Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Parenting for Beginners

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we started reading the baby books.

The world seemed to be entirely populated with experts on child rearing, and the clamor of their contradictory advice left us stunned and bewildered. Breastfeeding was good; and bad. It should stop at six months, or continue through grade school. Children should sleep with their parents; and sharing a bed would warp them forever. Or actually it really didn’t matter either way. What mattered was when you began toilet training which should be as soon as possible, and put off as long as you could and every concept of timing in between. Cloth diapers were essential; disposal ones were the only way to go. The whole idea of diapers was constrictive and reactionary. Parents should be permissive and strict, corporal punishment was crucial and cruel. Dr. Spock said “Never hit a child in anger.” But the idea of doing it calmly, in accordance with some steely cold blooded disciplinary master plan felt really crazy to us.

Our pediatrician just shrugged. “Make it up as you go along,” he said. “That’s what everyone else does.”

Cold comfort: we had little faith in our deracinated modern ‘instincts’, and scant belief that we could make the right decision in the clutch.

But we did. I guess we did, we must have, if the kids are anything to judge by. They turned out great, and I say that with no preening parental pride. Our greatest accomplishment was not screwing them up. Somehow we managed that. But I’ve seen great young people emerge from abusive, neglectful or just insanely chaotic households, so what’s up with that? Maybe the whole idea of parenting properly is a kind of publishing scam, and nurture will always lose the “nature-nurture” debate. The kids blessed with good genes will prosper in any family, while the ones born weak or damaged will fail, despite the best efforts of the best-read and best intentioned Mom and Dad.

That being said, I think it’s worthwhile, taking a look at some of the ways in which we managed not to screw up our kids. It’s setting the bar low, but it will probably be no more confusing for new parents than the welter of contentious advice we struggled with back in the late summer and fall of 1983. I can’t say that our way is the only way to raise children, or even the best way. I only know it worked for us, and even on paper it seems to make sense. There’s a sort of simple minded logic to it, and simplicity is even better than logic when you have a screaming baby to deal with at midnight, and a job to wake up for the next morning.

I suppose you could say it boils down to ‘going with the flow’, and staying alert enough to understand what the flow is and which way it’s flowing. Breast feeding? The system is already in place. It works pretty well, why fight it? Toilet training? Kids let you know when they get interested in the potty. Help them stick with it, make them feel good about it. Kids want to grow up. Stay out of the way when you can and cheer them on. B.F. Skinner proved more than sixty years ago that praise works better than punishment. He trained pigeons to play ping-pong with what he called ‘operant conditioning’, a purely rewards-based system.

Which is not to advocate the creepy praise-for-everything culture I see around us now, with trophies that say “Participant”, and giddy applause for everything a child does. There are real challenges and real failures lurking out there. My Mom helped me with my French subjunctives; I edited my kids’ English papers. They learned the basics of good writing early. They even knew that ‘writing’ was a gerund in that last sentence. Teaching my son to read was an uphill struggle. He just wasn’t interested. The school said he was dumb, which I knew he wasn’t. They said he had ADD, which I knew he didn’t because he was perfectly capable of concentrating on stuff he was interested in, like the workings of my car. The first book he ever read through all the way by himself was the owner’s manual of my Ford Festiva. Giving it to him feels like inspiration looking back; it felt more like desperation at the time. But it worked. Next step: Robert B. Parker … and from it was a quick jump to Hunter B. Thompson and Robert A. Caro. One Christmas I gave him a subscription to Maxim magazine; the next Christmas all he wanted was a massive textbook for studying Arabic. And I wasn’t even surprised.

Caity knew that she wanted to help people as a life’s work when she was still in High School. That wasn’t my idea or her Mom’s, we didn’t artfully guide her toward a career in social work. We just watched. We watched as she took over the Peers Promoting Aids Awareness organization at the school; we watched as she cut and pasted an essay she’d written for the group into her early admission application to Wheelock; watched as she got in and did brilliantly and we watched as she graduated in the rain, four years later. Our part? Not being gratuitously discouraging or expecting her do something else like go to law school or marry some rich guy. All we had to do was attend every chorus concert and high school musical (She was a tree in the Wizard of OZ), keep her fed and well-rested, take a seat and watch.

So what about discipline? They must have acted not and gotten into trouble now and then. Of course they did. But we never spanked anyone or grounded anyone, or even yelled. It’s not necessary. We didn’t have many rules and the ones we did enforce – mostly concerning sanitation and courtesy – made sense even to an eight year old. And when things got out of hand the punishment didn’t just “fit the crime” it was a function of the crime, the logical extension of the crime. That is, if kids are fighting the car, I can’t drive the car. So the car stops. The fact that sitting in a stationary car is something close to a working definition of Hell for most kids was convenient propinquity. The first time they started screaming and crying in a restaurant, we just left … as dinner was being brought to the table. I had to pay for a meal we didn’t eat but the stunned looks on their faces (I had called their bluff… over food) told the whole story: we can’t eat in a restaurant with screaming children, so we don’t. We never had a problem eating out again.

When I was growing up parents were terrified of what my Mom called the ‘evil companion’ syndrome: their kids falling in with the “wrong crowd”, turning to promiscuity and drugs under the influence of some glamorous Svengali. My Mom never worried about that stuff; and when I became a parent, I didn’t either. She trusted her kids and so I trusted mine. I think that basic faith in the essential level-headed goodness of your children, is the ultimate secret to not screwing them up. If your son is secure and happy, he won’t plunge into some self-destructive spiral of drug addiction (though they may experiment with pot just like you did); if your daughter doesn’t have any ‘father issues’ she won’t fall victim to the predators that prey on girls who do. If you’re really there for your kids, giving them quantity time and not just ‘quality time’, they’ll know it. Between the ages of roughly eight and thirteen, I was my son’s primary companion and best friend (the kind of best friend who makes you brush your teeth and clean your room). He was socially isolated, with only one pal at school, but I wasn’t worried about him. He just was ahead of the curve; no one else got his jokes. But he knew he was funny because he kept me laughing, and he knew he was smart because I’d stay up until two in the morning with him (on a school night!) after a read-aloud session from 1984 that had been intended to lull him to sleep, discussing the theory and practice of oligarchical collectivism. Somewhere around the tenth grade, everyone else caught up and he was suddenly one of the most popular kids in school. I used the capital I’d accumulated in those years to push him about college. I was relentless and he was reluctant. Finally he worked with me for a year, humping ladders and pushing paint. That convinced him, even though he had to struggle through a stint at community college before he could begin at UMass.

Now he’s in DC doing fund raising for Democratic candidates; Caity is in Boston working with HIV positive homeless people, and I’m still watching them, wondering what we did right. And the memory pops up: teaching Caity to ride her bike. The rules were the same: keep up, but run behind them, hands off, but ready to steady them if they start to fall, offer sensible encouragement and then take one quick breath when they ride that bike around the corner, out of sight and gone.

The baby books didn’t tell me that. I wish they had. Learning it myself took twenty years.

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