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Perspective

Why do we insist on outsourcing our parenting?

The case for spending time with your kids, not pushing them to perfection.

Perspective essay

Alex Nabaum

Author and her two sons on their ski excursion

Author and her two sons on their ski excursion

AS WE NERVOUSLY PUSHED OUR FIRST-TIME SKIERS out of the rental shop, the bunny hill loomed like the Matterhorn. My husband, Kevin, and I exchanged glances. Could we cause our children bodily harm — or sabotage their rankings in the 2030 Winter Games? Surrounded by ski school groups and coaches, no other parents in sight, we felt like trespassers. Were we even allowed to do this?

I knelt down and gravely asked my 5-year-old son whether he’d prefer to take a lesson with a qualified instructor. “No,” he said with careless confidence. “I just want to learn from you.”

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This was a radical idea. Sure, I can yell “pizza” as well as anyone, but these days, teaching is usually outsourced. After school and on weekends, parents in the Bay State and elsewhere shuttle their kids to classes drilling everything from baking to woodworking to Mandarin to etiquette for aspiring princesses. And when the supposed relief of school vacation rolls around, plenty of parents shuffle their kids off to vacation camps to study math or science.

Even bragging is secondhand, as parents proudly prattle about their kids’ accomplishments based on what they heard from coaches and instructors. Parental involvement has become catching a glimpse of the big goal from the sidelines — a prize paid for dearly by countless Saturday mornings surrendered to soccer practice. One mother gushed to me about the first day her children skied, then clarified that she hadn’t even been there. “We put them in a lesson and went snowboarding,” she said. “But we could kind of see them from where we were.”

The perceived value of family time has depreciated because of our obsession with childhood accomplishment. And since we have been collectively convinced we aren’t expert enough to teach our children anything ourselves, spending time with them is considered to be less beneficial than having their enrichment come from someone else.

In 2010, University of California economists Valerie and Garey Ramey published research showing that the amount of time college-educated mothers spend with their children has increased by more than nine hours a week since the early 1990s, but that most of that gain is eaten up chauffeuring kids to and from their myriad activities. Meanwhile, Suniya Luthar of Columbia University Teachers College has shown that more privileged— and enrichment overdosed — kids are at increased risk of anxiety, depression, and substance use because of the pressure to excel and feelings of emotional isolation from parents. It seems there is more distance between the front and back seats of the minivan than we thought.

My mother died when I was 25, so with the sharp-edged clarity that absence brings, I know just how important our time together was. When I learned to ski, she put me in a lesson, but she put herself in it, too. My recollections of that day don’t include the instructor (though I do recall a distant voice yelling “pizza”).

I remember instead our panicked giggles and my mother’s wide eyes — under that furry hood of hers — when the T-bar broke down and stranded us atop an expert trail.

A quarter century later, my sons’ giggles echoed off the slopes as they grabbed my arms for balance, and then they didn’t, and then they skied away. Kevin and I, sore from running up and down the hill all day, now stood at the bottom and watched. “Daddy taught me everything I’m doing,” announced our 3-year-old as he sailed by. Our kids didn’t care that we weren’t experts; they cared that we were there.

“That was one of the best days of my life,” Kevin said as we drove away from the mountain. The boys fell off to sleep, undoubtedly dreaming of snow and ice, the feeling of flying, and their father’s proud face — memories to warm distant winters.

Laurie Swope is a freelance photographer based in Marblehead. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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