3 June 2022
This morning, I read Agnes Callard’s “Acceptance Parenting” in The Best American Essays of 2021. Hers is a response to the tension between the pressure to Helicopter Parent, whereby we overschedule our children to teach them the value of perseverance, and what Bryan Caplan proposes: chill out! Parents should simply let loose a little bit, Caplan says, because “genes are significantly more influential than parenting” in a variety of factors (30). Callard’s anxiety during the COVID pandemic shifted from focusing on what’s right for her children to deciding which parenting guru to believe – a subtle shift, I grant you, but with critical implications.
The way I see it, Callard’s Acceptance Parenting is a hot take on Sears and Sears’s Attachment Parenting concept from the 1980s and 90s. Per William and Martha Sears, the mother should be intimately responsive to her baby’s needs. The theory encouraged babywearing and greater levels of skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby (and sometimes father, too) to improve the parent/child connection. The idea, it seems to me, was a blowback or knee-jerk response to the Ferber method of sleep-training, where parents were encouraged to allow a baby (preferably over 6-8 months old) to “cry it out” for a certain period of time each night before the parent goes to soothe them.
Callard seems to think that scientists are the gatekeepers of parenting wisdom; doesn’t she realize that nobody knows anything whatsoever about how to be a great parent? Methods swing from right to left regularly, just like our nation’s politics. Often, the science is irrelevant; parents reject it, despite its science, in favor of what is convenient, what feels right, or what they were taught in their own upbringing. The shift between Helicopter Parenting and the more recent Acceptance Parenting – this is not new. Attempting to identify which expert’s got it right in this very moment is futile, and there’s really no point in tearing out your hair.
What bothers me more than anything else about parenting today is the sheer volume of parents out there trying to build strong children upon a sandy or cracked foundation. We think that our children will become whatever we pour into them, but we don’t realize that they become what we are – by example. If you are carrying generational trauma and toxic love cycles down into your parenting methods, there’s really nothing more important for you to do to raise truly healthy children than to first heal yourself. Think about it: I’m in my early 40s. That places my grandparents’ childhoods smack-dab in the middle of either a World War or the Great Depression. I cannot imagine parenting during those circumstances, yet they did. Of course, in this sense, Callard is right: “traditional parents were tasked with doing something different – and easier” (31). They were tasked with keeping kids alive. But being alive is not the same as being loved. Keeping kids alive often involved some very disordered parenting behaviors, which were then carried down by their children. Those were my generation’s (Gen X’s) parents: this generation evaluated their success as parents based on their children’s surface-level success. Did the child get pregnant out of wedlock? Did the child do drugs? Was the child incarcerated? Did the child marry? Have children of their own? Have a career and own a home? These were indicators of successful parenting – but these indicators are image-based only! It didn’t matter that the child’s children were both medicated for disordered behavior. It didn’t matter if the child’s marriage was loveless, or if their career was on a single-track to nowhere. It didn’t matter if the child’s entire family was steeped in such toxic love patterns that they were miserable, suffering from anxiety or depression: to the world, they appeared successful. Those parents of the Gen X crew, holding very different values from today’s parents, saw these outcomes and believe they succeeded.
This metric of success must change. If you’re like me, you look around and are astounded by how many of your peers suffer from mental illness that, whether they admit it or not, are long-term side effects of their upbringing. What’s worse is that without clear vision of how our parents failed (not just on the surface-level, but way down to harboring fractured senses of self from dysfunctional, loveless households), we invariably teach this to our kids. If I do not have faith in my own potential, how the hell am I supposed to impress upon my children to have faith in theirs? And this is not to point fingers, mind you. To say our parents failed – there should be no fault or shame associated with that. We are natural creatures, humans – we are animals – and we evolve. To fail is to win because it is to acknowledge opportunity for change and growth! Our parents’ trials can be our lesson; as well they should be if we are to keep moving forward. But by god, we have got to start looking in as much as we look out for guidance in parenting. Become a healed person and you will become a better parent.
When approaching the questions of how much and how far and to what degree we should parent – or, per Callard’s terms, how “traditionalist” we should be – how can we presume to seek a standard answer to that question when each child is so different? Here is where Caplan’s and Callard’s ideas collide: in large part, our children’s personalities are determined by genetics. What works for one child is not guaranteed to work for another. A traditionalist parenting technique works incredibly well for my son who thrives on schedule, routine, standards, high expectations, and the pressure to achieve – so we do use this parenting style with him. Without these, he suffers debilitating anxiety (which worsened with the lack of structure imposed by COVID virtual schooling). My daughter, on the other hand, is a feeler and a dreamer with a touch of attention-deficit. Structure, routine, standards? They tend to overwhelm her. The rigidity of such expectations have the same effect on her that their lack has upon her brother: heightened anxiety to the point of breakdown. She thrived during COVID. Same parents; very different children.
To accommodate this, we realized early on (for their difference in personalities was evident from birth, I swear) that we’d need to approach each child differently. In that sense, we have different expectations of each of our children in the home – practically a separate set of rules. We’ve had to sit them down independently and together to discuss the why of this parenting decision. Above any outside science that Callard might seek, interpersonal connection is key: we need to listen, perceive, and receive our children before we seek advice from outside the home on how to parent them. My first (and favorite – so wise!) pediatrician used to say, “You are the parent. You know what is best.” Nobody else has the access you do to these unique creatures you’ve created; it’s your superpower – use it! I think that in society today we discredit intuition, placing it in the same box as superstition and magic. Why do we do that? Our intuition is far more powerful than we know; it has been developing since before humans were human – listen to it!
Intuition is more than just some faceless voice or presence, nudging us in a particular direction. It’s acting, then observing. Like our ancestors used to first touch a plant, then wait, then taste a plant, then wait, to determine whether it was poisonous, we must do the same with parenting. Try a thing, then wait to see its outcome. If it produced desired results, move that direction. If it didn’t, try something new. Likewise, we have an inner voice that tells us when something is amiss. To parent instinctually requires listening critically to that inner voice. Even when a child acts inappropriately – or perhaps especially then – there is opportunity for deeper connection. If you find yourself in deep disconnect with your child, that should be tell you something; your words or behaviors have resulted in the opposite of what effective parenting should be. If that connection becomes lost, your conscience will experience a disturbance. This is the moment when parents often dig in – the impulse to be right outweighs the desire for connection (what is best for both parent and child). It is in this moment that the parent has as much opportunity to grow as their child does: what are you holding on to so tight, and why? Is it your ego? Is it your traditions? Is it your worldview or core beliefs? Some inner exploration should help you unearth that resistance, then allow you to move back toward connection with your child and her needs.
What bothers me most about Callard’s piece is this death-grip she has on this idea of “being a good parent.” What does that even mean? Why is she researching it so hard? In trying so hard to achieve a thing, is she not preventing it from becoming? Anxious parenting is feeble parenting, ineffectual parenting. Of course, we have anxiety – of course it would be impossible to dismiss that anxiety: we all want to do the best by our children. But here’s the secret: no matter what you do, you’re going to fuck up. No parent in the history of parenting has ever not fucked up – you know why? Because we’re human. Effective parenting is not about not fucking up. It can’t be because that’s impossible. Effective parenting is, however, about acknowledging our fuckups and apologizing for their impact upon our kids. It’s about owning our errors – overtly – with our children to show them that it’s OK to make mistakes, but it’s even more important to take responsibility for them and correct them. Great parents learn from their mistakes and use them as opportunities for growth and development – for themselves first.
Look, your kid may need therapy down the road from the shit you’ve imposed upon them (intentionally or otherwise). Be the parent willing to drive them to the appointment.