On refusing to let your kids take over your life

Guest post by Carly Lockman
kid pile
By: Laura BittnerCC BY 2.0

I live in Chicago. Like most metropolitan areas, it has a lively population of over-educated, upper middle class parents. They wheel and deal Bugaboos and Maclarens with the deftness of seasoned car salesmen. They have read absolutely every book ever written on parenting and subscribe to a specific philosophy. They are exhausted.

When my daughter was born I couldn’t stand to hear her cry. Not for a second. I imagined her feeling terrified and alone if she whimpered for more than thirty seconds before I tended to her. At first I thought I was creating a healthy bond between mother and child. I thought I was making sure she knew I was reliable. By her two-month birthday, however, I started to worry that my behavior was extreme. I imagined her turning into a totally dysfunctional adult. Living in my basement, even.

It didn’t take long for a therapist to connect the dots and determine that I was over-correcting for the failure of my own mother to create a secure environment for me. She’s an alcoholic. Still, I couldn’t help but note all of the other urban mothers and fathers around me parenting with a particular franticness.

When these parents would visit my husband and me when our daughter was a newborn, they had no encouragement to offer. Not sleeping? Get used to it. Breastfeeding your baby around the clock? It doesn’t get much better. Missing your adult time? Try to carve out some in five years.

It became clear that their primary goal was to excel at parenting, where good parenting is defined by the impossible standards of contemporary, American books on the subject. Their secondary goal was to dismiss their perfect children from their care in eighteen years and “get their life back.”

By their definition, parenting was going to be nearly two decades of waiting for the weekend — in the process of which I may or may not lose every ounce of self-respect and signs of a waistline.

In a desperate search for another way, I consulted Pamela Druckerman’s book, Bringing Up Bébé. It confirmed much of what I had already intuited about parenting but ignored while trying not to be my mother. Its premise is that children should not have every one of their needs met immediately. It suggests that kids must experience some struggle in order to gain coping skills.

The book claims that many French parents don’t tell their children to “stop.” Instead, they say “wait.” For example, if a child interrupts an adult speaking, he is told to wait for the parent to finish. Some parents believe that to be a successful adult you must be able to wait without getting rattled.

It makes sense. So much of the way we feel and act day-to-day hinges on our ability — or lack thereof — to wait for things. We wait for public transportation. We wait for job advancements. We wait for relationships to progress. Those who can’t wait while maintaining a certain amount of decorum are chastised. And rightly so — they’re probably assholes. Like the guy who shoved you out of the way to get on the train this morning.

Unlike many of their American contemporaries, some French parents don’t give in to their children. They don’t bargain or negotiate. They don’t pose idle threats. The result is that many French children clearly understand and respect boundaries for behavior.

This is not to suggest that these French parents are heartless authoritarians. On the contrary, they lavish their kids in love and a healthy amount of praise. They just insist on raising them within a “cadre,” a term referring to a strict framework of limits, within which there can be a certain amount of freedom. By insisting a child wait, you remove him from a constant state of want and allow him to adopt a peaceful existence.

An example of the cadre at work is giving a child the choice of chicken or fish for dinner, versus open-endedly asking him what he wants to eat.

Doesn’t this sound great? It does to me, too. It resonates with my instincts about parenting on a very basic level. However, implementing strict boundaries and teaching my child to wait is tough in urban America, where I recently read an article suggesting that it’s cruel to face your child out while wearing him in a carrier because it prevents you from responding to his needs quickly enough. (Are you effing kidding me? How much faster can your response time get when your kid is strapped to your chest?!)

I still question myself when I tell them that, while I don’t leave the room when she’s crying at bedtime, I don’t pick her up either.

I am not yet adept at brushing off the disapproving looks I receive from other parents when I don’t instantly respond to every disgruntled noise my baby makes. I still question myself when I tell them that, while I don’t leave the room when she’s crying at bedtime, I don’t pick her up either.

Druckerman suggests that the overparenting Americans are doing now is a backlash to eighties divorce culture. We want to be less selfish than our parents were. The trouble is, in our vehemence to be available to our children, we’re smothering them. We’re depriving them of the autonomy necessary to function effectively as adults later in life — a success that is arguably the endgame of parenting.

In the process of inadvertently rendering our kids incapable, we’re exhausting ourselves so completely that the rewarding moments of parenting are made obsolete.

Can I just tell you something?

I can’t stand to live my life dog tired anymore. I’m twenty-six years old and I have spent a good deal of my time as an adult being miserable for the sake of some distant, unsure payoff. I can’t treat parenting as yet another string of herculean tasks that may or may not result in future satisfaction.

I won’t.

I want my daughter to see that I am happy with my life now. I want her to understand on a fundamental level that she deserves happiness, too. And, I want her to be able to handle life’s obstacles as a confident and capable individual… Preferably one who doesn’t grow up to live in my basement.

Comments on On refusing to let your kids take over your life

  1. I loved Bringing up Bebe, too. My favorite concept was the idea that children – including babies – have responsibilities to the family – things like sleeping through the night so the parents can sleep, entertaining themselves sometimes so the parents can spend time with other adults, learning to eat a meal at a restaurant without disturbing everyone within shouting distance. Interesting!

    • I really appreciated the creche chapter. I think there are too many women that feel they HAVE to stay at home and then proceed to despise their situation. I am fortunate that we can afford a great daycare with educated care takers. They know more about young child interaction and how to teach it then I do. Plus it allows the kiddos to learn how to interact with other kiddos. I don’t have to be an expert on all things parenting because I have people to help me.
      Not everyone is a natural parent.

  2. How do you get a screaming-in-the-high-chair new toddler (started when he was 13 months) to take a n0-thank you bite? I’ve tried cramming something in his mouth to get him to try it, but it just never seemed to work. Thus, why I still just am letting him pick at what he wants to eat. I can understand when he’s a little older and can understand what I’m asking of him, but how do other parents deal with this?

  3. My son is about 11 months old, and I’ve personally tended more toward attachment parenting styles than …well, than what I’m not sure, but at least more than many of my friends and relatives. But, my first reaction to the article was “totally! I knew I had been meaning to read that book! I should read it and change my approach!”. Thank goodness for the comments and community here – the discussion that followed this article has been awesome for tempering my response and reminding me that I’m doing what feels right, and my little one and his parents are really quite happy. I’d like to echo what others have said here, that it’s awesome that this approach/style has resonated for so many parents, but it’s totally fine if it doesn’t. Personally, I’m going to keep following my gut AND keep an open mind to other strategies as needed.

  4. I have realized that it is really hard to find other parents who think this way (free-range, or French, or whatever you want to call it). Most of my best friends (from way back before we were all moms) are overprotective and selfless to a fault (they would admit that). My husband and I have been trying to figure out how to make new “family” friends, with whom we would feel comfortable sharing childcare sometimes (taking turns watching each others kids), enjoying time all together, etc. Adults who, like us, don’t rush to help a 2yr old down a slide or freak out about a scraped knee, with kids who aren’t afraid to climb a little or explore or taste new things. Anyone have any ideas?!!

  5. I really liked the second half of this article. I really do wish that articles about parenting styles didn’t always start off by bashing other parents though. Isn’t it nicer to define yourself by what you are, rather than what you are not?

    I think I’m going to start calling myself a free-range attachment parent. Or maybe I’ll just keep doing what feels right to me and not worry about labeling it.

    • I love that – Free-Range Attachment Parenting. It sounds like an oxymoron but speaks to the fact that securely attached children are more confident and comfortable exploring and experiencing things on their own

    • Hahaha! I’ve been thinking recently about how to describe my parenting style, and that’s what I came up with too! That or intuitive parenting.
      Bub is 11 months, and we co-sleep, breastfeed on demand (usually most of the night), baby-led-wean, cloth nappy, baby-wear etc etc. I also believe that kids need to get dirty, fall over, bruise and fail in order to grow and learn. So I don’t rush in when my daughter pulls up on something rickety (she’s pretty strong), eats dirt, has something snatched off her, gags or tries to figure out how to navigate the 2 steps down to the carpet lounge. Of course if she picked up rat bait, grabbed scissors, choked or genuinely hurt herself I’d be there in a flash, but I’m not going to step in before hand just in case. I want her to be able to handle failure and not to expect someone to save her, but I also want her to be secure in the knowledge that when she does fail she can come to us for support. Fine balance to strike, but us Free-Range Attachment Parents can do it!

  6. I think I’m ready to make my millions writing my parenting book, “Turns Out Children Are Actually People.” Which isn’t to say they don’t have developmentally varying needs, but I’m always surprised when an assumption is made that there is a right way to parent – just like adults have different philosophies, temperaments and needs; so do babies and children.

  7. This is a pretty old post but I just stumbled across it and had to comment. My husband’s family come from the French-German border, and I was pregnant when I first read Pamela Druckerman’s book. I loved it, and I do think she’s right, the French side of the family do seem to have kids who are almost spookily well-behaved, and the German kids are often little terrors, with frazzled parents.

    But I don’t think this is down to any particular genius on the part of French parents, rather the expectations people have of their children. I see this particuarly at family gatherings. The French parents assume that there will be something edible at the event, and probably something for the kids to do. They would consider it to be a grave insult to the hosts to bring additional snacks or activities. Therefore, the kids, deprived of options, do tend to eat what they are given (or discreetly feed it to the dog) and all the adults go into raptures about how well-behaved they are. The Germans however, bring snacks and games, just to be on the safe side, and predictably the kids prefer the familiar toys and snacks to trying something new. Meanwhile, everyone is tut-tutting into thier wine about the poor kids.

    Nationality means nothing, but the expectations people have of us shape how we behave. The French parents I know just tend to assume that their kids will be well behaved, or at least, cause no lasting damage, and the kids, given responsibility for themselves, live up to it.

  8. I don’t have any kids but reading this struck a chord. My mother is the one overcompensating for her own detached, alcoholic mother. And I’m the dysfunctional child who lives at home aged 25, was painfully homesick at uni, and can’t seem to transition to independence.

    My mum always responded to us when we cried, and would feed us whatever we wanted (within reason) if that would mean we ate. As older kids, she was always there to fish us out of play dates, clubs, or other social commitments we decided we didn’t want to do. She has tried going back to work a few times but always quits within a few months – this was true when we were at primary school and she wanted to be there to pick us up every day, and it’s true now, because even though my youngest brother is 17 she still feels it’s her job to make sure his sports kit is ready and there’s cake for him to take into school etc. She sees friends for a weekly coffee date but other than that has no hobbies apart from constantly trying to lose weight. She used to belong to sports clubs but hasn’t since my brother was born, and I actually feel guilty about that, like it’s our fault.

    The comments here have helped me feel like all is not lost – after all, my brothers are well on their way to being successful independent adults, and we’ve all got amazing grades and are nice people. My struggles to move out are at least partly to do with society and the economy, not my mother’s parenting. But I’ll tell you one thing – as much as I love and respect her, I do not want to be the mother that my mother is, when the time comes.

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