Friday, August 1, 2008

Wimp Nation, again (final instalment)

The following contains the last part of my interview with Hara E. Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps. If you are coming from Cookie or Yahoo, you might want to go here first for the second part of the interview. I hadn't planned on running such a long convo today, but I think this additional piece will clarify some of the ideas discussed previously as well as reader questions. As always, feel free to dig or diss, as you see fit.

I will return next week with lighter fare—three words: David Lee Roth.

Crabmommy: You speculate on the origins of why so many of us are taking parenting so seriously, and you talk about later-stage motherhood: so many of us moms are having kids later in life, and so, having been professional, we're approaching child-rearing as a profession. You criticize that, although one might say that treating motherhood as a profession dignifies it. It sort of does to me, since mothers have the toughest job in the world.

Hara Estroff Marano: And I agree with that!

C: But you're saying, too, that because we approach it as a job, we're very goal-oriented, and that can be counterproductive.

HEM: It is. And truly, the best way to dignify motherhood is to take the values of parenting and apply them at the office. Nurturing talent, for example, is something that comes with the territory of mothering—but it is also a great leadership skill.

C: But you don't think professional goal-driven values belong in motherhood. Because there's no such thing as being the perfect mother and making your child's life perfect...?

HEM: Yes. And because childhood doesn't proceed—development doesn't proceed—on a schedule. It doesn't have the same values; it doesn't respond to the same things that professionals take meaning from. Efficiency, for example, has absolutely no meaning in childhood, and yet efficiency is one of the values of professional life. So what you have are all these very highly trained women with professional values. This group is dropping out of the workforce in high numbers and partly that has to do with affluence, and they're applying the values of the workplace to childrearing, in part because they've been rewarded for them so well.

C: And also because of good intentions! Just wanting to do a great job.

HEM: But the road to hell is paved with good intentions! You have to stop and say that childhood is a completely different enterprise that works according to a different scheme, has different values, and has a completely different goal. Efficiency and goal-direction have nothing to do with child development. The goal of child development is to produce an independent, autonomous human being who is capable of functioning on his or her own.

C: This connects to another point you make and many others have made: a lot of us over-schedule our children, which you would say is another form of interfering in their childhood.

HEM: By itself—and I only know one set of studies done on this—over-scheduling does not appear to be the culprit. But there are things that go on in over-scheduling that have a negative effect. Part of the problem is that kids are not in charge of their own time. They're not gaining the experience of creating their own activities...and then—particularly you see this in the suburbs—kids go from one activity to the next and they're ferried by the adults. And the point is that for the kids there's no way of opting out. You can't opt out. You don't even know you can opt out.

C: You don't know what you want to do.

HEM: One end result of kids not being able to opt off this track they are placed on is they have no clue what they really want; there is no way to build a sense of self because there is no way to make choices. Putting kids on a track from an early age produces kids that are overly compliant. You don't want compliant kids in a democracy. You want people who can speak up for themselves. In addition, when you have compliant people, you don't get innovation.

C: You have a piece in your book about the value of boredom, and I think a lot of us moms who line up activities for our kids are trying to keep them from being bored. We see boredom as bad.

HEM: I regard boredom as an important event. It's an aversive, uncomfortable state. People don't like to be in it. The value of aversive states is that the unpleasantness forces people to experiment and/or explore to find things on their own that they do like to do.

C: When you're bored you have to learn to get yourself out of it.

HEM: Exactly. And so if you're bored you discover something you like and you also gain the mastery of yourself and know you have the ability to handle all kinds of unpleasant situations. So a lot goes on when you're given the opportunity to be bored sometimes.

C: But we are used to giving into our children's desires, or our perception of what will make them engaged and therefore happy.

HEM: The supreme irony is that parents who want only the best for their kids can wind up bringing out the worst in them. Partly it's because they have a complete misperception about how you make kids happy. People really want to make their kids happy, and so they really want to smooth the path for their kids, but many parents don't understand that the way the brain grows is through challenge. Challenge is absolutely critical. It's the way the brain grows and it's the way you create happiness. You can't be happy unless you're mastering challenges and you gain a sense of self. To provide what you think will make your kids happy all the time actually undermines their ability to be happy.

C: So we mustn't sell our child's girl scout cookies for them! We must try to avoid refereeing in play dates. These are things you'd suggest. What are other suggestions?

HEM: There are a number of them in the book. Teach your kids to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty. Help your kids fail. As you go through life, share your own mistakes, judiciously. Share your hard-won coping strategies, which may or may not work for them, but it would be nice to put them on the buffet for sampling. Another suggestion of course is just to let kids play. One parent can't do it by him or herself. Because your kid needs other kids to play with.

C: I wanted to bring up something that relates to that: I think hothouse parenting is contagious, infectious. You can have ideas about what kind of mother you're going to be before you have a child. But then you have your child and then you have things like play dates starting with very little kids, and you see you're meant to referee in play dates—your child is not sharing and so you get in there and tell them to share—and maybe you're doing it out of obligation; you don't want to be seen to be rude or seeming to flout the conventions...I guess what I'm saying is that it's hard to break away from this over-involved parenting style because other parents are out there doing it too and very often they'll do it for you.

HEM: Also there's just so much judgmentalism these days and so many places to find it. I'm thinking about websites like urbanbaby. People are often made to feel bad for any deviation from what others are doing. Parents seem exceedingly eager to judge, and criticize other parents and children. So we have the phenomenon in which some parents become overprotective and over-involved as a defense against the judgmentalism of their neighbors; they don't want to be told they are horrible parents. Which they may very well not be if left on their own. But this overprotection is fed by enormous insecurity about child-raising on the part of parents, and the erroneous belief that every little thing they do will matter to their child's development. It's not that parents don't matter; they do, but often not in the way that parents think. All that hovering and over-involvement tends to make kids anxious. Parents need to relax a bit...about their own kids and about others'. Given that children have their own built-in drive for competence, a little benign neglect is really good for kids...if you can keep your neighbor off your back.

C: Talking about judging parents: you are seriously judging motherhood in this book. I'm going to guess you've made a few enemies.

HEM: I haven't had it coming directly to me. I expected it when I talked to parents....I would say that most parents suspect that there's something not quite right about hothouse parenting because they know they weren't raised this way. So while they may be wary of my message and they may feel that it's judgmental, what I'm offering them is data and explanations, and I offer them a better way.

C: You're not asking all of us hyper-vigilant moms to give up our concern for safety, you're just saying balance it out with encouraging independence, risk, letting your kids do their own homework.

HEM: "Balance" is a good word.

C: We should take a chill pill, and send the children to camp, right?

HEM: Yes! Back off! Take a drink! You know, relax a little. Make parenthood fun again, allow it to be fun again. It's just not. It's approached with this hyper-seriousness that endows every action with an importance it doesn't have.

C: You're a grandmother now.

HEM: I have three grandchildren.

C: Do you want them to wear bike helmets?

HEM: We haven't got to that yet.

C: Are you against bike helmets and knee pads?

HEM: Bike helmets make sense for kids on two wheelers. They veer towards the absurd for kids on tricycles going two miles an hour on a dirt path. Okay, then you might make the argument that it's never too early to get kids used to associating bikes and helmets. I would respond by saying that not every action in life carries the same meaning and the same risk, and it's important to be able to distinguish reasonable risks. I see no reason why a child who graduates to a two wheeler can't be told that now is the time for using a helmet because the opportunity for going fast is much greater and so is the opportunity for a spill. And knee pads? Knee pads for what? Bike riding? Absurd idea. They actually interfere with agility. Children don't die from scraped knees.


Unknown said...

Does anyone live in a subdivision where there are several people who ignore the subdivision rules?
I do. No one is supposed to have those ugly fences on the top of their pools, and it seems that everyone in the sub with a pool has one of those. My neighbor has one, and I have to look at that hideous thing every time I look out my window. Then there is my other neighbor who has three dogs.
The maximum number of dogs is supposed to be two. I wouldn't mind the three, but two of them are pit bulls who viciously snarl and growl and act like they are going
to eat my dog when they are outside. Even the owners scream at them to stop. It is very unnerving. Then one of the board members is delinquent by 3 years on the dues because she has decided she doesn't need to pay since she is on the board. I can't take the neighbors around here. I was looking for a forum to vent about the jerks around here and I came across this site called and I sent all of those idiots on the board and all my lovely neighbors with the ugly pools an anonymous card. LOL I loved it. I know it sounds stupid but I feel better. He he he

Amander said...

Crabmommy, I've been enjoying your posts about this topic. I have found it interesting as I am a therapist who works with adolescents. For the most part the adolescents I see have too little involvement, but I don't believe that my population overlaps with HEMs target population much.

Anyway, keep up the good work. Love reading.

tonypark said...

I can't believe all the activities that little tykes are expected to attend these days.

We have some friends whose daughter, each weekend, attends tap, shot put (yes, shot put), soccer, dance (as opposed to tap), Italian, piano, and mandarin (the language, not the fruit).

If that's not covering all bases, I don't know what is.

As a father-of-none, I ask, where does TV fit into all that?

What point is there in growing up to be a tri-lingual, shot-putting, soccer-and-piano-playing dancer if you can't answer a single question at a pub trivia game?

The Boss of You said...

This discussion reminds me of a child-invented boredom reliever from my past. It was called 'kick the can'. Back in the day people littered a lot more than now. Walking to or from school, unaccompanied by an adult the child would kick a can along the way. While I don't condone littering, I do feel sad that I don't see kids playing kick the can anymore.

Daisy said...

We had a helicopter mom who rented a hotel room near the camp because she couldn't bear to leave her 6th grade son alone for three days - even though her husband was a chaperone on the trip! OMG, that was awful.

Anonymous said...

HEM ... will you marry me?


Anonymous said...

TonyPark, I am soooo there! This was a great interview, I'm going to buy the book right after I post this. I'm one of those Mom's who had to suffer my ex overexstending HIS 2 kids' lives - I got to do the chauffering, changing MY work schedule to take the kids' to their activities (while he worked late). Needless to say, my stepson basically had a nervous breakdown when he graduated high school because of all the pressure he was receiving from his Dad and real Mom to attend college on a football scholarhip.

Sad to see. However, once he moved out of state (and the grasp of his parents), he's a much happier guy - a science teacher - who knew??

Now my ex is pulling the same thing with our daughter (she's 11) but I counter-act it or put my foot down. He's such a creep.

Thanks, Crabmommy! So glad to find you thru!