Sunday, March 31, 2013

Advice on how other people raise their children: proceed with caution

So here we have yet another childless guy handing out advice on what parents  are doing wrong, and why they should all just relax because it's really got nothing to do with them. Kids will turn out how they turn out, our nature is ingrained in us and there's not much we can do as parents to change or  modify it. It's a brave dude who wades into this debate wielding nothing more than an opinion.

[F]rom my vantage point, watching the kids of my three siblings and of my many peers grow up, I’m struck less by the genius or folly of diverse child-rearing techniques than by the way most of the children matured into who they seemed, from the get-go, destined to be.

I'm sorry, I didn't realise that Frank Bruni has a PhD in psychology. Despite the reams of research to the contrary he seems to be insisting that it's almost entirely nature that determines how we turn out. Why? No reason - well, no factual reason is provided, just it's kind of what he's noticed among his (no doubt middle class, white) relatives' and friends' kids. And really, (should I say Frankly? lol) I would be equally as unlikely to take his advice even if he did have children, because of the limitations of extrapolating what's good for us all on the basis of one's own experience.

So here's the thing. He gets it half right. We are all born with certain temperamental traits that aren't going to change no matter what we (or our parents) do. However, this is very different to saying that no matter how you parent a child, their outcomes will be the same. Bruni has a very eloquent, witty style. His argument is not only persuasive, it's funny. And I'm sure many readers will recognise themselves (or people they know) in his anecdotes. But 1 + 1 does not equal 5. Even though some  of his criticism is valid for some  parents, the alternatives he is suggesting are not. And neither does he take modern parenting in the context of modern life.

There is no accurate way of knowing how a whole generation of today's children (with their disparate circumstances) are going to "turn out"  because, quite simply, they are still children. We can't study something that hasn't happened yet.

Above all I’m confounded by the boundless fretting, as if ushering kids into adulthood were some newfangled sorcery dependent on a slew of child-rearing books and a bevy of child-rearing blogs. The counsel keeps coming, from every possible corner and from unexpected shamans. The actress Jessica Alba just produced a book, “The Honest Life,” which includes her take on mothering, and she noted pointedly in a recent interview that it’s more relevant than the tidbits proffered by the actress Gwyneth Paltrow in her online newsletter, goop.

It's true that this generation of parents has way more information immediately available to them than any prior. And with that information comes anxiety over whether we are doing it right. This is a double-edged sword. Why can't we just muddle along like we used to? There is more than a bit of revisionist nostalgia in this argument. Every generation has faced its challenges. In 'our day' there were no teenagers with mobile phones, but we didn't have access to the amazing raft of knowledge that kids these days have at their fingertips either. It's possible to deny a modern teen a phone, but don't kid yourself that you're harking back to a simpler time by doing so. Most of the other kids will have access to one and it's in this context that you're making your decision.

We also didn't wear seatbelts as much so more kids died in car accidents. Smacking and hitting children was  more socially acceptable. Our parents smoked indoors. As Maya Angelou says, when we know better, we do better. More information means more power, we just have to use it wisely.

Why all the choices — “What would you like to wear?”— and all the negotiating and the painstakingly calibrated diplomacy? They’re toddlers, not Pakistan. I understand that you want them to adore you. But having them fear you is surely the saner strategy, not just for you and for them but for the rest of us and the future of the republic.

If Bruni is going to use anecdotal evidence as the basis of his argument to scold modern parents then I can do the same to achieve the opposite. How about this: most parents I know are more engaged with their kids, more aware of their emotional state, and have access to more relevant information on current child development. Bruni despairs about families run as democracies, and children getting actual choices  - shock horror. He ignorantly asserts the (unfortunately commonly held) view that children do need to fear their parents a little, despite vast amounts of research which indicates that all fear-based parenting does is teach the child to try harder not to get caught.

About the feeding: explain to me what’s gained by the voluminous discussions, within earshot of little Edwin or Edwina, of what he or she probably won’t eat or definitely won’t eat or must somehow be made to eat, perhaps with a bribe. Any food that lands on the table after that much tortured preamble is bound to be eyed with suspicion and ultimately spurned, in part because it has ceased to be a vessel of nutrition or an answer to hunger at that point. It has become a power struggle: the parents’ wishes versus the child’s defiance. And the battle seems to end one and only one way. With chicken fingers.

I’M equally confounded by the all-encompassing praise. Not every kid is gifted at every endeavor, and I wonder about the wisdom of telling him or her that a bit of doggerel is Shakespearean or that a wan patch of warbling is an “American Idol” audition waiting to happen. I wonder why everybody has to be a winner. You can eliminate the valedictorians from high school but you can’t eliminate them from life, which metes out Super Bowl rings and stock options with an uneven hand, and is probably best tackled with some preparatory girding for that. Do today’s parents provide it?

I agree with his basic sentiments on not using food as a power struggle and also the dangers of over-praising. Again, there is a fair amount of research and debate on this within early childhood circles. I have to question, though, exactly what type of parent he is referring to when asking whether 'today's parent' provides the necessary structure that their children need. This is just another form of stereotyping. Replace the word 'parent' with a particular nationality or gender and the same generalization becomes laughable. Does 'today's woman' care too much about her hair? Does a Chinese person these days eat too much rice? How can we discuss 'today's parent' as though they were one homogenous group? Of course there are trends in parenting, as it has always been so. The way we act generally is influence by social mores. But can we get away from the "do better" school of advice? He seems to be referring to a particular cliched version of Western, affluent parenting, which he would do well to specify (if writing for the NYT is not specific enough).

So parents: cut yourselves some slack. Take a deep breath. No one false step or one missed call is going to consign your children to an entirely different future. Make sure that they know they’re loved. Make sure that they know their place. And make peace with the fact that you don’t hold all or even most of the cards. There may be a frustrating sense of helplessness in that realization. But there’s a mercy, too.

It's okay, parents, take a load off. Quit thinking so hard about allowing your children so many darn choices. This crazy notion you have that children should somehow have some agency in their own lives is just a product of your own self-involvement. Apparently you're all trying waaay too hard. It's really simple if you just follow his age-old, baseless advice.

Of course Bruni is entitled to his narrow, presumptuous opinions. I just don't think the 'mock and judge' style of advice-giving which relies on recognizable but by-now-tired stereotypes is particularly helpful. He just comes across as a kind of smartypants. He seems to be suggesting we should take the methods by which "we" (meaning he) was raised - no phone, fear-based, not being given an over-inflated sense of self, and  translate them into today's parenting. Just a few decades ago, not only was parenting not a verb, many fathers had much less involvement in their children's development. These days, things are changing and more fathers are getting to experience the benefits as well as the challenges of intricate and complex relationships with their children. When and if your turn comes, and you try to apply ye olde parenting philosophies, good luck with that, buddy. Let me know how you get on. And when you end up with the most spirited, never-sleeping, strong-willed child in the world, call me. So that I can read back every word of that piece to you and watch you eat each one.


  1. I am, in general, Not a Fan of articles that address "Parents" as a collective, as though we are the Borg. There are many ways to parent children, almost as many as there are, well, children (shocking, I know...)

    And I agree with you 100% - yes, we do have more information available now and it has the potential to be confusing, but it also has the potential to enrich the experience of raising children.

    1. Thanks for the comment Kathy! I do think it's okay to comment on certain parenting trends if they have been identified as such but grouping all parents together gets my back up too.

  2. I do not have a Phd in Psychology but I do have a masters and worked with children for a long time. I agree with much of what Frank Bruni says. I agree with you that information is valuable but it must be selected carefully and there is a lot of inferior information spread in the "self help " genre particularly. I think children need love, care and some clear boundaries but it is a great burden for them when they become their parents' raisin d'être. It worries me to see the batch of 20 year olds now in employment who cannot complete a task without continuous praise and monitoring. There appears to be a lack of self sufficiency and ability to self assess among too many of the young these days. (of course this does not apply to all). Anne Powles

    1. Hi Anne, thanks for your comment. Would you agree with Bruni that children should fear their parents? I agree that clear boundaries are important, but that's not to be conflated with fear and lack of choice IMO. The other thing that strikes me as puzzling is his conclusion that the way they turn out is pretty much predetermined by nature, which would contradict the argument that mollycoddling them or any other behaviour makes any difference anyway. Also in regards to your comment about 20 year olds, do you think this has been the pattern in parenting for a full 20 years? If so that is interesting. My generation (gen X) were accused of being slackers. We were kids of the 80s, the first generation to deal with divorce. We all turned out differently according to our circumstances IMO.

  3. The young are much better with predictive text. Sorry about my spelling mistake with "raison". Anne Powles

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