There have been a steady stream of articles and studies published lately about how the current generations of parents have somehow lost the ability to parent effectively, spoiled their kids too much, not found the balance they need, can’t have it all, given up their identities to their children, and other damning conclusions.
“Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost,” by Elizabeth Kolbert for the New Yorker
“Mother Madness: How motherhood became such a prison for modern women,” by Erica Jong for The Wall Street Journal
“The Man who Remade Motherhood,” by Kate Pickert for Time’s “Are You Mom Enough?” Issue
“How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods,” by Lori Gottlieb for The Atlantic
“Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest” by Sally Koslow (Viking).
“Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” by Ann-Marie Slaughter for The Atlantic
“With Grown Children, What am I Besides ‘Mom’?” by Risa Doherty for the Motherlode blog at The New York Times
My sleep-deprived brain is starting to synthesize something from all of these topics. I had written a very long and rambling post about the debate between “motherhood is a prison” and “you can never do enough for your children” approaches to parenting. I had started mixing in issues of work-home balance, childhood happiness versus adult happiness, modern attitudes changing vis a vis parenting and childhood… It was becoming a beast of a post.
Rather than trying to take on the hydra that is these topics, embodied by the articles above, head by head, I’d like to start hacking away at what I feel is the neck where all the heads meet. Or hopefully where several of them meet, anyway.
As part of the current group of parents that many of these writers address, I can’t help but be slightly offended when so many suggest that I have it all wrong, that I’ve lost sight of the right way to make my kid successful, self-sufficient, happy, and furthermore how to do so without losing my mind in the process. So many parents are just trying to get by, like they have for all time, with what they’ve got, in the world that they find themselves, all the while trying to keep their eyes and ears open for better ways. So before we get all blame-assigning, it is important to remember that one thing that unites virtually ALL parents is that they want their kids to be happy and have great lives.
The suggestion that modern parenting has become lazier, sloppier, more rushed, way too happiness-driven, or somehow lacking compared to historical parenting, French parenting, parenting of subsistance farmers in the Amazon, is a bit short-sighted. There are several reasons why we don’t want to hold up one particular type of parent as the model for all, why we always hedge when any expert tells us “just follow this example and you’ll be all set.” Imagine for a moment that we raised our children to the standards of the affluent families in the late 19th-century England. Our children may behave very well, they may be able to recite long poems, and they may keep their clothes clean, but they won’t know how to do very many survival tasks (cooking, building, gardening) nor will they be able to dress themselves, talk intelligently about politics, or show far-reaching creativity with their art projects. Similarly, parents in the Matsigenka, a tribe of farmers in the Peruvian Amazon (discussed in “Spoiled Rotten”) may teach their children to be helpful with household and agrarian tasks at very young ages, but their children will not know how to use the internet, form a complex social web with many other children from a variety of backgrounds, use algebra to problem solve, or make things out of legos. And learning how to use online social networking intelligently, for instance, is very much a valuable skill–just take a look at all the careers that are centered around media use.
Much like the argument that our kids are going to have weak immune systems because we are too clean and we don’t let them get really filthy anymore, the comparison between parenting now and “then” or here and “there” only has a tenuous basis in reality. We have different strengths; sure we’ve lost our resistance to some things, but we have gained a lot too. And better to be vaccinated with the dead virus than dig up the live one outside and risk real and lasting harm? People forget how tragic history was. Kids died. All the time. The world was a very cruel and different place. Are kids more comfortable now? Sure, but isn’t that what we wanted? To protect them from harm? Get them to adulthood and we’ve at least done that much?
Parents are raising their kids in an all new context where we are simultaneously being instructed to protect them in increasing ways while being surrounded by a culture that is whittling away at childhood. On one hand, parents are taught to fear the statistically minute and terrifying what-ifs — for example, there is a merciless campaign against crib bumpers, those padded borders that surround your baby’s crib to keep them from hitting their head on the sides. If you find the central study on this subject, you will discover that there were 25 deaths associate with bumpers and their ties over 20 years. How many children then, used bumpers safely? Any death is tragic, but compared to motor vehicle statistics this seems like a waste of fear. Parents are being encouraged to worry about so many low-probability threats and yet we take the high-risk situations for granted. Getting in the car is the most dangerous thing you can do. Yes, we have better and better car seats, but most people wouldn’t think twice about speeding, checking their voicemail, or driving in bad weather with their kid in the car. We go to great lengths to protect our kids from many harmful things, as we should, but the world around us is dangerous in ways we only are starting to understand. Unless you live in a few places in the world, our kids won’t be sent to war, experience famine, or epidemic disease. But they face advertising and media that wants to herd them into a narrow view of cool, early adolescence and adulthood, foster consumerism, and tie their sense of self worth to material wealth or at least good looks. First world problems? Perhaps, but nonetheless, serious problems if what we’re worried about is the health and success of our kids vis a vis our job as parents. As a parent, I can take concrete steps to fight against illness but I can’t fight the media.
For better or for worse, our children frequently are prepared for the society they live in, regardless of our intentions as parents. You can only do so much to control your greater environment, short of removing yourself to an isolated dwelling with little interaction with the outside world. See how well that works for the Amish? Yeah, not really a great solution. Aside from geography, your contemporary influences and biases as a parent will continue to shine through your actions. No parent is an island, or something like that.
While how we parent is scrutinized, how MUCH we parent and to what expense, is also under fire. Parental absenteeism is met with disgust, yet so is over-involvement, though perhaps less so. There are constant conflicting messages. Kids are over scheduled. Kids without after-school activities get into more trouble. French kids don’t misbehave at dinner. Well, you know it’s because they expect good behavior, right? And how do they get this good behavior? By being more distant and less indulgent? You don’t say. In “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” the psychologists discuss how they meet these young adults who feel depressed because they aren’t as special as they’d been led to believe throughout their childhood. What’s the solution? Make our kids feel less special? Ignore them more? Article after article on modern motherhood preaching the dreadful concept of “balance” as if we could snap our fingers and find a way to bend the working-world to our true needs to be at home more. The favorable climate for mothers who WANT to work and spend more time at home lies at the end of a very long cultural shift involving some pretty amazing legislation and different attitudes on profitability and human resources. What are moms supposed to do right now? Telling us we’ve got it all wrong, reminding us of all the ways we are not doing enough or doing too much or we need to do everything differently is to suggest that SOMEONE has the answer or that some past generation of parents got it perfectly right.
I look around me at the parents I know. Are they doing too much in general? Maybe. Spreading themselves thin? Probably. Are they overprotecting their kids? Not really. They are doing a lot for them, they are worried about aspects of childhood that generations before didn’t have to consider. They are raising kids in a new age and trying to make the best of it. They are good parents who are trying to overcome the obstacles that they and their kids face. And they love their kids like crazy. Isn’t that the most important thing?
If I ask these parents that I know about their childhoods, if they got enough from their own parents, enough attention, enough support, enough material possessions, they almost all say they did. What they seek to improve isn’t some cushy-comfort level of their kids, but their safety, their relationship-forming-abilities, and their future opportunities in this ultra-competitive economy.
While there will always be examples of extremely over-indulgent parents, absent parents, helicopter parents, and spoiled Veruca Salts who refuse to do anything to help their families, I hesitate to conclude this is the direction we are all moving. Each of us can point to some people we’ve met and say “they are spoiling their kids, they are always working, they are correcting their kid’s every mistake” but not only is it really hard to know from the outside what the real issues are, it is also impossible to draw a direct conclusion about what this means for a child’s future. We look to these studies to help us find our way, but know that childhood is fast and research slow. In the end, it’s just you and your kids and whatever it takes.