Monday, August 25, 2008

The Rise of Parenting

I just finished I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron, which is a pretty funny book, especially if you are over 30 and feel physically different than you did at 25. The chapter Parenting in Three Stages is also pretty funny, especially the first part, where she describes the rise of “parenting.”

Here, she mentions how simple parenting used to be: “You love your children, you hang out with them from time to time, you throw balls, you read stories, you make sure they know which utensil is the salad fork, you teach them to say please and thank you, you see that they have an occasional haircut, and you ask if you did their homework.”

She talks about babies being born with a personality that won’t change. “For a certain period, this child would live with you and your personality, and you would do your best to survive each other.”

Then she talks about the rise of “parenting,” which she describes as “Parenting was a participle, like going and doing and crusading and worrying; it was active, it was energetic, it was unrelenting. Parenting meant playing Mozart CDs while you were pregnant, doing without the epidural and breast-feeding our child until it was old enough to unbutton your blouse.”

This makes me wonder where I stand on the parenting spectrum – between the largely hands-off parenting of yesteryear compared with the involved helicopter parents of today. I’m not sure because I think I have some of both tendencies.

One thing that has always been on my mind since River was born is the Buryat belief that no matter what you do, kids will grow up and be who they are going to be. This is reinforced by my reading of Freakonomics, which basically said that almost nothing you do will be of any use, especially compared with the power of the child’s peer group. Among the factors that most-influenced success in children were not attendance at music classes or large amounts of quality time, but things like the mother being over 30 when the first child is born and having a lot of books in the house (the amount of time spent reading them doesn’t matter). These type of things are givens, not actions that take time and investment.

Yes, I suppose I can say I’ve been freaky about making sure he’s eating fresh and wholesome foods. I want him to have access to a potty (I don’t think a daycare that didn’t allow cloth diapers would be good for us). I’d like him to have as much individual attention as possible in his first year. I want him to feel safe and secure and to experience new things. But that’s about it. I worry very little about other things.

When I think ahead of what’s to come in his life, I want to be involved. People tend to argue that they become very involved in their children’s lives for the benefit of the child. But I recognize that I may not be getting involved for his benefit. He’s happy with anyone who is having a good time with him. The benefit is mine. Because it brings me joy to participate in his life.

The point at which my participation has a negative effect on him is where I need to draw the line and step back. I imagine that is hard to identify though.

One of the editors of Parenting magazine defended her helicopter-parenting in a recent issue, saying that she’s advocating for her children because she wants the best for them, because her parents weren’t able to do so, and because she can. She mentioned advocating for them in school. But from my brief period as a schoolteacher overseas, I saw especially active parents as doing a disservice to their children. The children learned that they didn’t really have to work hard, they didn’t have to achieve, because their parents would lobby the teacher or the administrators to their benefit.

The main benefit I see in very involved parenting is the child feeling the parent’s concern and love. I wonder if that will have the positive effect of strengthening families. As the parents want their children around for longer the usual 18 years, perhaps the children will also want to be around their parents. Perhaps more Americans will value proximity to their families over opportunities available far away. Maybe more children will repay their doting parents by taking active care of their parents as they age instead of relegating them to the care of strangers or institutions.

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