On Parenting

I just read a great article by Lori Gottlieb about the perils of raising kids today. Not what you might think — stranger danger and screen dreaming — but rather our lack of perspective and failure (my words) to reflect on our own lives as a context for considering how young people might develop important life skills.

What I see is a sociological thing playing out. In raising children, we will often compensate by trying our damnedest to ensure our kids don’t go through the struggles we went through. But we often do this without stopping to take an inventory of what we gained through our own struggles. Furthermore, in undertaking our ‘adjustments’ of the shortcomings of our upbringing, we often throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Those of us raised by the ‘Builders’ (as those preceding the Boomers were called) could not bear the bland, colorless predictability of our parents’ intended legacy. They, of course, went through two generations of World Wars and the Great Depression. They created what they needed — stability and security. And they worked bloody hard to do it. Even as we benefitted from the security they provided, we also rebelled. Welcome the ’60s and ’70s, where the prevailing mood was anti-establishment. People craved freedom, not security (though the pendulum would swing back much later).

The Boomers did create a new world order in many respects and settled into a very comfortable lifestyle. We worked hard for it too, though in a different way from our parents. Having been raised on the smell of an oily rag, we set out to live well. I remember being embarrassed that my schoolbag doubled for our father’s rabbit bag in hunting season. He had to hunt rabbits and deer to put food on the table — and there was no money for ‘school bags’. So what did the Boomers do to avoid the poverty trap? We created the double-income family. How smart was that? Not only could both genders flex their career muscles at the same time, but we could consume a whole lot more — two cars, nice homes, holidays, bikes for the kids as soon as they were old enough.

But this also had side-effects, and our children felt them. From here on in we had ‘latch-key kids,’ the generation that had to let themselves into the house when they got home from school. They had lots of things, but parenting was fleeting. We began to speak of quality time. I think we were too busy doing things in quick time to get all the subtleties of their emotional passages.

Suburban streetscape with the neon trail of speeding car lights
Thanks to Pete for this Flickr Creative Commons image.

Strangely, this is the generation now being called ‘helicopter parents.’ Fancy that. Trying to really pay attention to what’s happening for their child. Michael McQueen, a smart young Australian, hits the nail on the head in this March, 2012 (1.2Mb PDF) piece entitled, “Ready or Not… Here Come Gen Z”:

While it may be nothing new for older generations to wax lyrical that “today’s kids have it too easy” there is a strong and growing sense of worry amongst many grandparents that their Gen Z grandchildren are being raised as ‘cotton wool kids.’ This sentiment seems to extend into the general community as well with almost two thirds of respondents in a recent parenting survey indicating that they believe today’s kids are over-protected. Indeed, Gen Z are being raised in an environment where they are being guarded and protected by their largely Gen X parents. Ironically, whereas ‘Latchkey Kid’ Gen Xers were raised with unprecedented levels of freedom, they themselves are the infamous ‘helicopter parents.’

And again borrowing from McQueen quoting Ivy Baker Priest, here’s a great thought to keep in mind: “My father had always said that there are four things a child needs — plenty of love, nourishing food, regular sleep, and lots of soap and water — and after those, what they need most is some intelligent neglect.”

Intelligent neglect — now that’s what I’m talking about.

One thing is clear to me. Kids need things to resist in order to deepen their lives. As a therapist, I am convinced that people who were raised with a silver spoon in their mouth find it harder to wrestle with the kind of things that lead us into new territory in our search for meaning. Hedonism doesn’t provide happiness. American culture got that wrong.

We might not like witnessing or vicariously experiencing the pain of our child, but there is a danger in the automatic assumption that pain and struggle are to be avoided. Instead of rushing in with a rescue package, let’s practice some of that intelligent neglect. When we spend some time reflecting, it’s not hard to see that it’s the grit that creates the pearls.

And I’ll leave you with a snippet of the wisdom from Lori Gottlieb, referred to above.

Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, told me. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.” It’s precisely this goal, though, that many modern parents focus on obsessively — only to see it backfire. Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?