Narrowing Worlds and Great Expectations: on why parenting is so hard these days
Where to begin. I have so many thoughts on parenting that I should be writing several articles but I don’t feel like doing that. I want to say as much as I can here because really, it’s all connected.
I first set out to write an article about “narrowing worlds.” I was thinking the other day how nice it would be to have a bit more land so that our children could go further away from the house and run around. We currently live in an area where that isn’t as possible. But we could let our kids run amok a little more I think. Or can we? One day, not long after moving into our most recent place, three of our kids were walking up and down the sidewalk in front of our house between two points we told them not to pass. Our oldest was out there and she was 6 almost 7. We were right inside, just on the other side of the front door. They were in listening distance. At one point there is a knock on our door and some woman is checking to make sure we know our kids are outside. While I did appreciate her concern, I wondered “what kind of society do we live in?” How far away from our house can our children run and play? Not far apparently. Their world and ours as parents is narrowing.
As a parent of now 4 children, I’m constantly thinking about how to parent. My wife and I have lots of conversations around this. Having just given birth to our fourth child about a month ago, it already feels very hard. A lot of the time it feels like we as parents receive very little space from our children. They are always right there. We are working harder to encourage independent play, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Our “worlds” as people, as adults, feels very small. My wife mentioned feeling claustrophobic the other day. I am always wondering what this means. I am always curious to why our kids always feel so on top of us. It makes living and parenting much harder. There is just no space. Our worlds are narrow.
Now, as a therapist, a marriage and family therapist at that, I tend to look at what my wife and I are doing to perpetuate any of this. It is my inclination to look at nurture much sooner than nature. Having kids with very specific temprements has helped me to balance that out a bit but the way any temprement “plays out” in its environment depends on, well, its environment. So back to what can we do differently. This becomes the real question of parenting in our contemporary times: what are we doing wrong?
In my work with adolescents, young adults, and their parents, I have seen this pattern where children struggle to struggle. I’ve written about it before HERE. We have swung the pendulum from “children should be seen and not heard” to “children should be happy due to my parenting.” This dynamic has presented itself to me. I didn’t go looking for it on my own. I never would have thought so because I was always under the impression that parents should be very attuned and conscientious about their parenting: almost the idea that you could never try too hard. Well, what I started seeing in these young adults and exasperated parents, was that trying too hard was indeed a huge cause to their problems.
So what happened? Well, as far as I have ascertained up till now, parenting became so important becuase of the work of psychology, that we got caught up in a “do it right” mindset. Many people had horrible experiences in childhood, or even the more subtle, yet powerful, experience of just not having enough of their parents time, love, and attention. Psychology, therapy, and self-help books, began to expose the powerful influence that parents had on the development of one’s sense of self and function in the world. Therefore, the natural response was to start focusing on the types of parents that children needed. Book after book began to be written by psychologists, and then more by lay people, and more still by those focusing just on parenting. There are more books now, I would guess, on the topic of parenting, then there were in the entire history of the world prior to 1950. Those are most likely inaccurate guesses but you get my point.
What became the focus of parenting then? Well, if I am a child who grew up in a home that really fell short in providing some things, or saw children as insignificant, then I would have been unhappy. Now, this might be a point of contention for some. Some might say that when all the focus toward childhood became so prevalent in the psychological literature, everyone started focusing on what they didn’t receive in childhood. You might say that everyone had an unhappy childhood, because parents will always be imperfect. But what happened is the focus became happiness, good feelings, and a lack of struggling.
Because the past 30 years have been very aflluent times in our society, parents have been able to give a lot to their children: time, money, resources. As a quick side note, I might be speaking more to the realities of middle class and upper class families. Which would illuminate the even greater pressures on lower socioeconomic families. The pressure to provide the basics as well as a wonderful childhood filled with happiness would be more than daunting – it’s impossible. But sometimes I find that lower socioeconomic status families have not bought into the psychological brouhaha that is modern American parenting.
Back to the affluence though because it helped to create the larger culture of parenting. It created the ability for parents to do more for their kids. They could leave work early for a football game, they could send their kid to an expensive camp, and they could pay for everything. Parents had less stress and more time to be present for their kids. Not all bad, but we’ll see in a bit that it “can be” too much. Life comes with many roadblocks and limitations when we are working hard to make it ourselves. It has become hard for parents to watch their childen struggle to fall on their face and get back up because the process of face-falling is about pain and discomfort, the opposite of “successful parenting” in our current paradigm. If I don’t have to watch my child struggle, then why would I do that out of some outdated “when I went to school, I walked through 40 feet of snow uphill both ways and so will you.” It seemed unecessary. But at what cost?
Cost: the ability to struggle. Youth, as I have seen in my practice, struggle to struggle.
Parents are doing too much for their kids. This isn’t news to many people, but the power is in the subtleties. Many parents would say today that they do not do too much for their children. But they are thinking on the surface. There are smaller and more subtle ways that parents respond to their children with the ultimate goal of no pain, or struggle, or difficult emotion. I tend to believe that it’s almost impossible NOT to do. It’s a macro influence, a larger cultural paradigm that infultrates itself into our parenting lives anywhere and everywhere. So when I work with parents I try to help them see this larger issue. I do not blame parents per se, but I do blame parenting. It is a cultural issue, and sometimes I think an epidemic. No longer are youth coming into therapy because of abuse (although that’s not completely gone or anything) but instead, because they’ve had too much given to them and have lost the ability to face life. Life is hard. Children and youth are not being prepared for it.
But there is something else compounding this problem. Fear of the world. Fear is everywhere and there is no space for children in a fearful world. Or so we think. Remember when I was talking about blaming myself and my wife for the possible narrowing of our world? While I think there might be some things we are doing because of what I just mentioned above in trying too hard to be good parents, I think something else is at play too. It’s back to that woman letting us know that our children were outside playing, as though it were dangerous or not good. Even kids who lived in the city 50 years ago ran out and played in the streets unsupervised. Today those parents would be hauled into child services for some sort of neglect. But what does this mean? There is no space for childhood! Even if we lived in the woods, we’d probably be hypervigilant about our kids’s whereabouts, if they were safe, etc.
“Don’t go far!” “Be careful!” “Don’t do this, and don’t do that.” “Make sure you take your cell phone.” “Call us if you need anything.” And fill in the hundreds of other phrases spoken today. Some of these phrases might have their time and place in developmental stages, but many of them start at early ages and don’t stop into someone’s 20s!! What do all these statements actually say to kids? One, it says they should be fearful of the world, and two, it says they probably can’t handle it.
While the world does seem stranger and more filled with drugs and crime, in actuality its probably the safest our world has ever been. I’m not saying there are no issues to be had in our current times, but I am saying its probably not as unsafe as we think. We’ve most likely made it unsafe by safeproofing it. We’ve bubble wrapped the hell out of our lives to the point that the slightest poke seems detrimental! Our north american reaction to pain and trauma is to remove all possibility of it happening again – or so we try. This keeps us from learning to live with it, thriving through it. The attempt to remove all possibility just perpetuates anxiety and an avoidant stance toward to the world. Our worlds are narrowing. Childhood is now structured, planned out and spent in organized activities. Control, control, control. You know one major approach to the world that perpetuates anxiety? Control. We are insulating ourselves from the world, instead of moving into it.
Now, you might think this is just my problem, that you are not like this. And I say, well, I’m so glad for you. I do think there are parents out there who have fought this way of parenting and this is good. My wife and I work hard to balance it but it’s hard. I know I am not alone because of the parents I talk to. I’ve been able to help parents by empowering them to take the power back – to help them see that they need to guide their children into this world, not just make them happy. That they need to be less concerned with how they are parenting, focusing on the kids less. Parenting so that kids are happy puts kids at the top of the hierarchy and is problematic. They cannot handle all that power and it therefore creates more anxiety.
Do I think this whole pendulum swing is all bad? No, of course not. The parenting of the 50s and prior was not better. We just need to find a balance between conscientiousness and benign neglect. We have to allow children to make mistakes, learn from struggle, and create their own journey. I told a couple recently to parent their child based on who their child was, not just what they wanted for their child. Let’s say her name is Megan. I encouraged them to foster her Meganness, not just what they wanted for her. But for that to happen, we must let go of them just enough that we are not completely responsible for all they go through in life. Parenting is hugely important, but it is not everything. Life is also going to raise our kids. We must help them with a free sense of self in navigating struggle and limitations, with our emotional support of course, so they can become persons out there in the world.
I’m concerned with how we are going to expand our worlds again. I don’t know what that looks like. The fact that kids cannot play in the street or run far into the woods for an entire day without their parents’ hypervigilance, makes me sad. And to give you an idea of the power that this paradigm has on me, I still have a hard time letting go of them in this way. I’m sure all parents have over the years but I do think it’s even harder nowadays.
I said to my wife recently that the expectations we have created for ourselves around parenting in our current time, basically doubles the amount of children one has in parental emotional experience. So because we put ourselves under so much pressure to parent well and make sure our kids are always doing well, having fun, and being happy, we basically have 8 kids. And my recent realization that our worlds have narrowed means that those 8 kids are even harder to manage in terms of physical and psychological space. My kids get a lot of my time compared to other dads. I’m definitely very imperfect as a father but they still get a therapist who at least has some understanding of systems and human emotion, and cares to foster their sense of self. They also have a mother who used to be in childcare and homeschools them. They get a ton of quality and quantity time from both of us and yet we still feel guilty. What’s wrong with this picture? Is this just our issue?? I don’t think so. Not anymore. I also understand that its most likely harder for us because of what we know from our work. It sets us up for unrealistic expectations.
I’m exhausted now just from writing this article. My wife and I and many other parents need to start thinking of our children less in some ways. We need to get busy with our own passions and ignore them a little so they are forced to be off doing their own thing. But I’m also aware of the narrowing worlds and that we are also up against a fearmongering society that has shrunk the space of childhood, which makes it hard to do our own thing. Here’s to us!