This final offering from The Twilight Zone takes up a theme treated in at least four prior episodes, the nature of marriage, but with a difference. “Young Man’s Fancy,” “Passage on the Lady Anne,” “Spur of the Moment,” and “What’s in the Box,” were about marriages where no children are present. “The Betwitchin’ Pool” is about marriage and divorce from the perspective of children.
Sport and Jeb Sherwood, about twelve and ten years of age, respectively, learn of their parents’ plans to divorce abruptly, without warning and without emotional support. They are also informed, also coldly, and harshly, that the decision of which parent they will live with after the divorce is theirs alone. These circumstances raise a host of questions that have to do with the moral landscape of families, questions about the obligations and rights of both parents and children.
Parents incur obligations related to the care and development of their children, as the result of becoming parents, whether by being the natural parents or by adoption. Those obligations are not nullified by divorce, though the particular ways in which those obligations carried out may change. Although the Sherwood parents don’t shirk all of their responsibilities, it is clear that Sport and Jeb are unwanted. The children know this, and they also believe, mistakenly, of course, that they are responsible for the failure of the marriage. Shockingly, the parents endorse this false belief.
The moral dimension of the children is more complex. We often say that children should obey their parents, yet that’s under the assumption that what the parents require of their children is appropriate in the interest of the children. When Sport and Jeb seek an escape from their abusive parents, it appears that they have violated no obligation. Perhaps the only obligations that have been violated are their parents’ obligation to them. But what are those obligations?
In thinking about these issues, we have a tendency to shift back to thinking about the parents, and their moral responsibilities. It is helpful to try to see things from the point of view of the children, and that’s what “The Bewitchin’ Pool” tries to do. When we begin to think about the alternative possible worlds the children could occupy, we can begin to make sense what would be required of parents or other caregivers to provide for the needs of Sport and Jeb.
It’s important to note that the possible world Sport and Jeb come to occupy is one they jointly imagine. While we often think of imaginary worlds as the creation of a single imagination, a possible world can be reached through dialogue, discussion, negotiation and agreement among individuals. Among children at play, this is often how possible worlds are constructed and then employed. Sport and Jeb are well suited to the imaginative task at hand. As siblings of unloving and uncaring parents, their desires and needs are similar, and imagining a possible world much better than the actual world is an easy task. That doesn’t mean that they will immediately agree about every ingredient of the shared possible world. “The Bewitchin Pool” presents both the agreement and the conflict. The conflict takes place when only one of them, Jeb, is represented as returning to that world alone.
Not surprisingly, the world Sport and Jeb imagine doesn’t include their parents at all. It does include other children, including children of other ethnicities, happily at play. There is also, Aunt T, an elderly matriarch, who is icing a cake, and who invites them to make the decision join her in the task, rather than to engage in a boxing match, the option to undertake, se she has also made possible. It’s a world in which children can make decisions, and sometimes make the right ones.
Pondering Sport and Jeb’s possible world doesn’t demonstrate what adults are morally obligated to do for them as children of divorced parents. We know at most that what the Sherwoods are morally required to do will not look anything like what their children have constructed in their imaginations, and would not even be permissible, given their financial and class-based circumstances. Still, let’s not loose sight of the positive features of the destination reached by the bewitchin’ pool: choice, diversity, and love.
Ariès, P, (1962) Centuries of Childhood, New York: Random House.
Brighouse, H, Smith, A., (2014) Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, Princeton University Press.