nce upon a time I went to see the play Hamlet. It’s about a prince in Denmark who is mostly mean and gloomy and makes a lot of deep speeches. When he’s not making deep speeches, he’s misbehaving, big time. Or wait, is he acting out?
It’s a big question for little people like me, who once got punished for misbehaving (though we didn’t go to Hamlet’s lengths). We’d set fire to the house (I did) or talk back to our parents or make a scene or stubbornly refuse to do whatever anyone in school told us to (I refused to play soccer, so my parents were called up and told I wouldn’t play team sports; truth is I didn’t like the ball). Anyway, all this fell under the category of misbehavior, since when you were eight or nine or even 10 (it got worse in your teens, like a deepening plague) going against the grain was a badge of honor — at least for some of us. Plus, it was a nice word, misbehave, as if you’d missed a beat or beaten up haven. Just being told, “stop misbehaving!” was rousing to hear.
No one told Hamlet “stop misbehaving,” because, I assume, he was a prince, and you don’t say “stop” to princes at the risk of losing a body part of not having a good end to the play because the playwright would be dead. But even had someone actually dared get in Prince Denmark’s face, I doubt he would have listened. He had what I was later told was angst.
Angst didn’t really exist in the days of misbehaving. Acting out, well, that was what the people playing Hamlet did, not the kids in the back alley climbing up telephone poles after being told specifically by their parents (you guessed it), “Do not under any circumstances climb the telephone pole!”
When, I wonder, did all the truants who once misbehaved stop misbehaving or meet up in some 8-to-18 support group and decide that from now on in they’d become actors, so that when the climbed telephone poles it wouldn’t be misbehavior but acting out? Maybe they all wanted to be princes of Denmark. Or maybe they all wanted to win Oscars.
Anyway, everyone stopped being told not to misbehave. In fact, misbehavior disappeared (not for Hamlet, since he keeps at it). Misbehavior got thrown into the old school trashcan, probably because “mis” was too judgmental, and the acting school of badness took over.
Now, when my wife talks about kids, she says, “I hope if we have one we know how to raise it so it doesn’t act out.” I don’t mind her using “it,” since I’m assuming we’ll be making one with gender, but I am a little concerned about the acting abilities. Would she need to go to school when she’s pregnant, to hone his or her skills for later use? Does acting out mean your kid has to read scripts as an infant to then know exactly how not to behave when he reaches the ripe misbehaving — excuse me, acting out — age? Is there such a thing as “acting in” and how does it affect childbirth (do we need to worry about sudden bursts of kicking and screaming?) Should we pre-hire a psychologist so we know who to call when the kid’s acting career begins and he or she (or it) requires narcotics to take the edge off life? And who’ll tell us if our kid acts out so well there’s a prize in store, maybe even a chance to play the prince of Denmark.
Life these days is complicated, says my wife. No wonder kids act out. They’re alienated or dealing with angst, not to mention family dysfunction (that happens when the telephone pole falls).
As for me, I miss misbehaving.