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Fear is Not a Parenting Strategy: A Dad’s Response to Frank Bruni’s “Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn”

fearAfter that whole Rush Limbaugh thing, I said that was it, the last time I respond to a foolish macho thing some guy in the media says about parenting.

But, as Frank Bruni — longtime contributor to The New York Times, former restaurant critic, and parent to none — wrote in an Op-Ed on Sunday, parents these days don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “last.” After all, we give our kids countless “last” warnings when disciplining them, or trying to discipline them, I should say, since Bruni doesn’t seem to think we are disciplining them. So here I go again.

Vocabulary is only the first problem Bruni has with contemporary parents. We offer our kids too many choices, asking what they would like to eat or wear, for example. We fret over every aspect of their rearing, turning to books, blogs, and even Jessica Alba for advice. We treat them with the respect that should be afforded adults, and yet we back down to them when it comes to discipline, drawing lines in the sand which we then brush away and re-draw because, dammit, we’re scared of being authority figures.

In Bruni’s view, parenting has become a power-struggle between “the parent’s wishes and the child’s defiance” that only ends one way: “With chicken fingers.” By which he means, we — because of course parents are all of one mind — over-think, over-discuss, over-analyze, and then, after all this mental energy and discourse, give in. We provide our kids praise even for failure. We teach them that they are not only the center of our lives but the center of the universe at large. We give them iPhones.

And listen, people, because stakes are high: “I understand that you want [your kids] to adore you. But having them fear you is surely the saner strategy, not just for you and for them but for the rest of us and the future of the republic.”

THE FUTURE OF THE REPUBLIC IS IN YOUR HANDS! So best get to whippin’ up some fear.

Let’s leave aside the obvious point that Bruni is speaking with no hands-on experience. He claims that his view from the bleachers, as it were, makes his argument strong, because it provides him some objectivity. (Talk about vocabulary — does the word objectivity hold any weight in an opinion piece?) But an outsider’s perspective proves an occluded one when it comes to viewing the relationship between parent and child, which can only really be seen in close-up. I thought I was too-cool-for-school too, and then I saw my newborn son laid out on a table in the NICU, and it’s like my heart lay there under those lights, red, raw, and still-beating for all to see. I’m sure parents get what I’m saying here, while non-parents, maybe not so much. It’s a great divide.

What’s hard for me to imagine is why any parent would want to inject fear into their relationship with their child, unless that parent is seriously into S&M-like power dynamics — the Machiavellian Congressman Francis Underwood from Netflix’s House of Cards comes to mind. Which, in all seriousness, is sick.

Perhaps Bruni draws a false connection between fear and respect. Many do, assuming the one implies the other. Of course I want my son to respect me. And hopefully he’ll admire me enough to imitate my best qualities and be sufficiently critical so as to learn from my worst. But I don’t want him to fear me. We don’t ask help from people that we’re scared of because we don’t want to expose our weaknesses. We don’t share our anxieties, hopes, secrets, and dreams with people that we’re scared of because we don’t expect them to hear us, or trust what they might do with that information. And as an adult, we don’t spend time with people we’re scared of, because, well, why would we? We revile people who scare us, we don’t respect them.

And in terms of the future of our country, how is raising a child instilled with fear a positive thing? We see people in power getting off scott-free after committing war crimes, jumping into bed with corporate interests, twisting the truth via well-crafted fictions that they push over the media. I don’t want my child to hear these sharp, humorless voices of authority and then fall in line without questioning why.

This isn’t to say that I’m raising an uncouth, out-of-control little monster. Even though he’s not yet four-years-old, I have already seen that he does in fact respond to authority figures whom he trusts. In those cases he follows rules because of a respect for other people, and his teachers, and a desire to exist harmoniously, and be an active, positive, contributing little member of his peer group. (Ok, so he’s a toddler, he has his moments, sure. They all do.) Rewards, punishments, clear expectations, and consistent routines are a part of these successes. Fear is not.

The thing is, Bruni ends with a good message for parents: to relax and not worry so much about their parenting decisions. This, I like. But dismissing parents by implying that they’re thinking too much, that it’s all easy and children will “know their place” if you draw a sharp divide between parent and child with fear, is misguided, stemming either from a notion of parenting that feels outdated and unhealthy, or from Bruni speaking from his cold intellect instead of his heart, as a dad would.

There is so much for a child to be afraid of already: the dark, abandonment, war, natural disasters, monsters both real and imagined. The last thing a kid needs is to add a parent to that list.

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