Children Are (Hopefully) Not Our Future

This series of reflections on parenting was inspired by my daughter’s senior capstone art exhibition. In it, she portrays the risk and adventure of childhood. Children in and against nature, children conquering land and animals, children against and in the world. And while we all know that children need adults, it struck me — as it seems to have struck her — that some of the most important times in childhood are those, like in her paintings, in which no adult is around.

What is the role of a parent? And what space do children, and young people, and adults need in order to live their lives interconnected and actualized, but not controlling and controlled? That’s what I’m thinking about lately. 

I was fortunate, I think, to grow up in a family where I was not the future.

I always felt that I was a valued member of a family in the present. I had a part to play as a contributing member, and that part changed as I got older. But I never felt that any of it was — or ought to be — all about me. I still don’t.

Maybe that’s why slogans like “Children are our future” and KOMO’s “For Kids’ Sake” commercials rub me the wrong way a bit. It’s not that I don’t think children are important. I just don’t think being an adult (or even a parent) is — or should be — all about the kids.

After all, I was the kid who was the future. So were you. And here we are and … what’s this? It’s now all about someone else’s future that, when it comes, will be about someone else’s future, and someone else’s ad infinitum.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to give up on our present or future for that kind of Groundhog Day.

Somewhere along the line we got the idea that the purpose of adulthood was parenting, and that parenting was about making every aspect and every moment of child’s life educational, exciting, and character-building, without it being boring, risky, or admissible to failure.

Kids couldn’t have devised a better, nor adults a more disappointing, present – or a more short-sighted future.

Is this what all those tutors, lessons, sports, and camps, angst about toys, playtime, socialization and discipline, fights about homework, college prep, lectures about drugs and alcohol were about? Is all the money we pour into our little critters, all that time spent hovering over every detail of their lives, and all that driving — only intended to churn out another child’s personal assistant?

We’ve turned the purpose of growing up into becoming a nanny.

Oh yes, it all starts with so much reverence for parenting ...

It’s the worst for girls, who still end up with the brunt of parenting and domestic duty (yes, there are some exceptions, and I was one, but the exceptions prove the rule). And in fact, I have a hunch that a lot of this professional parenting got created in the poisonous cultural friction between “career” women and “stay at home moms” that has grown into a staple of the culture wars as women have gone in increasing numbers into the workplace. That’s about the same period when parenting, and being a family, started to become it’s own profession and to require specific training, knowledge, and a full-time commitment (from mostly women, of course.)  Being a stay-at-home mom no longer requires a woman, a home, and children: it practically requires an interdisciplinary PhD, skills in multiple technologies, a date-book the size of Houston, and enough gas to drive around the world several times a year.

... until it turns into the battle of the cultural titans.

It also requires ideological commitments. The chemistry of breast feeding, the psychology of letting children sleep in their parent’s bed, the fine points of neurotransmitters and nutrition, the impacts of circumcision, manifestos on diapering, and the nuances of discipline are rolled out and fought over on mothers’ forums and message boards with a vehemence that rivals any scientific or academic conference battle. After all, a wrong decision constitutes professional failure, while the ability to hold and maintain one’s own with evidence and argument constitutes professional status.

Parenting (again, especially for women) has also become a multi-billion dollar industry. Raising a child no longer takes a village, it takes its own science, technology, books, web sites, media, and specialists ranging from child psychologists to sleep and potty coaches. Yes, even properly raising children to perform their own bodily functions can take a professional consultant these days.

There's a lot of this that just isn't about the kid.

It’s no wonder that we seem to want our larger society to become a nanny state and yet resent it when it becomes so. The child in us expects it; the adult in us resents it. And I’m not surprised that one of god’s most popular present incarnations is not as a king or a judge but as a parent and a therapist. After all, when children who have been raised to believe that they are the center of the universe discover that they have been displaced by their own children and abandoned by their own parents, where else is there to turn?

But is all this parental attention and professionalization really “about the kids“? I really don’t think so.

In some ways, the professionalization of parenting continues the illusion, begun in our own childhood, that we really are the most important thing in the world. I think it has something to do with the reason why we ennoble parenting and denigrate child-caring. It’s the personal obsession with ourselves and our progeny (who represent our success at being parents) that we value, not the activity of taking care of children per se. (When we start regularly paying child care workers a living wage with benefits I’ll take that back.)

We can see this happening all around us in the same way with pets. Pets have become the new children. They always seemed to do just fine, but now they require little coats, mental stimulation, appropriate toys, psychologists, psychics, potty coaches, vitamin supplements, day care, and even orthodontia. The pet is the perfect child because it never really grows up. We can obsess about ourselves through it until it dies.

Is this bad? I dunno. It’s … off balance, I think. And in my experience it doesn’t make for well-prepared or well-grounded young adults at college. But that’s a topic for another day.

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