Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Parental Choices

I think a lot about my parenting but don't often write about it. But there are two independent things in the news lately that have provoked similar responses, and I want to explore them.

Namely, why is it that there is such controversy over "the right way" of raising kids when so many ways seem to do just fine? And the higher-level question, what should guide us parents in decisions about how to raise our kids, and, in particular, how we allow them to spend their (non-school) time? Why does the baseline belief seem to be that parents should conform to a typical parenting mode, something that comes from outside of themselves and is rather like a community standard? Why, that is, when we are a multiplicity of communities and do make these decisions for ourselves all the time? Why not also make those decisions for our very young children (assuming that children will be able to make more and more decisions for themselves as they grow up)?

Here are two stories:
  1. via Feminist Philosophers, a Canadian mother who hasn't revealed the gender of her infant receives media attention, much of it negative.
  2. the National Association for the Education of Young Children released guidelines advocating incorporating electronic technology (computers, etc.) into all early childhood educational settings (including preschools and outdoor summer camps).
My reaction to the mother who won't reveal the gender of her infant is to wonder "Who cares?" Some even call it child abuse, in part, no doubt, because she lets her toddler and her pre-school boy wear dresses and long hair. But who cares? Some grown men wear dresses. Let them. Some men, e.g. Moroccans and Egyptians, wear long robes as a matter of cultural identity and dress their boys that way, too. Children seem to do just fine in this world so long as their clothes are safe and comfortable.

Likewise, some parents clearly do want to make this choice for their young boys: you will wear boy clothes in boy patterns. That seems fine to me, too. In my house, we don't wear images of violence or meanness--no sharks with huge teeth or skulls or guns on our t-shirts. (We do have lots of pictures of trees!) This is due to me exercising influence as a parent. I made the decision, and as my boy grew older I let him know why. He may challenge me sometime, but that will be between us, and I don't see why it's anyone's concern whether I make it a matter in which I give him freedom or enforce my authority.

The second problem seems different. In the absence of evidence, why would an educational body recommend some technologies over others (gameboys rather than baseballs, cellphones rather than soap bubbles) across all contexts? The impulse seems to me related to the background belief in the first case: electronic screens are something we all do now, so childhood exposure should prepare little ones for it.

I don't see why, in these cases, we would treat little ones as smaller versions of young adults. It might be disruptive for a 7th-grade boy to wear a dress to junior high. He would get teased, among other possible problems. But a toddler? Not so much. It might be deficient for a 7th-grader to lack computer skills these days. But a toddler?

The Tiger Mom gets called out for being too strict, too demanding. The hippie mom gets called out for being too lenient, for misguiding her child's gender image. But both have kids who seem well-adjusted.

Both of these parents are self-conscious about their parenting, and that seems to me to be what matters. Both are proud of their kids, and of themselves, for reaching their goals.

But I don't withhold judgment entirely. The parents I don't understand are the ones who don't like how their children have become but continue to raise them to be that way. I don't understand the parents who seem concerned that their child gets in trouble for bringing toy weapons to pre-school and drawing images of weapons and violence--and yet the child continues to have access to those objects and ideas. In the case of a 5-year-old with a fetish for swords and parents who are disturbed by it, why not inundate that child with musical theater? How can there be room in a young brain for laserguns when it's filled with Rogers & Hammerstein?

Sometimes I think I'm just lucky: my boy loves to play UNO with me and work spatial puzzles! We hike together, we sew together, and we watch nature documentaries. But really, that's just childhood. Little kids know what they know, and they don't know what they don't know. I'm mystified by parents of little kids who say "I wish my kid didn't love X so much"--unless that parent secretly loves X, too.

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