Before I had children I had rules about raising those children.
Snacking, for instance. I would roll my eyes and tsk to myself whenever a parent pulled out a bag o’ snacks and starting offering cracker shaped like goldfish or teddy bears to their whining youngsters.
My kids were going to have regular mealtimes! And bedtimes! And never use a pacifier! And know who’s boss! There would be no TV on school nights! Whining would never be rewarded!
I’m here to say that he is right. But not for the reasons he thinks.
His portrait of parents last Sunday was one of ineffectual boobs -- always muttering “last chance” to their children without ever following through; negotiating constantly with toddlers; endless puffing up their youngsters' self esteem; whipsawing between too controlling and completely out of control. Response from parents was quick and outraged. The latest, on the Atlantic's website yesterday was titled “Do Today’s Parents Need to Relax? Or Does Frank Bruni?”
“Over the course of 1,285 words,” Matt Gross writes, “[Bruni] rails at straw dads and straw moms, describing clichéd scenarios—a parent threatening ‘seven or eight’ last chances, a discussion of child eating habits ‘within earshot of little Edwin or Edwina’—that, while certainly plausible, don't quite have the ring of truth.”
With due respect to Gross, they sure ring true to me. Or, more to the point, they feel true. I have been that parent who has seen her best intentions evaporate when confronted with an actual child. I have had the out of body experience of watching as if from above while breaking nearly every rule I ever made.
I still carry snacks with me everywhere, a habit I got into as soon as I learned that my kids are angels when their blood sugar is stable and not so much when it isn’t. I stretched a reasonable definition of bedtime as I learned that one boy was non-functional with less than 12 hours of sleep while the other was born with the body clock of a wombat and got agitated and crabby if put in bed before he was able to sleep. The one who didn’t use a pacifier sucked his thumb, so his brother got a pacifier. Whining just plain wore me down -- they should use it against terror suspects at Guantanomo. So much easier to give in, particularly when exhausted (see kid who stayed up all night because of his body clock.)
While I agree with Bruni about his portrayal of parents, though, I take issue with most of the rest of what he says -- and, in the end, his right to say it. In his op-ed piece he describes himself as “baffled” and “confounded” by the inconsistencies and contradictions of the parents he sees around him. True, he doesn’t have children, he says, but believes he has “a valuable distance and objectivity as a result.”
No, Frank. You don't.
You have distance, sure, but it is far from objective and, as a result isn’t all that valuable. You have the opinions that everyone who isn’t a parent has before they become a parent -- the idea that this can’t possibly be as complicated as these poor saps are making it seem. But here is one of the few things I know for sure about parenting: everyone with kids was once someone without kids, so we know how things look from your side of the changing table. No one who’s never been a parent, though, can say the same.
So you just have to believe us.
Please take our word that “today’s parents” did not become such in a vacuum -- didn’t wake up one morning and say “I am going to become a caricature that Frank Bruni can have fun with today.” Yes, as a group we hover (too much) over our children, but we do so in the context of a world that is more complicated and threatening, that puts more pressure on them and therefore on us.
True, we spend far too much time discussing their every bite and morsel, activity and test score, success and failure. But understand that’s because every day there is a report or a study that tells us how much each of these things count.
And yeah, we worry too much about who is watching and judging. But that’s because so many people are. Heck, you certainly are.
Should you ever have your own Edwin or Edwina, I can’t say for certain that you would become exactly the kind of parent you find so contradictory and ineffectual. I can assure you of this, though -- you would be nothing at all like the parent you think you would be.
None of us are.