virtual children by Scott Warnock

Shout it out: I’m a good enough parent, and I don’t care

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Has there ever been a time when there was such a hard-charging fury to be a great parent? Well, maybe it’s always been like this (see what Tolstoy thinks below), but many observers do see the rise of a stifling kid-centric worldview. Could it be that true greatness in raising kids is measured by a smaller yardstick than we realize?

Last year I read “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” by Lori Gottlieb in The Atlantic. Gottlieb a therapist and parent herself, talked to many psychiatrists and experts about children to weave together a fascinating narrative about the over-protective, over-involved modern parent. For instance, child psychologist Dan Kindlon told her that if kids don’t experience painful feelings, they won’t develop “psychological immunity”; Kindlon describes how our civilization is about confronting and dealing with the imperfect, yet “parents have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.’” Psychiatrist Paul Bohn tells Gottlieb how parents go to great extremes to avoid having their kids encounter unpleasantries like anxiety or disappointment. Jeff Blume, a family psychologist, explains that a kid “needs to feel normal anxiety to be resilient” and that if we want our kids to be independent, “we should prepare our kids to leave us every day.”

Most sensible people would read the previous paragraph and get it. But it ain’t easy to let your kids consciously experience pain or suffering, even if it’s the old character-building kind. Geez, I have this memory of my now 10-year-old gleefully pushing around a toy dumptruck when he was about two. It slid out from under him, and he cracked his face on the ground. I knew he wasn’t going to die or anything, but my response was sub-cognitive, because as I write this I can still feel my anguish at seeing his bright, optimistic face laced with actual pain.

Yes, we get it, yet colleges are having trouble wresting parents away from their about-to-be freshmen (not the other way around), and when I worked as the director of a first-year writing program, I can tell you I dealt with parents who were explaining why students didn’t do anything in class for ten weeks or defending plagiarists or advocating for children who were disrespectful — really disrespectful — to their instructors.

I understand the reaction of “I don’t want my kid to experience distress.” However, if we take time to process, to turn a reaction into reflection, maybe we should ratchet it back — and stop feeling so bad for ourselves for doing so. Because this absorption with not just our kids’ success but our own sense of success as parents has so many troubling aspects.

Back to the dumptruck pusher. He was born at a time of tough time in my life; people aren’t lying: experiencing birth, death, job change, and moving all within four months of each other will apparently lead to a lot of stress. I had been so happy with my nearly two-year-old daughter, but the stress, as stress will do, switched out the excitement about child #2 with a dread and anxiety that I didn’t have it in me to be a great dad again. It was a grueling, self-flagellating time.

I paralyzed myself with excessive caring. Maybe we’re not unique, maybe some sectors of society will always be obsessed with their kids. For instance, Tolstoy wrote this not in 21st century America but in the 19th-century Russia of Anna Karenina: “… when we were brought up people went to one extreme: we were kept in the attic while our parents lived on the first floor. Now it’s the other way round: the parent in the lumber room and the children on the first floor. The parents, you see, have no right to live now. Everything is for the children.”

But maybe we can bring a little more perspective to the whole endeavor. Let’s amp it down. As a solution, I’m suggesting a little strategic apathy.

Say a child complains a teacher or coach is playing favorites? So what? It’s probably not true, but if it were, maybe the kids would learn the best lesson of their lives that year, navigating through some adult who wasn’t isn’t fawning over their every move. So what if little Chris scored a goal today? So what if they didn’t get a trophy this year? So what if they cleaned their rooms? — they’re supposed to! Can the real demonstration of love be in restraining this gushing desire to communicate praise — even though, dammit, you do think that crummy clay “statue” is the best thing you’ve ever seen. This is where we can really help them. Gottlieb points out “paradoxically, all of this worry about creating low self-esteem may actually perpetuate it.” Once kids hit the real world, they are indeed going to find out quickly that no one, no one, thinks their clay “statues” are as great as mommy and daddy do.

So we should screw up, blow our tops once in a while, go to dinner instead of one of their recitals, call them “knuckleheads” when they’re acting like knuckleheads. (You need restraint in your restraint, though: “shiftless knuckleheads” is crossing the line.)

Being mediocre and sometimes flawed may paradoxically be the ingredients of great child raising. It is admittedly tough to frame a slogan, let alone a philosophy, around mediocrity (observe the slim market for big foam fingers that say “We’re #2″). It’s an idea that’s going to take some getting used to, but the very greatness of a parent may lie in a touch of apathy, an understanding that the term “great” in this context means something quite different and perhaps a little less than what we thought.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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4 Responses to “Shout it out: I’m a good enough parent, and I don’t care”

  1. Thank you! I AM a great parent after all. I’m keeping this post as evidence to show to my four little brats when they are old enough to understand!

  2. Right on the money, Scott. I see it all the time in the parents of the kids I coach. Some of these boys have never lost a match in their life, it was the ref, a fluke, my bad coaching (maybe they’re on to something!), or simply an unfair matchup.
    I’m amazed at the lengths that parents will go to make excuses for their children NOT being perfect.

  3. Another great reflection on the over-parenting epidemic, Scott. After having had many career years of exposure to children and their parents and raising two daughters of my own, I am proud to say that loving ones children and teaching them to accept their flaws and assets, makes really great adults. Accepting responsibility for life’s situations is a learned skill and can only be taught by the ones closest to the child. Love isn’t synonymous with telling a child he/she is always right. Showing a child how to navigate negative situations and being responsible for personal behavior is a life skill that never becomes useless. Parenting is tough. The day you hear your own words of resolution come from your child’s mouth lets you know you didn’t over-parent but you taught responsibility and accountability for personal behavior.

  4. Scott, Scott, Scott,
    Well now you’ve caused me to make an about-face. I take back my previous post and can take a deep sigh of relief in knowing that I’m doing ok by my kids.
    My wonderful daughter (she really is, not just my opinion) this year had much JV time as a freshman in both soccer and basketball. She chafed at seeing others called up in soccer but did nothing. I suggested she speak with the coach. Ask what SHE could do to earn a spot on the big team. She didn’t do it, but found the gumption to see if it would help her EARN more playing time in basketball. What do you know, the coach didn’t have it in for her or out for her or anything. Quite the opposite – the basketball coach LIKES her but had some pointers to improve her game.
    Go figure
    Now this certainly is not exactly a life altering painful situation. If this is the worst that my amazing daughter (it’s been independently verified) has to deal with, then I think we’ll have to talk about her climbing out of her cocoon to put a bit more calculated risk in her life. There’s a fantastic world out there for our kids to experience. I’m betting that Paris – France or Texas – is much more fun to visit if they leave the protective bubble at home.

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