Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Does "Parenting" Stand in the Way of Growing?


At the center of every healthy relationship, and many unhealthy relationships for that matter, is unconditional love. We love our children, our parents, our spouses, and our friends, but, of course, we don't love all of them in the same way: there is a kind of love we have for a lover that is distinct from the love we have our parents. In turn, the love we feel for our parents is essentially different than what we feel for our friends. Love stands at the center of the human experience. And contrary to the quid pro quo calculations of economists and behaviorists, it is love (or lack of love), not self-interest, not conditioning, that inspires almost everything we do. 

I love my wife and she loves me. We've been together for nearly 35 years, most of them happy. There have been ups and downs, of course. We have succeeded and failed, both together and separately. When we sit across from one another at the dinner table, we almost always mirror one another in posture, gesture, and expression, so yes indeed, we have shaped one another, but not consciously. Sure, she sometimes tells me that she wishes I'd do this or that differently, but by far the greatest impact she has had on me being the person I am today has to do with love. She has simply loved me enough to care for me, to be with me, to comfort me, and it's that, not some system of conscious instruction, that has been her contribution: her love has created the safe space in which I've had the freedom to grow into me.

This is what love is all about. Psychologists call it "attachment," I suppose because the word "love" is so full of everything, so a part of everything, that it's difficult to pin down in scholarly work, but when people talk about things like "attachment parenting," what I've come to hear is a kind of oxymoron. The "parenting" suggests an agenda beyond the love. As developmental researcher Alison Gopnik points out, the word parenting, a word that did not exist until the early 1960s, is the verb form of one of, if not the most, foundational relationships in the human experience. Up until recently, it seems it was enough to simply be a parent, to love one's child, and to create the safe space in which they had the freedom to grow into themselves. But being a parent today has increasingly taken on the trappings of a vocation in which it is the parent's job to lovingly manufacture their children into a certain kind of adult. If we talk to our children in a certain way, if we give them enough tough love, if we co-sleep with them, if we Tiger Mom them, we are doing the job of parenting with the longterm goal of creating what we call a "well adjusted adult."

There is scant empirical evidence that the minor variations between what parents do makes any difference in what kind of adults children become, yet there is overwhelming of evidence of the power of attachment, or as I prefer to call it love. Love is enough.

As I've read Alison Gopnik's book The Gardener and the Carpenter, I've been reflecting on this societal shift from being a parent as a relationship to parenting as a vocation and can see that this, more than iPads or social media or violent video games or any of the other boogymen we've identified, may be the real driver behind the spike in childhood mental illnesses like anxiety and depression that we are seeing today. Being a parent has always been difficult, just as it can be difficult to be a spouse or child or friend, but the added stress of turning it into the high stakes (and I would argue impossible) job of manufacturing well-adjusted adults is too much.

I've also been thinking about teachers in this context. The verb "teaching" has always been with us, of course, but I'm beginning to wonder about that as well. The longer I've been a teacher, the less actual teaching I've found myself doing, and the more I've discovered that attachment, that love, is enough. I'm at my best, and the children are at their best, when I step back from teaching and instead simply be a teacher with no agenda other than my relationships, which is to say, creating a safe space in which children have the freedom to grow into themselves.

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