07/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Go Ask Alice: Parents Will Screw Up No Matter How They "Parent"


It seems there has been a recent counter trend towards laid back, or as coined by clever writers -- "slow" or "free range" -- parenting. I can't take credit for spotting this movement. Lisa Belkin just wrote an insightful New York Times article (Let the Kid Be) recounting the more recent parenting movements. Her excellent conclusion was that the new parental declaration to "worry less" is one more neurotic head jerk towards the current parenting experts.

What are parents doing when they parent? Ms. Belkin notes that the term itself "was never used as a verb before the 20th century, when medicine reached a point where parents could assume their babies would survive." Therefore, parenting springboards from the assumption of a healthy child. So now parents want to spread some frosting on their cake -- a successful child rearing as they deem it. That success may be measured in their offspring's sense of morals, or their leadership skills, or success might imply a renaissance child who seamlessly travels from soccer practice to drama club.

Let's back track. Let's pretend that survival is in fact an issue for your child. Let's pretend that your child is definitively vulnerable regarding their health and that you haven't arrived at Parenting Street yet. Maybe your child has developmental delays and lacks social judgment. Or they have cancer in remission. Or they are hearing impaired. Or they have a chronic medical condition like juvenile diabetes, juvenile arthritis, or like one of my children they have life threatening food allergies. Despite vast differences, these children can be crudely lumped under the heading "more vulnerable." The currently popular label of "special needs"

I've heard these parents boast, "Well, when Johnny was diagnosed it sure gave me perspective." Or "Ever since Celia's therapy, I know what really matters!" We believe that our child's health issues clarify our parenting choices. This is a fallacy. We are not more enlightened. We just know what matters to us. And sometimes this is a capricious wisdom. The parents of children with delayed toilet training exalt in every bowel movement that lands inside the toilet, but only for so long. A few months of their child's wonderful timing and aim and those same parents are worried about the alphabet and kindergarten ERB's.

In other words, we parents customize our worries for each child. When I imagine the dangers of a first time overnight camping trip for my daughter (who doesn't have food allergies) I might worry that she will be afraid of the dark or bitten by mosquitoes. But when I imagine my son on the same trip my overriding concern is the safety of his food and the proximity of the nearest hospital. I may forget to pack bug repellent and if I do, I won't feel guilty.

Certainly I'm not enlightened. I merely have a personalized litmus test for judging my parenting. I've learned to both ignore the ebbs and sways of particular parenting ideologies and accept, to actually expect, that I will screw up. I can't go into the same playing fields as other mothers when they discuss the demon that is hydrogenated oil or virtues of having a handful of college students as babysitters. Instead I re-play the opening lyrics of Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit in my head while these mommy conversations buzz around me. One pill makes you larger/One pill makes you small . . . Moreover, years of living with my son's anaphylactic allergies and asthma has taught me that despite my best intentions, an errant pea will show up in his bowl of soup, I will pour the wrong beverage on his cereal and yes, sleeping in that damp basement was a very, very bad idea.

What can other parents take from my perspective? No definitive philosophy. And certainly not an endorsement for the latest free-range or seemingly faux-apathetic parenting (Remember high school? If I don't act like I care then maybe the parenting gods will notice me.) So if you are a parent don't take a single thing from this article other than my reassurance that even if you do "do your own thing" sometimes you will do it wrong and you will get anxious and sorry and angry because no matter how many cocktails you throw back or guidebooks you read that is how it feels to be parent. And no, I don't think that if you call yourself a "bad parent" you will feel any better about your ineptitude. Of course you can try but Ayelet Waldman just beat you to it.

As Grace Slick asserts, And the ones that mother gives you/Don't do anything at all....