Pictured: The author at age 10.
When I was a child, my parents often ignored me. It's not that they were unkind to me. It's that they had full lives of their own and didn't like playing Candy Land. They believed that you should open the door and say to children, Go out and play. They understood the value of boredom. My two younger brothers and I sincerely enjoyed each other's company, and that's a good thing, because we had a lot of it.
Watching the series "Mad Men" reminded me of my childhood. When Don and Betty Draper were still married, they had their grownup lives -- together and apart -- and the children seemed in distant orbit to both. In most scenes during the early seasons of the show, Sally and Bobby hung around the house watching a lot of television. But that's where the similarities end. My parents have remained married and I know they cared about us greatly, even though they were parenting in an era of benign neglect. If you consider history, all generations of parents before the one now did not have lives that revolved around children.
When I look at today's parents, I am often astonished by their slavish devotion to enriching, entertaining and sheltering. In three generations, we've gone from a country where children toiled in factories and could not be counted upon to survive to adulthood, to a country with a multibillion-dollar toy industry and a parenting book market that is groaning under its own weight. I'm not advocating that parents be less loving or supportive to their children, but I do question such exquisite attentiveness.
Parental neglect has its upsides, it's own careful love. I'm not talking about the kind of neglect that should come to the attention of child protective services. I don't mean the kind of neglect that includes not feeding your child, withholding medical care or leaving your child barely clothed in the winter. Many of today's parents look back upon their own childhoods with resentment in light of our current culture of child worship. There are some dots to be connected.
If you believe that loving your children requires you to be their constant playmate or to chauffeur them nonstop to a slew of enriching activities lest they not be perpetually "happy" and "stimulated," then your memories of your own childhood are apt to be distorted through this Super-Parent lens. Children are not projects, nor are they hothouse orchids, but they seem to be increasingly treated as such by anxious and well-meaning parents who are highly invested in outcomes.
Some very important outcomes are being forgotten, however, and these include creativity, independence, resilience and intrinsic motivation. To the degree I possess these qualities, I believe it is precisely because my parents did not hover over me or live through my achievements.
Do I resent not having more travel experiences or after-school activities? Yes, a little. Here's what's important, though: I can look back on my childhood and appreciate what I did have, because today's children seldom have it.
I had freedom and I had woods, acres and acres of Georgia woods to explore. There were downed trees from the ice storm of 1972 to make into forts; muscadine vines to swing from like Tarzan; interesting rocks with veins of quartz that could be found while digging to China. I'd while away summer days seeing how much honeysuckle nectar I could collect in a Dixie cup by picking hundreds of blossoms, pulling the stamens out backwards and releasing one precious drop at a time.
Did my brothers and I sometimes collect Y-shaped sticks, outfit them with wide rubber bands and shoot acorns at each other's heads, nearly blinding each other? You bet. And we shot air rockets onto the roof. I had a wholesome childhood, and it was of my own making. My parents would say "great job" when I brought home A's or got acceptances to good schools, as if it were all my doing and they had no idea what went into it -- because they didn't.
My childhood wasn't perfect, my parents weren't perfect and neither am I. I don't blame them for being like most other parents of their generation and the ones before it. I raised my daughter a bit more intentionally, aiming for the middle ground between benign neglect and orchestrating her entire life. I always felt like parenting involved straddling the judgments of others -- those that thought I did too much and those that thought I did too little.
People judge. I couldn't win, and neither can you, but you can do your best to give your children what you treasured as a child even if today those things are seen as "dangerous." And you can attempt not to replicate your parents' choices if you feel they were harmful, as most of us try. You can also choose how you judge your own parents given the times in which they lived and how they themselves were parented. Context matters.
If you feel stuck between the patterns you don't want to repeat and the craziness of today's high-octane parenting culture, you don't have to be. Step off. Step out. I won't say step up -- there's enough pressure on parents already.
Sometimes less is more. Lots of times, actually.
Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.
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