Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they discuss Frank Bruni's recent New York Times column about parenting. Part one of the discussion is below; part two is here.
As someone who writes frequently about parenting, I'm accustomed to saying stupid things all the time. There's just something about being a parent that shifts you into that territory of thinking you know best when, really, you don't know anything at all. Maybe it's because, from the moment we become parents, we must attempt to speak with authority—arbitrary, undeserved authority—to the frail, gullible, resentful creatures who have the misfortune to be our children, and this causes us to believe we can pull the same trick on our slightly more grown-up peers. You know what? I might be saying something stupid right now (or maybe I'm just about to).
Recently, however, I learned that saying stupid things about parenting is not the sole province of those of us who are actual parents. Frank Bruni—whose food writing I still absolutely love and respect—wrotea memorably stupid opinion piece in the New York Times the other day, premised on the idea that, although he himself does not have children, his status as uncle to many nieces and nephews gives him special insight into the ways of modern child-rearing—"a valuable distance and objectivity."
This I actually have no quibble with. Having a child does not make you an expert on parenting. Raising a child for years—decades, even!—does not make you an expert on parenting. It is entirely possible that a non-parent could have sharp observations about child-rearing that many parents could truly learn from.
Alas, that is not the column Bruni wrote. Instead, over the course of 1,285 words, he rails at straw dads and straw moms, describing clichéd scenarios—a parent threatening "seven or eight" last chances, a discussion of child eating habits "within earshot of little Edwin or Edwina"—that, while certainly plausible, don't quite have the ring of truth. Not once does Bruni relate an actual scene he witnessed, with named (or even pseudonymic) participants. Perhaps he didn't want to offend the parents of his "11 actual nieces and nephews" by directly criticizing their behavior. If so, totally understandable! But then, why write the column at all? It's the equivalent of putting together a feature news story based entirely on anonymous sources interviewed solely by phone—surely something the newsman Bruni would never do.
Bruni's point, however, is that he's "confounded by the boundless fretting, as if ushering kids into adulthood were some newfangled sorcery dependent on a slew of child-rearing books and a bevy of child-rearing blogs." Why, he asks, do parents run themselves ragged trying to find and follow new philosophies when, in the end, nature will take its course and the kids will turn out as they will?
To answer that question, let me give you (and him, if he ever reads this) an actual story from my not-so-distant past. My daughter Sasha, now 4, was then 2, and one evening it came time to brush her teeth. Sasha, however, did not want her teeth brushed, and refused to open her mouth. The more I insisted, the more she refused, until at last I was yelling, and she was crying—with her mouth wide open. As the tears poured forth, I brushed her goddamn little teeth, and as I brushed I realized I had a solution: All I had to do, tomorrow night and the next night and every night after that, was make Sasha cry, and then I could brush her teeth unhindered.
This is the point at which I, like many parents, asked myself: Surely there's a better way? For the next 16-plus years, I'm going to be responsible for this fucking kid—in a way no aunt or uncle, actual or unofficial, ever will—and I'm going to have to make her cry so that her teeth won't fall out. What am I doing wrong? Who, if anyone, can help?
To Bruni, however, something else (and more clichéd) is at work here: "As the Me Generation spawned generations of mini-me's, our rigorous self-fascination expanded to include the whole brood and philosophies about its proper care and feeding."
This sounds nice (Me Generation + mini-mes = OMG!), and it hits all our contemporary cultural buttons, but it's also dead wrong, as Bruni would have known had he done, say, any research at all. In fact (okay, "as I understand it"), the American mode of parental fretting goes back not a generation but at least a century, to times when industrialization, the shift from rural life to urban life, and new waves of migration and immigration were upending traditional approaches to child-rearing. And into that void stepped doctors, psychologists, scientists, politicians, quacks, and writers, who offered advice of every stripe to worried moms and dads. Books such as Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children and Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America go into this in depth.
Or at least I think they do. I haven't read either one, although I vaguely remember reading a long essay (maybe in The New Yorker?) that discussed them some years back. Like Bruni here, I'm being lazy, willing to stay superficial because, well, that way I can make the point I feel like making, rather than trying to address reality in all its long and confounding complexity.
Perhaps the most confounding thing about Bruni's article is that, in the end, he makes an absolutely valid point (and by "valid," I mean "a point I agree with"). Which is: You can't really do that much about how your kids will turn out, so "cut yourself some slack." Don't worry too much. Embrace your powerlessness. Skip the tooth-brushing for a night or two—those baby teeth are going to fall out anyway, right?
Or, in the words of a sage who makes both Bruni and myself look like the idiots we are: "It just doesn't matter." Now there's a parenting philosophy I can really get behind.