Much has been said in the wake of Frank Bruni's opinion piece in last Sunday's New York Times, mostly bashing Bruni on how he got it all wrong because what does he know? He's not a parent. Admittedly, he's not, and having nieces and nephews does not a parenting expert make. But I am a one (a parent not an expert), and so I can say even without actual on-the-job training, Bruni got a lot right.
He may not be exactly on target with every point, and certainly, the parenting game from the outside is a lot easier than from the inside, but that's not to say Bruni's arguments are completely without merit. The issues he raises are the same ones that have baffled me ever since becoming a parent 12 years ago: The constant parental angst over everything; the non-stop negotiations; the down-right servile begging of despotic toddlers; the persistant and false inflation of every child's ego.
Without a doubt, parenting is immensely harder than Bruni can possibly know. It's the toughest job on the planet. And in today's times, the stakes may be higher, the competition fiercer, the world a bit scarier, but Bruni has a point when he says parenting is not new. It has been done fairly successfully for millennia, and I have to agree that the parenting wheel needn't be reinvented.
The anxiety, diplomacy and praise Bruni questions, I imagine, have always accompanied parenting. It's no small task, this care of another human life, which parents hold in their hands like a fledgling baby bird. It's hard to see how anyone could be a parent and not have experience with all three, but it seems the roles the three play have been stretched far beyond all proportion and reason.
It may be that we've lost sight of the role each plays. Take praise, for example. Praise, historically, was issued for things that were in fact praiseworthy: Goals achieved after struggle and hard work; grades begotten with effort and study; trophies bestowed for exceptional performance -- because we all know exception does not come without a tremendous amount of practice and sacrifice. Traditionally, praise was earned. Now, it's given generously for behaviors that were once expected like, say, exhibiting manners. Even showing respect to adults or behaving in school are now optional and worthy of praise, when managed.
In his piece, Bruni had the guts to say something I didn't. I recently found myself debating whether to write "children should know their place" in an essay. Ultimately, I omitted it because I was aware of the ire it could incite in the current, highly-charged, overly permissive, child-centric parenting climate. But that just goes to show how far off the mark parenting has gotten. Children do have a place, and it is not equal with adults. That isn't to say kids shouldn't have a voice or an opinion or some degree of choice. It's not to say they aren't little people with real feeling and needs to be acknowledged. It isn't to say they shouldn't be shown respect or compassion. But it is to say they should understand the world as they know it is not a democracy because they are 3 or 7 or 12 and not simply a short adult.
Bruni did, however, get one thing wrong. Every American child is gifted. If you spend enough time with parents today, you'll realize everyone's child is immensely talented, a fact seemingly impossible, yet somehow true. Frank really ought to see the performance of his neighbor's 3-year-old in Miss Dawn's Dance School for the Gifted's production of Swan Lake. Obviously, the child is destined for the New York City Ballet. Or, watch the pee wee football game of a friend's second grader. The tot is sure to be the first 7-year-old drafted by the NFL. What Frank has failed to realize is with the insinuation of parental involvement and control into every aspect of children's lives, activities are no longer for fun. Sports are no game; they're training grounds. And a child's pursuit of dance or theater is not a fleeting interest done because that's what children do, but a career path to be developed and honed.
As anyone who listens to the news or has seen the documentary, Waiting for Superman, knows, American students may be failing in math and science, but the one area in which they excel is confidence. Our nation may not be producing a generation that possesses the knowledge or skills to compete on a global level, but we are producing a slue of young adults who are very impressed with themselves.
All parents, understandably, love and hope to be loved by their children. But that shouldn't be the goal to the exclusion of all others. And Bruni isn't far from the mark when he claims parents often half-expect children to be able to raise themselves without any set rules, boundaries, expectations or consequences. But that's exactly what they have parents for.
As parents, our job is to raise decent human beings who become contributing members of society. The adoration and friendship of our children is nice, but not necessary to the job and will come in time with the proper balance of freedom and restraint, affection and discipline, but will never be gained through excessively permissive parenting.
Without children, Bruni isn't allowed to say these things. But I am.
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