We want to open a conversation about parenting. Not about what is good or bad parenting, but rather about the idea that today's obsession about parenting has gone too far.
Our qualifications for this discussion are a bit thin. Most of our research is limited to having participated in raising seven children over four decades. The one thing we know is that all came into this world with distinct personalities, styles, instincts and energies. Since they are all still alive and engaged in life, it is too early to draw conclusions about how they turned out. Early indications are promising, but inconclusive.
Here is what has our attention:
- We know high school and college teachers who report that it is now common for parents to join in the negotiation for higher grades for their children.
We have witnessed parents throw shoes at referees in high school soccer games when they made a bad call against their child. Luckily they missed.
A friend in Human Resources reports that parents now get involved in performance reviews if their child is not top rated by their supervisor.
While every human being ever born has a parent, it is only fairly recently that the noun "parent" has turned into the verb "parenting." The moment the word moved from a noun, a fact, to a verb, a function, something important changed. Adding the "ing" means making the word an action step. Instead of simply being a parent, we now had to have a program and prescription to go along with it.
James Hillman informs us in his book The Soul's Code that a study of virtuoso concert violinists found that it did not matter whether the parents encouraged or discouraged the child's talent. Half of those he studied were nurtured as early prodigies and given instruments and lessons, the other half were refused help and encouraged in other and opposite directions. They all became great artists.
Peter had dinner with a detective who for 24 years has worked in a well-off suburb. He asked the detective what has changed over time and he quickly said that he gets many more calls from parents asking the police to help with their kids. He said parents are now more uneasy with their children and need his help to calm them down or to get them out of the house.
We notice more and more that parenting as we have now constructed it is an elaborate management services bureau. Above and beyond the traditional functions of providing love, food, clothing, education and shelter, parents have become a booking and transportation agency. We schedule play dates, arrange educational and entertainment outings, and invest in a wide portfolio of special lessons involving sports, the arts, languages and science. This parenting service bureau begins the resume-building process by standing in line for four early morning hours to make sure our child gets in the right kindergarten. Our children are now expected to achieve from the start.
Despite the achievement drive parents teach their children, many teenagers now have no real function. No real job to do, other than to achieve. With industrialization, children have lost their ability to contribute to the well-being of the family. This loss is significant and part of the reason parenting has turned into such a hyperactive vocation.
Most parents think that the world is a more dangerous and competitive place than the one they, themselves, grew up in. They are more afraid for their children's future. A group in California asked parents how far from the house their younger children could travel on their own. The most common answer was one block. We feel more vulnerable and afraid, even though in most places actual crime has been in a 10-year decline. We are not sure the world is more dangerous than it was 20 or 40 years ago. It had its dangers then as well as now. We believe we parents use fear as a rationalization for big-time child management.
Another factor in modern over-parenting is that the extended family has disappeared. With so much moving around, the job of raising a child falls on just one or two adults and that is too heavy a burden. This may be why, if we can afford it, we seek so many professionals to care for our children.
We do not want to engage in the Tiger Mom debate about whether tough Chinese or lenient American parenting is better. This discussion is not about the virtues of strict or indulgent child-rearing. It is about whether parenting makes such a big difference. Plus the way we compare child achievement across cultures is a bit cruel. We are using our children as tools of nationalism, making them pawns in our competitive projections about the future of our economy.
There is no argument that that negative parenting -- abuse, neglect, withholding love and attention -- is destructive to the tender fabric of a child. What we want to question is whether "positive parenting," making the parent a major player in how the child functions and moves into adulthood, is that useful. We know this energetic parenting is thought of as a form of love, but we fear it has more to do with control.
If we backed off of such eager management, we might learn there are other resources that we might utilize in raising our children, such as a neighborhood. This discovery may be more decisive and useful in the long run than our own efforts to be such active managers of our children's future.
John McKnight and Peter Block blog on parenting, family and neighborhood issues at their website www.abundantcommunity.com. John is emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is the co-author of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development. Peter is founder of Designed Learning. They are coauthors of The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (Berrett-Koehler).