There are a series of marks on the edge of the door to my youngest daughter’s bedroom, lines and numbers and names that record the heights of her and her sister at certain ages. Examining those markings, I find something compulsive about them – this constant measuring of growth. For what is it we are actually measuring?
In my last column, I compared children to clocks in the sense that their changing bodies mark the passage of time. Equally interesting to me is the idea of the clock itself. That is: why do we feel the need so insistently to mark time? Or mark anything?
We measure compulsively. We measure our children’s ability to perform in tests. We measure their virtue with star charts. Perhaps even the photographs we take of them, and which they take of themselves, are forms of measurement – as if trying to grasp something that persistently eludes us.
And it does elude us because “it” is formless, unpredictable, without boundaries. We render it manageable by putting a mental net over it. The squares in the net are called inches, minutes, lines of latitude, birthdays, kilos, exam grades, IQ scores.
This quantification is a useful thing, on the whole. After all, if we didn’t make measurements, we couldn’t – say – agree to meet at a certain time in a certain place, according to such abstractions as map references and clocks. But there is a danger that we will start to mistake the measurement for the reality.
This may sound like a somewhat abstract point, but it has real world implications. For if we mistake the map for the territory, so to speak, we can lose sight of some very important truths. Child X passes all her exams, while Child Y fails them. Child Z gets all the gold stars, while Child A has an empty chart. We can hardly resist ascribing value to individuals according to these measurements.
But real value is beyond all this box ticking and quota filling, which is the unspeakable value (literally) of just being a person, or, in the context of this column, a child. A child, like any human being, is immeasurable. A child who passes exams has as much worth as a child who does not.
Children are a mystery and a paradox and are not to be put in a box, as all our systems, whether social, governmental, psychological or financial always endeavour to do. And, of course, systems of education. What institution nowadays is more hubristically determined to precisely locate and evaluate a child’s worth than a school? Yet you cannot quantify kindness, humour, “character”, empathy, imagination or everything else truly important about a person.
Parents, too, put them in boxes. That’s “the good one”; “the clever one”; “the naughty one”; the “cheeky one”. Once we have created these categories, those to whom they have been applied will start to try to live up – or down – to them. For labels are another form of measurement.
This trick of the mind – of classification – is a very powerful one, which has given us dominance over the natural world like successful alchemists or magicians. But our children, and people in general, are not “things” we can grasp. They are processes, unfolding, with mysterious, internal subjective experiences. However we try to define them, they will always escape definition.
The root of the word “to measure” is the Sanskrit word ma, as in matrix, matter, metric. “Ma” is also the root of the word maya – which in Buddhist philosophy means “illusion”. The world exists of course – it is the measured world that is in a certain sense an illusion.
That’s worth remembering before we get too disappointed when our children – or husband or wives – do not perform according to the targets (spoken or unspoken) they are, formally or informally, set. In other words, the marks on the edge of the door do not really mark anything but the door.