Books March 2005

Marshal Plan

The age of parents as friends is over
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At some point, which is to say the late 1990s, the focus of parenting shifted almost entirely away from preparing kids for, among other things, the dangers, responsibilities, and unpredictability of life. Or, it's just possible to imagine, parents decided that children's self-esteem was the best defense against an unkind world, and so they set about—while they still could—staging a million Truman Shows to ensure outcomes that were never less than validating for their little ones. Well, buckle your seat belts: the backlash is here. Those non-authoritarian, all-validating, all-encouraging, all-active, all-listening, all-providing, never-raise-a-voice-in-anger, teach-don't-punish, feel-good moms and dads now rate all the respect of yesterday's bees in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Today's cutting-edge parents manipulate, threaten, deprive, ignore, spank, and get mad and scream at their children, and—why not?—drink. Yes, colorful Frank McCourt characters "R" us. Or so one might conclude from a spate of recent titles celebrating defiantly underachieving parents, including Christie Mellor's The Three-Martini Playdate, Muffy Mead-Ferro's Confessions of a Slacker Mom, Beth Teitell's From Here to Maternity, and—the one I waited for on order with actually bated breath, its title so resonated with me—Perry W. Buffington's Cheap Psychological Tricks for Parents.

To track how the pendulum swung so far that it actually did a fairground loop, it's helpful to recall the archetypal—and in practice, widely emulated—nineties parenting guide Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser. To begin with, as its epic, Vision Quest—like title suggests, it is a tome, which confidently anticipates an audience that will share the joys of its leisurely pace. Picturing the ideal reader for this book leads to visions of a sunlit deck in the woods, a pot of tea, a sisal basket of sharpened pencils, a workbook, frequent massages during the seminar week, and lots of time for spontaneous breakout sessions.

Anyway, Chapter 1 of Becoming begins not with something useful, such as tips on how to deal with biting (for that you'll have to trek to page 249), but with a personal-values assessment called "Nine Principles for the Parenting Journey." Even when tough subjects are eventually broached, however, the wisdom is not quick-fix. Here's one part of Becoming's seventeen-part strategy on dealing with tantrums:

Remind yourself that tantrums are a measure of intimacy. Children usually reserve their tantrums for the most trusted, safe, and consistent people in their lives—their parents. The next time your child is having a tantrum, remind yourself you're being chosen because your child feels close to you.

Certainly it would be unfair to blame one book for an entire generation of coddled, Thai-restaurant-screaming hell-brats. And with its pastel-tinted multicultural families hugging one another on the cover, Becoming is in a way such an easy target that I'm patting it protectively even as I conveniently quote it (yet as one last shot, let me add my favorite batik-skirt-swirling chapter title: "The Dance of Separation"). The above does, however, hint at thinking that gave rise to parenting based a wee bit much on children's self-esteem, by which overpermissive parents cradle, murmur sweet nothings to, and, coincidentally, form loving body armor around a spoiled child who bystanders feel just needs a whack on the butt (humanely swift, scrupulously open-handed, and carefully rage-free as it may be).

Into this process-oriented miasma comes Perry W. Buffington, a Florida-based psychologist whose other cheerfully results-oriented titles include Cheap Psychological Tricks for Lovers and The Millionaire Code. After bemoaning soft-on-child-misbehavior philosophies like those sketched above, Buffington claims that the age of parents as friends is over.

For parents to be effective, they must be leaders, exerting responsible power over their children … This book delineates these "leading" techniques via cheap psychological tricks you can use to become a loving "general of your household." These tricks are designed to help you marshal your troops.

There are those who might find such military metaphors distasteful, and those who do will most likely be further dismayed by Buffington's clear tilt toward things Republican. Nevertheless, this left-coast Democrat found Buffington's intro enticing. For in my own parenting journey, I have to admit, I've come across a few children who, while certainly deserving of love and esteem, have a bad habit of screaming. I happen to be the den mother of a blended family of five children (my two and their three cousins, whose mother suddenly and tragically became incapacitated eighteen months ago) ranging in age from two to eight, not to mention an ever changing cast of their tiny Power Ranger—caped, Hello Kitty—glazed, macaroni-and-cheese-smeared friends. And at some point while working out in the field, driving to Target with what typically felt like fifty-seven children in the minivan, cut off from all access to the books and Web sites of pompous child-development theorists and therapists, I discovered that yelling back in a child's face at the same volume she's yelling in yours can be startling, instantaneously effective, and even sometimes gaily humorous for everyone involved, screamer included. But I am not a trained professional. This Cheap Tricks guy—what did he have? Tape child screaming, replay later? Shout through bullhorn? Hold treasured Barbie over garbage disposal, lower Barbie one inch per minute of screaming, track by large wall clock?

Sadly, Cheap Tricks turned out to be not quite the dirty, rock-bottom, platinum-blonde-wig-in-a-99-cent-store kind of "cheap" I was secretly hoping for. Still, resolutely genial as he is, "Dr. Buff" does offer a few $19-lube-job fixes. For instance, instead of endlessly nagging children to stow dirty shoes outside, you should occasionallyput small treats in correctly stored shoes. This hit home with me—I could instantly see most of the children I know trying daily, privately, diligently, without anyone's asking, to restage Christmas. Also canny was the "nine-foot rule": if a wastebasket is within nine feet, Buffington says, children will gamely try to use it; farther than that, they won't. And I loved the idea of a "curses jar": put in the dollar value of something the child really wants, remove a portion of the money every time he curses.

Perhaps these sound like hoary tips from some 1958 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, chestnuts a grandmother could recite in her sleep. But it's revealing of our times—when there's an Everest of information on, say, applying for competitive preschools, toys that stimulate musical creativity, and the age at which to start tae kwan do—that such simple tricks are so difficult to find. Would that there were a magazine called Carrot 'n' Stick! There are, as consolation, Three-Martini Playdate, From Here to Maternity, and Slacker Mom: witty, elegant, almost Strunk and White—lean primers.

If the nineties were the romantic, feelings-centered, nurture-over-nature era of child-rearing, in the aughts Three-Martini Playdate advocates a highly structured return to civilization, if not actually its discontents. "It has come to my attention that children have become the center of our universe," is Mellor's arch, Austenesque opening.

Gone are the days when a small person of tender age would do as he or she was asked, good-naturedly and obediently, and the rest of the time would sit quietly reading or practicing a simple cross-stitch … He might be trotted out to say his hellos, perhaps to recite, possibly to help serve drinks or pass cocktail peanuts. He might sit on a lap, but only if requested by a familiar grown-up. He never presumed.

Aside from overpresuming children, Mellor's targets are soon evident from such pithy chapter headings as "Saying No to Your Child: It's a Kick!," "Bedtime: Is Five-Thirty Too Early?," "Child Labor: Not Just for the Third World!," "Self-Esteem and Other Overrated Concepts," "'Children's Music': Why?," and, of course, a Christmas treat just for me, "Screaming: Is It Necessary?" ("Sadly," Mellor remarks, "the use of child-sized muzzles has never quite caught on, though I can't see why not.") Like Buffington, Mellor is less a friend to all children than a marshaler of troops. As opposed to cuddling misbehaving toddlers and gently sing-songing the "inappropriateness" of what they're doing (as Mellor describes one mother's ineffectually doing, after her son tried to choke Mellor's), she suggests a sequence of old-fashioned disciplinary moves. "Develop a 'stern' look, much like the one your mother used to use on you when you had reached the limit." If things like subsequent shushing and kicking under the table don't work, one can bodily pick up the child and carry him out the door and into the bracing night air: "The change of scenery may snap him out of his mood, especially if coupled with threats of 'No story tonight,' 'No cartoons on Saturday,' or 'The bunny dies.'"

Not that Mellor doesn't endorse reward systems. (After all, with the help of "Our Little Tot's First Martini Recipe," your kids may be delivering rewards beyond your wildest dreams. We remind you: "Child Labor: Not Just for the Third World!") Indeed, when it comes to businesslike administration of the carrot, she unveils some cheap psychological tricks of her own. These are times, for instance, of runaway Tooth Fairy inflation, when even in kindergarten children of divorce already score $10 a tooth at Mom's house, $20 at Dad's. To throw your own kids' math off, Mellor suggests, use fantastical—if low-value—coinage such as golden Sacagawea and silver Susan B. Anthony dollars.

Oversized Eisenhower silver dollars are particularly impressive. When your six-year-old finds one under the pillow, say that the preternatural looking bald man on the coin is the king of the elvish peoples.

Even more frugal, astonishingly enough, is "Slacker Mom" Mead-Ferro, who practices such control over rampant familial consumerism that it's almost Zen. Defined less by what she does than what she does not, the Slacker Mom in her book, among other things, does not childproof, buy educational toys, make memory scrapbooks, pick superior preschools, drive her kids to a flurry of after-school lessons, or videotape athletic events—or even, particularly, show up at them. An early "aha" moment came for Mead-Ferro when she contemplated yet another "to-do" for her unborn child: playing Mozart on headphones stretched over her belly. It struck her then that Einstein's mother had not done this, and he was quite bright. Was the Mozart in fact unnecessary? If so, wasn't almost everything else? Thinking back, Mead-Ferro recalls her own mother—the original Slacker Mom—entertaining her kids for the summer by saying simply, "Go outside." And in that moment a valuable lesson was taught.

My parents didn't expect us to be superkids. They expected us to be independent. A kid probably can't be both. To be a superkid, you've got to constantly have parents, club leaders, coaches, and instructors telling you what to do, when to do it, and how. You won't be able to think for yourself, or come up with something to occupy your time, or figure out how to go about it.

Of course, I think true Slacker Parents occasionally allow the television to babysit, and here is where Beth Teitell makes her most notable—and in this grouping, unique—contribution to the Slacker Parenting field. In her chapter "Mother's Little Helper" she brashly admits, "I let my kids watch TV. I don't just let my kids, I encourage it. I push it." But to little avail—starting at 5:30 A.M., her sons prefer much more stimulating and interactive pursuits, such as fighting over star characters in their Thomas the Train line and dental flossing while their mother is trying to ready herself in the bathroom. Finally, to her horror, they simply snap off the television ("the screen, once alive with joy and animation"). Teitell wonders: Is she the exception in letting her kids watch TV (an alternative book title she considered was The World's Worst Mother Comes Clean), or is she the norm? She recalls a day at the park when a boy who, his mother proudly claimed, watched no TV suddenly broke into the Bob the Builder theme, of which he mysteriously knew every word. (The mom covered with "He must have seen it at a friend's house.") Says Teitell's one friend who does admit that she lets her kids watch TV, "There's a lot of lying going on. It's like McDonald's shame. No one lets their kids eat at McDonald's, but—surprise! Everyone has enormous collections of Happy Meal toys."

But the most freeing confession comes in Mead-Ferro's chapter "Don't Make Me Mad," where she admits,

I get mad at my kids. And I holler at them … I try to make sure I apologize, but I didn't stop being emotional or fallible when I gave birth. Besides, I don't think getting mad is necessarily ineffective.

Eureka! Getting mad! A parenting technique so easy, so clear, so visual—it comes naturally, it utilizes a logic everyone can follow, and best of all, it teaches children an important life lesson. What? As Mead-Ferro explains,

One of the consequences of bad behavior is that it tends to make other people irate. So even if you don't have a better reason to be good, you'd better not be too bad or you might really tick somebody off.

Another consequence of bad behavior, of course, is that you might get hurt—which Mead-Ferro argues is generally a lesson best learned, bruise by bruise, by children themselves. In her estimation, today's childproofing and child-protecting are excessive—the hot-water taps that deliver barely hot water, the bubble-wrapped coffee tables, the antibacterial soaps. These do little but reveal the underlying neuroses of parents inadvertently emulating puppeteer gods in a universe of only positive outcomes, from T-ball games rigged so that every child wins to magical guarantees that no one in the family will ever come to harm. She muses,

I do wonder if a lot of adults were at some point led to believe that someone else was supposed to be watching out for them. That if they've suffered an injury, or even illness, it must have been because of a fundamental breakdown in "the system," that someone should be held responsible for. In court, preferably. I always want to ask them what system they mean. The solar system?

Who, in short, are the real children? Adults whose first anxious thought, in the middle of a toddler's tantrum, is to control their own reactions? Adults whose Parenting with a capital P is a frantic, high-expectation, quasi-public test of selfhood in which they need to score all As? Rather than becoming the parent you want to be, what a relief now—perhaps, until the pendulum swings back again—to be able to just stagger through the day as the parent you are. Mellor writes,

Do you find that you get nervous when you see your child simply doing nothing, that your left eye starts twitching when you see him lying on his back staring up at the ceiling? Take a long, deep breath. Walk away. Maybe he is thinking. Perhaps he is composing a song, or a poem. He might be following the path of a tiny spider as it makes its way across the molding. He might be contemplating earwax and its many possible uses. It doesn't matter. Leave your child alone. Go find something to do.

In other words, "Go outside"—metaphorically if not literally. It was sound advice for us in the summers of our youth. And it's sound advice for those of us who are now parents ourselves. So, cocktails at five, anyone? I hear a pint-size staff already mixing (a superkid, after all, is one who can make a perfect Manhattan). We may as well drink and be merry. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and a performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media's Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.
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