Mormons and the Kindergarchy

A couple years ago I read this Weekly Standard piece by Joe Epstein. The subject is “kindergarchy”: rule by children. Mr. Epstein’s beef is that parents these days (“these days” starting about 30 or 40 years ago) pay too much attention to their kids, which is bad for both kids and parents, and worse for society in general. This isn’t a new idea, of course. Parents have supposedly been spoiling their kids rotten for, well, at least the last 30 or 40 years; the world keeps getting worse, and still we persist in making child-rearing the center of our adult universe. Go figure.

Understand that when the author talks about “too much attention,” he is not referring just to parents who take out second mortgages to buy their children ponies and designer flash cards. He’s referring to what the overwhelming majority of us consider normal parenting: helping Austin with his homework, taking Caitlyn to soccer practice, reading them bedtime stories and telling them how much you love them. It’s all too much, really. And it’s not that Mr. Epstein himself is guiltless in this regard; he just can’t get over how radically different this child-centered paradigm is from the way his own parents raised him and his brother.

His mother never read to him. His father never took him to ball games. They never advised him on where he should go to college or what he should study there. He came and went as he pleased, and they didn’t ask where he was going. In high school he played football and his parents never once attended a game, “and indeed I would have been quite embarrassed if they had.” They certainly didn’t consult experts on what forms of discipline to use or how to cultivate their infant’s budding genius. Shoot, he wasn’t even breastfed. And yet Joe Epstein was a happy, well-adjusted child who grew into a productive and decent adult.

The clincher is this: he wasn’t exceptional, and neither were his parents. That’s just the way people raised kids in those days: you fed and clothed them, taught them right from wrong, and sent them on their merry way. It wasn’t rocket science. You just did it. And here’s another thing: you didn’t resent all the time you had to spend with your kids, and you didn’t resent all the time you had to spend away from your kids because you spent just as much time with and away from them as the circumstances of your life required, and the kids were expected to have lives of their own. So why would you attend their ball games? That was their thing, not yours.

I’m only thirty-nine years old, but even I notice a marked difference between child-rearing duties of today and those of my parents’ generation. It is hard for me, whenever one of my kids asks me to play with him or her, not to think back on my own childhood and count the number of times my own mother actually played with me. In case you’re wondering, I can’t remember my mother ever playing with me. My father did sometimes, but my mother? I simply have no recollection of it. Perhaps she did it often enough that it just didn’t stick in my memory the way playtime with my dad did, but I actually think it more likely that I simply didn’t expect her to play with me, so the fact that she didn’t–or that she did so very rarely–was not remarkable enough for my brain to take account of.

It wasn’t that my mother didn’t spend any time with me and my siblings. She was our full-time caregiver, and she did all the stuff that full-time caregivers do. She fed us, drove us places, knew who our friends were and how we were doing in school, arranged for us to have music lessons, listened to our stupid problems, blah blah blah–she just didn’t play with us because she wasn’t our playmate, she was our mom. If we wanted our mom, she was there for us. If we wanted a playmate, we found a playmate. Which brings up another point: in my day, we didn’t have “play dates”; we just played, usually with whoever was available. Mom wasn’t expected to arrange our social calendar for us, either.

More recently I was having a discussion about this article by Erica Jong, in which she calls Attachment Parenting “a prison for mothers.” I think the way people choose to parent their children is their own business, but I must say, Jong has a point. When lifestyle choices like breastfeeding and cloth diapers and homemade (organic!) baby food and co-sleeping and baby-wearing are turned into moral issues–because they supposedly have lasting effects on a child’s physical and mental well-being–parents feel obligated to do those things, and not to be all old-fashioned or feministy (take your pick), but let’s be adults and acknowledge that mothers are more likely to feel obligated and also more likely to be the ones who end up doing all this stuff (for whatever reason), which may or may not be practical in terms of available time and energy, not to mention my personal favorite, sanity preservation.

I found Jong’s article provocative and interesting, but the related discussion I got into took the well-worn path of blaming patriarchy and/or sexism for the fact that affluent (relative to the general world population) women run themselves ragged and make themselves crazy trying to be perfect mothers. (Non-affluent women run themselves ragged just trying to get food on the table and stuff. Some of them may even go crazy as a result, but that’s not the topic of this post.) The general consensus was that men and corporations (run mostly by men–COINCIDENCE?) do what’s in their best interest, and their selfishness is what’s keeping women down, and even though this was not a conspiracy by any means, somehow they were clever enough (albeit not deliberately) to get women to think they’d done it all to themselves.

If you found that last sentence hard to understand, it’s because it was full of crap. I don’t buy for a minute that women beating themselves up for maternal inadequacy is the fruit of sexism. I think it’s the fruit of parental arrogance. As Jong writes:

Someday “attachment parenting” may be seen as quaint, but today it’s assumed that we can perfect our babies by the way we nurture them. Few of us question the idea, and American mothers and fathers run themselves ragged trying to mold exceptional children. It’s a highly competitive race. No parent wants to be told it all may be for naught, especially, say, a woman lawyer who has quit her firm to raise a child. She is assumed to be pursuing a higher goal, and hard work is supposed to pay off, whether in the office or at home. We dare not question these assumptions.

I know what you’re thinking. “Sister J, this is all very fine and good, but what does it have to do with flying an airplane?” (So to speak.) Well, I’ll tell you. We Mormons are very big on The Family and making sure our families turn out okay. No other success in life can compensate for failure in the home and all that. And while we are obviously not alone in thinking that our parenting determines our children’s outcomes, we are peculiarly invested in the idea that our parenting has eternal consequences; that is, we believe our families can be together forever, in the afterlife, if we all make the right choices and end up in the right place–otherwise, we may never see each other again. That’s hardcore, man. My question is whether or not this makes us more vulnerable, or maybe just particularly vulnerable, to “rule by children” or parenthood “prison.”

Clearly, parenthood requires sacrifice, and sacrifice by definition hurts. That’s how parenthood matures people. It forces us (hopefully!) to consider others’ needs before our own. (Ideally, marriage would accomplish this, but sadly, it’s a lot easier to ignore the needs of another grown person–who theoretically should be able to take care of him- or herself–than it is to ignore the needs of a helpless infant or a relatively-helpless child.) It forces us to do things we don’t want to do (unless we are just heartless brutes, in which case our children are usually taken away from us and cared for by people who give a crap). Parenting will give us wisdom–most of it won too late to make any difference to our kids, but still…wisdom–and, hopefully, it will make us more Christlike: more compassionate, more selfless, humbler and more submissive to God. This can only be accomplished if we feel the weight of the responsibility.

So how much sacrifice is required? Can we measure the quality of our parenting by outcomes, i.e. how successful (however we define success) our children turn out? Certainly we speak and act as though we can, but mark me down as a “no.” The scriptures are full of stories about righteous parents whose children didn’t follow in their footsteps, and if you don’t buy those accounts, surely you can find plenty of examples among people you know—perhaps even in your own family.

So, can we measure the quality of our parenting by how much of our time and energy our children consume? I doubt it. Different children have different needs, some more demanding than others, but generally they all have insatiable appetites for attention; they’ll take as much as we give, whether they need it or not. How much an individual child needs is something only God and, to some extent, the parents know. But I believe most of us prefer to err on the side of too much. It just seems safer. Even if our children turn out screwed up, at least we (and God) will know we gave it everything we had. And anyway, family—isn’t it about…time?

Certainly, parents of yesteryear–before the invention of washing machines and other labor-saving devices–couldn’t afford to give their children as much attention as today’s parents do. There was simply too much work to do. I have heard (or read) the argument that children these days–the infamous latter days–need more attention because these are especially valiant spirits (the few, the warriors saved for Saturday) who need special nurturing. (They must learn why they’re here and who they really are. They are not the ordinary; they’re fearlessly extraordinary. Their faith will ride through wind and tide and stormy sea!) It’s a reasonable argument, but I’m not sure I buy it. That doesn’t mean much, of course; I’m a bit of a tightwad when it comes to this sort of speculation. People used to say my generation was more special than the generations that came before. (Perhaps we were merely the Saturday Morning Warriors.) But all I could ever think was I wouldn’t have lasted ten seconds on the pioneer trail, so I sort of leaned toward the theory that my especially-lazy spirit was saved for the days of indoor plumbing. (All God’s critters got a place in the choir.) I don’t think today’s kids are any better than yesterday’s kids. Grumpy old people might argue that today’s kids aren’t nearly as good as yesterday’s kids, and I might tend to agree, since I’m getting grumpier and older by the minute.

People like to remind mothers of young children that there are seasons in life, that your children are only young once and there will be time later to do other things. Of course, none of us knows how much time one has. I’m all for cherishing the now, but part of cherishing the now is knowing that some opportunities only come during one season, whether it’s being with your family, making friends, furthering your career, or developing your talents before they stagnate and die. No one thing can always come first. There are ways to live a full life without getting married and having children. There are also ways to be married and have children and still not live a full life.

NOTE: I write from a female perspective, but I don’t want to make this about gender roles. Whenever people talk about Mormon women being oppressed because of the cultural pressure to have children and be full-time caregivers, I find myself thinking that both women and men are “oppressed” more by their children and by cultural expectations about parenting. It may be a necessary and/or benevolent “oppression,” but in any case, it doesn’t apply exclusively to mothers.

Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    I was watching my 6-y-o studying–very closely–two pictures in the Friend doing the “compare and contrast” thing. In both pictures, two kids are playing in the sand. In both, a woman (mother? grandmother?) is sitting quite far away reading a book.

    I have no idea if this was deliberate, but I was thrilled that the mother wasn’t playing in the sand. :)

  2. i don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to be the best mother you can be. if that means grinding your own baby food – great. if that means sitting down and playing dolls with your 4 year old – great. or, if that means just finding the time to tuck them in at night – great.

    i think what is most important is finding a healthy balance. no matter what your idea of of a “perfect mom” is – you still need to find time for yourself and your other priorities.

    the old saying still rings true today – “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” and to be happy – you have to find your balance.

  3. Excellent analysis of this perpetual question!

    Personally I don’t specifically remember my mom playing with me (she probably did, but…), I have so many memories of all of her own creative projects that she did for herself at home. And — if I didn’t happen to be playing Legos with my brothers — I could watch Mom, and perhaps help out. That was the coolest thing ever. Hers was a fantastic example, and I constantly keep it in mind as the sort of upbringing I aspire to accomplish with my own kids. :D

  4. Jennifer in GA says:

    When my oldest daughter was 10 months (and I was unknowingly pregnant with daughter #2) I read Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith J. Small, and it has probably been the thing that influenced me the most on the way I parent my children. Yes, even more so than the way I was parented, the gospel, friends, etc.

    This book looks at the way different societies raise their children and the way their cultures influence the decisions made regarding parenting. (For example, parents in the US raise their children differently than parents in Japan because they place a higher value on different things.) What I took away was that whatever decisions I made for *MY* children would be based on what I thought was in their best interest, regardless of what anyone else might think.

    It’s a was of thinking I stick by today, even though my girls are now 12 1/2 and almost 11, and it has rarely steered me wrong.

  5. jkimballcook says:

    Does Isaiah 11:16 count as a kindergarchy?

  6. I agree with so much in this post!

  7. Like you, I rarely remember my mom playing with me or being actually all that involved with my life, yet she was still a good mom!

    I love my kids; I love spending copious amounts of time with them, I love reading to them, I love cuddling with them, but I HATE playing with them (unless it’s an occasional board game with the family), and I refuse to do it. I also am getting crankier as I get older and as spring approaches I am more and more apt to say, “no, I can’t drive you. Ride your bike.” Kids need space and time to breathe, just like grown-ups and we’re really doing everyone a disservice by expecting parents to fulfill every possible role in a child’s life (caregiver, playmate, chauffeur, etc).

    Great articles and post, Rebecca.

  8. Jennifer #4 – I read that same book when my first child was born! It was indeed an eye-opener.

    jkimballcook #5 – I don’t know. I was thinking more of Isaiah 3:4.

  9. chanson, I’ve seen what y’all got up to with those Legos–my guess is that your mom was purely awestruck!

  10. I think Jong’s comment that it is, “a highly competitive race” to be apt. I wonder if parenting in the 50s to the 80s was more laid back because the children didn’t need to compete as hard for a good life. An average middle class American kid who graduated from college could do very well since there was little competition from the rest of the world to derail their train of entitlement. It calls to mind the Chinese mother post. Is it just a coincidence that Chinese power parenting arose in a culture with more than a billion competitors and fewer opportunities?

  11. Julie #1 – That reminds me of a conversation I had with someone who felt a little guilty because she’d read a book while she was nursing instead of “bonding” with the baby (whatever that means). It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t read while nursing–it was often the only time I had to read. I didn’t feel guilty about doing laundry, making a cheese sandwich or changing diapers while nursing, so why should I feel guilty about reading a book? Just because I enjoy it and it only benefits me?

  12. In 1965, Lorena Chipman Fletcher, wife of Mormon scientist Henry Eyring (often called “The Father of Stereophonic Sound”) was named American Mother of the Year. Of course, in the years that followed, she was regularly asked her “secrets” of wise parenting. My favorite of her answers: “I believe most children thrive under benevolent neglect.”

  13. Stephanie says:

    “I believe most children thrive under benevolent neglect.”

    I like this. I’ve referred to my own parenting as neglect parenting. But “neglect” is relative. “Benevolent neglect” sounds good. I will use that in the future.

    I think an interesting phenomenon is that as parents have been more intensive with their parenting and wanting to shape the perfect kids who will go on to live perfect lives, the kids are not necessarily as successful. They are not self-motivated. How can they succeed if they are coddled through life? The lesson I learned from my childhood (with lots of real, unintentional neglect) is that if I want to eat, I had better work to earn my bread. My uncle asked my mom once why her kids were so successful in school and in their careers. He was wanting to figure out how to motivate his own kids. My answer was “Fear”. I know what it’s like to be hungry, and I don’t like it. I hope my kids are self-motivated. I’m willing to let them fail a lot as kids to learn to work toward success.

  14. Any parents of a young only child out there — right now? Are any of these answers different for an only child? Does the standard Ensign advice rise and bake differently for an almost-childless family, than for a family practicing conspicuous reproduction? These are sincere questions.

  15. #12: Lorena Chipman Fletcher was married to Harvey Fletcher (often called “The Father of Stereophonic Sound”) not Henry Eyring (who was a chemist). She won American Mother of the Year mainly because she was married to a well known scientist, and was the mother to 5 high achieving (4 scientist) sons. I think, however, “benevolent neglect” was indeed her mothering philosophy. She left her sons largely alone to play together, fight each other, and compete endlessly with each other and their father, which eventually drove all of them to achieve academically at the highest level.

    I know — Lorena was my grandmother.

  16. Two thoughts come to mind about how the world differs today from 50+ years ago that lead to an inability to parent as our parents (well, as my parents, like Rebecca J’s) did:

    1. The labor-saving devices mentioned, among other things, have drmatically decreased the amount of work to be done in maintaining a household. That hasn’t just freed up time, it has also reduced (or perhaps largely eliminated) the requirement that parents and children work together to maintain the household. Unlike some who have commented, I have memories of playing with my SAHM mother, and great memories of talking with her about a wide range of subjects as I got older. But I also have a lot of memories of work — with her, with my father, under the direction of one of them, etc. I am confident (and chagrined) that my children have many, many fewer such memories. My house, my yard, my lifestyle simply do not contain many of the work opportunities that I had growing up. So I had a tendency to substitute playing together (or carrying children to activities) for working together.

    2. The idea that children can find their own playmates and develop their own activities is no longer feasible. Why? Because the world is a more dangerous place — or because we have a better understanding of the dangers that are present? Because in the neighborhood where my children grew up there were few if any other children at home during the day or right after school — perhaps because both parents were working and kids were in daycare, but perhaps because other parents concluded that their kids needed organized activities and removed them from the neighborhood at times when free play was possible? I don’t know why, but the change is a reality we as parents had to deal with. We did the best we could, despite our own golden memories of days spent chasing through yeards and fields organizing sports (even in a city rec league — without parental involvement or coaching!), etc.

  17. #14 Swisher,

    I have a two and a half year old daughter and would say that a lot of this is relevant. I will say, however, that it seems to me as an only child, she needs her parents to play with her from time to time, since she has no other clear playmate. In my mind, it would be much easier to apply benevolent neglect if she had a sibling of at least toddler age. But in most cases, 10 minutes of playing with her is enough to satisfy her and she moves on to other things.

    I also try to make sure that some of our time spent together is on my terms. For instance, “she and I” just put up some dry wall together. It mostly consisted of her handing me the drill when I needed it, and playing with it when I didn’t. But she seemed content to play with my tools and explore their uses, and I got something useful done. Seems like a win-win to me.

  18. Thomas Parkin says:

    Nice counter-point to the Chinese Mother bit.

    I think the formula for kids personalities is something like this: dad’s personality+mom’s personality+whatever you bring to the table+events in the chaos = you. We actually have only partial control over one thing – the expression of our personality in the family drama. But, we think we also have control over events in the chaos. When we are controlling events in the chaos all we are actually doing is expressing our personality in the family drama. Events in the chaos will proceed apace. So, if you want your kid to become an anxious neurotic, like you, keep it up, you’re doing fine.

  19. I found this to be very interesting. I’m a teenager, but apparently I’m the product of antique parenting. I just realized that I have no memories of my mom playing with me besides board games. My dad did, but the idea of my mom playing with me just seems odd. Most of my days were spent at school or playing with neighborhood friends until it got dark. When I figured out what play dates were I remember thinking that that was a pretty bizarre idea. Despite my “neglect” I think I’m turning out pretty good.

  20. Thomas Parkin says:

    As an addendum: If you want to kid to work hard, you work hard. If you want your kid to be kind, you be kind. If you want your kid to go to church, you go to church. Etc. None of this makes for any guarantee, at all, but it is at least is a contribution that can count.

    I was paying for my groceries at the store the other day, and a suddenly became conscious of myself taking coins out of my pocket and slowly counting through them _exactly_ as I’ve seen my dad do it many many times. I could actually feel him doing it while I was, to my shock and horror, doing it. Your kids are going to mirror a lot of what they saw you do, whether they, or you, like it or not.

    I’m basically just a weird amalgam of my parents with a few extra IQ points and a handful of relatively interesting experiences sprinkled in. In most ways I still fail to be their equal. But, as I heard one man say, along with the sadness he felt when his father died, he also felt a great deal of relief, like he could finally breathe, like he could finally be his own man. Our kids may feel something like that when we pass, too.

  21. Thanks, Benjamin.

  22. Thomas Parkin says:

    And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon …

  23. Amen to JrL’s point #2.

    I find the concept of arranging play dates for kids revolting, and yet, for the little ones with no after-school activities (or facebook, or texting), they’d get no peer-interaction at all we didn’t organize it. Even if we let our kids run loose like I used to (which we wouldn’t, just ask my wife), nobody else does. Personally, I don’t think it’s any more dangerous where I live now than where I grew up, but you’d think there were a pedophile every other street. Also, families are smaller so the density of kids in a given area is generally smaller as well.

    On the other hand, there seem to be plenty of teens in the area I live who enjoy plenty of benevolent neglect, and some of them look homeless and drive really nice cars. Are they turning out better than their parents?

    Maybe it’s just me (or So Cal).

  24. I don’t think the world, or your neighborhoods, are any more dangerous than they were when we were kids. I had a neighbor who it turned out had a garage full of cocaine when I was a kid. They busted him.

    My parents were very much hands-off parents, but then, they weren’t baby boomers. They were older. My parents were older than most of my friends’ parents.

  25. My mother used to call her parenting strategy “read and feed” when people asked. I have endless memories of her reading to me and we always had family dinner together. Other than that, we were on our own to entertain ourselves for the most part. It was wonderful.

    #14- I’m a parent of a single young child (20 months old) now and I deliberately leave her alone to play for large chunks of the day. I think it’s good for her and she’s come to enjoy it so much that she’ll push me out of her room if I come in while she’s in the middle of something. I also do what Benjamin described: if she wants to play, she’ll “help” me dust, scrub floors, etc.

    There was a first-baby boom in our ward around the time she was born and every single one of the women I was pregnant with has already had a second baby. It exhausts me to think of it but sometimes I think that’s what they’re going for– exhausting. If your life isn’t filled up with baby– if you don’t have someone to hold in Sunday School– then you’re not giving up enough of yourself.

  26. Morgan Lee says:

    I’m a new parent and I wonder about this play date thing, even though it does not yet apply to my 4-month-old. When I was in elementary school (the 80s), my parents did not arrange my social calendar, but we didn’t run loose either. My friends and I arranged our *own* play dates. Maybe I would come home from school and ask my mom, “Can Kristi come over?” If my mom said yes, I would call Kristi myself, who would then ask *her* mom if it was okay, and then one of the two moms would do the driving. Why is this not feasible anymore (at least between kids who have SAHMs)?

    My mom’s own parenting style was somehwere between attachment and benevolent neglect. She was born in 1940 and had her babies between 1965 and 1975. I only recall her playing the occasional game of “Go Fish” with me, and I have no recollection whatsoever of her ever reading to me. But she generally kept close tabs on where I was, with whom, and what we were doing. And when the two of us spent time alone together, it wasn’t to play with my Barbies, but to look at old family pictures and have conversations about my ancestors. I was very curious about those things, and my mom liked to talk about it (and we weren’t even Mormon!). And the lack of reading seemed to have no ill effect on my reading habits, as I became an English teacher.

    But now I am a new mom and a SAHM, and I obsessively Google everything, which sometimes wreaks havoc on my sanity. Just about anything you read online these days makes you feel that if your baby isn’t suckling at your breast 24 hours a day, cries any longer than the 5 seconds it takes for you to walk over to him, or for that matter is even left alone for an instant such that the crying even happens in the first place, that he will grow up to be a sociopath who never felt his mother’s love. I’ll have to think about this “benevolent neglect” idea and find some balance so I don’t lose anymore of my mind.

  27. I am the parent of a 3 year old. My wife is SAHM and our son has difficulty playing by himself so she usually has to entertain him full time and when I get home I take over until bedtime. In fact I can hear them right now playing with blocks. He has no other child to play with in the area so we are on our own but the point made is still correct. In the long run I don’t think it will harm him either way if we are a bit more neglectful in allowing him to watch TV or something else, but our sanity is often tested.

  28. I agree with #16 – playdates are not some weird parental control freak thing. It’s dealing with the reality that, while your kids may be free and available to run around the neighborhood after school, there are no other kids available to do it with them. They’re all either at daycare or organized activities, or there just aren’t any kids their age in the neighborhood.

    In the days of big families, parents who were 20 years apart in age could have 1 or 2 kids overlapping and if there were several families with lots of kids in the neighborhood, that usually meant a large age range to mix and mingle, everyone could find a friend. When everyone has only 1 or 2 kids, it’s quite likely that all the kids in the neighborhood could end up 5 years apart in age.

    Larger families I think also means less parent involvement per child b/c it’s impossible to hover over all the kids, there are too many of them. And the kids in a large family always have an available playmate, even if it’s a sibling.

  29. Fascinating, Rebecca. I wish I could say more, but I’m too busy being ruled by my kids.

  30. Playdates are certainly not a weird parental control freak thing, and I didn’t mean to imply that they were–only that it’s yet one more thing that parents are expected to be in charge of these days. The fact that it’s kind of unavoidable just makes it all the more annoying.

  31. I always wondered why the choicest spirits are supposed to be so troublesome to raise–I just don’t get that.

    I agree with much of this. Of course, there are parents who fail to set boundaries and raise children who believe that the whole world revolves around them because that is what their parents taught them. I think it is easy for Mormons to fall into this–like someone said, we just want to give enough effort that if something goes wrong, it won’t be our fault. I don’t think it is a very healthy dynamic. Then there are the parents who don’t devote enough of their resources to their kids–frankly, I think many big families can fall into this. Both parents and kids can miss a lot with this.

    Fortunately, there is a wide breadth between these two extremes where the rest of us can go right, or at least not do much harm.

    FWIW, neighborhoods where kids can play freely exist, but you do have to choose them. My older kids are 6 and 4 and they travel freely with a pack of similarly aged friends among their houses–about 6 on our block this year, adding a few each year as new kids age in to the playing independently crowd (mostly marked by being able to cross our street on their own). We sacrifice new construction, large yards, two-car garages, and a bunch of other amenities to live here, but the society of friends for my kids is worth much more to me. I would be surprised if similar set-ups weren’t available in most metropolitan areas, but like I said, you have to find them.

  32. In the days of big families, parents who were 20 years apart in age could have 1 or 2 kids overlapping and if there were several families with lots of kids in the neighborhood, that usually meant a large age range to mix and mingle, everyone could find a friend. When everyone has only 1 or 2 kids, it’s quite likely that all the kids in the neighborhood could end up 5 years apart in age.

    Larger families I think also means less parent involvement per child b/c it’s impossible to hover over all the kids, there are too many of them. And the kids in a large family always have an available playmate, even if it’s a sibling.

    Sometimes I think society would make a LOT more sense if we only had families with 6-10 kids, and families with zero kids. 2 kids per family is insanely wasteful. It’s just enough time out of the workforce to ruin the mom’s career, but not enough decades of work to make it worth not having a career at all. There’s no re-use/hand-me-down of items in the family. Every family needs a reasonably spacious house and yard, but then these spend decades largely vacant because they are only most heavily used by kids. Kids miss out on the fun of having many siblings, learning how to share, etc. Parents can get away with having much less structure in the house, which I think all in all is detrimental to kids (but I can’t be bothered to super-structure when it just doesn’t have the payback with only 2 kids.) Parents are totally inexperienced for the entire time parenting, instead of being inexperienced for 2 kids and then experienced for the next 4-8 kids. And the list goes on and on.

    I’m not serious. I’m just saying, it would make a certain twisted kind of sense.

  33. if we only had families with 6-10 kids, and families with zero kids

    (Actually, I think around 10 there is a high likelihood that kids aren’t getting what they need from the parents anymore. So make it 4-8 instead?)

  34. This need to be constantly, taxingly parenting was definitely one of the reasons I stopped at two kids. If I didn’t feel like I had to give so much of myself maybe I would’ve felt I could handle more, but right now I feel like I’m just barely keeping afloat. And maybe it makes me selfish, but whatever. I think my family is happier this way than we would be with lots of us and stressed parents (more stressed, anyway). But that wasn’t the only factor, so who knows?

    As to playdates, those are much less for my kids than they are for me. Mine are both too young to be in school and being at home with them and no one else drives me insane. I’d much rather call up a friend and invite their kids to play with my kids so we can chat and get a moment of adult conversation. Plus, the more kids there are in the throng, the less likely they are to come crawl all over you. When my kids are older I absolutely will not be doing this anymore. They can schedule their own social calendars.

  35. I have mixed feelings about this subject. I was a child who could have benefitted from more individual attention from my parents, but I was the oldest and my parents were caring for a severely disabled child.

    I have discovered that I’m a pretty good nurturer/mentor type for my children. That, and, I really like my children. I’m very good one-on-one. I like what they do. I enjoy their activities. What would I do otherwise? Hang glide with the EQ? No thanks.

  36. I’ve concluded that the question of what kind of adults our kids turn out to be is largely determined by nature, and nurture just tweaks at the margins.

    I remember some recent research which purported to show that reading to your kids doesn’t actually do much as far as turning them into scholarly types, but they did find a correlation between kids just watching their parents read (to themselves) and kids turning into readers. The conclusion was that seeing parents read, not being read to by parents, was the key. But I suspect that the actual key is just being born to bookish types. So long as you’ve got a purebred poindexter, you can raise him like Kaspar Hauser and he’ll still do pretty well on his SAT.

  37. We’ve found the kindergarchy issue to change depending on where you live in the country. We loved living on the east coast and didn’t think anything of the fact that the whole neighborhood judged the neglectful parents who let their 9-year-old son play by himself outside all the time (I think he even stayed in his driveway, for the most part). And then we moved to the midwest where kids walk to school by themselves, ride their bikes to the corner store by themselves, go sledding by themselves, have a paper route they deliver by themselves.

    As Conifer said, I did miss the lack of playdates for me – moms here tend to have each others’ kids over “to give you a break”, and not invite each other over. So I did miss all the socialization that went on when we lived on the east coast. But I can spend a lot more time on hobbies since I don’t have to be with my kids 24-7 in order to be a good, safe parent.

  38. Cynthia, you hit on all my anxieties about having only two kids.
    Nevertheless, I say ditto to everything Confier said.

  39. RJ, your posts are always a little delight for me to read.

    My wife’s parents (especially mom) devoted their lives to their kids. That was the end all be all of their existence. When the second to last moved out, they got divorced. I’m not saying its direct cause and effect, but I do think there’s something there. Also, my MIL still tries to make her world revolve around her 28/26/22/18 year old daughters, and it tends to be extremely taxing on those daughters.

    My parents had decent bounderies. We did plenty together, but they also had their trips to themselves and weren’t afraid to let us be on our own. My mom went back to work when I entered first grade, and so for 3 hours every day my sisters were in charge. They also sent us to my grandparents house (“The Farm”) for two weeks every summer just to be rid of us. We were completely unsupervised there. My parents had their rough patches, but they’re pretty happy together these days.

    I grew up in a little town of 700 people total, and we had the run of the town as kids. Once we turned 6ish, we were let loose to do whatever we wanted: mountain biking, sledding, snow forts, basketball, football, racing boats down the ditch. It was glorious.

    On the parallel issue of number of kids: My parents had two (my older sisters) then it was 7 years before they had me (possibly I was an accident . . . but I think the miscarriage/cancer probably had more to do with it). So for about 10 years I was raised with siblings, and I loved it. Then for 8 years I was an only child. Having had both experiences I can say definitively, being an only child sucks. In a perfect world I hope to have 2 children, wait 4-5 years for them to grow up a little, and then have 2 more and let the older ones raise them. We’ll see how it goes.

  40. Thanks for catching my glitch, Tina (#15). Fletcher and Eyring did share connection, but not THAT one!

  41. Moniker Challenged says:

    #15– TinaJ, we’re vaguely related! Harvey’s sister Eula was my great grandmother. Give my best to the conspicuously successful side of the family ;-)

  42. StillConfused says:

    It is always interesting to watch the dynamics play out at church. There are always these wild demon children who run rampant during church. But the mom just talks to them with that annoying primary voice and zero consequences. Hence, no surprise, the children never get better. (I do see that it wanes a bit as the kids get older because of peer pressure.)

    I have also seen children who never once made their own breakfast before they went to college or on a mission. College boys who still have their mothers do their homework for them. etc. The mothers seem proud of that but to me it sounds kind of pitiful.

    I viewed parenting as the gradual progression of the child having more independence and responsibility over their lives as they aged.

    In my career, I see grown children (thirties, forties, etc) still behave inappropriately because of a lack of personal responsibility. It is very difficult to watch.

  43. Moniker Challenged says:

    Not too long ago i was approached by my boss (oh the joys of living and working in Utah), who wanted to know:

    A- Why I didn’t have any kids yet and how many I was going to have
    B- Why his daughter, a neighbor of mine, had a tubal ligation after a paltry three children. He is the father of ten. (I think she had some complications–including emergency c-section– with her last pregnancy actually, but apparently he didn’t think this should have factored into the situation)

    I was a bit befuddled by the wild inappropriateness of the discussion. The speech I did muster was related to this post. Unfortunately the expectation nowadays is that you spend every waking moment molding your kid’s brain into Harvard material. Oh, and protecting them from child snatchers and freak accidents. They’re not supposed to go outside, they’re not even supposed to play in padded cells without supervision. Constant vigilance! Maybe y’all can handle helicoptering 10 kids at once, but I can’t.

    Interestingly, the kids in my poorish neighborhood are always roaming the streets in packs. Apparently because child snatchers don’t want poor kids or kids of color. Probably none of them will go to Harvard, but I don’t know if that’s because they’re not being enriched enough, or because their genetic and social stock is why they live in a poor neighborhood.

  44. From my experience being in a large family (seven kids) and my observations of other families, I’ve come to the conclusion that generally kids are happier when in larger families. Our culture tends to depict siblings as always bickering, and that does happen, but having siblings to play with is a big benefit, especially if you have room to play in. I fondly remember me and my brother and sister going out into the woods near our house and playing in the creek for a few hours by ourselves. If your neighborhood doesn’t have many kids, there is this way to give your children playmates.

  45. nat kelly says:

    Dang, Rebecca, you are such a good writer. You could have the lamest ideas ever, and I’d still love to read them. But couple your writing with such an insightful analysis of this important topic, and I just relish the words. Thanks for sharing.

  46. nat kelly says:

    Oh, and in my family of crazy, sometimes absent, sometimes high, sometimes involved parents, with 7 kids who all turned out incredibly different, put me in the camp that says kids pretty much decide who/what they’ll be; parents can influence, but they neither make nor break a child’s outcome (except perhaps in cases of extreme abuse/neglect, where basic nutritional needs aren’t being met or trauma is occurring that takes significant time to heal from).

  47. I’m surprised no one has suggested a possible link between this post and BCC’s concurrent “busy bishop” post. Isn’t it possible that mothers of the past couple of decades being so wholly consumed by their children’s activities and development part of the same busyness-replacing-leisure-as-a-sign-of-the-privileged phenomenon? Does arranging children’s every waking moment take the place of management at the office? Does being seen by one’s peers (at play dates, at the various activities to which mothers taxi their children, in comparing notes with other parents about best tutors or affordable music lessons) a way of saying, “Look, I’m engaged in important work!” and getting the recognition everybody craves for doing important work?

    Don’t get me wrong. I recognize the importance of childrearing and am not saying that any of the busyness is hypocritical — just wondering if it hasn’t become exaggerated as part of the same wider phenomenon.

    I can be safely ignored. I’m childless myself, and was raised as a free-range child of the ’60s. My mother read to me and had me read to her, but most of our considerable together time was spent with her teaching me to cook and type and crochet, not playing with blocks or watching me dress up as princess.

  48. I seem to have left out a number of auxiliary verbs in that comment and hope you have the decoding skills to guess what I meant.

  49. We play with our daughter, but have on numerous occasions told her that it is not, in fact, our job to entertain her.

    We co-slept and nursed on demand. Five years later, five years older, I couldn’t do it with our second. We are Baby-wise converts.

  50. Ardis–GREAT point. I’ve seen many mothers and a few fathers do just that.

  51. #38: Emily, if it’s any consolation, I only have two kids too. And they’re twins, so there was 2x the baby gear and clothes and toys AND no hand-me-downs at all! My I-don’t-know-the-first-thing-about-babies phase was inflicted on two instead of one, etc… Oh well! :)

  52. Cynthia, I love your #32! If I might summarize, it would be more efficient if people specialized in being parents or not. Having everyone do it halfway is less efficient. A very economic-sounding analysis (at least to me–where is Scott B. when you need him?). Certainly as you, you’re not serious, but I love the analysis nonetheless.

    Rebecca, great points in the post. I think you’re precisely right that this pressure to mold our kids perfectly is particularly strong for Mormons because we’re so concerned with eternal family-related consequences. As a parent, I’ve found the book The Nurture Assumption, the argument of which is well summarized by gst in #36, to be most comforting.

  53. Yep. Specialization and division of labor!

  54. #53 – Kind of like equal partners picking primary responsibilities but helping each other within those responsibilities? ;)

  55. I would think that as a parent, ideally you pay attention to the spirit, each child’s individual needs, your own good judgment of what you can/cannot do and what the current times may require to keep your kids safe, healthy and happy. I think the greatest folly of parenting is to think that one method or way fits all, or that what worked at one point with one child will always work etc. Times change, people change. And flexibility is probably a big factor to success. That, and realizing that sometimes (or often) no matter what you do, there is still agency, personality, etc. that you can’t really influence.

    As for the old-school parenting itself, I’m always wary of the argument that “we all did it like that and our kids turned out fine”. That reminds me of the logic from my mom that all of us kids slept on our bellies as babies with pillows under our heads, and fluffy big blankets on top and none of us died of SIDS. True. We also didn’t die in the car even though we didn’t have car seats and all. But, that’s hardly evidence that those methods were the best. That hardly accounts for all the kids who did mysteriously die in their sleep, or in a car crash etc. Maybe most kids grew up fine – but maybe they didn’t do as well if we did some solid research into that other than anecdotal evidence.

  56. I agree with this post insofar as I think there is far too much control and micromanagement over every minute of many children’s lives these days, and little room for children to develop on their own, in freedom. I see this not only coming from parents, but schools as well, as children are being loaded with more and more homework and structured after-school activities, and having less time for free play. I think it is very important for healthy development for children to have some amount of unsupervised play, and even to do dangerous things, up to a point.

    I do not, however, look to my parents or grandparents generations as good examples of raising children. When they were children, child abuse was just considered normal parenting. Their generations were quite racist, sexist, and homophobic as well, and they try to pass their messed up values on to us. Of course I realize this is a broad generalization, and that there are some notable exceptions to what I am saying, but those exceptions are just that, exceptions. The WWII generation thought that the best way to make a boy into a “man” was to send him off to war to go kill whoever his government decided was his enemy. That thick-necked generation went on to staff draft boards forcing the young men of their children’s generation to go fight an idiotic war in Vietnam. Many of those men came home with PTSD, which led to much domestic abuse and unhappiness, not to mention the untold misery they inflicted on people in Southeast Asia.

    Concerning the Church, my grandparents generation thought it was right that black men shouldn’t have the priesthood. My parents generation is glad that the racist ban was lifted, but they won’t admit that the ban was racist, just that it was a mystery of God’s will (“I don’t know why God wanted it that way…”)

    I could go on in this vein. What I’m trying to say, however disorganized my thoughts are, is that the older generations weren’t so great, and perhaps there are better models of parenting to look to. I am always skeptical of the idea of the past being better than the present. What past was so great? The days of segregation? The days when sexual harassment in the workplace was just business as usual? The days when Church general authorities condoned violence against queer people? The days when fathers beat their sons in order to keep them from “turning gay”? I know that many from those generations claim that their parents didn’t [fill in the blank], and yet they still turned out fine; but I don’t think they turned out fine at all. For example, I have close associates whose parents instructed them to “never date outside of your race.” Anyone who would give that kind of advice to a teenager did not “turn out fine”. The parenting methods of those ignorant generations are better left in the past.

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