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.