Thursday, June 3, 2010

most likely you go your way and i'll go mine

“How could you do that to your children?”

This comment was made by a friend after I told her that I had taken my kids, who were 2 and 4 at the time, hiking at Sleeping Giant on a “frigid” 34-degree day. The phrasing was not only judgmental, it was borderline accusatory: there was the implication that I had subjected my children to some form of torture, a dreary trudge up some cold and lonely peak, rather than a winter ramble up a 1.2-mile carriage road. In reality, they were barely aware of the cold, bundled as they were in layers of thermal cotton and fleece, and though I confess that Lexi’s toes were cold at the end, everyone survived, and DCF did not come and pack my kids up and send them off to a better home.

While my friend’s comment did not quite cause me to second-guess my (obviously questionable) judgment (when I worked with children in Anchorage, we went outside every day, and often the temps were below zero), I was bothered, and have continued to be bothered, by the amount of unsolicited comments and “free advice” doled out so liberally by other mothers, even those who call themselves friends. We insist that our children understand diversity and recognize that there are different value systems within a particular society, yet when it comes to parenting, we toss out the filters, and even go so far as to suggest that a perfectly competent mother who clearly cares for her children has somehow committed an act of neglect or abuse by adhering to a moral or philosophical code that is outside the mainstream.

As someone who treats most minor ailments and illnesses with natural remedies, I’m used to this sort of judgment, and even understand it, to a certain degree. When our kids are suffering, we want to alleviate their pain, and so why wouldn’t we give Tylenol, or antibiotics, if they’re available? What kind of sadist would deprive her children of the right to over-the-counter medicine?

This is a logical argument, and I usually try to explain that some afflictions, like ear infections, often heal themselves, and can’t be treated effectively by antibiotics because they are viral, rather than bacterial. Or that natural remedies often strengthen the body’s ability to heal itself. And I don’t judge parents who do choose a more orthodox course in treating illness; as I said, it’s logical, and rational. But so is my method, I think. And I do give Tylenol, too—or did, before the recent recall.

The medical issue aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that the “judgment tic” is less about concern for the allegedly abused or neglected child than it is about insecurity: we are all, to some extent, insecure about the choices we make, and this puts us on the defensive when it comes to parenting issues. Breastmilk or formula? Cloth or disposable? Camp or no camp? More activities or fewer? Scheduled playdates or spontaneous play?

I have another friend a great parent, who believes wholeheartedly in “kindergarten enrichment,” as many parents do. Here in Cheshire, we have half-day kindergarten, and many parents feel this is insufficient, and so they supplement with afternoon preschool or some other scheduled program. To be fair, many parents choose this option because they are in need of child care, and kindergartners are bussed from school to their program, allowing the parent to work a full day.

I am fortunate enough to have a schedule that allows me to pick Lexi up from pre-school at 11:30, and then to get Dylan off the bus at noon. I say “fortunate,” but this is also a choice for me. For me. I’ll emphasize the personal nature of the choice, because let’s face it, people, we all have different approaches to mothering, and, news flash, with few exceptions, they are equally effective. I’ve tried staying at home full-time; I missed being in the classroom. So my schedule works for me: I teach part-time, I’m home most of the time. Some women are fantastic stay-at-home moms: I’ll use my dear friend Kristen as an example. She bakes all of her bread (and most of her cereal), she does cool crafts, her kids are outdoors in every season. One day last year, she was babysitting her friend’s two kids, in addition to caring for her own three (the oldest of the children in this episode was 5 at the time). She took all 5 hiking IN THE RAIN (no need to call DCF; it was spring). Dylan, Alexa and I met her at Brooksvale Park for lunch, and all of us had lunch under a tree while the rain came down. The kids were covered in mud, and they loved it. A year later, Lexi still says, “Remember that day we were dancing in the rain?” And I should mention that Kristen still finds plenty of time to feed her brain, get involved in the community, and take time out for herself.

Would this be the perfect scenario for everyone? NO. Kristen’s patience far outweighs mine, and I know this, which is why I work three mornings a week. Some women have worked long and hard at establishing their careers; should they be exempt from motherhood because they put in longer hours than I do? I have friends who work full time and who know that they are better moms because of this.

Back to kindergarten enrichment. The friend mentioned above asked me, at the beginning of the school year, where I planned to send Dylan in the afternoons. I said I did not need to send him anywhere, because I would be home. “I know,” she responded, “ but it’s not about child care, it’s about giving them all the education they can get.” I said that Dylan wouldn’t be idle; we read, play games, hike. Oh, and there’s the p-word: PLAY.

My friend conceded that I do manage to do a lot with my kids. But then came the backhand: “And I know that you’re someone who, if you find that Dylan is falling behind—and he might, because the kindergarten teachers have to teach to the majority, and the majority of kids are in enrichment—you’ll send him to an after-school program.”

Other parents have echoed this concern about what “idle time” in the afternoons might mean: “We’re not educators. Johnny is too old to be sitting on the couch all day.” Why is Johnny sitting on the couch? Does every ounce of our kids’ “education” have to come from professionals? And don’t even get me started on the fact that privileging “enrichment” programs perpetuates an elitism within the public school system.

Motherhood is likely the most ass-kicking job any of us have ever had, so why do we make the “workplace” so competitive? Why are we so quick to dish out judgment rather than support? I’d have to wager that, our human shortcomings aside, most of us, at any given moment, are trying to be the best possible parents we can be. We make choices based on our values, and unless your values include drinking an entire bottle of wine every day at noon while your kids play violent video games, most of our kids are probably going to turn out okay, even pretty well, some even spectacular. So, come on, people, let’s lay off, listen, and most important, let’s take it easy on each other. ‘Kay?


Stacey said...

Very nice piece! Hope your kids weren't watching TV, rotting their minds, while you wrote it...JUST KIDDING :)

tricia said...

They were actually playing with a hair dryer in the tub during the thunderstorm we just had.

Teresa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Teresa said...

Yay to Play! I just read an interesting article on babycenter titled "Top 5 Parenting Fears and What to Do About Them." The number one fear?

"1. Great expectations

The Fear: I'm afraid my child won't get the education and opportunities she needs to reach her potential.

This was the top fear of the parents in our survey — which surprised us, given that we polled the parents of relatively young children. It didn't surprise author Pamela Paul, however, who has spent the past few years examining the mammoth baby-products marketing machine for her book, Parenting Inc.

In the book, Paul shows how parental anxiety fuels this lucrative industry. Marketers feed the fear, claiming "educational" toys and products and early reading programs will put your child on the fast track to success — before he's even out of diapers.

Paul believes this parental anxiety is a rational reaction to a scary economic climate. "Underlying a lot of parents' fears is a broad sense of economic insecurity," she says. "Parents are afraid that their children won't have an easy go of it because they aren't having an easy go of it. Many parents today are struggling to make ends meet, and they want a different kind of future for their kids."

The Reality: There's no question that we're living in a time of economic uncertainty: Unemployment and the cost of living are both on the rise, while wages are stagnant and increasing numbers of jobs are going overseas. It makes sense that parents should be concerned about their children and how they'll fare in an increasingly competitive world — but this doesn't mean that you should panic and begin grooming your child for the Ivy League the day you bring him home from the hospital.

What You Can Do: Paul and other experts agree that it's not necessary to buy every educational toy that hits the market or fill each hour of your child's day with enrichment activities. When it comes to helping your child reach her potential, it turns out that less is often more.

"There is evidence that the best thing you can do for your child is to buy fewer things," says Paul. "The average American child gets 70 new toys a year. But it turns out that kids who are more creative actually have fewer toys. Having a small number of simple, basic toys will help children develop their imagination and resourcefulness."

Psychologist Paul Donahue, author of the book Parenting Without Fear, offers a similar perspective. "Parents think they should do it all for their kids: stimulate them, keep them constantly entertained, do everything for them so they won't have to endure any frustration. They worry that if they don't do these things, their child will somehow fall behind."

Donahue argues that the reverse is actually true: Constant parental hovering makes it difficult for kids to develop independence, resourcefulness, imagination, and basic life skills — all things that will help a child achieve in school and in life.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explore this issue in their book, Freakonomics, concluding that many of the things parents do to ensure their children's success, from moving to a better neighborhood to exposing them to classical music, have little impact."

Trish, I say skip the after school program, skip the structure, skip anything labeled "enrichment" and skip worrying about what all the other parents think or have the nerve to say!

Bring on the fun, the outdoors, and the unstructured play....and that bottle of wine you spoke of.

You're a FABULOUS mom!!

And what about the grandparents...if only I could say " go your way and I'll go mine" :)

tricia said...

Right on, Teresa!

LLO said...

I loved this! And I think you are 100% correct about people's insecurities leading them to judge others. Sometimes I get insecure and think I'm putting my child at a disadvantage if I don't "follow the herd" and do "x,y and z." Thankfully, it only lasts a minute and I realize that I know my child best. I know he needs unstructured, spontaneous free time to just play and be a kid.

Christine said...

Rob just told me about your experience. As my fried Maryanne would say-that really frosts my ass!
I remember being at a "friend's" and hearing derogatory remarks about stay-at home moms being stupid! I reminded her that I stayed home and worked 2nd shift/weekends. She worked full-time and she was/is a wonderful mom-I never felt the need to judge her. I still don't know why she said those things.
Enrichment at 5?!! Why do people think that kids need that? I totally get the childcare aspect but
play is one of the most important forms of enrichment children can get, ask any child psychologist!If it's a good program it will have lots of play built in-even in K kids have free time to play because that is what's developmentally appropriate. That's how kids learn. So many children lack social skills in terms of free play that they are overwhelmed by recess and really can't handle it.
It reminds me of the movie "Parenthood" with Steve Martin when they are telling a child(that you can't see) that she is not working up to her potential in French class-they cut to the child and she's three! So silly.

AND-you don't catch cold from being cold-you catch cold from germs-it's healthier to be outside in 34 degree weather than being inside with someone coughing on you-obviously they need to have warm clothes on.

I could go on but I should stop.