Frank Bruni’s column in this past weekend’s New York Times entitled “A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn” has caused quite a stir. Over 400 commenters have already weighed in, some praising Bruni and other scolding him for criticizing parents when he himself is not one.
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I’m somewhere in the middle. On certain points, I think Bruni is flat out right. But on others, I think he’s dead wrong.
Bruni’s main claim is that modern parenting has become obsessive, an extension of our generation’s self-obsession. As he writes:
“As the Me Generation spawned generations of mini-me’s, our rigorous self-fascination expanded to include the whole brood and philosophies about its proper care and feeding.”
Well-said, Mr. Bruni. I agree. Whereas in the olden days, when Jack fell down and broke his crown, his mother wouldn’t have paid too much attention, now she diligently oversees every aspect of his daily life: his food, when he goes to the bathroom, his behavior in the sandbox, i.e. whether he shares or hogs all the shovels. No matter what he does, she has an opinion, she thinks about it. That truly is obsessive. I’m speaking from experience here. I’m using the mother example because it wouldn’t be nice for me to insult my husband, but of course this all applies to dads, as well.
We parents are obsessed and we worry too much. We also sweat the small stuff far too much. This is a form of self-obsession because parents seem to think that they can control their childrens’ destiny, that everything that happens has to do with them. Bruni points out that we should take mercy on ourselves and step aside because children are born pretty much themselves and as they grow, they grow into greater and lesser versions of themselves.
So on all that, I’m good, Frank. Let me even offer myself up as a sacrificial lamb here. I fall into this a lot. When things go wrong, I blame myself. When I spot my children’s shortcomings (yes, I have to admit they are there) I try to figure out why they have them and whether I’m to blame. I think a lot of parents I know do this, and it does spring from caring too much and some weird delusion that our children’s lives won’t be as complex and fraught with challenges as our own.
But here’s where I think Bruni is totally wrong: Bruni’s logic is that we parents are doing too much (and we’re doing it all wrong) but that it doesn’t matter what we do because kids are kids and we can’t control how they come out.
I think it’s the opposite, actually. To me, now more than ever, it actually does matter what parents do because, in fact, we are raising our kids in this obsessive culture and we have to try and pull them out of it!
Not all of us want our kids to be drugged out on iPhones and oblivious to others outside of their own fishbowl. We might even want our kids to eat something other than chicken fingers. That takes hard work. As a parent, you do have to push your kid to be polite and to recognize a larger world. I know my parents did this with me.
And now more than ever, raising good kids is tricky because everything revolves around kids in a way that is unprecedented. The Me generation has birthed the “All About Me All The Time” generation!
This culture of parenting that Bruni so deftly identifies calls out for us parents to buy every product, sign up for every activity, and schedule countless playdates and enriching weekend expeditions to parks, museums, and the like. I realize that not all parents are fortunate enough to have these problems, but the parents targeted in Bruni’s piece do. Our parents knew little from this. Then, it was Carnation Instant Breakfast and shuffling us out of the house for the school bus and then back home to playing in the backyard with neighbors kids, some of whom were nice and some of whom were mean. Once in a while we might get pulled along to something interesting that our parents wanted to do. It was up to us to entertain ourselves.
Now, we parents might be messing up, but you have to forgive us because it’s hard learning how to navigate this crazy culture with pressures and invitations at every turn. Summer camps, art classes, sports. Good heavens, better make sure he gets exposed to lots of different things so that he can decide what he really likes! Who even dreamed of such a luxury back then. Each of these lovely activities when taken in isolation IS a great idea, but the problem is that it takes a herculean effort (plus money) to manage to expose your child to all of this. It’s nerve-racking, time-consuming, expensive, and stressful. And you’re constantly left with the feeling that you missed something, that you’re denying your child some opportunity. Meanwhile, your family life suffers because when you’re running around trying to make everything happen, you’re not hanging out at home doing the stuff we used to do, like actually talking to each other and listening to the Beatles. So yes, we are a little stressed out and obsessive but it’s not entirely our fault. We were born as parents into this obsessive culture, right when our children were born.
So what do we do?
I have a hunch that the trick for us modern parents lies in finding out how to participate in this zany culture so that we and our children feel apart of a community while not being suffocated by its exhausting rhythm. The trick is in saying no to a lot of this STUFF and yes to just the right amount. That might help us obsess less and learn to live more to our own tune. Just a hunch.
I’m no where near there, and this is easier said than done. But I know I speak for many when I say we’re at least trying.
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