Leaving Room To Grow
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
There are some days when I think about my children and dare to pat myself on the back. I’m doing a good job, I reassure myself. And then there are many — many — days when I think about my children and have a knot in my stomach. I am screwing them up, I think.
As one friend told me, the issue isn’t whether you’re screwing up your children, it’s how much.
My mother often marvels about how much thinking goes into my generation’s parenting. There are books and lectures and Web sites, parenting centers and courses offered by community organizations. Lately, New Yorkers with children seem to have one topic of conversation: their children.
“We just didn’t think about it as much,” my mother said the other day. “We didn’t talk about our kids to our friends. It’s not that we didn’t think our kids were great, or worry when our kids did things that weren’t so great. We just didn’t parent as consciously.”
What is going to be the result of all the thinking that goes into parenting today? Are our children going to be less screwed up? Are they likely to accomplish more? Live more fulfilled lives? Divorce less? Be more committed parents themselves?
I am only certain of one thing. Parents today are more likely — far more likely — to have performance anxiety about their job as parents. Parenting more consciously also means parenting more cautiously. More warily. Maybe even more fearfully. The stakes of raising good children seem higher. Not because we love our children any more, but rather because we seem to be under the illusion that there is a right way to parent.
A few days ago I was talking to my neighbor, who, many years ago, wrote the same kind of column I do today. We were talking about how much financial support should be given to adult children and I wondered if she had any tried and true guidelines.
“It depends,” she said.
As in, it depends on your child’s personality. It depends on what kind of parent you are. It depends on the community you’re living in. It depends on financial resources. It depends on school. It depends on siblings.
“No one thing mars a child for life,” my neighbor added. “Parents usually do their best and most are ‘good enough’ parents. Parents aren’t all that powerful anyway in determining a child’s character. Sure, they make some difference, but there are some ‘givens’ they are just born with that are determining factors, no matter what you do.”
Another parent of two children in their 20s told me that when he started out as a parent, he used to think he and his wife were solely responsible for the way their children would turn out. “I wanted both my children to be productive and independent and accomplished. From the early days, I could tell that they were wired differently. One excelled at school; one excelled socially. One wanted to make money; one wanted to save the world. One loves the hustle and bustle of city life; one likes a slower pace. Two years apart. Same mom and dad.”
This prevailing conception in New York parenting circles today — that a child’s character is determined more by nature than nurture — should be a relief to type-A New Yorkers who are used to seeing direct links between their efforts and their outcomes. But instead, it’s giving way to a new obsession: Tailoring our parenting to individually suit the needs of each of our children.
Remember the days when all the children in the family went to the same school?
“My oldest goes to a very academic, co-ed school. She loves a good challenge. My middle goes to a softer, single sex school. He needs the nurturing. It is such a good match for him. And my youngest has learning issues. He goes to a wonderful school that specializes in the kinds of stuff he has to learn to overcome,” an acquaintance told me the other day.
We’ve all seen parallel situations: friends or relatives who have one child that is a super-success story and another that is in rehab. One child who is a prominent attorney, with a sibling who can’t hold down a job. “It’s hard to believe they came from the same family,” we used to marvel.
I relate to passionate parenting — after all, I write this column. But I can’t help but wonder about the downside of this obsessive interest in our children. I worry about the working parents who feel guilty because they aren’t consumed by their children. I worry about the couples whose relationships suffer as they focus exclusively on their children. And I worry about the children themselves, who sometimes need a little room to grow.