Parenting in a Vulgar Age / Happy Mothers Day

Anyone who has even briefly perused the childcare shelves at bookstores knows that there are strategies and then refinements to those strategies on how to be the best possible parent to your fetus.

There are whole books dedicated to the hotly debated question of whether a baby should sleep with her parents. There are actual illustrated scripts prepared for parents who want to be able to “talk so their children will listen.” And there are parenting magazines, which look more like toy and appliance catalogs, aimed to convince us that the proper purchase will yield more sleep, smarter kids, and smoother mealtimes.

The experts, the mainstream publishing giants, and the corporate makers of parenting gadgetry promise to promote family harmony by holding our hands through each moment of parenting, each stage of our child’s development, and every minute conflict or puzzle that arises during everyday family life. Not that parents don’t need help. Indeed, whether muttered prayer or primal scream, “Help!” is probably the one universal parental plea.

But it’s time to recognize that the particular kind of hand-holding we get from the advice experts is ultimately infantilizing. It focuses huge quantities of adult attention on daily minutia and distracts us from larger issues that matter much more, but over which we feel we have less control.

It helps us rationalize unjust institutions by persuading us that if we try hard enough we can at least be good parents and somehow raise perfect children, and that that is a “good enough” contribution to the world. It gives us “choice” the same way parents are instructed to let their kids “choose” between strictly defined and ultimately meaningless options. “Do you want to wear your blue sneakers or your green sneakers today?”

Offering limited choices to a child may be age-appropriate. But experts want to pull the same stunt on parents. And that’s where the hand-holding becomes a restraining device, and we’re strapped into our high chairs like a bunch of overgrown toddlers being offered a narrow array of choices: Breast or bottle? Family bed or crib? Cloth diapers or disposables? Stimulating wall paper or soothing white noise machines?

Sure, “breast or bottle?” is an important decision, with many personal and, yes, even political implications, but there’s a whole world beyond the breast and bottle, and it requires our attention as much, if not more so, than the private decision about how to feed our newborns.

But parents’ attention is constantly being directed away from precisely the things that adults should focus their attention on — like the way institutions work, and the fact that so many of them run on greed, individualism, meritocracy, hierarchy, and unjust use of power.

A recent advice column in the Boston Globe (February 21, 2002) tells us that playing board games with our children provides teachable moments, such as “winning isn’t everything,” and opportunities to role model kindness and fairness. We can even use Monopoly to foster a spirit of cooperation.

“You land on a property that your 9-year-old wants? Negotiate a trade. He’s running out of money? Offer a loan.” It’s pitiful enough that we are stuck in the framework of property trades and bank loans as a means of relating, but that’s not the worst of it. Far more appalling is that psychiatrists and family therapists and all manner of professionals are chiming in about how parents should act and what they should say during a *board game*! It’s as if there is no real world. Or maybe there is one, but there’s no point in addressing ways to foster cooperation and generosity *out there.*

What’s a kid to think when his dad counsels against cheating in Monopoly and then puts on a suit and tie and helps evict tenants in a newly gentrified neighborhood? What’s a kid supposed to think when she sees homeless people sifting through trash for returnables? That no one ever role-modeled for them how to get a bank loan?

What are kids supposed to think when it is crystal clear to even the barely cognizant that obviously winning *is* everything, that the world’s losers experience things like mass starvation. And some of them even protest, showing, according to the board-game ethic, poor sportsmanship!

Playing board games with our kids also provides them with a chance to narrate their feelings. “Think of it as a primer on emotional literacy,” says the Globe columnist. Your kid’s feeling bummed about his last roll of the dice? Try saying, “Gee, that chute sure was a setback for you. How do you feel about it? I would be disappointed if it was me. I wonder what the next turn will bring for you!”

The lesson is: don’t question the rules, but do notice how they make you feel. An important life skill, to be sure. Now, your kid will be able to say with confidence someday, “Gee, the lay-offs at work sure are a setback for me. I’m feeling pretty sad about it. I wonder what the next downturn in the economy will bring!”

Or “Gee, carpet-bombing sure results in a lot of carnage. I am so emotionally literate as to be in touch with my sadness about that. (Thanks to all those Monopoly games my parents played with me when I was little.) I wonder what the next new development in weapons systems will bring!”

Another Globe column (April 18, 2002) advises parents about how to listen to children’s dreams. Henry’s dream is “to have no war. I have a dream but I have no plan. It’s almost impossible. It’s possible but it’s very very hard. I would have to be a grown-up.”

Henry couldn’t have said it better. He just doesn’t realize yet that when he’s a grown-up he’ll be consuming advice about how to micro-manage his children, rather than be the empowered adult that he naively envisions. Meanwhile, how should we respond to 6-year-old Henry’s dream? Professor of Human Development, Ulla Malkus, tells us we should direct his attention toward achieving “world peace right here, in our home.”

But that’s a lie. You can’t achieve world peace in your own home. The idea has barely a degree more sanity than the idea of role-modeling cooperation in a game whose very point is to accrue personal gain at the expense of others.

Yes, we can — and should — have peaceful homes. They should be places where our kids learn first-hand about fairness and generosity and cooperation. But that’s not the beginning and end of our work as parents. It’s also our responsibility to be the “grown-ups” of Henry’s imagination — the ones who look outward, beyond the board game and our own homes, to the institutions that define the parameters of our actions.

Henry has a dream, but lacks a plan. And that’s where we come in. We should be showing Henry how grown-ups can work to make dreams come true, i.e., by planning, by talking to other grown-ups, by taking responsibility for how institutions work, and by bringing adult reasoning and resources to bear — consistently, day in and day out — to the project of fostering cooperation, peace, and fairness in our society.

So let’s take Henry to our political meetings, our peace rallies, our protests, and our neighborhood clean-ups. Let’s let him watch and listen (as much as he is inclined) to how people dream, and then make a plan to see that dream come true.

Let’s let him see us rejoice in our victories, and sweat out our losses. Let’s be there to hear his reflections and answer his questions. Let’s be able to discuss his concerns knowledgeably because we are experienced and capable mentors. Let’s let him witness us disagree, discuss, reconcile (or not), and forge ahead one way or another.

Let’s invite him into the adult world of movement building not just because it’s a chance for us to role model good behavior, but because it’s what we should be doing anyway.

In this vulgar age of war and institutionalized greed, let’s resist the “kid-centered” parenting advice that so temptingly invites us to ignore the real world, and implies that our job as parents is to forever fine-tune our interactions with our own private offspring.

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