Q. All moms and dads, it seems, grapple with whether to follow or reject our own parents’ parenting style. How do you decide what applies now — and what doesn’t?
KATHY: My first reaction to your question was to think about the generational differences in language. Case in point: Recently, I was picnicking with my daughter, her friends, and another mom. As we set out lunch, both of us moms asked the girls if they “had enough protein.” My friend cracked, “Ah, the protein question.” We then duly noted this was a question our parents never asked us in their entire lives.
That led to an increasingly black humor exchange. What other questions do we habitually ask that our parents never asked? Mine was “Do you need help with your homework?” (Back then, kids were on their own.) That hands-off quality led my friend to get even more wicked: “How about ‘How are you?’”
You could say our parents were neglectful. Or you could say we’re overbearing. OK, Jeff, which is it?
JEFF: Hmm, let me think, WWCD? (That’s the bumper sticker glued to the rusty rear end of my psyche, in eternal deference to Carolyn, my mom.) No, seriously, I suspect that all of our decisions, as well as our most endearing parental catch phrases, are distilled from what we embrace and what we reject not just from our parents’ style but from their simpler times. I mean, my mom never had to badger me to put down my iAnything, not just because Steve Jobs hadn’t come along yet but also because back when I was growing up it wasn’t scandalous to entrust one’s kids to the low-definition, rabbit-eared baby sitter in the living room.
KATHY: It’s funny that you brought up TV. I often despair about my kids’ screen time — and since my parents didn’t limit TV hours, I’m flying blind here. My husband and I do set parameters. But the truth is, my daughter is learning more from creating a Sims family than I did from watching “Mod Squad.” And my son is more intellectual when playing Madden NFL 15 than I was when following “General Hospital.” In some ways, our parents’ benign neglect style might make more sense today because our kids have far more quality screen choices than we had.
In fact, Jeff, I pity us for growing up before “The Simpsons.” As Marge said, describing how raising Bart and Lisa was hard at first: “Then we figured out we could park them in front of the TV. That’s how I was raised, and I turned out TV.”
JEFF: So what if our kids have “The Simpsons,” Kathy? We had “The Flintstones”! More important, in my case, I had Clover Street. I know that wouldn’t have worked as a Bedrock street name, but it’s where most of my neighborhood friends lived, and I headed there every day after school, no playdate wrangling from Mom necessary. Just as I watched less TV because there was less TV, there was less grown-up involvement in our lives not so much because of individual parental choices, really, but because that’s the way our culture rolled.
So, yes, things were different back then, but at its root, parenting is parenting. I guess it comes down to this: If we want our kids to listen to us, we first have to learn to listen to ourselves. What, in retrospect, feels right about your upbringing? What was lacking, no matter how generously you reassess? My divorced mother, who raised me in a household with my grandparents, was strict with her expectations, and I am, too, proudly for the most part. But when I catch myself veering too severely toward Mom’s inflexibility, which even in decades-old remembrance sets off acid reflux in the pit of my stomach, I try to ease up. And to my kids, I know that comes as a relief.
KATHY: My parents were not big disciplinarians, but they were much more clear about the division between Kid World and Grown-up World. I joked about how they didn’t help me with homework. But honestly, when I help my kids with theirs, sometimes it really goes south. The interaction is just too loaded. I think our generation has gained in having a more intimate relationship with our kids, and lost in not allowing them a proper healthy distance.
One last relevant memory: My mom always used to stash stacked laundry and other items on the side of our staircase. Whenever my brother and I climbed to our bedrooms, we had to bring up what was there. The question I most heard as a kid, therefore, was “Did you go up empty-handed?” And our answer had better be “No.” To expand that metaphor; we carry up our parents’ parenting and our own, and we must hold both as we try — confusedly but earnestly — to raise this next generation.
JEFF: Sure, some things we leave behind, and some weigh us down but travel with us anyway, because we have a vague sense that we’ll need them later. A dozen years into being a dad, I still feel like a work-in-progress. I’m OK with that, maybe because of my hopeful belief that my kids someday will be better at this than I am.