Maybe parenting has always been this hard, this fraught with judgment and dogma. Maybe mothers in the caves of southern France said to one another, “Did you see her with her kid? Doesn’t she know that you should never turn the sabertooth pelt fur-side against the skin? Her baby is going to have such a rash…” Or, perhaps not.
Certainly there are literary and historical examples of poor parenting: No one would give Medea mother-of-the year, and regardless of divine command, I’m not sure that a willingness to slaughter your kid based on the voices in your head is a great illustration of fatherhood. But, most examples of ‘bad parenting’ from previous centuries and generations seemed to focus on the disastrous extremes. Nowhere in the Little House books does anyone come up to Ma Ingalls and say, “Do you really want Laura playing with that pig’s bladder? Little Johnny in the next town over did that last fall and you know how sick he was all winter!”
Yet, for my generation of parents, every choice – from brand of baby food (or homemade baby food) to when, how, or if to let children play – seems to have a rating system attached. But, nobody seems to agree on the scale. How are we measuring these things? Do I get bonus points for letting Caitlin climb our tree in the front lawn, thus empowering her to take risks and improving her muscle tone, connection with nature, and sense of balance? Or should I be reported to CPS and flogged in the public square for risking so much as one of her precious epithelial cells? Am I a bad mother for allowing Aidan to possess a NERF arsenal that is the envy of the neighborhood boys, tacitly okaying the casual acceptance of violence pervasive in modern culture? Or am I good for allowing him to accept and learn to regulate his natural aggression? Will watching a documentary forever alter the biochemical functioning of Sierra’s brain, or will it give her a better insight into some aspect of our world? Whose research should I believe?
Caitin in our tree 12/2010 w/ Sierra on the swing watching
And do I even care?
Obviously I care, or I wouldn’t be wasting the word-processor time. But,(and go ahead and start lobbing stones for this) I don’t care as much about the implications of these studies, opinions and dogma to the children as I do about the scars each one leaves on the parents. Ok, more specifically on the mothers. What the hell are we doing to each other and allowing to be done to ourselves? What weird line have we crossed when an intelligent, educated mother (and I heard this recently) agonizes over the morality of allowing her son to pick up a stick and say ‘Bang. Bang.’?
I hate to say this but I think this intensive maternal navel-gazing (and, to be honest, most of us ‘good mothers’ who nursed our children can’t even find our navels unless we’re wearing killer push-up bras) is at least in part a function of the unprecedented number of educated and career driven women in my generation. What did society expect?
I suspect that motherhood was less questioned in previous generations because it was simply something one did. Like cooking, cleaning, (and a number of other life skills that seem to have been either lost or over-analyzed), parenting was just a part of life. Parents fed, clothed, and housed their kids, provided them with the type and level of education that seemed appropriate, toys that matched the household budget, and went on with the rest of their lives. If you had to make every loaf of bread from scratch, or wash all of your laundry by hand, your kids were going to either play outside and do their own thing or they would be pressed into service for chores. Few households had the luxury of worrying about whether play was age-appropriate or ‘too risky.’ Parents were just glad to get the kids out from underfoot, and they certainly didn’t have time to make modeling dough by hand or to lead elaborate needle-felting projects.
Yet, my generation (particularly of women) is a bit different. Many of us in the middle and upper-middle classes were raised by the first generation of more broadly educated women, the first women to truly have a shot at a life beyond kitchen, hearth, and child. And we were raised with expectations. C’mon, say it with me: “Anything boys can do, girls can do better!” We were going to take over business, politics, and generally kick the patriarchy’s butt. My generation (good old generation X) was the first where women equaled (and have now surpassed) the numbers of men in higher education. We truly can do anything men can do. But, we can also do the one thing men can’t do – carry a fetus, give birth, and lactate. Oops.
Sooner or later (often later, and I think that, too is an issue contributing to our current parenting protocol obsession), many of us realized that there probably needed to be a next generation, and that our uteri were going to need to provide the early housing facilities. And, so, we wound up with a generation of goal-oriented mothers trained to research, to interpret scientific papers, to absorb data like the fibers of the Brawny towels so lovingly advertised to our mothers, to achieve (and over-achieve). And yet, the mothers of my generation and socio-economic class found that children had not evolved along with the ideals of our society. Children still need to be fed, housed, and clothed, to learn to walk and talk, and to be educated and to be provided with playthings.
At that point, a generation of women with a veritable alphabet soup of letters after our names lost our collective minds. Realizing that we would, in fact, be forced to compromise our career trajectory to one extent or another, we decided to channel all of our ambitions, energies, and training into something that humans have done for thousands of years. But, we would do it better.
This brings me to the personal part of my rant. No one who has read this blog can possibly doubt that I have some strong views on parenting. Nor should they doubt that my views are more in line with those of my parents and grandparents than many of my peers. I believe kids should play – with minimal adult supervision and interference. I believe that children need scary stories with dark consequences for bad behavior. I believe children need to learn that the stove really is hot by burning themselves while learning to cook. I believe (and our house has proven) that a six-year old is capable of preparing his or her own breakfast and lunch. I believe that a child who ignores instructions to ‘take a jacket’ and is subsequently cold will better remember the jacket next time than the child whose parent rushes back to school with the jacket. I believe that kids need to deal with teasing, shunning, and name-calling on their own as much as possible and that these experiences (allowing exceptions for what I consider true bullying) make them stronger. I believe that kids need to fall (physically or metaphorically) and that by doing so they learn to take risks and to pick themselves back up. I believe that kids need unconditional snuggles and that they need to be corrected when they’ve screwed up. I don’t believe ever in ‘letting a child win’ to ‘boost self-esteem.’ I don’t believe in empty praise. I believe in giving kids more respect than that. I believe in giving them the pride of earned praise. I believe that the process is more important than the result; that the act of learning is more important than the grade.
And I believe that kids need to learn to fight their own battles – the real, the pretend, the physical, and the verbal. I let my kids have (pretend) guns and swords and give them rules that they need to follow to use those: you may not ‘shoot’ anyone who is unarmed or who doesn’t want to play. You may not whack your sibling with a sword under any circumstances. If an accidental whacking does occur, you must apologize. Dragons live in your bedroom or the hallway, not in the kitchen, dining room or hallway. No firing NERF guns in the house. A gun, any gun, even a toy is to be pointed at the target or at the ground.
A well-armed Aidan. 12/2010
Do I believe in violence as a solution – generally no. However, in self-defense, absolutely. I have taken self-defense classes (many), my oldest daughter has, and I will insist that my son and youngest daughter do so. Do I believe in war – generally no. But I do recognize that while most wars are a useless waste of life and exploitation of our young, that some circumstances are so hideous that they can only be solved through force (the Nazi empire, for example). Do I believe that humans are inherently aggressive? Of course. I fail to see how any person with half a brain can look at human history and say otherwise. Humans are animals, and phenotypically, we are predators. Do I believe that humans are also inherently cooperative, social, and capable of independent thought, kindness, and creativity? Hell, yes. Again, look at history, and look around.
Back to the personal. My beliefs are my own. You may notice that I have not cited a single study, article, or research paper in this piece. That omission is deliberate. For every study that substantiates a parenting or sociologic, or even physiologic theory, an opposing body of research can be found. Statistics lie and all liars are statisticians – I plagiarize freely here, but the truism holds. Parenting theories are just that – theory. And they will be neither proven nor debunked until most of us are long gone.
So, you don’t have to parent your kids my way, but don’t you dare demand that I parent my children your way. Our classrooms, society, and species have enough room for many ways, and there’s probably a bit of truth everywhere.