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Carol Smaldino

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Parenting: Grazing With Our Kids, Attachment Not Allowed

Posted: 12/23/09 02:36 PM ET

This post is a rebuttal to TIME magazine's recent cover story about helicopter parents vs. free-range kids.

There is a fine line between the satire which liberates and refreshes, and that which smugly injures, with condescension, the very people it aims to awaken. Last week's TIME magazine cover story on parenting was obviously designed to provoke, fire up, amuse, relax and dismay those in and out of the world of parents in action.

Yes, we all know parents who are so hyper-critical or enamored of their children can be annoying to the point of suffocation. This is not, however, the only flavor of intense involvement with our children, nor is deep parental attachment always negative.

While for some an article such as the one authored by Nancy Gibbs can seem like the perfect irreverent anti-dote to hyper-parenting, such glibness -- whether issued from a qualified expert or a blogger -- doesn't mean they know better. The danger exists that many parents, lost in the whirlwind of demands and pressures, will cling to anything that is deemed the "cooler" way according to the fashion of the moment. The truth is that everyone is watching us (now more than ever), and pat advice is a poor substitute for a helping hand when our children are melting down. The fact is, this parenting thing is messy, as is any close relationship which pushes our buttons and brings out the worst as well as the best.

When we care enough become attuned to ourselves as parents and to our children, the most inconvenient truths come out in unexpected (and usually dreaded) leaking exposures of rage or sadness or fear. And if we allow the pendulum to swing too far to so-called "slow parenting," instead of knowing and integrating our emotions better, we will eventually only add to the already present epidemic of cultural distraction and detachment from each other.

While Gibbs writes about the over-pressured and pressuring parents "helicoptering" over their kids' every move, she ignores the need adults and children have for deep levels of attunement. Sensitivity to a child's vulnerability at crucial phases is in fact not hovering, it is attunement: the very substance of attachment and the capacity for intimacy. Optimally, resolving frictions within a family atmosphere is as good a practice as any of conflict resolution in the larger world.

The focus of the TIME feature is new parenting movements, including the slow parenting movement and conceptualizing children as "free range". Well, children are not chickens, and their needs are not chicken feed. Lax parenting isn't really new, and like the more over-protective parenting, it comes from the same place of self-absorption and lack of flexibility. The fact is that there are actually phases of child development and changing moods, in addition to a need for parental involvement.

Just telling a parent to "relax" as the "free-range" movement suggest is as off-putting as it is pat. Relaxation can't be mandated, and if it is, we will have an increase in acting "as if" relaxed while still under the spell of worry about being judged as too stiff. When any script, no matter how humorous, is superimposed on already existing tension, the recipient of such a script merely hides the tension in deeper places.

Helping parents relax is a wonderful idea, but it is not synonymous with minimizing the importance in their children's growth. Sure, each individual child might not be the end all be all, but it is not wrong for a parent to talk to a teacher about her own child's needs. Such intervention is not always the product of hovering or over-control. Of course there are many obnoxiously bossy and self-absorbed parents, but pat advice born out of ridicule will not only fail to change them, but it will cause them to become further entrenched in their behavior.

As a family therapist, I find it interesting that while parents are being prodded to slow down and let their kids graze, most of us still belong to the religious systems based on threats and judgments and shunning. We have institutionalized an often desperate need to belong and to measure up. This leaves the parent who doesn't abide by the guru of the moment lost in dysfunction. Oh, how we all chide anyone who doesn't go along with our diets or our binges, and how we chide those who don't follow our parenting mantras.

How do we tell parents to settle down and breathe while many of our kids are not mentally or physically safe in school? Children are cutting themselves and writing death threats and Columbine journals, and still nothing changes. We have ghettos of physical poverty, drugs and violence, where a child cannot walk to school without fear of a stray bullet. How does slow parenting fit in this context? If we, the parents, keep being as slow as we are in this arena, our kids will continue to move quickly into alienation, boredom, and all the high tech addictions we have designed for them.

I stand my ground on professional, personal and civic levels. My fear is that Gibbs' good fun is ultimately careless regarding the damage being done to our children on all levels, by violence, by lack of intimacy with their parents as well as with anyone else.

My warning would be: Beware the revolution that defines itself as new without looking inward. There is much to be learned from attunement--no helicopters involved--to ourselves and our children who often have so much to teach us when we take the time to listen.

 

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