When it comes to parenting advice, the more humility the better

Early this morning as Jay began to stir in his crib and Caroline and Wally lay asleep in bed, I read the provocative cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic.  It’s called “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids” by the psychologist-author Lori Gottlieb, who made her first big splash a year ago with the similarly provocative best-selling book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. Now she’s back, arguing that an epidemic of overindulgent, ego-stroking parenting is ruining a generation of American children.  “By trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood,” she writes, “we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up.”

My first reaction: This is hardly a new story.  Gottlieb says that today’s parents are so obsessed with protecting their children’s self-esteem that they’ll do anything to prevent their egos from ever getting hurt.  She cites a Washington, DC youth soccer league where even the clumsiest kids get trophies at the end of the season.  I’m pretty sure my parents were making this exact same complaint twenty five years ago when I first started kicking a ball around.

But beyond that, this should have been a story I liked.  Caroline and I are not particularly coddling as parents.  Jay doesn’t have a lot of toys. He’s never taken music or swim or yoga classes. When he bites his tongue and tears well in his eyes I sometimes remark, “Bummer. You should probably be more careful next time.”  And in general I like rules and standards and I enjoy making Jay do things just because I say he has to.

So, I should have been applauding as I read the article.  But I wasn’t.  For one, the anecdotes Gottlieb cites as evidence of this plague of “wussy” parenting don’t ring true—or at least they don’t seem representative of most parents I know.  She tells one story, for example, about a mom who had a fit when her toddler son had a prized truck stolen away by another kid.  She also calls out parents who, when their kids fall in the park, “swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying” rather than letting their kids learn about pain and failure on their own.

Over the last two years I’ve spend hundreds of hours (maybe even over a thousand) with Jay in parks and playgrounds around Center City Philadelphia.  We live in just the kind of well-to-do urban neighborhood where the indulgent parenting Gottlieb talks of is supposed to be rampant but I haven’t seen it (at least not in epidemic proportions).  Sure, there was one mom who told me as her daughter ripped a bubble wand away from Jay that “my daughter doesn’t share.”  But far more typical is the dad who bends over backwards to make his toddler share.  When two kids go after the same toy in the park it’s almost a contest between the parents to see whose child is capable of greater self-abnegation.

As for the skinned knees, I guess some parents sometimes treat a trip-and-fall like their kid just stepped on an IED.  But on a weekday afternoon in the park most parents I see are too exhausted to devote an exaggerated amount of attention to a bruise.  And most toddlers I see are back up and running before their parents could even get close enough to “swoop in.”

My larger problem with Gottlieb’s article, however, is that it replaces one kind of parenting dogma with another. I agree with her that kids who aren’t given the room to experience disappointment and unhappiness as children will have a harder time dealing with those emotions when they confront them in adulthood.  But in her mind the problem with that parenting approach is its content.  In my mind it’s the attitude underlying it—that there is a certain, knowable, specific way to raise a child—and on that score Gottlieb is just as guilty as the parents she takes aim at.

Throughout the article she approvingly quotes experts who say things like “A kid needs to feel normal anxiety to be resilient” and she writes herself, “Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle” (emphasis mine).  Alarms go off whenever I see a parenting expert saying that kids need any one particular thing.  Sure, kids need vegetables and they need a bedtime and they need to learn right from wrong.  But what they need most of all are parents who recognize that there is no one surefire way to approach raising a child.

To put this in concrete terms, when Jay skins his knee in the park what he needs from me in response varies from day to day.  Some days he gets back up without a second thought.  Some days he’s tired and fragile and needs a hug and a pat on the back.  And other days he’s whiny or clingy and I decide to give him some space to figure out that dad can’t solve all his problems.  The point is that apart from love, food, and sleep, kids don’t need any one thing all the time.

I call this attitude “pragmatic parenting.”  It recognizes that kids, parenting, and life in general are all extremely complicated and that in the face of such complexity a good dose of humility is in order.  Who knows what alchemy of experiences produces a happy adult?  The biggest problem with Gottlieb’s article is that she thinks she does.