A few months ago I was rambling on to my dad about some parenting decision I had made. My dad, being generally uninterested in parenting-related topics, listened patiently, and then replied that he had never spent any time thinking about these things and did I really think any of this mattered?
It is a fair question. I’ve been thinking about it, wondering with each post I write if and how any of it matters. I admit that sometimes even I feel like rolling my eyes at the energy we put into parenting. Who cares?! In the bigger picture, does it really matter that one mother feeds her kids organic millet muffins and doesn’t let them play with battery operated plastic toys, while another mother encourages her kids to play with the latest iPad math app while they snack on oreos? Are these parenting trends just creating a platform for bored, intellectually-deprived parents to relentlessly judge each other? Or perhaps they simply provide some sort of scale for us to assess our success in a generally thankless job.*
When I consider the bigger picture of real world problems (war, poverty, hunger) and devastating tragedies (loss of child, disease, shootings), which seem to be hitting closer to home these days, I lose interest in organic anything. We all love our children and are doing the best we can for our families. Who cares about the details? Besides, I’m pretty sure my Disney-deprived child and the 5-year-old neighbor who knows all the Disney movies by heart will have similar lives. Most likely they’ll both finish high school, have hobbies they enjoy, go to college, get married, have children, be good friends for life and look back on childhood happily, reminiscing about how crazy their respective parents were. This scenario has existed for generations, regardless of the current parenting trends and debates. It doesn’t matter.
Except that it does matter. It matters on a global level. It matters for society.
To take an extreme example, which probably does not apply to the readership of this blog but makes a point, the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes is a direct result of our society’s eating and exercise habits, which reflect parenting decisions about nutrition, screen time, and physical activity.
An example that is probably more relevant is Lori Gottlieb’s attribution of the increase in depression and anxiety to protective, helicopter parents who overindulge their children. These children, who were given endless choices and had their problems solved for them, are now depressed and anxious, which, she claims, directly reflects parenting decisions.
A recent article by Kim John Payne discusses the long-term results of super-structured kids, and warns that “subjecting a child to a life of super structured and fast-paced activity in order to prepare him/her for the world is a well-meaning falsehood and a more than serious mistake.” Extrapolating from Payne, depriving children of the opportunity to play has a negative effect on the development of creativity, which in turn inhibits our nation’s capability in innovation and problem solving. Therefore, the parenting decision to sign a child up for piano, French, soccer, ballet, swimming, and chess, in other words, the decision to subscribe to a super-structured environment for children, does impact the direction and effectiveness of our society.
On a much darker level, allowing children to watch movies, TV, commercials (many of which show violence) and play video games in which shooting, bombs, car crashes, etc. are graphically presented (as opposed to leaving it up to the imagination of the child, and thus keeping it imaginary) may be contributing to the increase in violence.
On a more philosophical side, given Carr’s convincing theory that information technology shapes cognitive development, decisions about if, when, and how often we allow our children to use the internet and other technological tools are already influencing intellectual and cultural evolution, and not for the better.
So, yes. I believe parenting choices do matter. This doesn’t mean any given parenting choice is right or wrong, nor does any given choice reflect how much a parent loves his/her child. It’s not about my decision to save Disney movies for when my children are much older, or let my children decorate (and eat) a store-bought, non-organic cake with m&ms for a birthday celebration. Any discussion at that level tends towards judgment, superiority complexes, friction in friendships, and mommy-wars. But we should be thoughtful about how we are raising and educating our children. We have a responsibility to consider the effects of trends on child development and on society as a whole. Discussions about parenting should continue.
It does matter.
(And if I’m wrong, at least thinking about it will stimulate those of us who are indeed intellectually deprived in our parenting role.)
*No, I don’t think all parents are intellectually-deprived and judgmental, nor do I believe parenting is thankless. But I do believe these sentiments exist on some level at some point in time for most parents, and are therefore worthy of mention here.