Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
This weekend, NY Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote the opinion piece “A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn” to the mingled celebration and chagrin of his audience. Bruni says little that is actually new to the parenting blogosphere; it’s the same old lament about modern parents who supposedly don’t discipline, over-praise, over-negotiate, over-indulge on chicken nuggets, and generally fail at the task of rearing our nation’s next generation. The catch is that Bruni himself, as he puts in the title, does not have children:
“While I have no kids of my own, I have many I can (and sometimes do) lease for the weekend: 11 actual nieces and nephews, whom I’ll be with this Easter Sunday, and perhaps twice that number of honorary ones. I have put in my time around tots and teens, and enjoy them. I have seen my share of parenting, and am not certain what to make of it.”
This statement tries to establish Bruni’s credibility to criticize parents wholesale without coming across as a curmudgeon who despises all kids and seems to forget that he ever was one. Somehow the “leasing” metaphor speaks volumes, though. Observing parents and being proximate to children does not make one a parenting expert any more than watching March Madness makes me a skilled basketball player. Unfortunately, being a parent doesn’t mean being a good parent, either. Yet after listing his litany of complaints with parents these days, Bruni concludes that genetics will win out and parents have little control anyway, so all us breeders should “cut ourselves some slack.” Sigh.
Even the confusing and contradictory message of this piece seems par for the course in most parenting literature. The problem seems to be one of expertise. There are, after all, no credentials required for parenthood beyond basic biology. No classes, no licensing, very little regulation except the judgment society at large can heap upon our weary shoulders. What that means for most parents is constant on-the-job-training. That is not to say that there shouldn’t be more room for common sense, but Bruni does not make an appeal to common sense, nor does he offer the benefit of the doubt that most parents are doing the best we can. It’s one thing to parent with ideals and goals and another to deal with the constant attrition of actual parenting. We make mistakes. Sometimes we don’t even know what mistakes we’re making. Thankfully, children do seem to be somewhat resilient, because it’s impossible to be perfect and difficult to be good enough. Bruni’s non-parent status and lack of prolonged meaningful interactions with children makes him come across like a general commanding soldiers in the trenches—with no idea what the conditions in the trenches are actually like.
And even for those who are not child-free, it seems all too easy as parents pass from one stage to another to romanticize prior stages. So parents with older children advise those with younger children, sometimes exhibiting a disconcerting disconnect for what it’s actually like to have a newborn or a toddler or a teenager, etc. Telling other people how to parent is sort of like spending other people’s money. It’s really easy. But what constitutes parental expertise, anyway? Can only parents serve as parenting experts? If that’s the case, shouldn’t we wait to see how their children turned out? And, with regard to that, shouldn’t we determine if we like their children, approve of their lives, admire their successes, before we deem their parents experts? What credit, then, would the grown child get? For example, my family’s pediatrician is child-free, yet I value her advice on many matters because I know her education and her character, and I appreciate her demeanor. She listens to me and my children, answers my questions, and treats my family with respect. These are the foundations of relationships and trust, so the advice that she offers comes within a context where I know my individual children best and she knows children generally and medicine specifically. I ask her about vaccines and nutrition, not bargains on baby shoes. It reminds me of Proverbs 19:20: “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” Parents and non-parents alike need to be graceful listeners who do not make ourselves un-teachable. We need to practice common sense in our child-rearing and in our response to parenting advice. I can only imagine the earful that Bruni got in response to his piece. But, to put the Proverbs quote in laymen’s terms, my grandmother always said “You can take a lot when you consider the source.” And you, readers, can take that for what it’s worth.