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How Parenting Is Like Groundhog Day And Mad Libs

A study will come out, or an essay will be written, or a blogger will opine. Few will notice that the same was asked, and answered, days, or months, or years ago. Because for you, back then, it was just noise. You can't know what you don't know until you need to know it.
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The big story in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday -- and, as a result, on all the morning shows by Monday -- was titled "Puberty Before Age 10: A New 'Normal'?" Its author, Elizabeth Weil, went on to quote many of the same science and scientists that I'd quoted 12 years earlier, in another New York Times Magazine piece titled "The Making of an '8-Year-Old Woman.'"

Also on Sunday, the much talked about story on parenting websites was "No Joke, Some Schools Now Ban Best Friends." The "no joke" qualifier was necessary because it was April Fool's Day, and the concept did sound ridiculous. Unless, of course, you had read Hillary Stout's article in the New York Times Style section nearly two years ago, titled "A Best Friend? You Must Be Kidding" about how schools (and summer camps -- Stout's piece was written in June, when the summer-camp pieces always run) were discouraging BFFships because they led to tension when they inevitably imploded.

Writing about parenting is different than actually doing it. When you do it, you take things in the order that they come. Walking follows crawling which follows rolling over. There's no need -- in fact there's no way -- to really focus on how to deal with the problem of a child who talks back when you are still worried that yours isn't yet talking at all. The sleep deprivation of a nocturnal teen (Do Later School Start Times Really Help High School Students?) really isn't your concern when you are still sleep deprived (Sleep Training: Good Parenting Or Child Abuse?) yourself.

To write about parenting, though, you use a panoramic lens, not a close up. From this perch, the logic, and knowledge, and chronology of parenting doubles back and races ahead and folds in on itself. Parents give birth, and give in to tantrums, and give away brides -- all on the same page. Around here, a "child" is simultaneously 6 days, 6 months and 16 years old.

Sometimes this can feel a bit like Groundhog Day, a place with an endless loop of headlines like "How Much TV/Internet/Texting/Facebook Is Bad For Children?!" (The equally looping answer: Studies disagree, so just take everything in moderation.)

Other times it's more like a fill-in-the-meme version of Mad Libs. As in "A new mother was escorted out of a insert public place here yesterday for breastfeeding her infant." (Actually, the first one of these I remember reading was in 1997 by one Arianna Huffington. It could have been written today.)

Whatever your analogy of choice (Analogies! Are Our Kids Doing Too Much Homework? Should SAT Tutoring Really Start in Middle School/Kindergarten/Nursery?), the fact is we parents do not hear a question until it is OUR question -- and then, it is brand spanking new. (Spanking? Don't Get Me Started.) A study will come out, or an essay will be written, or a blogger will opine, and the crowd will chime in. Few will notice that the same was asked, and answered, days, or months,or years ago. Because for you, back then, it was just noise. You can't know what you don't know until you need to know it.

Wanting a girl instead of a boy? Here's what I had to say in 1999. And Allison Slater Tate in 2008. Devon Corneal last fall. For whoever comes next, it will be a lightning bolt of a question, pristine and urgent.

Unhinged by the tedium of motherhood? Jill Smokler's book on the subject came out yesterday. Betty Friedan's in 1963.

Every so often, the same writer will even repeat herself. I don't want to embarrass anyone else (Why Is My Teen So Embarrassed To Be Seen With Me?), so I will use my own memory lapses as an example (Forgetful? Is There Such A Thing As Mommy Brain?). Here's what I wrote in November 2009 about navigating the new landscape during a child's first visit home from college. Here' s me almost exactly a year later. It took a reader to point out that "you've already written this, Lisa." I guess the subject was on my mind, then it left, and eventually returned like a thought I'd never had before. Such is the nature of parenting. (KJ Dell'Antonia ran yet another version after she took over the Motherlode blog last year.)

All this revisiting, of course, is not the same as standing still. We are not the parents our parents were, nor are the parents of today's toddlers necessarily the same in tone and world view as the parents of today's teens. In part that's because the world keeps changing around us -- a recession here, a jump in technology use there, a spike in the competitiveness of college admissions. And in part it's the force all those repeated conversation nudging the needle a skootch at a time.

That said, one fundamental thing seems to stay the same -- the wide-lens reality that, for most things, "this too shall pass." Whatever something or other might have kept you awake way back when is likely to be a fuzzy memory by now. The road that once seemed treacherous turned out to be reasonably straight -- it's just that you were driving it in the dark, with your fog lights on.

My oldest son (What's Wrong With Having Only One Child?) called from college (The Cell Phone Is The New Umbilical Cord) a few days ago. He was writing a paper about a "genealogical trope" in a genre of literature. So a "trope" is a theme, right, he asked? (When Should Parents Stop Helping Kids With Schoolwork?) And "genealogical" means tracing how that theme wove its way through over time? More or less, I answered. (In Defense Of Helicopter Parents)

All the examples in the paragraphs above are the tropes of modern American parenting. Guilt and joy, safety and danger, the newfangled and the old-fashioned, doubt and certainty, black and white and gray. They weave through the generations, through the long days and the short years, jumping into sharp relief only when we are ready to see them.

Until then they are simply someone else's story -- old as time, and eternally new.