CHILDREN AS EAVESDROPPERS
In his classic novel about the Follet family in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1915, James Agee describes how six-year-old Rufus and his younger sister Catherine secretly sit on the staircase overhearing a conversation between their recently bereaved mother and Father Jackson, the unpleasant priest who is paying their mother a mysterious visit.
Taking great care not to creak, they stole up to the middle of the stairs. They could hear no words, only the tilt and shape of voices; their mother’s, still so curiously shrouded, so submissive, so gentle, it seemed to ask questions and to accept answers. The man’s voice was subdued and gentle but rang very strongly with the knowledge that it was right and that no other voice could be quite as right; it seemed to say unpleasant things as if it felt they were kind things to say, or as if it did not care whether or not they were kind because in any case they were right, it seemed to make statements, to give information, to counter questions with replies which were beyond argument or even discussion and to try to give comfort whether what it was saying could give comfort or not. Now and again their mother’s way of questioning sounded to the children as if she wondered whether something could be fair, could possibly be true, could be so cruel, but whenever such tones came into their mother’s voice the man’s voice became still more ringing and overbearing, or still more desirous to comfort, or both, and their mother’s next voice was always very soft.1
From the pattern of the two tones of voice the two children are trying to discover the purpose and character of this relationship. They are engaged in family life, but they are also studying it. They listen to the content of talk, of course, and also use their ears as tuning forks to gauge the emotional tenor of adult talk.
Children often observe their parents when they themselves are not being watched or talked to. In Sweet Summer, Bebe Moore Campbell describes ten – year-old Bebe seated on the front steps of her home in Philadelphia in the 1970s watching her mother lean into the car in which her father is sitting, ready to take Bebe for a long summer’s visit to her grandmother in the South. Her parents are divorced, but Bebe watches to see how they cooperate in their care of her. She sees her mother lean into the car apparently dis-
cussing amicably the details of her upcoming trip, and notices that her parents don’t touch. They don’t have to be lovers or friends, she concludes, to cooperate in their care of her.2
Although parents often imagine they are most parental when they give full attention to their children during “quality time,” children watch and listen during “quantity time” too. What do they eavesdrop on? Conversations of every sort, of course, but especially those in which the children learn about their own place in their parents’ world.
I began to grasp the importance of eavesdropping while mulling over my field notes on two young girls I came to know as part of a larger research project on the families of employees of Amerco, a Fortune 500 company, reported in The Time Bind.3 The parents of both children worked long hours. But one child fell into what I called a “time bind syndrome,” while the other did not. For the family in the time bind syndrome, the story was this: The parents worked long hours. The child resented the parents’ long work hours and was angry and difficult at dinner time; this made it all the harder for parents to come home, after a long day—for now they came home not only to a child who was hungry and tired but to one who was resentful as well. The parents then became tempted—unconsciously perhaps—to avoid this resentment by working just a bit longer.
For the second family, not caught in the time bind syndrome, the child had ceased to look to the parents as exclusive caregivers, did not seem to resent their absence, and didn’t make it hard for them to reenter family life. So the parents came home less braced for trouble, more relaxed, and able to enjoy their child.
The difference between the two children’s response to roughly the same long hours of parental work led me to wonder what accounted for the difference. It wasn’t sheer hours of work, which in both cases were too long by everyone’s account. So what was it? I see many possible answers, but here explore one that is often overlooked—the child’s own research on the parents’ relationships to paid caregivers. I focus, then, on two issues—how children learn and what they learn about their care. While I can’t provide especially rich data on eavesdropping, I hope to make the case that we need to know more about it.