I spoke to a group of parents at a preschool last week, and I got there early so I wouldn’t get caught in Southern California’s all-day traffic. So I sat on a teeny tiny chair at a teeny tiny table for an hour while the group took care of an agenda of issues vital to well-intentioned childrearing:
How to use twitter
Plastic forks vs. silverware
After a two-minute break, I got up to speak to a room of parents who held stacks of handouts from the one-hour meeting just concluded. I was silent for a bit, and then I shared what I’ve been feeling lately, which is the need to shut up about parenting. “You have enough on your hands. I don’t want to contribute to the enormous body of information out there. I don’t want to give you anything else to do, or worry about not doing.”
I’m not going to use my inside voice right now, because I’m angry at the way the news media, aided by all manner of publicity hounds, a whole industry of gurus, keeps bullying the most vulnerable pack on the playground. They call us names. They make fun of us. In fact, they make a sport of it. And so I’m blowing the whistle.
LAY OFF THE PARENTS ALREADY.
“Stop the presses!” exhorts one review for a recent parenting book. “Everything you thought you knew about parenting is wrong!” Way to sell buddy, but are you really helping anyone else but yourself? You think what we need is more conflicting opinions? More self-doubt? More judgment? More test results? More pseudo-science telling us how many mistakes we’ve already made? More worst-case scenarios to fret over?
You want me to believe you have the missing link to a perfect outcome? An Ivy League early admission? A fairytale future? A happy, grateful, gifted, well-adjusted child? (What does well-adjusted mean anyway?) I think I’m going to have to live with the child I have, no matter what, and with me as her mother, no matter how lacking we all might think I am. I think I’m going to have to forget all my high-minded expectations and forgive us both while I’m at it.
Last week there was a story in the New York Times that sent my cranium ricocheting off the kitchen ceiling. In the name of reporting, the article takes parents to task over shouting. Since when is shouting news? Before I send you off to read this one more time, let me level my head and admit that this is exactly the same kind of story as all those “this-is-the-new-that” stories. You know, white is the new black, paper is the new plastic, up is the new down. It doesn’t take itself half as seriously as I’m taking it.
First thing in the article comes the inconvenient fact that “parental yelling is a near-universal occurrence.” File that under “Duh.” Except then the article goes on to say, “this generation of parents seem to be uniquely troubled by their outbursts.” I don’t buy that. I think parents have always been troubled by their outbursts. But if a story doesn’t suggest some aberration, some new twist, this wouldn’t be a story at all, and there wouldn’t be an industry of experts selling into it.
Oh, those smarty pants parents who think they know it all: they can’t stop screaming! (Sorry, I can’t stop screaming.)
I finally get it. Like the story says, it’s socially unacceptable to spank children. But it’s terrific fun to spank the mom and dad.
When I speak to parents it’s with the sole aim of reassuring them that they already have everything they need to raise their children. They have enough love, enough patience and enough forgiveness, even when they think they don’t. Parents have their frustrations, their tears, their confusion, and their outbursts, the very tar pit where competence and confidence eventually oozes up from. The point where you think you can’t go on is the very point that a breakthrough occurs. Parenthood is nonstop personal transformation. We can’t figure it out because we can’t figure it out! It’s not Sudoku, you know. (Full disclosure: I can’t figure that out either.)
I’ll admit it’s a hard sell when you’re not selling anything: not a lecture series, not therapy, not an online class, not a packaged set of DVDs for $299. One of my talks was at a conference where the workshops covered the usual rugged turf: handling sibling rivalry, effective discipline, non-violent communication, how to raise girls today, how to raise boys today, resolving conflicts, teaching diversity, managing transitions and a host of terrors that have us trembling in the sanctuary of our own homes. Leaving the hotel after, I saw a woman from my workshop sitting in the hallway wiping her eyes, and I wondered if I’d hurt her feelings.
“You were the only speaker all day who didn’t convince me I was doing everything wrong!” That, my friends, is the only parenting problem they don’t presume to solve.
I’m so sad. I’m so tired. I’m so frustrated. I’m going to my room to cry it out.
I’ll be back in a day or so to talk through my feelings the way some of you probably think I should. But the thing about feelings is that they don’t last the way you think they would.
(The rant is not over, but the end is in sight, as it always is.)