In defense of neglectful parenting
As I promised yesterday, I want to respond to this New Yorker article “The Child Trap: the rise of overparenting,” which my friend Chris Wiggins forwarded to me.
The premise of the article is that nowadays we spoil our kids, force them to do a bunch of adult-supervised after-school activities, and generally speaking hover over them, even once they’re adults, and it’s all the fault of technology and (who else?) guilty working mothers. In particular, it makes kids, especially college-age kids, incredibly selfish and emotionally weak.
They interview overparenting skeptics as well, who seem to be focused on the spoiling and indulgent side of overparenting:
As for the steamy devotion shown by later generations of parents, what it has produced are snotty little brats filled with “anger at such abstract enemies as The System,” and intellectual lightweights, certain (because their parents told them so) that their every thought is of great consequence. Epstein says that, when he was teaching, he was often tempted to write on his students’ papers: “D-. Too much love in the home.”
I’m basically in agreement with the article, although I’d go further at some moments and not as far at others.
For example, with spoiling: in my experience, “spoiled kids” is just a phrase people use to describe kids that have acclimated perfectly to their imperfect environments.
So if you train your kids to whine, by saying “no” but then giving in if they whine, then it’s on you, as a parent, to realize you’ve created a perverted environment. Your kid is essentially doing what they’re told. If a 15-year-old kid sitting next to the refrigerator yells for his mom across the living room to get him a glass of juice (I’ve seen this happen) and the mom in question does what she’s been told, then guess what? That kid has learned how to make juice appear.
When you eventually release a spoiled kid in the real world, where there’s nobody to get him juice when he demands it, and when things don’t magically happen because they whine, then all you’ve done is made their entry into that real world harder for them. And in that sense you’ve fucked up.
Because isn’t our main job as parents to make sure they can survive on their own as productive, kind, happy individuals?
On the separate subject of getting your kid to be super gifted through Baby Mozart CD’s and after-school activities (from the article: “You can’t smoke pot or lose your virginity at lacrosse practice.”), it’s an approach to parenting I find toxic, and here’s why.
I think the attention you give to your kids when you force them to practice violin or study for standardized tests is an anxious attention. And just as marriages break down when the majority of interactions between spouses consist of negotiating child pick-ups rather than exchanging ideas and affection, the relationship between parents and kids can similarly suck if you spend more time nagging and worrying about their externally perceived status than enjoying them as people.
And that’s just the day-to-day complaint I have. The larger complaint I have about all this overparenting is that the anxiety we have for our kids’ futures is being projected onto them, and it often translates as a lack of faith in their ability to make it on their own. So rather than preparing them to live independent lives, we’re undermining them from the get-go.
Actually, I’d go one step further. One thing I enjoyed as a latch-key kid of a working mother (who carried no guilt at all) was that, for most things, I was never under scrutiny. What I did with my time after school was up to me, although I wasn’t supposed to watch TV all the time (and I sometimes did anyway, of course – we should all be able to experiment with breaking rules). What I thought about and who I hung out with with were completely up to me – and by the time I was 17 and had my license and a crappy old car, I did some admittedly pretty outrageous things. My parents were so busy they often didn’t even look at my report card in a given year.
In other words, I had a kind of privacy and freedom that I don’t think many kids today can even imagine, although I do my best to provide my kids with a similar environment.
That’s not to say my childhood was perfect, nor were my parents totally neglectful – we had dinner together every night, they gave me a safe environment to roam around in, and I had a bedtime which was enforced. If I hadn’t been doing my homework, I’m pretty sure they would have been on top of me to do it, but I did it on my own. And I was under scrutiny for one thing, namely being mildly overweight, which caused me enough pain then that I understood scrutiny itself to be the source of insecurity.
I can’t help thinking that my childhood would have been a lot worse if my parents had fretted over how I spend my afternoons, even though it’s hard to imagine. It makes me wonder where I’d be now if I hadn’t had those afternoons to spend making unlikely friends, taking on jobs cleaning houses for cash, buying books to read, and generally speaking deciding who I was going to grow up to be.