The Science Experiment Called Raising Children
The comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, has this bit where he talks about the process of putting his children to sleep. He calls it the “Grand Jubilee.” The fanfare, routine, negotiating, songs, books, conversations and ceremony that need to be performed to put his children to bed is less parenting than it is pageantry. When reflecting on his own childhood, Seinfeld states, “You know what I got when I went to bed? Darkness.”
The goals and general philosophy of parenting have shifted radically in American life over the past seventy years, where children have become much less part of a solar system, where gravitational forces push and pull these bodies of the family toward and away from each other in some desired healthy balance, to where the children are the sun and everyone and everything needs to be in alignment with them. There has been plenty of language bandied about to describe this phenomenon in whole and in parts, helicopter parenting, snowplowers, lawn mowers, but the real end game of all this undue attention is to attempt to socially engineer children, and in large part so that they can become the reflection of our wonderfulness as parents. Our children become like the assigned science project that our children were supposed to do, but we end up staying up all night putting together. Our children learn nothing but at least they get the great grade and everyone thinks they (and their parents) are smart and terrific.
As children become so much the focus of our parenting attention, monitored, over programmed, endlessly entertained and tinkered with, schools become increasingly misaligned from parenting and the home. Whereas the home, community and school used to place children in the context of a larger ecosystem that needed a balanced approach, the child finds herself at the center, defining and typifying whether this ecosystem is successful or not.
“Why isn’t my child’s needs coming first, as they do in our home?”
In context to schools, parents are expecting that teachers and school leaders will respond and react to their children’s needs as they do at home, as if that child is the singular concern of the entire institution, all day long. It still astonishes me that, when we have a major behavioral issue in school, I need to explain to the parents that the teachers cannot constantly stop everything they are doing to wind down their child from another episode. This is both implausible and impossible. There are 20-30 other students in the classroom and the adult in the room is not there to just take care of their child. Why this still surprises me is that the parents went to school! They know what it’s like. But even so, it doesn’t matter.
“Why isn’t my child’s needs coming first, as they do in our home?”
Schools, particularly private schools who need to compete in a marketplace for parents who can afford tuition, do not help their cause. In order to market themselves to this generation, they make promises beyond the scope of reality and which feed into this new way of parenting. The pitch goes beyond the small classroom size and extra-curriculars available during the school day. These schools are promising to meet the needs of individual learners, to address the needs of the whole child, to even create an individualized educational plan, whether for advanced learners or those with learning challenges. While there has been a proliferation of schools over the past 30 years that specialize for gifted children or for those with diagnosed learning issues (this is definitely a good thing) a school that falls into a more traditional, non-specialized model has no business selling what they do not have to sell. And, ultimately, they get themselves into a lot of trouble when issues arise, whether academic, social, or emotional and the school cannot keep these personal concierge promises.
Schools also find themselves with such a matrix of family approaches and values that is hard to get a bearing. I would argue that, due mostly to economic circumstances, parenting has turned into a much more diverse and complex practice.
Middle and lower income families are more likely to stick to traditional conceptions of parenting where mothers, even in two income families, are still the center of the parenting universe. Mothers are still seen as responsible for most of the managerial aspects of raising children with the fathers as helpers instead of primary players. Men are still being driven by the provider narrative in traditional homes and mothers, therefore become the negotiators and navigators and interactors with schools. Male involvement with children is always glorified but also perceived as optional. Male presence and attentiveness are not seen as mandatory.
Ironically, in more upper income homes, particularly with women more primarily invested in their careers, the expectations for father involvement in all aspects of raising children goes up. These parents have more resources to throw at their children, the arms race for success becomes more palpable in their communities and school environments, and the children become more of the gravitational center and attention of everyone. It raises the question: is too much parenting a bad thing?
What do our children learn when it is the mother who is the one signing all the trip forms, going to school meetings, emailing teachers and volunteering in the classrooms?
I’m not sure whether we are going to solve this debate. What it certainly depends upon is what we consider to be the goals of parenting. If parenting is about teaching children individualism, self expression and self actualization leading to a rich meaningful life, then it would seem that you cannot give your child enough attention, both positive and negative in some ways. However, if we believe that childhood and adult satisfactions will come from being part of something greater than yourself, feeling connected to others in ways where you are needed and can also get your needs met, then letting children navigate these social, emotional, and learning moments without adult intervention may be critical.
What is clear is that parenting is not a gender free occupation. Parenting styles and considerations are loaded with messages for both girls and boys concerning gender roles. And, when parents enter into schools, their parenting styles get exposed in many ways. What do our children learn when it is the mother who is the one signing all the trip forms, going to school meetings, emailing teachers and volunteering in the classrooms? It is not only the parenting roles that get gendered, but the very enterprise of school.