Via Flickr: Pink Sherbert Photography, D. Sharon Pruitt
This is not a new debate. Not on this blog and not in the world of parenting. But it rages on none the less. And being a topic that is of great interest to me, I am content to bring it up and discuss it over and over again. The last time we talked around this issue was a ControverSunday topic. Check it out here.
This time, I am responding to this article, “Modern Parenting; If we try to engineer perfect children, will they grow up to be unbearable?” by Katie Roiphe. Go read it, I will wait.
Her point is this, there is a tendency in modern parenting whereby parents are highly involved in their children’s lives. (Not all parents, but many). This high involvement seems to include parents going to great effort to ‘control and perfect’ the child and the environment the child grows up in. It is in part a response to perceived and/or real risk, both of which exist. And it is in part a response to try and give our kids a ‘head start’ at success. There many many examples of things that parents now do that were not common place 30-50 years ago. Playing classical music to your baby with earphones before they are even born. DVD’s, toys and flashcards promising to make your baby capable of things not taught until preschool. Enrollment in a wide wide range of activities and programs to try and ’round out’ your child with art, music, sports, ect. Advanced education programs promising to get your high school kid a head start at university.
And then there are the more subtle changes. Closer supervision. “Showing” babies how to play. Doing homework ‘with’ your child. Parents calling up University professors to argue their kids mark. Did you know that some employers are now sending an information package to the parents of the new graduates they are sending offers of employment to, as they are recognizing that winning over the parent is key in the new grad decision.
Not all parents do this. And not all kids that experience this are anything but wonderful, engaged, warm children. But. But.
Think about the homework thing for a minute. In the article, Katie says:
“I can recall my own mother vaguely calling upstairs “Have you done your homework?” but I cannot recall her rolling up her sleeves to work side by side with me cutting out pictures of rice paddies for a project about Vietnam, or monitoring how many pages of Wuthering Heights I had read.”
Here the thing. If you are eight and your parent asks if you have done your homework and you say you have, but they don’t do it with you. You haven’t done your homework. You go to school and you fail a test. You have just learned there is a consequence to your action. Then the next time you study and do your homework, and you get a B. You have just learned that you can do it. You motivated yourself and you accomplished something. You feel proud of yourself.
But if every time you do your homework your parent sits down with you a monitors to see if you have it done. Answers any questions you have. Helps you through it. What happens when you go off to university and you don’t have someone to do that? No one to give you a gold sticker for finishing your homework.
Obviously, not every kid who’s parents do their homework with them is going to lack internal motivation. It is metaphor for the larger point. Our job as parents is to support our kids to live their own lives. Learn what they are passionate about. Learn their strengths and weaknesses. Learn how to make decisions, make mistakes, make changes, and motivate themselves. Learn how to like themselves.
“One sometimes sees these exhausted, devoted, slightly drab parents, piling out of the car, and thinks, is all of this high-level watching and steering and analysing really making anyone happier?… Is there something reassuring in parental selfishness, in the idea that your parents have busy, mysterious lives of their own, in which they sometimes do things that are not entirely dedicated to your entertainment or improvement?”
Children have their own lives. From the time they are babies their lives are their own. And as parents, we need to have our own lives too. Living your life through your child’s accomplishments is so not a life I want to live.
“Built into this model of the perfectible child is, of course, an inevitable failure. You can’t control everything, the universe offers up rogue moments that will make your child unhappy or sick or broken-hearted, there will be faithless friends and failed auditions and bad teachers. The one true terrifying fact of bringing an innocent baby into the fallen world is that no matter how much rubber flooring you ship to the villa in the south of France, you can’t protect her from being hurt.”
All you can do is set your child up to handle that disappointment, hurt, challenge. And setting them up means letting them practice, when they are young and you can be there to give them a hug and make them cookies.
I don’t believe Katie is suggesting we should stop parenting based on what we think is best. I don’t believe she is suggesting that we shouldn’t be involved and shouldn’t do things that mitigate real risk. What I believe she is suggesting is that we remember that the perfect world and the perfect child are unobtainable and that we need to remember that children have their own lives. And live is about ups and downs. From a very early age, children can direct aspects of their own lives. Make choices. Make mistakes. Learn consequences. She says: “It might be time to dabble in the laissez faire; to let the imagination run to art instead of art projects; to let the imperfect universe and its imperfect children be themselves.” Dabble. Just dabble. Sure, I can dabble.
If you haven’t read it, I would highly highly recommend reading a book call “Under Pressure”, by Carl Honore. It is a fantastic book about the high pressure that many of our parenting and educations practices put our children under. If you want to really understand this whole debate, it is a great place to start.