Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sibling parents

In his four and a half years of life, Pip’s dominant examples of social interaction have come almost exclusively from Ava and me. While in some ways this relationship is to be expected of most children and their primary caregivers, Pip’s bubble has a few qualities that make it even more intense. For starters, since I am a full-time father, he has had very limited experience with non-familial caregivers like preschool teachers, day care providers, nannies, or even babysitters. Our home-centered childcare model also means that he does not currently have a classroom of peers that he interacts with on a regular basis. Instead, his contact with children his own age tends to be limited to whatever casual interactions happen on the playground. Lastly, as we don’t watch television with the kids, that avenue of social observation is also unavailable to him. For better or worse, when Pip wants a model for how to handle a situation, he is largely stuck with using what he has observed from us as his starting point.

One effect of this bubble is that frequently Pip’s mode of approach to Polly has been parental. At times this has taken on a classic, bossy older sibling form where he watches Polly closely and does his best to regulate her behavior according to the rules as he knows them. He keeps her from walking out into the street without a parent. He gently chastises her for throwing something inside the house. He asks her repeatedly not to splash water out of the bathtub. He does all these things because he has seen Ava and me do them.

But other times he mimics our caring acts, whether it’s helping Polly get something that is out of her reach or finding toys to entertain her while Ava and I are cleaning up the dishes. He is particularly quick to seek out ways to comfort her in times when he anticipates she’ll be upset.
He can be very creative in these endeavors. He’ll bring her little gifts from the toy shelf or he’ll make up silly rhymes to make her laugh.

One day this past week Polly woke up from her afternoon nap in a cranky mood. This sent Pip scurrying about in search of a way to help her through this. After about half-an-hour, as Polly’s mood started to brighten, I went into their room and found all their larger stuffed animals sitting on the floor. Tigger, Eyeore, Purple Duck, Blue the bear, Soft-soft Bunny, and Woolly Mammoth were arranged in a tight circle around George, a old teddy bear that is one of Polly’s favorites. When I asked Pip what was going on, he told me he had created a “family hug” for George in hopes that it would make Polly feel better. Whether this arrangement was meant to make her laugh or to give her a big hug using George as her proxy, I’m not sure. But either way it was a gesture that warmed all of our hearts.


These parenting efforts by Pip leave me feeling somewhat ambivalent. While there is plenty of historical precedent for older siblings taking on a parental role with younger siblings - particularly in larger families where taking care of younger brothers and sisters was frequently part of an older child’s core responsibilities – I feel like contemporary social expectations tell me that Pip is doing too much. He is supposed to be an independent kid, living his own childhood free from the burden of feeling responsible for someone else. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where this feeling is coming from, but I can see some manifestation of it in the narratives of sacrifice that people use when they talk about unconventional families where older siblings take on tasks usually handled by parents or adult caregivers. In these narratives, older siblings often get depicted as martyrs, giving up their childhood so that younger brothers or sisters can have one. Such an understanding depends on the idea that the older siblings had little responsibility for their younger siblings in the first place.

Perhaps this is how it should be. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can feel the influence of this idea on my interpretation of Pip’s relationship with Polly. Early on, Ava and I tried to reduce the amount of behavior regulation work he did, telling Pip that such things were our job and that his job was to play with Polly. This did not really have much effect on him. I imagine there are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, the distinction we were trying to make was vague, randomly applied, and at times just confusing. It was unfair to expect a three or four-year-old to really make sense of it. For another, playing with Polly was something that Pip had to figure out and to do that he had to start somewhere. As his predominant examples for interacting with his sister were parental ones, it is not surprising that these approaches were the ones he tried first. On top of that, Pip’s social inclination is to observe and analyze the activities of other people. He is constantly interested in the actions of those around him, often to the point of distraction. With respect to Polly, this inclination led him easily into a mode of parental-style surveillance where he sees when she is doing something wrong and tries to help all of us by getting her to stop whatever it is.

More recently, we have backed off our attempts to actively shape the way Pip approaches his relationship with Polly. While we still step in when we sense Pip is getting overbearing, we have mostly allowed their interactions to develop as they will. Fortunately, this seems to be working as, on a daily basis, there is more play and less bossing than before. I think much of the reason for this is Polly’s own developmental growth and her quickly expanding physical and linguistic capacities. Her increasing ability to keep up with Pip makes the power dynamics in their play more balanced which in turn is enabling the emergence of the kind of relational structures that we were initially trying to force upon Pip.


All the same the power of the bubble remains in effect as Polly has now taken to doing a bit of parenting of her own. The same day that Pip built the family hug around George, Polly began trying to help Pip with his bicycle. While out on a walk that afternoon, Pip got his training wheels stuck on an uneven spot in the sidewalk. Usually when this happens, I give him a little push to get him going again. This time, Polly wanted to be the one to give him the push. She rushed forward and strained hard against the bike seat to get him moving. When he finally did inch forward again, she looked back at me with a twinkle in her eyes. She had helped Pip, just as any good parent would do.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fundamental Problems

How come so many children of well-off, attentive, and conscientious parents are growing up into emotionally fragile and narcissistic adults whose dominant feelings are ones of emptiness, confusion, and anxiety? This is the question at the center of the cover article for the Atlantic Monthly’s July/August “Ideas” issue. Entitled “How to Land Your Child in Therapy” and written by a psychologist and mother named Lori Gottlieb, the article argues that in their attempt to provide kids with a perfectly happy childhood, well-meaning parents are depriving their children of the kinds of failures and discomforts necessary for learning resilience, independence, and self-confidence. As happiness cannot be a constant state – it, like all other emotions, is only understood in comparison to all one’s other feelings – these parents, Gottlieb concludes, are preventing their children from acquiring qualities that are vitally important to living a functional and meaningful life.

Gottlieb supports this conclusion by pointing out a range of ways that contemporary parents (of a particular class standing) are paying too much attention to smoothing the ripples in the daily lives of their children. This protective mode begins early with parents swooping in to help a fallen toddler before they even start to cry. It moves on to intervening in the negotiations of preschoolers to insure a parental interpretation of fairness even after the kids who were quarreling have worked things out to their own satisfaction. It spikes with the placing of kids in noncompetitive sports leagues where no one (officially) keeps score.

As these children age, their parents constantly tell them how special they are and rarely offer a meaningful evaluation of their own capacities. They become the center of all family activity with mom and dad shuttling them from place to place and running back home when they forget to turn off their laptop. The product of this kind of attention is a blissfully/ignorantly happy child who moves into adulthood with an overwhelming sense of entitlement and a critical lack of functional resiliency. This “overinvestment” of modern parents in their children, writes Gottlieb, is contributing to a “burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids.”


An obvious question that arises from this assessment is: why are we (and both Gottlieb and I consciously include ourselves in this group) parents going to such ends with our children? Gottlieb and all the experts she quotes believe that modern parents are, at one level or another, using their children to address their own emotional issues. Whether this is the absence of other meaningful relationships, a desire to find some avenue for outstanding achievement, or to overcorrect for what they see as their own deficiencies, modern parents are, Gottlieb argues, often crossing the line between “selflessness (making our kids happy) and selfishness (making ourselves happy).”

This line, of course, is a very difficult one to negotiate. Gottlieb herself notes with a touch of bewilderment how she and other experts find themselves experiencing the same inclinations with their own children that they criticize in others. As Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist at Harvard told her, “I’m about to become an empty-nester and sometimes I feel like I’d burn my kids’ college applications just to have somebody to hang around with.”

Ultimately, though, Gottlieb declares that there is a fundamental immaturity at work in their behavior that overinvested parents need to deal with. “Maybe,” she writes, “we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do.” “Our children,” says Wendy Mogul, another expert quoted in the article, “are not our masterpieces.”


It seems to me that the diagnosis of parental immaturity and, more importantly, the idea that we parents need to grow up overlook an important quality embedded in the modern relationship between parent and child. In the agricultural era preceding and overlapping with the industrial revolution, procreation carried with it a certain economic logic. While each new child represented another mouth to feed, it also added another pair of hands to do chores, gather food, herd animals, etc. Given the prevalence of large families during this period, I feel it’s safe to assume that on balance the production of children added slightly more to the family economy than their consumption took away. I think it is also safe to assume that until the advent and widespread acceptance of child labor laws, this economic logic remained an important influence during the industrial era as well. Add into these calculations the need for continued familial care as parents aged, and the rationale for having children certainly extended beyond a mere biological impetus.

Those rationales no longer exist. Having a child in twenty-first century America is an act that places a significant drain on a couple’s resources. To start with, you’re looking at almost two decades of feeding, clothing, educating, entertaining, and insuring this child. Then, if you’re lucky, you get to pay for college. It all costs a lot of money. And with retirement funds, Social Security, Medicare, and the cultural push to maintain an independent household in one’s golden years, children no longer bear the type of caregiving responsibilities for their parents that they used to. It all means that, from a logical perspective, the costs of having a child in this day and age far outweigh the quantifiable benefits.

This reality means that for a great many people the choice to have a child emerges from a largely emotional motivation. In deciding to bear a child, these parents seek to obtain something meaningful and ineffable, an experience that makes the economic costs of the endeavor unimportant. Perhaps this makes parents ‘immature,’ but it fundamentally cannot be any other way. The emotional ‘overinvestment’ of parents is embedded in that relationship from the beginning. You can’t ‘grow-up’ and change it.

And the decision aspect of all of this should not be underestimated. With the development of a pill for birth control in 1960 and the subsequent proliferation and normalization of pharmaceutical contraception, any biological impetus that might be seen as driving procreation can be largely subverted. This disjuncture between sex and reproduction (at least in populations with access to decent health care) has made having a child that much more of a considered choice. In so many more cases now than in earlier eras, childbearing is a project that a couple decides to take on, not one that they happen to fall into.


What I guess I am arguing here is that I find it unfair and unhelpful to condescendingly urge hyper-invested parents to “grow up” in their relationships with their children. In that framework, the only thing one can do that would pass for actual ‘maturity’ is to not have children at all. While this would certainly solve the problem of self-entitled teacups (if they really are that much of a problem), I don’t think that is the kind of change Gottlieb has in mind.

Plus, it is not hard to find other factors that might explain, and provide avenues for influencing, the proliferation of “burgeoning” narcissists. For one thing, there is an awful lot of money to be made from perfection-seeking parents and fragile, self-centered children, particularly in an economy that is more and more oriented towards providing services of every stripe and color. And, aren’t the feelings of emptiness, confusion, and anxiety exactly what advertisers are trying to provoke? In a society where advertising saturates just about every possible experience, why would we expect people to be happy, confident, and fulfilled? I’m not sure it matters what kind of parents one has when the predominant themes of so many images we encounter on a daily basis are that we need something or that we are missing out on something. In light of this bombardment, it seems incredible to believe that people might think about themselves in any other way.

Perhaps a fuller recognition of the effects these forces are having on ourselves and our children would be a more effective start towards keeping all of us out of therapy.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Looking Back; Looking Ahead

One year ago this week, I published the first post for Post-Industrial Parenthood. In honor of this anniversary here are four discoveries I’ve made in the process of putting this thing together each week:

1. Blogging is good for my parenting.

Parenting is a very gradual process containing long, repetitive stretches of maintenance punctuated by unpredictable bursts of excitement. It is a largely uncertain and constantly incomplete form of work. In the face of this open-endedness, it is helpful to have a project that is capable of providing a sense of accomplishment within a relatively short and easily defined time-frame.

The weekly posts for Post-Industrial Parenthood have come to fit the bill. Each week when I get a post completed and published, I get a little jolt of excitement. The completion of a cycle of outlining, drafting, typing, and publishing makes me feel productive and successful. It also brings me to a moment that I especially enjoy: the one just after completion where I feel justified in not doing anything for a day or two.

In addition to a sense of accomplishment, this project has made the decision-making processes of my parenting easier. I tend to think about the world in a post-hoc manner, feeling my way along and then (over)analyzing later on why I like or dislike something. Writing about the factors involved in such things as our decision not to send Pip or Polly to preschool or my enthusiasm for the kids’ interest in LEGOs has brought to my attention the things I truly value as a parent and has reinforced my understanding of how to realize those values. This understanding has made me a more confident parent as I have a clearer sense of the basic principles I want to guide my decisions in various situations. This doesn’t mean I’ll always make the right choice, but at least I have a better chance of knowing what the right choice is.

And, I get to tell stories in the process. There are frequently events that occur or thoughts that come to mind that I want to share with people but that don’t fit into the flow of everyday conversation. When this happens, these stories and ideas become like a caged animal in my mind. They pace within my skull, circling round and round looking for some way out. At the rare times when a conversation will provide the opening to unleash one of these thoughts, the experience is a mildly ecstatic combination of excitement and relief that feels much like winning a good door-prize at the company Christmas party.

Post-Industrial Parenthood has allowed me to share many more of these thoughts than I would otherwise ever get the chance to. As a result I’ve had many more ecstatic moments and become a more patient and less distracted parent.

2. The audience influences the material.

When I first started writing posts for Post-Industrial Parenthood, I wanted to publish stories that would appeal to friends and family as well as a broader audience of readers who might be interested in some of the social and cultural aspects of parenting in this era. What I did not anticipate was the importance a third group of readers would have on the topics and stories I decided to take on.

About a month or so into writing, I came to realize that I was not just interested in speaking to those who would be reading from week to week but also to those who might read these entries twenty or thirty years from now. This group would obviously include adult versions of Polly and Pip as well as much older versions of myself and Ava. The emerging awareness that I was recording a sort of family history with Post-Industrial Parenthood led me to write about more individual moments and milestones than I had originally intended. On the whole, the blog has become more personal than I initially thought it would be.

3. Kid Moments are blogger candy.

Back in February, Ava and I finished watching the fourth season of the television show 30 Rock. Organized around the interactions between the head writer of a Saturday Night Live-type television show and her boss - a businessman who has almost reached the top of the corporate ladder - 30 Rock is funny because, in addition to presenting the craziness going on behind the scenes of the television show, it satirizes many of the structures, practices, and pressures that are commonplace in large American businesses. Much like with The Office, this satire gave 30 Rock an extra sharpness that made it more interesting than the average television show.

In the fourth season this satire mostly slipped away. It was replaced by a couple cycles of dating/romantic slapstick with the businessman character. While these cycles were still funny, it feels like the originality of the show evaporated. What remained was sitcom candy – a series of storylines that were amusing but largely empty of real substance. After watching a few episodes, these storylines lost their distinction and started to taste like every other half-decent romantic comedy ever made.

In a parenting blog, Kid Moments – those stories where the kids do something that humorously reveals the parents’ ineptitude - present a similar danger. They are easy to write. The stories have a definite beginning, middle, and end. They are funny in a kind of inoffensive, banal way. And they happen just about every week. All together this makes it very tempting to write Kid Moments over and over again. But like candy and romantic slapstick, Kid Moments are largely repetitive and lacking in distinction. As an occasional break for both writer and reader, they are fun. As the main course, they quickly blend together in a mass that is basically dull and lifeless.

4. I’m beginning to figure out what it means to be a post-industrial parent.

When I started this blog last June, I chose the name Post-Industrial Parenthood because it conveyed a sense of the theoretical background upon which my writing would draw. The term ‘post-industrial’ was one I had encountered frequently in graduate school. It was used there mostly to point to a series of transitions taking place in advanced industrial economies like the United States whereby the driving force of economic growth was shifting from the manufacturing of goods to the provision of services. In such an environment jobs in government, research, education, health care, law, banking, and sales become more numerous than those in factories or manufacturing facilities. One result of this shift is the emergence of ‘knowledge’ as an important asset or measure of capacity for both individual workers and companies as a whole. Another is that the geographical location of these assets is becoming much less important than the network or web of (electronic) relations in which they operate. Ideas travel much easier than widgets.

As a parent, these developments exert pressure on me in at least one major way. When ‘knowledge’ and ‘networks’ are the most important assets my kids can obtain in their pursuit of a successful future, everything we do together takes on an extra bit of significance. Gaining ‘knowledge’ is an infinite business. Unlike developing a skill set where you learn a discrete series of operations and work to get better at them, building ‘knowledge’ is a process of constant education. It means gaining exposure to an unending array of ideas, concepts, narratives, facts, stories, and the like. And it starts from day 1. Acquiring ‘knowledge’ does not require the development of other capacities. It is something that is constantly in process. The same goes for building networks. There will always be more people to connect with and more links to be made.

The ‘responsible’ parent senses these facts and acts in accordance with their associated pressures. It’s one reason preschools sell themselves as places where children as young as two years old can gain socialization and prepare for kindergarten instead of as places to send the kids while mom or dad goes grocery shopping. Summer enrichment camps and toddler music groups both appeal in subtle ways to the same combination of ‘knowledge’ building and network development.

For me the central question of post-industrial parenthood is how much of this matters and what values we are enacting with the choices that we make. In a world where capital in the form of ‘knowledge’ and ‘networks’ is theoretically infinite, we’ll kill ourselves trying to acquire it all. The choices we make in the face of this reality and the underlying influences on how these choices appear to us will be a major theme in the year ahead.