On over-parenting and letting go

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A friend recently pointed me to an opinion piece in The New York Times by Madeline Levine about the crisis in American parenting.  It’s a great piece, and well worth a read, especially because it confirms many of things my husband and I already do as parents.  Whenever anyone asks my husband to suggest parenting books, he tells them to find a book which describes exactly what you think a parent should do and go with it.  So I’m giving Levine a ringing endorsement.

In essence, Levine is suggesting that we need to step back a bit from the over-parenting that has become status quo.  The tiger mom and the helicopter parent are the most extreme versions of these trends, but she acknowledges that the urge to over-parent in today’s culture is great.  Here’s a rather random collection of thoughts on Levine’s article.

The lure of “great talents”

Levine suggests that the roots of over-parenting are our need to turn out children with “great talents and assured futures.”  Let me tackle “great talents” first.

Perhaps it’s because we’re academics or because we live in a small town in the Midwest or because of our particular circle of friends, but I have to say that rarely do I worry about whether our daughter has great talents.  I believe she does have some great talents, but probably none that will get her a full ride to Harvard.  She is quite social and generally kind and has (at least for now) an amazing sense of self assurance about herself and her place in the world.  She is quite intelligent and creative as well, but so far, she doesn’t seem particularly concerned about her grades.

As someone who comes from a family of over-achievers, I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t be encouraging her to be more concerned about her grades.  But we’ve concluded that if it’s just not something that she’s particularly interested in, wouldn’t pressure on our part just make her kind of miserable? She knows that we’re interested in her grades and that we expect her to do her best, but that’s as far as it goes.

The appeal of an “assured future”

As for an “assured future,” no one’s future is assured.  Getting into Harvard does not assure your future.  It is certainly helpful, especially if you value things like money and prestige.  But it doesn’t mean your child won’t end up in one of the nightmare parenting scenarios…addicted to drugs, homeless, in an abusive relationship.  Or just plain unhappy.

I believe our daughter will be financially okay in her future, mostly because that is one of the privileges of coming from a solid, middle class background.  You generally envision economic security for your child, and your own economic circumstances are more likely to make that come true.  But I expect there will be bumps along the way because that is life, and even if as parents we could protect her from those bumps, I’m not sure that we should.  A completely assured future seems to me like a slightly dangerous thing.

Learning to let go

Levine suggests that our parenting ideal should be the authoritative parent, who is “involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects her child’s autonomy.”  Makes it sound so easy, doesn’t it?

The great metaphor Levine uses is teaching our children to walk.  When a toddler is pulling herself up for the first time, cruising around the living room, we don’t berate her when she falls down.  But neither do we keep her from falling.  We know when it comes to walking that in order to learn, you have to fail.  Why do we forget that this is true of so many other things?

There are many times when I wish that parenting were as simple as me explaining to my step-daughter, very carefully and calmly, the wisdom I have gained from my own experiences.  That in the end it’s not worth it to wear uncomfortable shoes.  That you’ll probably be a lot less anxious if you give yourself extra time to get ready.  That there’s a direct relationship between how much you care about what people think of you and how happy you are.  In my dream scenario, she would listen, nod, and then be magically safe from all the unpleasant experiences that taught me some of these hard lessons.  But that’s not how parenting works.

Parenting is as much letting go as it is holding tight.  The terror is all about what happens when you let go.  What if they get hurt?  What if they fail?  What if they embarrass you?  What if they become someone who is not at all like you?   But the truth is that the things that happen when you hold on too tightly are just as bad.

Happy parent = happy kid

It takes a great deal of strength and courage and confidence to let go of your child.  You have to be in a good place yourself.  Levine concludes her piece with this:

Parents also have to make sure their own lives are fulfilling. There is no parent more vulnerable to the excesses of over-parenting than an unhappy parent. One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.

If so much of your own life is wrapped up in the future success of your child, then letting go is going to be a pretty hard thing to do.  As with many things in life, it takes some work on yourself and your own particular issues to be a good parent.

It may seem selfish to a lot of people to work on your own happiness when you have children, but truly, how else will they ever learn themselves how to be happy?  Because our kids don’t learn much, or at least not as much as we’d like, from those calmly articulated lectures we give them.  They learn from watching us.  They learn from our doing much more than they probably do from our telling.  If we can’t figure out how to be happy, how will they?

You can check out Madeline Levine’s blog and read more about her philosophy of parenting here

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