that of my mother of the same name. It did not catch on, and eventually he concluded that he was not the kind of person who could come up with memes.
The Suzan thing was a real won-the-battle/lost-the-war moment for me, since one of my specific ambitions for my son is that he not try to make a career of saying stupid things on the internet, but my more general ambition is that he challenge himself to master new skills and try things of which he was not previously capable. His school calls this idea a “growth mindset.” A growth mindset encourages us to try new things and treat setbacks as an opportunity to grow, which is better than the “fixed mindset” that we’re either good at something or we’re not.
I agree! Seeking to explain this concept, the school sent home a flyer divided into two columns. The left column was headed “People With Growth Mindsets” and listed traits like “sees setbacks as an opportunity to grow” and “welcomes criticism as part of the process.” The right column was headed “People With Fixed Mindsets” and listed things like “think they have predetermined limits.” Even when professional educators set out to tell the kids their qualities were not fixed, they explained it in terms of types of people.
I submit that this habit of thinking is bad for us — particularly for adolescents, and especially for adolescents who know of their biological fathers only that they impregnated and abandoned six teenage girls of whom their mother was the fifth. It is disheartening, when you have devoted a large portion of your life to teaching a boy that he can achieve what he wants by working hard and choosing actions that express his values, to look at the cover of his school planner and see a word cloud — “responsible,” “safe,” “thoughtful,” “diverse,” the irritatingly un-parallel “spirit” — with the giant word “BE” in the center. Don’t be things, middle school children! Do things!
Thus the children operate in a matrix of general urgings — be good, be safe, be tolerant — that leave unmentioned the specific acts that are the only meaningful expressions of these qualities. Once the assembly is over and the flyers have been handed out, the fixed mindset congeals.
My son’s science worksheet on Punnett squares, titled “My Parents Ruined My Favorite Genes!” began with the scientifically dubious claim that “your genes are what make you, you.” It went on to ask a series of questions about each of his parents: whether they could roll their tongue, the direction of the whorl in their hair, the color of their eyes, et cetera. My son did not complete this worksheet. When I asked him why, he said it was because he was a fuckup, like that man.
My son didn’t blow off his science worksheet because he’s a fuckup; he fucked up because he blew off his science worksheet. Readers of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre will recognize here a formulation of his classic argument that existence precedes essence, best explicated in Being and Nothingness with his example of the soldier who deserts from war. People say he deserted because he’s a coward, but really he’s a coward because he deserted. He could have hung around and been scared in his uniform with his squadmates, but he chose to run. We can identify an essential cowardice within this choice, but it only emerges after the choice is made, as an epiphenomenon.
My son recently started a conversation with me by saying, “You know how I’m a low-empathy person?” No, man, I do not know that.
This admittedly fine point is not just a matter of language; it also carries an ethical implication. The coward can’t really be blamed for doing cowardly stuff, because that’s his nature — the same way you can’t blame the kitchen table for being hard and heavy when you stub your toe. But the difference between human beings and objects is that we do not have fixed natures that determine our behavior. When I say I didn’t do the dishes because I’m lazy, I’m talking around the fact that I could have done them but chose not to. The illusion of a fixed nature gives us an excuse to repeat bad behavior. To insist that what we do determines who we are — and not the other way around — is to make freedom and therefore responsibility a part of our worldview at the most basic level.
Freedom is scary, though, because it is the freedom to become something other than what you are now — something you cannot predict. It’s easier to think of yourself as a type of person, riding along with yourself and playing out the behaviors your type does. It’s comforting to think that you did what you did because of who you are, even if who you are is bad, because nothing is more frightening than the feeling that you are about to change into someone else. Ask any 12 year-old.
Mine recently started a conversation with me by saying, “You know how I’m a low-empathy person?” No, man, I do not know that. It turned out he listened to a podcast about how some people don’t feel other people’s suffering as deeply as everyone else, and he decided that’s why he’ll probably act selfish forever.
I know the temptation. I never wanted kids. I was scrupulous about condoms and whatnot from the very beginning, because I knew that if I knocked someone up I would stick around, and I did not think of myself as the type of guy who makes a good father. I am vain and stingy with my attention to others. I like things tidy but put off chores. I’m funny but find other people’s laughter annoying. At age 37, around the same time I finally got a vasectomy, I met a single mom and fell in love, and now I love her kid, too, in a completely different way that I nonetheless cannot get out from under. I made a choice and am changed forever.
In his 1946 essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” based on a lecture of the same title given to the Club Maintenant in Paris in October 1945, Sartre writes that “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.” We are out here doing things, in other words, before we are things. I will let you know, in six or seven years maybe, what I have done.