Modern Parenting: Do We Really Need to Reinvent the Wheel?

Every parent worries about his or her children, but perhaps we need to take a bigger look at social forces as well

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Experts from around the country gathered at the Aspen Ideas Festival this past week to tackle some difficult issues—the economic crisis, overpopulation, threats to democracy. But the panel I sat on asked perhaps the thorniest of questions, and one that we seem to return to again and again: What is the goal of parenting?

Every society worries about its children, and the recent media storm over the bullied school bus monitor focused our attention on children who appear unmoored in the school system. But the problem of youthful misbehavior is an old one. As Aspen presenter Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, pointed out, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer was probably the best illustration, real or fictional, of the frustrating “push-and-pull of boys and schools.” Not that we should fall into the sex differences trap. Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, said that the “big social science story of the 21st century,” is not the difference between girls’ and boys’ brains, but rather their similarities. There is more variation among boys than there is variation between boys and girls, Kimmel and Thompson argued.

(MORE: The School-Bus Bullies: Are Adults to Blame Too?)

Fostering resilience in children was another common theme. We heard about experimental research that shows children perform better on problem-solving tasks when their effort is praised, rather than their intelligence. We heard about the intellectual capacities that predict success — traits such as optimism, flexibility, curiosity and the ability to assume the perspective of others — that are not captured by our current measures of academic performance. And we discussed how to attend better to the developmental needs of young kids: slowing down and giving them the space, physical and mental, to learn through play, to daydream, to experience struggle and disappointment, and to cultivate their passions. Larry Cohen, a co-panelist, urged parents to understand the virtues of being ordinary. Above all, we emphasized the importance of relationships for the social and cognitive growth of children. We even heard the voices of American children and what they want most from their parents: de-stressed emotional engagement. “If you’re tired, take a little nap,” one child suggested. “But not too long.”

(MORE: Why Cell Phones Are Bad for Parenting)

But is any of this new or unique to our times? Certainly, the 21st Century presents particular parenting challenges: the rise of social media and the 24/7 day, globalization, changing demographics and adult roles, high-stakes testing in earlier and earlier grades. Even children’s bodies have changed, with earlier puberty and growing rates of obesity. And anxiety is in the drinking water, everywhere. Amy Chua noted that the firestorm ignited by her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, probably stemmed, in part, because it tapped into two of American’s deepest worries: the fear of being bad parents, and the fear of China. We haven’t really had time to make sense of what these changes portend for schools and families, and the easiest route — as always — is to blame parents. No matter where the child-rearing pendulum swings, we inevitably wring our hands: Parents are too permissive! They’re too authoritarian! And we start worrying all over again, which begs the question: Can we do anything right where kids are concerned?

(MORE: Parents Do What’s Right for Them, Not for Their Kids)

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, argued forcefully that we need to overcome our society-wide “parentism” — the kneejerk parent-blaming that keeps us from identifying systemic solutions to children’s problems. She even suggested that if we substituted the word “women,” or any ethnic or racial minority, for the word “parent” in our endless critical commentary, we’d be accused of prejudice and wouldn’t be allowed in polite company.

Putting child rearing on a par with national security and the global economy, as the Aspen Ideas Festival did, reaffirms that it’s not only parents, but also society as a whole, that should concern themselves with children. Let’s stop leaping to call out parents’ every misstep and examine the kinds of societal forces that have always made childhood such a precarious enterprise.

MORE: Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer?