My good pal (and talented author of the food blog, Meals Quotidian) Nathan drew my attention last week to a snippet from Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” at The Atlantic, which, in turn, drew my attention to a piece in Slate by Katie Roiphe.
In her article “Modern Parenting,” Roiphe asks, “If we try to engineer perfect children, will they grow up to be unbearable?” She launches her piece with an anecdote about a friend who shipped rubber flooring to a vacation villa in the south of France because she was concerned that her young daughter would fall and injure herself on the home’s stone floor during their stay there. She goes on to explore what she calls “our generation’s common fantasy”: “that we can control and perfect our children’s environment. And lurking somewhere behind this strange and hopeless desire to create a perfect environment lies the even stranger and more hopeless idea of creating the perfect child.”
She questions our culture’s obsessions with such phenomena as raising our babies’ IQs in utero and incessantly washing and sanitizing our kids’ hands as flying in the face of the “benign neglect” of the 70s and 80s, during which many of us were raised, and wonders whether our over-scheduling our children with everything from Suzuki violin at age three to all-star lacrosse at age 17 really helps them or us. As family life becomes more and more “overweighted in the children’s direction,” Roiphe cautions that we may be setting our children up for disappointment when they learn that the world does not, in fact, revolve around them and their needs.
And here’s the part that really got me:
Built into this model of the perfectible child is, of course, an inevitable failure. You can’t control everything, the universe offers up rogue moments that will make your child unhappy or sick or broken-hearted, there will be faithless friends and failed auditions and bad teachers. The one true terrifying fact of bringing an innocent baby into the fallen world is that no matter how much rubber flooring you ship to the villa in the south of France, you can’t protect her from being hurt.
A few days later, as I was reading Judith Warner’s latest book, We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication, I was reminded of Roiphe’s idea of the doomed mission of protecting our kids from all possible harm. In her book, Warner describes, among other things, the significant cultural stigma that parents of children with mental health issues must often overcome in deciding to seek treatment for their children. Like Roiphe, she references what she calls “the core belief of the parenting culture that reigns in our time”: “[t]he idea that, through sheer force of will, you can control your child’s every experience, create a perfect environment, and guarantee him or her the right kind of life.”
Warner goes on to quote the mom of a seven-year-old boy with Asperger’s and a speech delay:
I was on the playground once when my son had not yet been diagnosed but was just in speech therapy…I saw these other parents pushing their children on the swings and having their very little girl recite the alphabet. And I realized that they think, They did this. Parents of normal children have this conceit that if your child has one of these labels, you screwed up and you’re just looking for an excuse. A lot of random stuff happens and people don’t realize it. You invest so much in your children and you sacrifice so much and you have to acknowledge that you don’t have control.
And there it is – spelled out in black and white by Katie Roiphe and Judith Warner and an anonymous mother in Washington, D.C.
The one thing I never realized I feared the most about being a parent:
Bad stuff will happen to my kids. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
Do you agree with Roiphe and Warner that our generation of parents is dead set on creating and controlling a perfect environment for our kids? How do you deal with the inevitable fact that our kids will eventually be sick or hurt or sad?
P.S. After writing this post yesterday, I read a piece by The Empress reflecting on a similar idea. Please check out her post at Good Day, Regular People.