Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Parenting Project

Is it just me, or is the news consistently full of pieces that smugly accuse us all of being helicopter parents, or offer advice on how we can be even more involved in our kids lives, or showcase in juicy, pearl-clutching detail the most recent high-profile "neglectful parent" story? As if the ongoing message to parents is "you are all ridiculously neurotic about your children, and here's the 5-step plan to becoming even more neurotic, because look what happened when those parents over there weren't neurotic enough - they neglected their children to death." Basically, parenting is the kind of thing you just can't get right. It's as if the plethora of news stories and parenting books exists to repeat this message over and over again - you're doing it wrong.

Boy hung on clothesline by his clothing
And from what I can tell, most of the dominant parenting philosophies out there are doing it wrong. The much maligned Attachment Parenting allegedly produces overly-involved parents who have no lives of their own, fail to establish healthy boundaries for their kids, and are so involved in their children's lives that they end up implicitly communicating to the child that the child is too incompetent to do anything on his/her own, all while heaping on empty, meaningless words of praise. The Tiger Moms (and dads?) are even worse, and run their kids lives like drill sergeants, not allowing any time for creative play or relaxed, unscripted fun with friends or siblings. On the other side of the spectrum, Free Range Parents and Idle Parents are allegedly under-involved and let their kids run wild in the world with no supervision or boundary-setting.

This summer I've been reading skimming through a bunch of parenting books from both ends of the spectrum (including some that aren't on this spectrum - like Simplicity Parenting), and it seems to me that, as is generally the case, the more extreme theories clearly do get it wrong. But not because of anything actually contained in these ideologies themselves. The problem is their focus and outlook. The problem is that most parenting philosophies tend to be about parents. They're not about kids. But good parenting is about kids.

In my experience, the more dedicated a parent is to a particular parenting style or a vision they have of their child, the less tuned in to the actual child they are. And being tuned in to your child is probably the single most important skill any parent can have. Being accepting of their individual interests, talents, and personality quirks (rather than the interests, talents, and characteristics you want them to have), and willing to establish healthy boundaries that work for you and your child, takes hard work and thoughtfulness and respect for your child's autonomy. It may seem easier and less risky to address conflicts and behavioral issues with some kind of formulaic response learned from a book, or consistently allow the kids to run your life and your household. But what takes real work - and will ultimately result in a stronger  parent-child relationship - is being focused on your child and tuned in to what's going on with her.


  1. The smugness you point out in the endless media discussion of parenting styles mirrors the smugness of the discussion of whether women really can "have it all" and how this relates to feminism, I think.

  2. Miriam8/09/2012

    It seems like any theory that makes claims like "all kids need x" or all kids are y" is suspect. The challenge of parenting is that you don't know what you're going to get, temperament-wise, before you have kids, so you have to be prepared to bend and adapt.

  3. Anonymous8/13/2012

    Parenting is just this thing that a lot of people feel very insecure about, and so there's going to be a lot of snarking surrounding it. It's inevitable.