The Childists vs. the Helicopter ParentsBy: hawkgrrrl
Are Americans childist, disregarding the needs of children in favor of parents’ needs, or helicopter parents, hovering over our children to make sure they get everything to which we deem they are “entitled” – from turns at bat to Easter eggs to good grades in school? Either way, are Americans becoming the worst parents in the world, behind the ambitious and exacting Chinese, the co-parenting Swedes, the open-minded Dutch, and the common-sensical French? Or is all the hubris behind these bestselling parenting advice books just wishful self-aggrandizement?
How do we strike the right balance between giving kids boundaries and building decision making skills and accountability, between advocating for our children’s rights and teaching them empathy for the rights and feelings of others, between accepting and loving them as they are and helping them to live up to their full potential so they have opportunities even greater than they can imagine? And at heart, how do parents avoid living vicariously through their children and avoid acting out of self-interest?
Those who consider Americans “childists” point out what they consider discrimination against children in the US – that we don’t listen to children or treat them like the future adults they are rapidly becoming, and that many would prefer for other people’s children to be kept away from adults (movies, restaurants, public transportation, etc.) rather than integrated into society. My own observation is that in my lifetime, the US has become much more child-centric with the emergence of helicopter parents, poised to protect their children’s rights to sit at the grown up’s table, to throw tantrums in public places without any restrictions, and to put their own whims ahead of the feelings of others. Some of the rising generation would say that makes me a childist, someone who hates children, but as a mother of three, I think it just means that I’m from an older generation of parents – one that feels children benefit from restrictions, that they should consider the feelings of others, that some emotions are best expressed in private, and that children will develop confidence as they fight their own battles.
A recent article described one woman’s parenting challenge. The Vogue diet mom, as she has come to be called (with a book deal in the works of course), was alarmed to find out that her 7-year old daughter was 99th percentile for weight, and immediately put her on a diet and enrolled her in karate classes. The daughter initially resisted these restrictions, even with tears, yet the mother persisted, and the daughter is now at a healthy weight. Critics of the mother immediately emerged with shrill attacks: she’s set her daughter up for years of therapy and eating disorders, she’s a terrible mother who doesn’t love her daughter for who she is, she’s starving her daughter and writing a book about it, she’s teaching her daughter a shallow definition of beauty, and so forth.
The article pointed out that the majority of upper middle class American mothers share this view of the necessity of being physically fit to have opportunities in life, so the fact that one woman admitted it and what she did about it was helpful in that it got a dialogue going. I realize from reading this that I feel the same way as this mother. Since when did a 7 year old routinely eating 3 slices of pizza on “Pizza Fridays” at her elementary school not qualify as an eating disorder? Why are we only excoriating the parents who want to help the child develop better eating habits? Is it no longer socially acceptable for a parent to put restrictions on children without being viewed as abusive or creating self-esteem problems for children? Where is the balance?
We often say that as adults, we can still hear our mother’s voice in our heads. I’ve heard before that there are really just two inner voices: the voice of the critical parent and the voice of the nurturing parent. Parents, both individually and as a team, need to strike the right balance between these two styles. How well we balance them can create an inner voice for our children that is either more critical or more nurturing – or ideally, well-balanced. The critical parent drives us to do better, to achieve new heights of potential – but it also is the parenting voice responsible for shaming and can lead to low self-esteem if left unchecked or if the child is already prone to depression or being self-critical. The nurturing parent soothes us and comforts us, tells us we deserve a break or an extra cookie because we are special – but the nurturing parent can also encourage us to be selfish or to disregard the feelings of others, and it can lead us to be lazy or expecting unrealistic and undeserved special treatment.
Most parenting disputes, within marriage as well as in society at large, are the “nurturing” voices vs. the “critical” voices. Yet parenting really requires both. Each of us needs to find that balance within ourselves, if we are parents in partnership with our spouse, and balancing the natural tendencies of each child and the current situation. Sometimes children need an extra cookie. Sometimes they need to be encouraged to do just one more lap around the track or to study harder.
- What’s your parenting style? Are you more nurturing or more critical? What were your parents like? Is your style a reaction to theirs?
- Do you and your spouse balance each other in terms of being critical or nurturing?
- Do you adapt your style to the child’s individual temperament and circumstances?
- Do you think parents in your culture have the right parenting approach? Why or why not?