Hegel on the Playground

It is hard having children out-of-step with your friends. Ten months ago, you were down to hit the town on a Thursday night. You HAD been to the new noodles place, thanks very much, and YES, the jjambbong WAS the jjamb-bomb. You went to the free weekly jazz concerts on the steps of City Hall. Etc. You knew about cool things and even, from time-to-time, actually did cool things with cool friends. You got your norms from your “normal,” obviously, and your “normal” was fun and interesting and filled with vibrant adults (ideally).

Once you cross the familial Rubicon, though, you lose touch with all of the stuff that used to give your life among others meaning. Rage, rage against the dying of your social signposts—they’ll still escape.[1]

Fortunately, you lose all of that because you have a host of new and pressing concerns that enforce ample structure upon your world. Children come with plenty of meaning-laden standards of their own. You’ll be able to orient yourself by their progress. Are they growing at a normal pace? How are they behaving? How should they be behaving? How many toys do they need right now? Etc. In plain terms: stroller brands replace cool bands. Parenting listservs replace snarky, ironic listicles.

A lot of this is instinctual. It happens as a result of biology. A lot of it is narrowly contained within your relationship with the kid(s). But—BUT—some of it is the sort of thing that is bizarre, perplexing, contested, and thus, discursive.

Despite your best efforts, you’ll periodically find that your conversations about parenting aren’t benign discourse—you’re seeking recognition. Which is how Hegel gets on the playground. We’ll get to him momentarily.

First, for those uninitiated, here’s how parenting conversations go:

Parents get chatting about one of the practices that constitute general childraising: could be diapers, could be breastfeeding vs. formula, could be teaching a kid to walk/talk/swim/dance/play Civ II/etc. In most cases, you’ll start with a blithe little anecdote explaining the ancestry of your choice. It’s personal. It’s unique. It’s “just your experience.” It’s probably 70%+ fabricated.

A: “See, I saw cloth diapers for sale one day and they came with this cool system that didn’t require pins and hey, I was set to go.”

But for the grace of the sale and/or your idiosyncrasies, things might have been different. The goal here is to be so self-referential that your choice is non-threatening to any confident adult.

But anxious parents aren’t confident—and they’ve probably thought desperately hard about the very same choice. Thus, at least six times out of ten, the response will be an escalation (probably disguised as another self-referential anecdote).

B: “Oh, totally! Those systems ARE so cool-looking! For us, it came down to prevention: my partner babysat for a family who used cloth diapers and they had terrible rashes—even the parents!”

At this point the war is ON. Each parent is presenting his/her diapering choice as a rational response to a situation. Each presents a “unique” reason for choosing the path he/she has selected…but both anecdotes subtly call the rationality of the other parent’s choice into question. That’s the consequences of overstating the uniqueness of their relative situations. Waste comes out of the baby. Something must be done about this. The two parents have made diverging choices…and they’re less sure about them than they’d like.

It goes downhill from there.

A: “Huh! I’m surprised to hear that! My kid had bad diaper rash once—and that was when we had to use disposables for a week a Christmas.”

And into the abyss…

B: “Well, we haven’t had any trouble, and it’s kept our water bill from going through the roof. Cloth diapers are so tough on laundry machines—and the environment!”


A: “I recently read that they just discovered that 94% of childless adults were raised in disposable diapers, and I really want grandchildren someday!”

B: “Was that the same study that showed that cloth diapering causes Oedipal complexes, obesity, and depression?”

(Author’s Note: This is only exaggerated at the end. Most of the rest is adapted from real stories from the playground. Details slightly changed to protect the horrifying malefactors innocent.)

This dynamic takes root beyond parenting conversations, obviously. Swap out diapers for real estate preferences or favorite beers or etc and the conversation’s still recognizable. That’s why it’s at the core of Hegel’s work.

What the heck does Hegel have to do with the playground? Humans are—at their cores—reason-giving seekers of recognition. Throughout the Phenomenology of Sprit, Hegel traces out various human attempts to verify the True and Rational. At our core, he argues, humans want to be understood as rational. They want to be recognized as agents that have accurately, adequately made sense of the world they face. They are anxious creatures in search of corroboration—from the heavens, from tradition, from Nature, from one another—of their basic view of things.

For instance, masters seek recognition from the slaves they dominate, only to eventually realize that this offers no proof of their rationality. Domination will not do. This cannot be the archetype for human relationships—or for making sense of the world.

I submit that the pursuit of recognition drives the escalation of parental conversations far beyond talk of real estate and beer preferences. The anxieties are greater. The stakes are higher. If someone recognizes your preferred beer as a rational choice, they’re validating your aesthetic savvy or some other narrow thing.

Parenting goes beyond preferences (alcoholic or otherwise) and heads straight to duties. When parents seek recognition from their peers, they’re trying to validate their strategies for meeting their duties and responsibilities to another human (the kid). That’s why they struggle to discuss their parenting choices without feeling vulnerable.

They’re trying to situate themselves within a number of enormous responsibilities. They are demonstrating their biological fitness for propagation, their ability to acculturate a human into common society, their cognitive discipline (and flexibility), their creativity, their self-control, and a host of other amorphous and difficult tasks. They are desperate to hear that they’re rational. They really want to see other parents making similar choices.

The good news: after many, many pages, Hegel concludes that humans (finally) recognize that they need nothing beyond themselves to “prove” their rationality. They have been determining the world’s meaning all along—rationality is their own progeny. It’s embedded in broader community norms, sure, but at the end of the day, humans create their own standards for what counts as rational. No need to confirm rationality from behind a veil of ignorance, or from an Archimedean Point, or from Divine lips.

And hey, if you can bring that attitude to the playground, you’ll be all set. You might even survive a few anxious conversations with your parenting peers. You might even learn a thing or two about the virtues of cloth diapers.

Conor P. Williams on Twitter.

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[1] Think, by the way, of various popular depictions of new parents’ first post-baby couple time: ever wonder why the parents can’t talk about anything but diapers and 2AM wakeups? It’s because they don’t really have any other recent experiences that matter enough to anchor the meaning of their lives. It’s diapers all the way down—and after that it’s playground spats and schoolwork and soccer practice and oh God, oh no, they’re retired.

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