May 29, 2008

Gratuitous Domestic Observation

I'm rayther glad to see this. In an op-ed at reviewing Hara Estroff Marano's new book on the evils of over-parenting, A Nation of Wimps, Tony Woodlief cautions against "bring[ing] a bazooka to a skeet shoot":

Unfortunately, it's not just the parents aiming their elementary-school kids at Harvard and Stanford who draw Ms. Marano's fire. It's parents who don't send their children off to sleepaway summer camps. It's those nutty home-schoolers. It's women professionals who choose to be stay-at-home moms while their children are young and parents who prefer not to hand their infants over to a daycare center. It's cellphones, and globalization and American individualism.

Ms. Marano is fond of referring to "how things used to be," but she seems to idealize a sliver of American parenting history, one that started shortly after Gloria Steinem declared stay-at-home mothers valueless and ended before millions of women decided that Ms. Steinem and her crowd were saps. In the how-things-used-to-be category, it is helpful for us to remember that Teddy Roosevelt, the quintessential American anti-wimp -- he once killed a mountain lion with a knife -- grew up enjoying a close relationship with his parents, including extended family vacations (no summer camp!), home schooling (call the teachers' union!) and close contact even after he left for college (cut the cord, Mrs. Roosevelt!). TR's own children suffered similar "overparenting," yet they went on to be war heroes and successful citizens. American history teems with similar examples.

While some parents nowadays do intervene too quickly to solve their children's problems, their eagerness doesn't mean that, say, teens who rely on their parents for advice are necessarily overparented. Some stay-at-home moms have trouble letting their children explore the world, but many encourage it. My highly educated wife home-schools our four boys, for example, because she can accomplish in three hours what public schools need six to do poorly. Such efficiency gives our sons an extra three hours each day to build forts, go down to the creek in our backyard or give music recitals at a nursing home in town.

So Ms. Marano's criticism of those who don't suit her limited model of parenting goes too far.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly easy trap to fall into when bashing hot-house parenting. Certainly doesn't mean that the bashing isn't warranted, because it certainly is, but we should be careful about falling into antidotal stereotypes as well.

This is not to say that I wouldn't find Marano's book interesting. And indeed, as Woodlief notes, she lays her finger on what I believe to be the real problem:

But she scores a lot of points along the way. She notes that, even as parents obsessively strap bike helmets on their kids' heads and squirt antiseptic gels on their hands, the adults themselves cavalierly break up families with divorce and tolerate the rampant sexualization of prepubescent girls. In short, we're focusing on the wrong risks. Ms. Marano champions instead that delightfully old-school trait known as grit. Let children take risks, she insists. Let them learn from failure. Let them experience all the childhood freedoms and disappointments that are common in the lives of our nation's heroes. The college-admissions consultants can wait.

Emphasis mine. I think this is absolutely spot-on and is the truest statement of the absurdity of modern day parental culture.

Interestingly, it happens that one of the boys in the eldest Llama-ette's class was ragging her the other day about all the movies (mostly PG-13 and R action/adventure stuff) he's seen but that she hasn't. I won't go into detail, but suffice to say that this boy is terribly over-indulged by way of compensation for his parents' split. The Llama-ette told him that the reason she hadn't seen them was because her Dad wouldn't let her. The boy said something like, "Wow! Your dad must be insane! How can you live with someone that crazy?"

The gel became positively enraged, and was still trembling with fury when she told me about it that evening. But here's the kicker: she was furious not because of all the movies she'd missed out on, but because the boy had the audacity to insult me.

I was touched. To. The. Core. And as I am absolutely convinced that the single best protection a girl has against the pitfalls of the world is a strong relationship with her father, I was gratified by the feeling that, yes, I must be doing something right.

Posted by Robert at May 29, 2008 09:25 AM | TrackBack

Yeah, there is definitely two sides to the whole thing. I am amazed by the fredom I had as a child to go play, walk a mile to the store or ride my bike places, etc., and the level of trust my parents had for my friends' parents, neighbors, etc. Part of my freedom would be taken away today by parental regulation, but only about half of that additional regulation would be unwise.

We live in a far less civilized world today than we grew up in, and the excessive rules are a result of that, for good or for ill. If I were a parent, I'd put a helmet on my kid not because I'd necessarily worry about Johnny splitting his head open -- I'd do so for a far simpler reason, which is fear of the state. And I'd probably either home-school Johnny or send him to the strictest Catholic school I could find not because I'm an overprotective zealot, but because I fear what the state is teaching him.

I'd want more influence over my child's life not because I'm a control freak, but because I'd want him to a) learn proper conduct, and b) receive proper treatment. I'm not convinced of the capacity of the state or of the broader society to do that anymore. Our parents' generation could trust society; we cannot.

I also understand that my responsibility -- both to society and to little Johnny -- is to make him into as least as responsible a person as I am; hopefully better, if I could manage it. I'd hope to raise him so that he's not an Eric or Lyle Menendez.

No-fault divorce, the removal of the stigma of out of wedlock marriages, the notion that Heather may indeed have two Mommies, and that mommy may have a full time career that means little Johnny is warehoused for half the day and raised by strangers -- these are the downsides to having a great deal more personal freedom than our parents did. We often hear of the positives of our brave new world. We seldom hear of the negatives.

I'd prefer a society where I am shunned if I cannot live up to the code if it means that society has my back; that's a tradeoff I'm willing to accept, and that means I view the current age as a more barbarous one than the one our parents live in. Others view the price of a more regimented society (such as that of the 1950s)as being too high.

To me, we're heading to an age where people will have to draw some lines voluntarily in order to create societies that have some coherence. I think we'll eventually have isolated centers of civilization amidst a sea of barbarians. Once we lose the notion of a common normative good, we're left with Benedictine monasteries and pillaging barbarians. Me, I'll choose the monastery, metaphorically speaking.

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