There were several times when watching the movie Boyhood that my husband and I laughed simultaneously. They were not particularly funny lines, but they were perfectly expressive of things we as parents say — daily, banal, relentless parental anxieties. We heard ourselves, these idiotic, leading questions that no child would deign to answer. The rapid fire of them: Didn't you like that? I thought you were trying pretty hard? Was it hard? Were you trying? What did your teacher say about it?
Mason and his sister Samantha are, for much of the movie, wordless in the face of talk. We see what feels like an entire boyhood, but much of what we see is how parents speak with children, failing in ridiculous ways. Parents are not the only adults who talk at them: bosses, teachers, and stepdads all correct Mason or Samantha with their bits of drivel. Probing, challenging, perhaps amusing, but generally BS. Rarely are the adults conscious of their failure.
At best, it's a sort of fishing. A desire to know your kid. A verbalized leftover of real concern. At worst, it's controlling or bullying. Mostly I was surprised at how unnecessary it seemed, especially from a child's point of view. Do I really sound like that? I wondered, knowing that I probably do.
Dad (Ethan Hawke) is the highest-rate talker and the cheeriest, loving his own advice. It is he who acknowledges his own ability to overwhelm his kids with questions they can't just, like, answer. In one scene, the three are in the car. Dad rattles off questions after picking them up from their mother's. Frustrated by their silence, he begins to invent adorable answers for them. He really wants to know. "Talk to me!" he says. Mason points out that they know nothing about his personal life and demonstrates how awkward this is by interrogating his father with similarly rapid-fire questions. "I see your point," Dad says. He is wonderfully direct with his children, but his style — combining advice and theories of the world and constant little reminders of what he thinks is, you know, pretty cool — doesn't change.
But it was Mom's (Patricia Arquette) talk that got me. She spends the most time with her children, as the mostly single parent. She was generally probing, asking for just some little explanation about an event, and frustrated — a sign that at a certain point, she wants to know her kids, but she feels constantly insecure about this knowing. She is worried that she won't improve the quality of life for her family or find a stable husband, and yet she thinks that's her job, what she imagined she would accomplish as an adult. Instead she is nearly consumed by the struggle to stay afloat.
There is a good reason parents talk at their children, and it's not quite so embarrassing. It may be natural. When your child is very young, say zero to age 4 or 5, there is nothing you don't know about your child. You tend to them constantly, physically, intimately. You know their moods and their preferences. You start to see who they might become, and you get access to their thoughts. Freely. They verbalize fears and desires.
I find the intimacy of this stage very challenging — like when your child follows you into the bathroom or strangles you with hugs when an acquaintance tries to greet or interact with her — but I think that we must grow used to, and even reliant on, this mode of parenting. You are, for a short time, everything. You are big. You are rules, advice. You are shoe-tier and explainer of Disney lyrics.
And then your child starts school, perhaps she begins to read and develop an inner life, and suddenly, that child is less familiar. You are left fumbling for what they do, who they are in class or out of sight, what they will now become. You are a threat. I believe parents have difficulty adjusting to this loss of intimacy, and they spend the rest of boyhood, or girlhood, trying to talk their kids out of ever leaving or growing up.
As Mason casually packs up his truck for the drive to college, Mom sits at the table, with her work, or bills, and cries. "I thought there would be more," she says. And lets him go.