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Parenting, Perfection, and the Problem of Kids

Mom & baby from 1912. Overparenting?

When it comes to over-parenting, we know the story.”Parents these days” protect our  little ones from dirt and pain. Parents call to protest if a darling isn’t invited to a party.  We’re too invested in homework, we buy organic toys, and when our kids go to college, we still hold them too close.  It’s a subject that writers enjoy revisiting periodically ever since the 2005 publication of Judith Warner’s blockbuster Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety. Almost six years into the exploration of anxiety-riddled, perfection-seeking parenting, is it time to move on?

The most recent report on the exhausted state of parents who try too hard to engineer perfect children comes from Katie Roiphe via Slate and the Financial Times. In it, Roiphe goes through the usual hallmarks of helicopter parenting – high design, packed schedule, careful prenatal diet.  Reading her case against other parents I felt mostly familiarity  until I got to this line: “You know the child I am talking about: precious, wide-eyed, over-cared-for, fussy, in a beautiful sweater, or a carefully hipsterish T-shirt.”

Actually, I don’t know that child. Because the perfectly turned out little guy who’s also and always a perfect little charmer, I’ve heard about him, but I haven’t actually seen all that much of him. 

Essays on the problem of over-parenting can’t really talk about the kids except to say they’re going to grow up all wrong, unable to manage their pain or take criticism or work hard or whatever else.  On the one hand, they’re right.  When we swoosh in to protect our kids from discomfort and bacteria we’re doing them no favors.  On the other, of course the kids are going to be in trouble. “Kids these days” always are.  From the turn of the twentieth century, writers have noticed how kids have been spoiled and indulged. Why should ours be any different?  Besides, if you look to a small child for proof that your parenting style works, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Once I was at a big birthday party with my daughter. After the group of about 20 kids was led away to an activity, I told another mom that big birthday parties were too difficult for my son, too overwhelming.  The mom looked at me, meaningfully, and told me her son could separate because she nursed him for two years. “I gave him everything and he knows it and now he can go off on his own no problem.”

Do I even have to tell you what happened not 40 minutes later? With the kid and the mom and her leg and the tears as the mom who’d given her all to her baby tried to separate from him to go and do some work?

Which is to say, reading about overparenting is now kind of enjoyable in the way that it’s enjoyable to, say, sit on a porch and shoot a gun at some fish in a barrel.  Since the kids don’t give us proof of much of anything, we notice what other people do too much of and tell stories of people desperately seeking  perfect parenting. As the clock ticks on our parenting days, we just can’t stop talking about ourselves.

Roiphe’s essay is no different. She dutifully describes the world we’ve read about before where mothers don’t drink during pregnancy for fear of making their kids just a little bit dumber, where nurseries are chic and schedules are full with daily art projects and enriching activities.  She argues (again) that we parents do this to control the world our kids inhabit.  Roiphe wonders if the quest for control is any good for the kids.  She suggests it isn’t. I’d agree with that. But then she takes one more step and writes:

One of the more troubling aspects of our new ethos of control is that it contains a vision of right-minded child rearing that is in its own enlightened way as exclusive and conformist as anything in the 1950s. Anyone who does not control their children’s environment according to current fashions and science, who, say, bribes their child with M&Ms or feeds their baby non-organic milk or has a party that lasts until 2 a.m., is behaving in a wild and reckless manner that somehow challenges the status quo. The less trivial problem is this: The rigorous ideal of the perfect environment doesn’t allow for true difference, for the child raised by a grandparent, or a single mother, or divorced parents; its vision is definitely of two parents taking turns carrying the designer baby sling. Mandatory 24-hour improvement and enrichment, have, in other words, their oppressive side.

It’s a nice paragraph, well paced, well put, and somewhat provocative. It does what an article like this is supposed to do: Make a broader cultural point about the problem of helicopter parenting. It’s just that the point doesn’t strike me as all that true. After all, who hasn’t bribed their kids with M&Ms? And as for that “true difference,” the world Roiphe describes with its chic nurseries and teetotalling pregnancies is pretty accepting of families in all shapes and sizes -single moms by choice, two dads, blended families, you name it.

Of course 24-hour child improvement is oppressive, I just don’t know anyone who’s going through the gauntlet of early childhood parenting who can stick to it. Because you try and try to do everything right and then, there you are, trying to leave your kid with another grown up so you can go work and your cute kid in his hip t-shirt who only plays with toys fashioned from bamboo won’t let go of your leg and your very own head is about to explode.

In the less than perfect world where most of us live, we may try to protect our kids and keep them too close, but we do this as we try to do the best we can. Do we need to keep reading about how other parents are doing way too much? Our kids will hopefully survive us and our theories of how parenting should work, but our respect for other adults may not.

In the end, Roiphe suggests that it might be time to stand back and have a drink and let our kids be our kids.   I’d agree. I’d also add to it that it may be time to stop rewriting the book on over-parenting and find some new material.

What do you think?  Is there still more to say about overparenting?

photo credit: Henry Essenhigh Corke (1883-1919)

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