Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Never Underestimate the Power of the Media," Ch. 13 of BUT...AT WHAT COST

I was often angry at Ashley for his treatment of our kids; not when they were young, but as they grew into their teen years. Then, I had to throw a lot of oil on troubled waters. It seemed I was always trying to explain his absence from important events, and these were successful kids whose lives were full of them. I was the middle-man, forever translating for him or them. They didn’t speak the same language.

I have no idea why he can’t praise them or even say “thank you” to them, but he can’t, or never does. He is the same with me. The closest he can come to giving a compliment to anyone is, “That wasn’t too bad.” I understood this, and when I received a “not too bad,” I accepted it as a raving “fantastic.” They, rightly, expected more, but never got it. He NEVER said “good job” or praised them for anything, but woe to them if they didn’t meet his expectations. Most of the attention they received from him was perceived as negative.

This is not an excuse, but that’s exactly how Ashley was treated by his father. SB didn’t get involved until there was a problem. That was fairly typical back then, and kids accepted it as normal. Ash and his brothers never disrespected their father; in many ways, they admired him. Only through the lens of the new cultural expectations would anyone find fault with SB’s manner of child-rearing, because it was the accepted strategy of the time. Men simply were not involved very much in day-to-day child-rearing responsibilities. Recently, Ash’s eldest brother, Si, recounted some of SB’s traits that caused problems, but many of them, he blamed on his age and circumstances. SB was old enough to be his kids’ grandfather when they were born.

Ashley didn’t watch Donahue or Oprah or read Cosmo. Neither did he give a damn about what other dads were doing. To him, men who changed diapers (unless no one else was going to be around for eight hours) were not real men. I’m not saying he was right; I’m saying he was not at all influenced by the changing child-rearing expectations. I’m not sure he even noticed the changing roles; if he did, he sure didn’t care. The rules he followed were set back in the forties and fifties when he grew up. In that respect, he was SB. If those old rules were good enough for SB, they were good enough for Ashley and his kids.

However, it was not good enough for Ashley’s kids. Their expectations were entirely different. They grew up in a time when men were expected to praise their kids’ every move – whether they deserved the praise or not. What is considered right and wrong during each generation is prescribed largely by the culture. So, I believe, the majority of their clashes were instigated by their wholly different generationally imposed expectations. It was a culture-clash of huge proportions.

Did I recognize this for what it was at the time? Of course not. I had joined the new generation – at least to some degree, so I agreed with the “experts” and my kids. In their minds, and often in mine, Ashley was not a nice guy.

This is sounding more and more like a family counseling session, isn’t it? In a way, it is, I guess. I desperately want my kids to understand the context in which their father and I made our choices. These comments are not to be viewed as excuses; they are merely my take on the myriad of influences that MIGHT have affected our perceptions and theirs.

Had our family not been influenced by the advice-industry and its very judgmental sales pitches, I believe our family would have had a much smoother row to hoe. Left only to their own personally derived perceptions, I think my kids would have developed a much more balanced view of their father, and as a result, would hold many fewer resentments.

When you consider the media input of the late seventies and early eighties, you can begin to see how difficult it was for Randy and Beth to reconcile their feelings about their father. It didn’t matter which era the popular shows represented (Little House on the Prairie, for example), the parents always displayed the modern versions of right and wrong.

If the Pa Ingles character had been written with historical accuracy, I can all but guarantee he would not have been the hands-on dad he appeared to be on the show. Dads just weren’t seriously involved in raising their children back then. They were too busy. In fact, so were most moms. Kids were usually on their own or working the farm. (See “Lending Perspective.”)

Yet, on most television shows, regardless of the era represented, the parents usually followed the then-current cultural expectations for child-rearing and everything else.

Most men by this time had, in fact, learned or were learning, those new rules. They were more involved in their kids’ lives. But not Ashley. He was stuck in the past.

I’ve often thought Ash should have been born in the 1800s – a pioneer at heart, he would have fit in much better then. With his talents and temperament, we would have been the consumers, not the consumed, at Donner Pass.

As I’ve said time and time again, the traits I love and admire most in Ashley are many of the same traits that make him difficult. Our kids didn’t grow up in an era that valued his traits, at all. He was the polar opposite of what was expected in the seventies and eighties – especially by women. In my opinion, that’s what made Beth particularly resentful, and anxious to get away.

Not that Ashley didn’t inspire fear and loathing at times, he did… in all of us. However, those fears and the resulting resentments were exacerbated by the judgments of the “experts” presented by the media. Being exposed to their judgmental gibberish was like being nibbled to death by ducks! They endlessly nit-picked every choice parents and spouses made – and along the way affirmed all of Beth’s fairly ordinary resentments.

Affirmation by an “expert” can be deadly to troubled relationships. Without validation, fear and loathing are responsive to events and usually temporary; with validation, however, these usually grow in importance – especially when the “experts,” needing to validate their own usefulness, continually told us what we should feel and do. In effect, many media advice-givers of that era imposed their values, their opinions of right and wrong, on the public, rather than imparting any real psychological expertise. Via the media, they were the ministers of the new dogma… and most news people, novelists, and screen writers bought into all of it.

Randy and Beth had every reason to be thoroughly angry at Ashley on many occasions. He’s called them and me and a lot of other folks “stupid;” he even called Rand an “asshole” on one occasion.

Do you hear a “but” coming? Yeah, you do. On every occasion that I witnessed, Ashley was correct in his assessment of the situation, but wrong in his delivery of the criticism. One of Ashley’s cognitive deficits is his inability to empathize sufficiently. He’s not a certifiable sociopath or anything; he just doesn’t pay much attention to feelings.

Neither can he correctly judge who is stupid and who is not. If anyone doesn’t know what he knows, he thinks they’re stupid. He has no idea what normal people know and don’t know. That, of course, is why he should edit his speech more, but he doesn’t see it that way. Just as he (might have) refused to truck Connie’s horse, he refuses to collude with his kids or anyone he cares about when he thinks they are making a “stupid” mistake. To him, it is much more important for others to DO the right thing than for him to SAY the right thing. He’ll say anything to make his point, if he thinks his point is important.

I have little doubt that it was largely the cultural beliefs of their era that made our kids judge their father as harshly as they did. It was all about feelings then. “How did that make you feel?”

“Like crap! Like he doesn’t care.” Exactly. Intended or not, that’s how any kid would feel… and then get over it. But the culture didn’t allow them to get over it. The culture validated their belief that he didn’t care, when in fact, he cared a lot. They never got to see that side – the side when he bragged about their achievements or asked me how they were doing. What a shame.

It’s pretty simple, really. The media both help create and maintain the prevalent beliefs of any era, so we, as the consumers, had better be pretty damned certain their opinions are valid and based on ALL the facts in evidence.

The pop psychologists presented by the mainstream media don’t have any facts of any situation in their listeners’ lives, yet they have been prescribing how we should feel for decades. Instead of promoting understanding, their judgments have often promoted misunderstandings which have unnecessarily helped fracture many family relationships. That “inner child” guy was particularly dangerous. I remember a lot of problems he caused in the families of some friends. He was always recommending confrontations between parents and kids, husbands and wives, in-laws… everybody. Granted, some confrontations are desirable to clear the air, but most of them cause more alienation – alienation validated by an expert and everyone else who watched Phil or Oprah. Not helpful.


We are serializing here Judy Axtell's recently published But...At What Cost: A Skeptic's Memoir. It is available through I am proud to have been its editor. You are invited to see also my writing-editing-coaching site,

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