The “stroller wars” have almost become a modern cliché. If you are a parent with a child under 10, you’ve probably been on both sides of the battlefield. On the one hand, you have been the persecuted parent who has been made to feel inadequate because you aren’t doing everything exactly the way the “parenting powers that be” have decreed.
You probably have also assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner of your fellow parents. You watch in horror as a parent does something that isn’t actually illegal or abusive, but is something that you would clearly never, ever do. Later, when you are with a like-minded friend, you will exclaim, “I cannot believe what this woman did with her kid today at the playground!” And you will each make the appropriate horrified noises, secure in the knowledge that you are the superior parents.
In this modern age, we take our parenting so very, very seriously.
This is probably to be expected, particularly among the highly-educated, upper middle class whose ways have always been considered what’s “normal,” even though it’s by no means representative of what the majority of Americans experience. The parents who were members of the “Baby Bust” generation, a.k.a. “Generation X,” went through the latchkey kid phenomenon, getting many of our best life lessons from episodes of “Fat Albert” as opposed to our parents. The kids who came after us, born in the early 1980’s, were exposed to all the angst and ambivalence that comes from parents who desperately want to be liked by their kids. The bottom line in all these vast generalizations is that parents in the new millennium are bound and determined to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors.
And so we are diligent. We read books. Oh. My. God. Do we read books! Thirty years ago, there was one book. It was written by a guy named Dr. Spock, and parents either loved or hated it. My husband, the fourth child of six, raised by an Air Force mechanic and his no-nonsense wife, joked that the only way his mom used Dr. Spock’s book for parenting was to throw it at him when he was misbehaving. Thirty years ago, if you got pregnant, your girlfriends would have lots of advice they gleaned from their own experiences with their children or younger siblings. Now, if you get pregnant, your girlfriends will give you a reading list full of books by parenting experts detailing their theories and research on other peoples’ kids.
The reliance on “experts” is understandable. We lack the sense of connectedness we used to have. People don’t stay in their hometowns. We don’t always know our neighbors. The close-knit communities that our parents grew up in, filled with parents and grandparents who had a wealth of experience to share, are becoming less prevalent. And the media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” sensationalism has made us a lot more wary of potential sexual abuse and kidnapping, to the point where even if we had contact with our neighbors, we’d be unlikely to trust them. This is not an entirely bad thing, of course. Parents should be conscious of who interacts with their child, and wary of strangers who might have an agenda.
There is now a cottage industry around making parents feel like they are doing everything possible for their children, even if what they’re doing doesn’t actually work. Julie-Aigner Clark, founder of the Baby Einstein company, made millions creating a video product for babies of questionable value, that parents religiously bought for their children, on the word of mouth that it was “good” for their child’s development. Parents now spend at least $10,000 in the first year of their child’s life, and upwards of $16,000, depending on where they live and their demographics. One has to wonder how much of that money is spent on things that are actually necessary, and how much is spent to secure junior’s future, which is only possible if he is carried in the proper sling, pushed about in the proper stroller, and given the proper brain-stimulating toys to play with.
The phenomenon doesn’t limit itself to babies. Companies like Sylvan Learning and Kumon make money hand over fist promising to improve the academic performance of primary school children. Every new bit of research that touches on parenting is front page news, debated in Talmudic detail by parents around every watercooler, playground and school bus drop-off. Wars are waged over school redistrictings and class start times. Entry into “gifted and talented” programs, science and technology high schools, and magnet schools are sought like the Holy Grail, with affluent parents (and even families living paycheck-to-paycheck) spending thousands of dollars on whatever it takes to secure a child’s future in one of these programs.
Oh yes, my friends, we take our parenting very, very seriously.
Because we have invested so much of ourselves into our parenting, we are naturally defensive when our parenting is called into question. Among the stroller set, the worst violation of etiquette is to suggest that a fellow parent’s methods are somehow deficient. Disciplining someone else’s kids using your own standards runs a very close second.
I saw this first hand on the playground one morning when my son was on a playdate with my friend’s son. Maddeline’s son, just turned four, was wanting to play on the roundabout. I’ll admit, Maddy and I had gotten to talking and we weren’t really watching what was happening. We only knew that Maddy’s son was crying that he couldn’t play on the roundabout, and there were four other, older boys playing on it. So Maddeline went to ask the boys on the roundabout what had happened. She wasn’t angry, she was asking them a question about what happened.
The mother of the four boys, who also had not been paying attention, swooped in, chastising Maddeline for “accusing” her boys of something. She had no idea what was really happening. All she saw was that some other mother was attempting to discipline her precious children, and she didn’t like it one bit.
It’s become the sacred cow of parenting. No one tells you how to raise your kid. Indeed, start talking to a parent about how they raise their kids, and they’ll spin out the master plan of how they’re bringing up the next Einstein, or Beethoven, or Madame Curie. They’ll tell you all about their beliefs – whether it’s “free range parenting” or “old school discipline” or new age flibberty-gibbet – and your job is to nod and smile and not pass judgement. The parent’s right to decide how their child is raised is inviolate.
After all it’s their kid, right?
The problem with this is that it’s become a way for parents to excuse whatever objectionable things their children may do, and force others to indulge their idiosyncrasies. Annoyed by a kid that has a habit of running around in restaurants bothering the other patrons? Well, the parents like to “let kids be kids” and who are you to question how they raise the child? Your kid is on a playdate with a kid who’s so bossy it’s like playing dolls with Attila the Hun? Well, the parents don’t believe in being negative with the child, so don’t expect to hear anyone tell her “no.” Wondering why little Eddie can come to the birthday party but can’t eat any of the snacks? Well, mommy has a thing about little Eddie ingesting anything that isn’t organic, so those Good Humor fudgsicles aren’t going to cut it.
It is their kid, so who are you to question anything?
Parents are indeed responsible for their children in every possible way, from a legal standpoint. A parent’s duty to monitor and control the life of their child, everything from schooling to medical treatment to contractual relationships is indeed inviolate. But modern parents have transformed what is, in essence, a legal responsibility into a form of social narcissism.
Parents have poured their hopes and dreams into their children for as long as there have been parents and children. This is nothing new. But never have we lived in an age where parents have been so ready to inflict their desires for their children on the world around them. It is not enough anymore for parents to create their desired environment for their children at home. They must ensure that anyplace their blessed offspring wanders is consistent with their personal vision of childrearing. After all, it is their child, and you don’t get to make decisions for their kid.
I think this is where people rightly get pissed off at parents. Your kid does not give you the right to create the world as you wish it. Raising your kid is a responsibility you have, not only to your child, but to society at large. It is not a right that you get to bludgeon others with. Nor is your kid a canvas on which you must express your personal philosophies about life, the universe and everything.
He may be your kid, but as he grows older, he enters society, and he becomes our problem. Whatever crackheaded things you’ve put into his head, whatever strange habits you’ve inculcated her with, everyone else will eventually have to deal with it. And sooner or later, your kid will have to navigate the world without the plastic bubble you have so lovingly created around him.
I know as well as anybody how hard it is to raise a child. I have a four year old with a developmental disorder. I recognize that kids are not perfect, and even when a parent is doing the best they can, there will still be times when kids act out. I have hopes and dreams for my kid, and I would love him to go into the world representing our values as a family. And I don’t like others telling me how to raise him any more than the next person.
All I’m saying is that modern parents need to stop taking their parenting so personally. It’s not about you. Sure, you have a terrific responsibility as a parent, and you want to do everything possible to get it right. But if you are living every day of your life aiming to prove that you’re the best mommy or daddy on the block, you’re toiling in vain. And what will be the measure of your effort’s success, anyway? There’s nothing to win -- the “parenting powers that be” do not give trophies. And most kids never really grasp how much goes into giving them their start in the world, so they never show the kind of gratitude that a parent with this kind of chip on their shoulder craves.
What’s worst of all is that children have a crazy way of usurping all your efforts, good and bad. Plenty of kids that come from good homes with wonderful parents end up disappointing, and other kids whose moms and dads are all but checked out of the parenting process still manage to become accomplished citizens. Sometimes, there simply isn’t a correlation between effort and outcome in parenting. Your kids are going to surprise you. And if you’ve invested too much of your personal identity in being the “perfect” parent, you will not weather those surprises well.
Most modern parents will protest that it’s not about them, it’s about what’s best for the child. Everything they do, they do for the child. But even that approach is a little misguided. Because no one, not even a child, has the right to expect that all the world will bend to his or her needs. The social contract in which we all participate is a reciprocal transaction, and the sooner children learn that, the better equipped they are to function in the world. The parent that insists that everything around the child must be directly tailored to the child’s needs is quite simply being unreasonable.
I’m afraid the answer in this modern age, where parenting is serious business, is the same answer that works to solve so many of life’s dilemmas: balance and moderation. Parents need to ease up on the expectations – of themselves and of each other. And they need to make a little extra effort to participate in social settings without making an issue of themselves. The dance of life is more complicated than having everything revolve around you or your child.
Yes, he’s your kid, which is why you should never make him our problem.