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Lisa Belkin

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Parenting Experts Learn To Play Nicely With Others

Posted: 07/06/2012 9:30 am

The most outrageous parents in America gathered in the Rockies this past week, and had a lot to say.

You know them by their headlines, if not their names. "Why Women Still Can't Have It All", Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in the Atlantic earlier this month.

"How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," Lori Gottlieb wrote in the same magazine a year earlier.

"Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," Amy Chua opined in the Wall Street Journal last year.

Get them together (at the Aspen Ideas Festival the weekend before Independence Day) and you would expect a fight, right? After all Gottlieb's piece praised parents who let their children fall and fail once in awhile, saying that Americans were screwing up their children by being too involved; Chua, in contrast, charged that American parents weren't nearly involved enough and needed to push their children to practice the piano and get into Harvard; and Slaughter said that any kind of mother was was all but guaranteed to fail if she tried to be at all involved with her children while also nurturing herself and her career. (For which Gottlieb lambasted her in a follow-up piece, writing "How does a smart woman like Slaughter still believe in the childlike notion that people (of either gender) can have whatever they want whenever they want it, regardless of life's intrinsic constraints?")

They were not on stage together. Slaughter was interviewed one-on-one by Katie Couric, while Gottlieb moderated a panel titled "What Is The Goal Of Parenting" that included Chua among others. But they might as well have been talking to each other, in that they are all members of the global conversation that has exploded over parenting in the past few years -- one that just might redefine what we expect from ourselves and each other. It has been a heated conversation, with a spotlight on differences rather than commonalities. So the fact that these central figures did not clash, or even disagree very much in Aspen, is reason to hope that just maybe we have made the crucial shift from yelling and blaming to examining and solving.

That is the necessary first step -- the realization that expectations for parents no longer fit the society designed to contain them. That it isn't up to us to change ourselves, but to change the system. It is a belief all three writers share, once you get past the fireworks and provocative headlines, and in Aspen they spoke to what they had in common.

Slaughter certainly believes it, and struck a nerve with her critique that the workplace makes it impossible for women to hold the most powerful jobs while also raising children. In Aspen she elaborated. "What I am saying is that our society has gotten to a place where we can ask for what we need and make it easier for women to stay in the pool. We might end up in a more balanced place for all of us, which would be a good thing."

Chua, too, put aside the fact that she'd written one of the most polarizing of articles in parenting history and spoke, instead, of the common good. "I thought it was a shame that in the parenting debate everything is boiled down to false dichotomies," she said. "Do you want your child to be creative, or do you want them to work hard...? Do you want happiness for your children, or success? It is just so much more complex, life, you know."

And Gottlieb, rather than pointing out that Chua herself had presented just such a dichotomy when she set up the Chinese vs. American parenting debate, focused instead on her call for complexity and suggested that maybe Americans could learn a thing or two from another culture.

"It's actually really healthy for your kid to think they were born into the wrong family," she said in one of the most quoted exchanges at the festival. "You want them to at some point hate you." (She had also essentially agreed with Slaughter in print. While her rebuttal had started out calling Slaughter naive, in the end she took her point that the workplace needs to change, writing "The real problem here isn't women and their options...The problem here is that many people work too much -- not just women, and not just parents." (See the video clip below.)

If this is truly to become a moment we look back on as a crossroads -- one where we started to ask the system to accommodate the goals of parents and not the other way around -- we have some choices to make. First, what is the 2012 definition of the "good enough" parent? Pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott first coined the phrase in 1953 (actually, he said "Good Enough Mother," but let's evolve it a bit, shall we?) Over the decades it has been trotted out mostly to pat parents on the head and send the message that "I will reassure you that you are doing just fine, but my very need to reassure you means neither of us really believes it." As parenting became more competitive and pressured, as we started to measure success by our kids' grades and trophies rather than their happiness or self-reliance, "good enough" became a left-handed compliment, at best.

It's time to bring back what Winnicott actually meant -- a parent who adapts to a child's needs as they grow, gradually loosening the ties as the child gains confidence and independence. Key to his philosophy is the idea that the "right" way to parent differs from child to child, parent to parent and moment to moment. Accepting this would go a long way toward lifting the judgement that makes so many of today's parents certain that they are doing something "wrong."

Simultaneously, we have to enable and empower parents to be "good enough." To adapt with the needs of their families. For that we need a workplace that adapts too, one that sheds centuries of systems and expectations that are remains of a time when men had wives at home, lifespans were shorter, and work had to be done at work.

Any parent will tell you that developmental "leaps" are often preceded by regression. There's a lot of whining, or crankiness or refusing to do what they know how to do. Then, suddenly, there is calm -- and a contented child who has notched another big step forward.

Maybe all the sniping and hair-splitting, the need to name every parental choice and write a book about it, the finger pointing and navel gazing -- perhaps that was the storm before our social leap? Maybe the convergence of views, at Aspen and elsewhere, means we might move on from parallel play to playing nicely with others?

That would certainly be a good enough start.

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