Thursday, November 07, 2019

If That Is The Present, Then The Future Will Take Care Of Itself



"Parenting" is the verb form of a fundamental relationship that has no parallel in our other important relationships. We don't do "wifing" or "childing" or "friending." We are, rather, wives, children or friends. We are parents, but it often seems to me that the whole notion of "parenting" is a failed experiment, one that has resulted in a rise in anxiety, fear, and depression, both among parents and children, over the past 70 or so years, without producing much in the way of positive results. 

The concept of parenting as a job is a modern idea, one that began to gain prominence during the 1950's as extended families found themselves scattered and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins began to play a diminished role in the care of children. From this emerged the idea of parenting as a mostly solo job that fell primarily to mothers, who, without traditional support systems, were forced to turn to "experts" to help them manufacture the child: one who was well-behaved, intelligent, charming, creative, motivated, and who otherwise met the specifications. To be a parent was no longer a relationship based on love, or at least not solely on love, but also on work, and the quality of that work was determined by how the child turned out, like one would judge the work of a shoemaker by the quality of their shoes. Of course, unlike shoes, one can't judge parenting success for two or even three decades, which is a long game that makes things all the more stressful, not to mention the fact that we are talking about human beings here, not widgets.

Parenting as a job versus being a parent as a relationship are two very different things: one is about achieving some sort of goal, to actively shape a young human into something pre-determined, while the other is to simply love, to give children what they need to thrive, right now, so that they can shape themselves. On top of that, there is scant evidence that parenting, meaning the variations on how we attempt to shape our children, have much impact at all on how children "turn out." If there was evidence, we would be on the way to having figured the whole thing out. There would be no need for "flavor of the month" parenting books or podcasts or blogs, each of them offering the latest set of parenting blueprints. But instead, the selection of recipes for baking up the perfect child pie proliferate, agreeing on some points, and conflicting on others, and generally proving that we are no closer to knowing how parenting as a job works than we were 70 years ago. 

In 1946, Dr. Spock, the original parenting guru told new parents "you know more than you think you do." I think this is still true today when it comes to parents. I'm not so sure when it comes to parenting.

Alison Gopnik, one of the world's most prominent childhood development researchers writes:


So our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children's minds; it's to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it's to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can't make children learn, but we can let them learn.

Being a parent is hard work, but it is not a job: it is a relationship. The idea of "parenting" is an unfortunate imposition that places the stress and anxiety of vocational performance on what is arguably the most important relationship in anyone's life. Providing a protected space of love, safety, and stability is enough and you already know more than you think you do. If that is the present, then the future will take care of itself.

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