Tuesday, July 21, 2020

America's Best Mother

I'm trying to not be too much of a hype master, but I'm sure that anyone who reads here with any regularity knows that we're in the midst of The Play First Summit, a free online gathering of 70,000 early childhood educators and parents of preschoolers from around the world. Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement and Let Grow, is one of the experts on today's agenda. I'll leave Lenore to tell the full story, but in a nutshell, she stepped into her role as a leading anti-helicopter parenting crusader upon being labelled in the media as "America's Worst Mom" when she wrote about allowing her nine-year-old to ride the New York City subway alone. 

Lenore and her husband had discussed it and decided together that this was a "risk" worth taking. It was a joint parenting decision, but I'm sure it doesn't surprise anyone that her husband wasn't labelled "America's Worst Dad." When it comes to young children women are always held to a higher standard than men. I see it myself as a male teacher. I've often been praised simply for making the effort, for showing up, while my female counterparts have to actually demonstrate they are skilled educators in order to receive the same kind of attention. Indeed, even after nearly two decades as a preschool teacher, parents still tell me they picked our school simply because I am a man. As a stay-at-home father, people would regularly say, "Good for you" to me, patting me on the back for simply trying to fill the role of caretaker, letting me off the hook for my "failings," whereas no one says that sort of thing to stay-at-home mothers. Women have to actually demonstrate June Cleaver level parenting skills in order to be adjudged worthy of a compliment. 

Developmental psychologist and author Alison Gopnik, in her book The Carpenter and The Gardner, writes about how the word "parenting" is a relatively new phenomenon. She found that until about 1962, the word wasn't much used in the media, but from that time forward, its use exploded to the point that we now have an entire industry devoted to "parenting." Her point is that prior to that time, it was enough to simply be a parent, to have a loving relationship with your child, whereas today we've turned the relationship into a job that one must do to and for your children. She notes we've not done that with our other foundational relationships. We don't do wifing or friending or childing, but when it comes to being a parent, and especially a female parent, we've made it into a project. And not only that, it's a project upon which you're going to be judged. I don't think it's an accident that this happened right at the time that the Women's Liberation Movement was starting to take hold, making it possible for more and more women to consider assuming roles beyond wife and mother. It was the patriarchy asserting itself to keep women in their place by making them feel extra guilty for somehow neglecting their children. That's just my amateur assessment, but whatever the case, if fathers are judged as parents at all, they're given high marks just for making the effort. In other words, "parenting," as the concept is generally understood, applies to women far more than men.

Another of our presenters today, Maggie Dent, likes to say, "You don't have to be a perfect parent." I like to tell young parents that if they can do the things the parenting experts say 30 percent of the time, they'll be the best parent on earth. That percentage is based on nothing more than my assessment of my own performance as a parent: I made all the "mistakes" one can make, yet today our daughter is an intelligent, talented, self-confident, self-motivated young woman who has good friends and works well with others. The only credit I take is that I always make sure she knows I love and support her. Beyond that, I'm not sure any of the "parenting" I did made a lick of difference one way or another. Indeed, Gopnik writes:

"(I)t is very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do . . . and the resulting adult traits of their children. There is very little evidence that conscious decisions about co-sleeping or not, letting your children "cry it out" or holding them till they fall asleep, or forcing them to do extra homework or letting them play have reliable and predictable long-term effects on who those children become."

In contrast, we know that when children know they are loved and supported by the important adults in their lives, it forms a foundation from which they can learn to live life on their own terms, knowing that they are free to explore, to make mistakes, and to try again. Children deserve parents of all genders who love and trusted him enough to let him make their own discoveries about themselves and the world around them. It's the relationship that matters, not the parenting, which is at best hit or miss even for the best of us.

Lenore tells us that when her son arrived home after his solo subway trip, he was alive with the glow of his independent accomplishment. I think that makes her "America's Best Mom" right alongside every other mother who loves her children and lets them know it.


Today's the day! The first day of The Play First Summit is upon us. Please join us for this free event featuring twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. To see the full list of speakers and to register, click here.

Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

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