An old, dear friend of mine lives in Jerusalem. I see her not enough. When we get together, we joke that we’re charter members of the “Bad Parents Club.” Membership in the club imposes only two demands: that one not talk excessively about one’s children, and that one can and does criticize one’s child, not capriciously or cruelly, but based upon the actual record of their lives.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert dissects this trend in contemporary social life. Can privilege produce better values and behavior?
This all sounds annoying and self-congratulatory, but the fact is that many adults in many social situations cannot seem to discuss anything much besides their children–what they’re doing for summer vacation, how school’s going, how they’re doing in general. And we cannot seem to avoid praising if not overpraising them. Like Mayor Koch of the old days: “How’m I doing?” We’ve morphed from a world where kids were barely seen and rarely heard to a world where they stand at the epicenter of everything we think about, blog about, talk about, are about. The question is: if there’s any truth to what I’m saying, what difference does it make to us and most importantly to them?
We pay fat fees to shrinks working through all of this stuff, trying to get at the link between our parents, our lives, and what we want for our kids. We slave to give them things that many of us as kids never had. The new normal includes multiple vacations per year, more clothes, more electronics, more choice, more freedom. Many kids choose not just what college they wish to attend, but the high school that strikes their fancy. The parent dons the role of facilitator, provider, companion. Their traditional role as teacher, exemplar, authority, seems much less clear and present.
Now that my kids are a bit older, I laugh at how little I understood what it all meant, the power and powerlessness of parenting. How much I wanted to change my life through my kids, how much I literally wanted to rewrite my past through my kids’ futures. How much I thought I could make them into scholars, or athletes, or whatever ambition I harbored for myself. Along they come, too early for comfort, telling us, “I’m not you; this is my life, I may not have any idea what I want to be or do, but it’s my blessing and burden to do so, not yours.” We just run breathlessly trying to catch up, trailing behind and only occasionally leading from the front.
Many parents know this about themselves, lament their feelings of disempowerment and even helplessness, lament the bourgeois aspects of over privileging their kids, but feel powerless to stem the tide. Every other kid gets an IPhone at their bar mitzvah, how can I do different? The rustic semi-broken down summer camp experience gives way to the trip to London for one’s 16th birthday. It’s not just that we have more money, it’s what we think we should be doing with it. But the question keeps recurring: do we think we’re producing better kids than we were, actually better people? I’m not sure any of us think so. Yet on we go.
Will the pendulum swing back? Perhaps. The recession certainly checks spending habits. But that’s really only the surface of the thing. The thing itself is our sense of what the vocation of parenting is–that small space between us and our progeny. What fills that space–all the stuff of life, or the experiences of life in the backyard, parents reading to children, parents teaching children, parents and children eating together, talking together, making memories together. Yes, we’re supposed to love our kids unconditionally, but if we want to respect them, if we want to respect ourselves, actual standards of values and behaviors need to exist, and we need to author them, to receive them from past sources, to transmit them down through the generations.
Is this all a mixed message? Sure it is. We bear an awesome responsibility for those who asked not for the gift of life. We owe them the very best we can of our hearts and minds and souls. At the same time we’re raising them to be them, not to be us, whoever that means. Those fundamentals never change, the imperative of love and loyalty, the necessity of teaching them accountability, holding fast and letting go.