Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Plea: Stop Parenting

I remember recently, at a park, watching two parents. One of them was standing back and enjoying seeing her children play. They would call to her from their perches atop jungle gyms and halfway up trees, she would smile and wave, and then she would go back to her book. The other parent was following his child, who was roughly the same age, around like a hawk. He offered a litany of warnings - "Be careful. Don't go too fast." - and hovered below whenever the child's feet left the ground. At the same time, he kept shooting dirty looks at the first parent, clearly bothered by her apparent lack of care.

I am in no way judging either parent. I don't know their stories. However, it seems to me that they characterize simple pictures of two much larger realities. Parenting, in our culture, is something that many people discuss doing well. There is a lot to learn from such discussions. However, what bothers me is that too often in a rush to stress what we should be doing, we fail to recognize how in many ways good parenting involves doing less. There are times when the best thing for our kids is to stop parenting.

In what follows, I want to discuss a few of the things I have come to believe we need to stop - or, at least, do less of. In every case, they are things that are understandable. Like we said, our desire is to parent well. However, they also lead to behaviors that can actually be destructive to our kids.

Stop Keeping Them Safe
Nothing more clearly fits the category of "understandable but destructive" than our approach to our children's safety. Like any parent, I've had those nightmares. Those stomach-in-the-throat moments when you start imagining the terrible things that might happen. The impulse to try to protect our children at any cost makes perfect sense. However, it can also turn us into the things they need protecting from.

Children that were once allowed to freely play in their neighborhoods are now kept inside out of fear that some stranger might abduct them. Such fears are understandable, but also misguided. In a given year less than 1,500 minors are kidnapped, which sounds like a scary number. Yet consider that most of those abductions are by family members due to things like child custody disputes. Of the 200 non-family abductions, the majority are of teenaged girls for sex trafficking and similar crimes. That is horrific, but it also means that given the 74 million kids in the U.S., the chances of one of our kids being kidnapped in the ways we tend to imagine is less than 1 in 740,000 - roughly the same as their chance of being struck by lightning. Or, to put it in another perspective, far safer than the roughly 1 in 307,000 kids killed playing youth football in 2017.

What's more, our fears about our children's safety have increased while their world has kept getting safer. Child mortality rates are half what they were in 1990. Child abductions have fallen by almost 40% in the same period of time. Physical abuse rates are down 55% and sexual abuse rates down 65% since 1994, even as reporting has increased. Even as they grow older - teenagers drink, smoke, and get pregnant at a far lower rate than they did 20 years ago. By most objective measures, it makes considerably more sense to let our kids have freedom than it did a few decades ago.

None of the above means bad things can't happen to our kids. They can, and of course reasonable precautions make sense. Teach them not to talk to strangers. Talk to them about abuse. However, do that while recognizing that on the whole they live incredibly safe lives. What has changed isn't the world but our perceptions of it.

You know the one worrying social problem that has been increasing for children? Anxiety and depression. Young people are five times as likely to display signs of these diseases as they were 50 years ago. There are a variety of contributing factors, like the prevalence of screens and the decline in play (more on that in a minute), but I cannot help but suspect that a substantial amount of those struggles come from parents training them to live anxiously in the world. A mother or father freaking out over any uncontrolled encounter naturally teaches children that the unexpected is to be feared. Even more, preventing them from experiencing such situations keeps them from developing the resilience they would otherwise naturally learn.

Even beyond anxiety, we are depriving our children of experiences that lead to their flourishing as human beings. Consider the world of decades past. Developing relationships with neighborhood kids free from parental meddling is the best soil in which to grow social kids. The pickup baseball game was the training ground for corporate negotiations and the compromises essential to democracy. Walking home alone, dropping into the grocery store and chatting with the adults there - these were ways children learned independence and self-assurance.

All of those experiences are nearly extinct in the modern world, but here's the thing - their death was no accident. Our desire to protect our children murdered their freedom. Even though kids today are safer than ever, our constant consumption of fearmongering media and failure to accept the normal pains of youth have destroyed them. In the name of safety, we have wrapped our kids in cellophane, unaware that inside they are turning purple and suffocating.

Stop Giving Them Good Experiences
That last note ties into a second misguided reality of parenting: our insistence on keeping our kids busy. This one lies perhaps closest to the heart of modern parenting - the very definition of a "good parent" in our world involves providing kids with constant stimulation and opportunities to learn and grow. We show off to our friends by talking about our childrens' activities and accomplishments. More than that, we start at a younger and younger age thinking about building a resume for college.

First, we can exhaust our kids. Overstressing children is so common that it can lead to recognized health issues. One national survey found that 72% of kids have behavioral issues due to stress, and 62% have physical symptoms. It is easy for us to focus on the good things different activities provide, but the reality is that too many good things can easily turn bad.

Teenagers are especially prone to this danger. As one of the above articles notes, teens actually report stress rates higher than those of adults. The pace of life for many teens is frankly insane. If an adult described to me a schedule where they left home every day at 7:30 and didn't return until 8, after which they did more work from home plus kept commitments on the weekends, I would tell them they were doing way too much. The fact that 15- and 16-year-olds often keep such schedules should terrify us for their long-term health.

We can also lose the essential element of free play. Children do not need adults to stimulate them; the world itself is full of opportunities to wonder and learn. A child left to themselves will spend hours seeking to build a fort or watching ants on the driveway. They will organize imaginative play with friends or read books. They will do a thousand different things, but all of them will engage them with the world just as deeply as most of our planned events and they will be done out of the child's own desires. Lessons we seek for ourselves are always more effective than those foisted on us artificially.

On a deeper level, I am also convinced that kids need free play because it is essential to teaching them freedom. To be free, people must have a sense of who they are in themselves and of agency to realize their thoughts and desires in the world. Too often, as we fill up our kids' time with activities, what we are de facto training them to do is to march to someone else's drum. If every moment is planned and structured, that means every moment is scripted by someone else. Our children do not learn how to act without first being given instructions. This prepares them to be good cogs in the machine, but it leaves them uncomfortable with freedom. When confronted with the opportunity for self-determination, they will be left to look around for some man in a suit to tell them how to behave.

One last note - in the short term, cutting back on our kids' busy-ness might not be particularly well-received, especially if they are used to such a schedule. They will have to confront boredom for perhaps the first time in years, and they will feel unprepared for it. However, boredom itself is an essential part of our humanity, and learning to live in it fruitfully is essential to flourishing as men and women. Or, as Bertrand Russell once pointed out, "A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase."

Stop Giving Them What They Desire
We also need to stop giving our kids what they want. While there are lots of ways we can do this, let's talk about the biggest problem first: screens. Every modern parent has to fight this battle, and the prevalence of electronic devices represents perhaps the biggest challenge any of us face. Part of what makes it complicated is that, for most kids, this is a discussion of balance. Some amount of screen time seems permissible, and we don't want to deprive our kids of the benefits of modern technology. That said, let's also not deceive ourselves: video games and smartphones are literally killing children. They are linked to things like obesity, major psychological disorders, and suicide. Kids are exposed to pornography at a far younger age than ever before. Unconstrained and unsupervised connection to modern entertainment and the internet is tantamount to giving children knives to play with and then being surprised when they hurt themselves.

This is where I'm going to be blunt, albeit with both barrels aimed at myself as much as anyone. As I talk to parents and watch my own heart, the issue is not really about the screens themselves. It is our lack of a spine when it comes to saying "no." Too often, my choices about how my kids engage with media stem from some combination of exhaustion and cowardice. I don't want to fight about it anymore, and I don't want them to dislike me, and so I give in.

Here's the truth, though: kids are especially poorly equipped to make decisions about their media consumption. Tech companies are spending hundreds of billions of dollars to engineer electronic stimulations we never want to put down. Many adults struggle to regulate their screen time. For children - and I'm not just talking about young children here, even teenagers fall in this group - it is an impossible battle. Their minds simply aren't developed to the point where they can resist. Giving a child what they want in this realm is like expecting a 12-year-old to be able to maintain a "responsible" cocaine habit.

An essential part of our job as parents is to give children what is good, not what they want. Everyone gets that when it comes to vegetables, but we often miss is when it comes to other parts of childrearing. One particular aspect of this is that, since our children lack the willpower they will gain with maturity, our job is to be that willpower for them. Kids don't need to play as many video games as they desire. Preteens don't need smart phones. No one needs Snapchat or unfettered social media access. Our job is to assert this reality as the unshakeable truth that will not move no matter how much they want them.

While electronics might be the biggest culprit, this relinquishing of parental responsibility in the name of our children's desires can also occur in other realms. We already mentioned busy-ness, but it's worth bearing in mind that sometimes the problem isn't our desire to stimulate our children but rather our inability to say "no." A few years ago a harggard-looking father told me that they were convinced their child was too busy. "However," he said, "we told her we thought she should quit some things, but she was so sad, we just couldn't do it." Such naked capitulation might seem easy to judge, but all of us can be guilty of it.

We like our kids to like us. However, our job as parents is to die to ourselves for the good of our children, and that includes dying to their affection. Absolutely, we want to give our kids love and support, but we also need to be willing to have them sometimes hate us and view us as the bad guys. One of the maxims I learned early on when I worked in the business world was, "You can either have people like you all the time or you can be effective at your job." This is doubly true in our vocation of raising children.

Stop Caring About Looking Good
We'll end on this note, because it ties into all the rest. What I'm pleading for - giving your kids less safety and more freedom, dropping out of the activities rat-race, and removing things like screens from their place of dominance - is deeply countercultural. In doing it, we will be making decisions we think arebest even though they are also uncommon and unpopular. It's not just our kids who will react strongly to such choices. It is also other parents. We will be looked at askance. We will feel like outsiders in some conversations. This is something we need to die to as well.

Every parent has told their kid, "Just because everyone is doing it, that doesn't mean it's okay." We need to parent the same way. Choices about parenting should be made on the basis of thoughtful reflection, not straw polls. In fact, if "everyone" is doing it in terms of parenting, that should often be a warning sign. Maybe it is a product of shared wisdom, but often it is instead an indication that we are doing what is easy rather than what is good.

One of the essential struggles in our world is that we feel like we need to be doing something even when doing nothing is the wiser decision. Any good sculptor will tell you a piece can be ruined as easily by overworking it than by underworking. Many terrible political ideas have been foisted because the voters demand action even when waiting would be the wiser course. And in parenting, while there are things we should do, often it is what we don't do that makes all the difference.

Children are resilient. They are curious. Their bodies and minds naturally grow in healthy ways. There are things we can do, like encouraging them to be healthy and active, that can help this growth, but they don't cause it. That comes from our kids' own God-given capacities. We should parent out of that truth - treating our children not like confections we have to constantly stir and check but like gardens. Give them support, sunlight and a modicum of protection from the most harmful weeds, but then just let them grow.

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