Monday, July 15, 2013

Parenting in the Extreme

I wrote this piece almost a year ago for an online magazine that never published the article. On Thursday night, July 18th, at 7:00 pm PST, I will be talking with Christopher and Amanda at LNR Radio about this article and being an anti-attachment parent. Click on LNR Radio for the link. And you can share your own thoughts by calling in live 10PM EST/7PM PST (718) 766-4652 or leave us comments on Twitter (@LNRradio) or on Facebook.


It's certainly no mystery that parenting styles have changed since my parents' generation. In their day, if the kids weren't bleeding profusely or suffering from a fractured limb, then everything must be peaches and cream. My parents ignored the fact that mine was the generation of growing pot in the basement and pocketing Quaalude, instead they released us unto the world and then turned a scotch and soda blind eye, muttering blithely to themselves: no news must be good news.

Now, as if to brutally combat the previous generation's nonchalance, there is a fresh crop of parents who are determined to micromanage their children's every movement, every syllable, every boo boo, every fart. These helicopter parents hover relentlessly, breastfeeding their little ones until they're six, allowing them to sleep in the master bed until they're eleven, and ironing their undies until they go off to college. They clamor to get their children into good schools, only serve food that's organic and gluten free, refuse to use cleaning supplies that aren't green, always insist on indoor voices, compost relentlessly, forbid television passionately, speak to their offspring in French or Mandarin, and opt for “meaningful” kids' names like Arrow, Echo or Alabama (all of whom were fellow students at my daughter's preschool).


I have dubbed this kind of child rearing extreme parenting. And like extreme snow boarding, extreme motocross, and Tea Party politics, it's extremeness is controversial yet growing in popularity, seeping into the warp and woof of today's society, creating a strict moral high ground where there is little room for compromise. This kind of child rearing is polarizing; friendships have been broken, families have been torn asunder, and the ripple effects are felt by all. We used to say it takes a village to raise a family, but now extreme parents proudly show off their war wounds and with competitive belligerence insist, “I'm doing this all by myself, biotch.”

When I was a new parent, I jumped feet first into extreme parenting, creating a soft, fuzzy, yet crunchy granola world in which my children would grow and thrive; where violence, objectification, racism and post-Freaky Friday Lindsay Lohan did not exist.

I wanted so desperately to buy into today's prescribed parenting pablum. For instance, I accepted the "no toy guns and no Barbies" rule as sacrosanct, fearing that plastic firearms would tempt my son to idolize Timothy McVeigh and boobilicious dolls would entice my daughter to aspire towards a D cup and life in Malibu.

But the more I said no guns, the more Sebastian pretended a stick, a spoon, a toy shark, anything really, was an automatic weapon. And the firmer I was that Maxwell couldn't have a Barbie, the more adamant she became about wearing overly revealing, storybook-themed, cootchie couture (think commando Cinderella, trashy Tiana, Snow-not-so-White). And not that I've given in to kiddie vigilantism nor pre-pre-adolescent sluttery (not that vigilantism and sluttery are by any means the biggest challenges I've had raising children), but I've come to believe that constant smothering and blanket house rules without taking into consideration what's best for the child (not what's best for the parent) are short sighted and can be detrimental in the long run.

It was subtle, but my parenting approach fundamentally shifted. Somewhere along the way, I realized that toy guns and Barbies were not the enemy. Television, processed foods and curse words were not the enemy. Even panty-less Lindsay Lohan was not the enemy, as long as moderation became a significant component to my parenting method. (Okay, perhaps moderation doesn't come into play when it involves Lindsay Lohan's love bug.)

Since my parenting paradigm shift, extreme parents have made me feel less than for periodically taking my kids to Mc'Donald's or PG 13 movies. I've become defensive, trying to diffuse my lapse by lying, “It only happened that once.” But no more. For far too long I've stood to the side, trying not to rock the boat, nodding my head like an acquiescing bobble-head, feeling very much like a voiceless atheist in a room full of religious fanatics. But (if I can add to my exhausting list of metaphors) the last straw has been placed, and now, my friends, Mama needs to vent.

***

Parenting by fear has got to stop. It's illogical to think that by following Junior around with a goose down pillow you will be able to soften all the blows life has in store for him. If your child's in the next room and he sounds a minor alarm, that does not mean he's being torn apart by a yeti. I've seen extreme parents practically knock over furniture to get to their mewling kid instead of holding back to see whether the child can work through whatever is causing the distress on his or her own.



That's not to say the world isn't scary and there aren't real dangers. Cars periodically hot-rod in my neighborhood, questionable looking people dig through my trash, and sometimes it feels as if there are pitfalls at every turn, but it's important not to be reactionary. With a cool head we can instill our children with confidence and give them the tools to navigate such obstacles. “Stop at the curb. Look both ways. Now we cross.” But if instead I clutch their hands with terror and drag them behind me without asking them to use their own eyes and ears then I'm not setting them up to be self reliant.

Sebastian was three when he walked towards me, huge smile on his face, huge butcher knife in his hand. (Go ahead, judge me, leaving the knife where he could get to it was a tremendously bad parenting lapse.) I could have yelled something like, “I never want you to touch anything sharp again...ever!” But we all know because I said so does not work. Curious minds will want to reinvestigate what was denied them. Instead, I calmly took Bash to the kitchen, put the butcher knife away and took out a small, dull paring knife. I showed him how to hold it safely and even let him lightly put his finger against the blade, so he could experience for himself why it was dangerous. The mystery being lifted, he hasn't gone back to the butcher knife since.

I'd much rather my kids experience the blade, the hot stove, the electrical socket, the barking dog, in my presence, learn to approach these hazards with extreme caution, and then afterwards with a composed demeanor and supportive voice apply the rule: Do not touch a knife outside of an adult's presence.

Not that I agree with my parents' hand off approach – no child should ever be allowed to swim alone in a pool – however by permitting me my scrapes and bang-ups, they gave me one of the best gifts a parent can offer: autonomy.

Last year when Sebastian was nine, he finally showed an interest in his bicycle. We live on a cul-de-sac and I decided it was time he be granted a little autonomy and allowed him to ride his bike on our street unsupervised.

A few months ago, as Sebastian was parking his bike in the garage, my neighbor approached and told me what an unsound idea it was to leave my son unattended. He began to paint a picture of the unsavory element in Los Angeles, how they are out there and we all need to be on our guard. My son then attempted to tell my neighbor how he would never talk to strangers, making me quite proud. However, my neighbor cut Sebastian off, "But you are small, and you are very cute, and someone who is bigger than you could easily take you and throw you in his van."

What kind of motherfucking, paranoiac, backwoods parenting is that? Of course Sebastian needs to be aware of what's going on in the neighborhood, but I don't want him to be terrified walking out his front door.

My husband, Michael, was raised in a family that still bows down to the gods of fear. Don't go down into the basement, it's scary. Don't walk under that tree, bugs will fall into your hair. Don't let your kids eat too many bananas, they will get constipated and die. Michael has worked very hard to dismiss his family's homespun notions, and it's been a goal of his to keep from offloading his personal fears (of which there are quite a few) onto our children. It hasn't always been easy and there have been some heated debates (he's still not convinced about Sebastian biking alone, for instance), however he's constantly evolving and for that I give him his props.

Michael told me there's one significant moment that's allowed him to let go. A couple years ago, our family went camping with other families with kids. Some of the older boys wanted to ride their bikes back and forth from our cabin to the entrance of the campgrounds, a distance of about a mile. Sebastian didn't bring his bike but really wanted to go with the boys, riding on the back of one of their bikes. Michael's knee-jerk was to say no, but instead he he fought that instinct and instead laid down some ground rules. To this day, my husband holds on to the image of our little boy on the back of a bike, arms around his friend's waist, disappearing down the hill. This snapshot is one of growth for the entire family and helps Michael to make continued informed decisions.

***

Extreme parenting also comes in the form of overindulgence. I've seen parents bend over backwards to meet Junior's every demand. Diaper bags are over packed with goodies of all types, multiple changes of clothes, favorite toy and favorite back-up toy, binkies, security blankets, and sippy cups (come on, your kid is five!!). My question: who is this meant to pacify? The child or the parent?

Neither of my children took to the pacifier, so we decided to do without. It was quite an education to see other parents squirm at the notion and try to hint that we needed to reevaluate this decision. The binkie clearly comforted these other parents more than it did my kids.

Repeat after me... It's okay if children don't always get their way. Doing without teaches patience, tolerance and self soothing.

On the other side of the overindulgence spectrum there are parents who don't let their children lift a finger...ever. My kids buckle their own seat belts, make their own beds, feed the dogs, and help to set and clear the table, so I'm flabbergasted when an elementary school-aged child enters my house and doesn't know how to pour a bowl of Cap'n Crunch (yes, bitches, I said Cap'n Crunch).

Just last week, a very good friend, who recently had carpal tunnel surgery, was about to cut her eleven-year-old son's pork chop. She could barely hold the knife and tears were beginning to form. I had to intervene. I took the knife from my friend, handed it to the kid and said, "You're almost as tall as I am, cut your own ding dang meat."

I understand wanting to do for your child. It can even be a time saver...oh, here, let me do that, but at some point (it's scary, I know) our children will have to do without us. Parents need to decide whether they will enable dependence, or promote independence.

***

And, of course, I can't mention extreme parenting without bringing up, arguably, the most controversial of parenting styles, attachment parenting. Attachment parenting, to my layman understanding, is a philosophy coined by Dr. William Sears (Dr. Bill for those in the know) in which constant physical connection to the infant will strengthen its overall development, and it usually includes family bed, baby wearing, home schooling, anti-circumcision and lots and lots of breastfeeding.

Last year, attachment parenting was brought back into the public eye because of Time Magazine's eye popping cover, in which a young mother casually yet defiantly holds her three-going-on-twelve-year-old son as he stands on a chair, sucking at her breast.




My problem wasn't with the magazine showing a little nip, nor the nipper sipping at the nip (although, I have many female friends who viscerally hate that image and wish they could scrub it from their brain with Borax). No, my problem is the picture's headline, “Are you Mom enough?” It's inference is divisive. It pits mom against mom – the uber moms who wear Junior as a watch fob versus the rest of us hacks.

I have seen attachment parents of school-aged children who didn't get the memo that at a certain point it's healthy for their kids to detach. (You know this applies to you if your five or six-year-old has a difficult time separating from mom's breast, “Night night, Tata.”) These are the parents who salivate when I tell them my children not only sleep in their own beds, in their own rooms, but they rarely wake up and are asleep minutes after their heads hit their pillows. With noticeable envy they ask me how I managed such a miracle, and I tell them, “I closed the door and walked away.”

I know an attachment couple who had three boys within a six year period. There was constantly a little one, or a couple of little ones, in their bed. The mom confided that she felt sorry that her husband had been neglected for so many years. But, she whispered conspiratorially, she was finally ready to make it up to him. She was planning a romantic getaway for her and her husband...for ONLY ONE NIGHT. One night in six years...where is the balance in that?



I went to Dr. Bill's website, Ask Dr. Sears, and although I couldn't find a definition to attachment parenting that satisfied me, I did surprisingly find the following:

Attachment parenting is a question of balance –not being indulgent or permissive, yet being attentive... In fact, being possessive, or a "smother mother" (or father) is unfair to the child, fosters an inappropriate dependency on the parent, and hinders your child from becoming normally independent. For example, you don't need to respond to the cries of a seven-month-old baby as quickly as you would a seven-day-old baby.”

Well if that's the case, then I'm not anti-attachment parent, but rather anti-extreme parent who misplaced the attachment cut off valve.

A level-headed attachment parent friend of mine frames the philosophy like this, “You have to put your oxygen mask on first, before you put on your kids'.” And on this point I agree. Parents (attachment or not) need to be mentally and physically healthy before tackling the needs of their children. They need to fulfill their own goals that have nothing to do with Junior or Junioretta, and not to sound like a Geritol commercial but parents should eat balanced meals, take their vitamins, work out regularly, and they must, must, must make the beast with two backs more than one night every six years!

I'm telling you, close the door and walk away.

***

Last year was challenging. Sebastian started a new school and with it ADHD meds. When the meds didn't prove to be effective he was taken off them and started a gluten free diet. When still there was no improvement I nixed the diet and Bash started group therapy. And although I could celebrate in Sebastian's highs, last year my smorgasbord parenting style left me feeling uncertain, and I spent more time commiserating about his lows.

At one point a social worker tried to offer me an affirmation, “You know what's best for your son.” And I was struck with the naked reality that that is not true whatsoever. I have certain ideas based on how I was raised coupled with effective parenting techniques that I've seen work, but really, at the end of the day, I'm like parents everywhere collecting information and making a go of it...getting to gymnastics on time and making sure the homework gets done, while tossing food scraps at them in between.

You'd think this common bond would strengthen parents as a support team for each other, but sadly, with partisan parenting on the rise I'm afraid that is just not so.

Recently, I was in the park with Maxwell, another mom, and her kids. While we were there, an unauthorized vendor rolled in his food cart incongruously selling snow cones and corn on the cob. Max started to bug me for a snow cone almost immediately. If I was there alone, I would have said yes without question, but because I previously saw the other mom provide organic, cardboard-tasting treats to her kids I was pretty sure she was an extreme parent who would throw me some snarky shade if I purchased a snow cone of questionable origin. So, I tried to keep Maxwell's desire at bay. But after three rounds of please, Papa, please!!! I finally acquiesced and gave my daughter a dollar.

Maxwell was charming and shared the snow cone with four or five little girls, and when the mom found out her daughter was one of those who partook of the artificially flavored, artificially colored, icy ball of sin she let loose with extreme parent bitchiness and superiority, “Well, I guess one bite isn't going to kill her.”

But rather than get all worked up and wimpishly apologize, I forcefully refused to allow myself to get defensive. Gone was the inclination to back-pedal and over-explain. I felt not only free but oddly vindicated by allowing my wonderfully deserving daughter a bubble gum flavored icy treat from the corn vendor.

And as I reveled in my newly found freedom, the incident was then made more perplexing when Dependent Daughter went up to Extreme Mom and begged for a snow cone of her own, to which Mom replied, “You don't want to eat that. Let's go to Baskin Robbins instead.”

And that, for me, sums up today's parenting. Choices are made: some of them informed, some of them in-the-moment and arbitrary, yet all in the guise of what's best for our kids. But instead of being snide and divisive about our different tactics, I got an idea... Why don't we head on over to Baskin Robbins, order a double scoop of Pralines 'n Cream, and find some common ground. I'll even splurge for the whipped cream.

8 comments:

Katie O'Shea Pederson said...

As I sit here in my quiet house with two babies fast asleep in their own beds after learning how to put themselves to sleep (ACK! THEY CRIED IT OUT!?!?) I raise my big cold Miller Lite to you Hutch. Thank you for this. I've always called myself a detachment parent and lived by the motto that although I'm raising children, in reality, I'm growing adults. Ones that will be independent and opinionated and probably as big a fan of Taco Bell as their mother.

starrhillgirl said...

You win.

Nilda Hernandez said...

Huych you always blow me away with your amazing blogs. This one definitely took me through a loop. I saw myself in both you and Michael. With the way things have been going with my teenage daughter I know I have to snip the apron strings but fear the thought of her leaving home again. The tips you wrote have helped me think about future decisions in our lives. For that I thank you. Please continue writing your blogs for you my friend are an amazing person and writer. I hope to see you soon. :) ♥♥♥

Nilda Hernandez said...

I meant Hutch (ugh! Spell check)

Sharon said...

But of course you are doing the exact right thing in the right way...because really, there is no RIGHT way. :)

Regan DuCasse said...

Hutch, your kids make me miss being a nanny. Your kids are so interesting and wonderful. I can understand how parents just have to slog it best they can. Spell against other parents and get things figured out as you go.
Thing is, your kids are a delight to be with.
That's the sign of good parenting. And you're doing fine because all those big and little things concern you...or don't.
Please give Michael, Bash and Max my love. See you soon! xo

just beth said...

Judgement... ain't nobody got time for that shit!

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