26.1.11

Sane Safety or Cultural Coddling?

Last week, a bus driver in Newfoundland was suspended for asking teenagers to get out and push the bus when it became stuck in a snowdrift. Apparently it happened right outside the school -as the bus was exiting. A parent picking up her son or daughter from the school saw what was happening and reported it (not to the school or the police, but the local radio station!)
I listened to the call-in radio shows where all kinds of well intentioned people proclaimed that we're coddling our kids too much -that suspending a man for asking teenagers to push a bus is doing a disservice to the teens who felt capable of pushing. Most of them blamed the parents. And most of them would be the same people to call in if, say, a child was kidnapped walking home from school by himself. They'd change their tune, then, though, and say that the mother was negligent for allowing the child to walk home.

I don't know which is worse:
  • that we've created such fear in parents that they can never do ANYTHING without feeling like they're putting their child at risk
or
  • that we blame parents whenever anything goes wrong; imagining that all tragedy is preventable
or
  • that we blame parents for raising "sissies" and children who don't know how to take a risk and end up moving into their parents basement at 24 because they can't handle independence - financial or otherwise.
In my opinion? A school bus is heavy, very heavy. There was snow and ice on the ground and blowing snow reducing visability for oncoming traffic. They were just outside the school, not stuck on a rural road somewhere with no way to contact anyone. The bus driver should have sent the kids back into the school and called for a tow truck.

But I'm in the minority on that one. Most people's knee-jerk reaction is "I pushed my mother's car all the time as a teenager. Are you telling me 20 teenagers can't push a bus?"

And then they blame the parents. We do horrible things, you know, protecting our children. Well, except when we're doing horrible things by not protecting them.

So was this woman's* compaint a sane and proper safety concern or was it the product of cultural conditioning to expect the worst? You decide:

*********************

Once there was a young woman who desperately wanted a baby. She started taking folic acid – to prevent Spina Bifida – and quit drinking alcohol – because she didn’t want to accidentally drink when she was pregnant but didn’t know yet. Just to be safe, and because she’d heard it was dangerous, she gave up coffee and tea too. Her mother laughed a little at that one, but when she saw a study that showed that caffeine intake could affect miscarriage risk, she knew she was right.

She was pleased to discover she was pregnant a short while later. Her husband took over anything related to the cat – toxoplasmosis could cause birth defects. On New Year’s Eve she enviously eyed everyone’s champagne glasses. Her husband told her one sip wouldn’t hurt. But she said no. The next week, she saw a pregnant celebrity being bashed in the magazines for sipping a glass of champagne at a party. She knew she had made the right choice.

The baby arrived, perfect in every way. She put him to sleep each night in his crib, despite wanting to snuggle with him and nurse him in her own bed. When she read that some municipalities in the United States were considering making co-sleeping illegal because of the risk of death for the infant, she knew she had made the right choice. She put her infant to sleep on his back each night; though her grandmother told her sleeping on his stomach would ease his colic. But everyone knows that back sleeping prevents SIDS.

She bought two car seats, one installed in her own car and an extra in case he ever needed to be transported when she wasn’t available. You can never be too careful. She put covers on all the electrical sockets and modified her stairway entrance so she could add a gate. The cat got relegated to the garage when it refused to keep its food up high.

One day, she had to fill the car with gas. He was in the backseat, asleep in his carseat, sick with croup. It was raining. She lifted him from the car seat, wrapped her own coat around him, and went in to pay. When her husband found out he was angry. But she was validated when the next week the news featured the story of a woman in the same circumstance who had been arrested for leaving her child unattended in the car.

Her son grew older. She sent him off to school with his BPA free lunchbag with an icepack to keep his food cold so he wouldn’t get salmonella. She taught him about strangers and that his private parts were his alone. She gave him a cell phone so he could get a hold of her in any emergency.

When he was six and wanted to go sledding in the backyard, she made sure he put on a helmet. When he was eight and asked if he could walk to the corner store by himself, she said no. Everyone knows a child isn’t safe on the streets by himself. When he was eleven and asked if he could finally stop having a babysitter after school, she said no. She agreed he was mature and responsible enough to take care of himself, but the law says children under 12 years old must be supervised.

When he was fifteen and a friend invited him to his older brother’s party, she said no. She knew the parents wouldn’t be home and that there may well be drinking. He was angry with her, but she wouldn’t budge. It just wasn’t safe. Everyone agreed with her.

She talked to him about sex and particularly safe-sex. She talked to him about smoking and told him of the risks. She spoke to him of alcohol and reminded him that he wasn’t old enough to drink. She told him stories of teens who had died or been injured using drugs. She asked him to please just try to stay safe. All she wanted was for him to stay safe.

One snowy day she picked him up after school. Although he normally walked, the roads were slick with ice and there was no clearance for pedestrians. She knew it would be safest to drive him home herself. As she pulled into the parking lot, she saw a number of his friends pushing a school bus that had gotten stuck into a snow drift. It made no sense to her that these children would stand behind such a large vehicle, in the way of traffic, pushing it. She reported what she saw. All she wanted was to make sure that other people’s children were safe too.

The bus driver was suspended for asking the children to push the bus. And suddenly, everyone accused her and other parents of coddling their children. People called in to radio shows to say that teens should be allowed to push vehicles; that suspending the driver went too far; that parents who complained of this incident were being over-protective.

She doesn’t know where she went wrong. From before the day she became pregnant all she has heard, seen, or read, has been about how to keep her child safe. She has seen parents – well-meaning, good parents – charged or investigated for doing things society deemed was not safe. She has seen parents hung out to dry for letting their child walk alone to the store or trusting their teen to have an unsupervised party. She did what was expected, what felt right after all these years of doing the right and safe thing, and now she is being hung out to dry.

When was she supposed to stop trying to keep her child safe?


*Note: that story is not meant to represent a real person; but I think it could represent all of us.

22.1.11

Why "Good" Mothers are Superior

The parenting world was in shock last week, as Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” appeared in the Wall Street Journal and immediately went viral. The backlash has been constant and steady since. It’s not difficult to see why many would be upset reading the essay, an excerpt from her latest book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.


In it, she wrote that her children were never allowed playdates, sleepovers, TV or computer games. They were not permitted less than a B in school (and that with much scolding) or to do any activities other than play piano or violin. She talked of hours spent on homework and the insults she would fling at her children if they didn’t conform to her expectations. Most shocking was her tale of spending 5 hours forcing her seven-year-old daughter to practice a piano piece she couldn’t get right. The young girl was denied food or bathroom breaks, was yelled at, scolded, and threatened until finally she got it right.

Chua related the entire story with smug self-pride showing it as proof of how she is a better mother than most Western mothers. She cares about her daughter’s success and will not allow her to fail. After the torturous piano practice, her daughter cuddled with her and told jokes. Therefore it was obvious that her daughter thrived under this guidance.

My immediate gut reaction was “well, yes, but even the child victim of a pedophile will look for approval from their tormentor.” Really, she did a poor job proving to most readers how it was that her method of parenting was superior. Defenders pulled out the statistics on Chinese education and high scores in International tests, but I’ve discussed the culture that leads to those scores before. It goes beyond parenting choice and is part of a national system.

Most people, however, were not defending her. Most were astounded and shocked by her claims. At first, I too, was among them. But as I read the rebuttals I began to feel the same unease I felt reading her own column.

Parents argued that “as long as my child is happy, I’m doing a good job.” Others claimed that spending five hours a night on homework and piano practice would mean more self-sacrifice than they were willing to give. Yet others brought out the old “good enough” argument.

The polar opposite of Chua’s method of parenting, “good enough” parenting basically states that if a child is fed, clothed, housed and given some opportunity for play and some nagging to do homework, they will raise themselves up while the parents tend to household chores, work, and their facebook accounts and TV schedule. (Please note, I am not talking about Good Enough Parenting - as coined by David Winnicott - but the self-indulgent kind of parenting that says "I don't have time to do this; I don't think pushing her will help; etc. etc)

There are a lot of parents who swear by this method. It is a backlash against all the natural parenting and perfect parenting gurus who urge us to monitor every moment of our child’s life to insure they become successful, happy adults. And, of course, to theories like Chua’s - that you can beat and insult your child into submitting to your desires.

But, let’s face it, “good enough” parenting isn’t really good enough. What it is, is an excuse to ignore the tough parts of parenting. Yes, keeping your children alive is good. But a zookeeper could do that.

As parents it is our duty to motivate our children and to draw out their talents. Not that I’d advocate Chua’s response, but letting our children skate by or do whatever they want – which would obviously be the thing requiring least effort – serves no one well.

Tonight I erased all of my son’s homework once he had completed it. Yes it was done right, for the most part, but it was not done “good enough.” I could see that he had raced through it in an attempt to get back to the computer and when I corrected him he didn’t listen and made the same mistakes again. So I made him start all over.

“Don’t be a tiger mother,” my husband whispered as I raised my voice and informed my son that I wouldn’t allow him to get away with mediocre effort.

That is the fear, of course: that we’ll become harridans that our children hate or that our frustration will lead us to say or do things that are abusive and unsupportive.

In the grand scheme of things, one night’s homework is pretty meaningless. It’s easy to just let it go and let everyone stay happy. But having a child who is happy doesn’t mean having a child who is self-satisfied or will grow into an adult confident of his place in the world. The “good enough” theory somehow believes that children will gain self-esteem, confidence and ability intrinsically.

Loathe as I am to admit it, I have to agree with Chua when she states: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”

There is a balance in there somewhere. Between “good enough” and Chua’s way there’s just the good mother: the one who allows her child to play and have fun yet willingly sacrifices her free time to drill him in spelling words; the one who provides challenges and activities but helps her child through them rather than badgers him into achievement. These are the mothers who will raise happy, confident, successful children; the one who understands that each child is different and there is no one parenting “method” that will raise them all perfectly. Every child deserves a good mother – not a superior or “good enough” mother.

21.1.11

The Prodigal Blogger Returns....And Gone.

There I was: notes in hand, photos ready to go, drafting my first post in forever.

Then I heard a dog bark.

Funny thing. I don't have a dog. And the rabbit has never barked.

Then I heard a child cry. Children I have. Enough to come out of my proverbial wazoo. I'm not quite sure what a "wazoo" is, but it's quite likely that's where they did come out of. Except my last; he was cut out after giving the ob-gyn the single-finger salute (that's the only explanation for what his hand was doing down there)

Then I heard a wheezy, barky, tear-filled sob.

And now I'm wondering whether to head to the hospital now and wait in the ER all night; try to call my family doctor in the morning; or wait a few more hours and go to the hospital then.

The first time he had croup, we waited 4 hours in a crowded ER. He had a temp of 102. His O2 levels were around 80 by the time he got in. He was admitted and spent 3 days in hospital.

This is the fourth time. And even though the other two never got quite as bad as that first time, I always worry it will.

I'm a worrier. He started stuttering today. My mind immediately went to "brain tumour." Of course, my mind is more prone to go there given his NF and his recent MRI findings. But it was still a silly place to go.

I worry about this blog. It has been too long. I worry you'll all go away and never want to read me again. I broke a circle of reciprocity.

But I'm just being silly, right?

Right?

Kill the fatted calf. I'll be blogging from home or hospital tomorrow. Promise.