'Calm Down': The Best Advice for Parents, or the Worst?

Examining the CTFD school of child-rearing


Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they talk about a new philosophy that tells moms and dads to chill out.

Ross: Every so often, I get the sense that the world doesn't love me and my kids quite as much as we deserve. Walking the streets of Park Slope, Brooklyn, my son and daughter sprint-weaving in the vanguard, bowling over little old ladies, menacing small dogs, and visibly irking the hipsters who conspire with us married folks to drive up real estate prices, I suspect some people genuinely don't find us irresistibly cute. Just a feeling.

Another example. Earlier this summer, my wife, Tomoko, and I took the kids on an international flight to Japan, where her father lives. It's a long way to go with young ones, and at the last minute, Tomoko decided to upgrade our seats to business class. It was expensive, but we'd have ample legroom, and the chairs recline all the way back, like beds, so the children would be able to sleep. Made sense. Once onboard, though, the stylishly dressed Japanese businessman seated next to us immediately summoned a flight attendant and arranged to move. Again, just a feeling, but I think he didn't want to sit next to us.

I mention all this in the context of a story I came across on Jezebel last week called "The CTFD Method is the Greatest of All Parenting Trends," by David Vienna from the website, TheDaddyComplex. Here's a sampling of the wisdom:

●Worried your friend's child has mastered the alphabet quicker than your child? Calm the fuck down.

●Scared you're not imparting the wisdom your child will need to survive in school and beyond? Calm the fuck down.

●Concerned that you're not the type of parent you thought you'd be? Calm the fuck down.

●Upset that your child doesn't show interest in certain areas of learning? Calm the fuck down.

●Stressed that your child exhibits behavior in public you find embarrassing? Calm the fuck down.

What strikes me about Vienna's humorous take on parenting is how focused it is on externalities. The parent in need of the CTFD method wants young Johnny to learn the alphabet not because he's anxious about the child's intelligence per se--though there was that incident at nine months where he fell off the bed--but because he's concerned that some other budding Mensa at the daycare has already done so. Wisdom-imparting? Most parents don't feel they've failed in the Leave it to Beaver aspects of childrearing; no one believes in wisdom anymore, even parents, so there's nothing at which to fail. The concern comes from knowing that if your kids are unwise, or even foolish, everyone knows where to apportion the blame. That would be you.

CTFD, then, funny as it might be, has nothing to do with the actual concerns that roil parents' bellies in the middle of the night or when we check our bank balance. It's just that no one wants to look bad.

More seriously, though, the anxiety that Vienna skewers is real: a byproduct of the tension-filled life of America's YOYO (You're on your own) parenting world. It may take a village, but only if we're talking about one with barbed wire fencing encircling the huts, crappy afterschool care, astronomical college costs, and no one to mind the goats in the afternoon.

We parents worry, in short, because we understand that resources are limited. It isn't just ego or the pursuit of success through our offspring. It is the certainty that in an overcrowded classroom (28 in my son's first-grade class) only so many kids will be educated properly. If yours won't or can't hit the tenor notes on those ABCs, someone else's will.

The perturbation stems from the sense that no one will take care of your child but you. There is no help, no safety net, no community, and if these things ever existed, they don't today, at least not in the world in which we live. I know that I can depend on my direct relatives, the money my wife and I earn, my love for the children, and that's it. Faced with this apprehension, you shouldn't calm the fuck down. You should look both ways when you cross the street, and be afraid.

So, if, in the midst of all this agita, one of my children happens to bump you in the street, or if I seem nervous about their preschool or orthodontia or whatever laughably "breeder" thing I might be doing at any given moment, well, why don't you CTFD. Or just KMA. Or GFY. And I'll let you figure out what those stand for.

Gross: When I came home from work the other night, it was late, and the kids were already asleep. The older one, my wife, Jean, informed me, was sick: Sasha had complained of a headache at her preschool, and was running a slight fever. For a split second, I wondered if this meant she'd hit her head hard, or had contracted some fatal bacterium. But then that split-second passed, and I did what any responsible parent would do: I went to sleep.

Perhaps this was because it was after midnight, and I'd spent the last six hours at a rather, um, indulgent work party in the wilds of Brooklyn. But it was also because, in the four and a half years since Sasha was born, I've managed to completely internalize the CTFD philosophy. Kid fall down, go boom? Eh. Kid too shy to take the Gifted and Talented test? Whatever--we'll try next year. Kid throwing a tantrum in the restaurant/playground/subway/country club/volcano rim? Just ignore her--it'll end faster that way.

As CTFD makes the rounds as the latest liberal parenting philosophy, however, I can't help but notice that it bears conspicuous similarity to another, older, far-from-liberal parenting approach--that of the Distant Old-School Father.

This is how fathering was done way back when, right? Dad, in a prior incarnation, always stood back from the action, allowing disasters to unspool however they might. Knees were skinned, heads bonked, taunts delivered, and where was Dad? Involved in something else more pressing, like, I don't know, fixing a carburetor or consuming his third Scotch and soda of the morning. To Distant Old-School Father, the accidents and failures of his children were challenges they needed to overcome all on their own, without his having to helicopter in and help out--or, ideally, without his having to know about them at all.

Did Old-School Dad really have it right? Or rather, was his standoffish attitude worth the later-in-life wails of millions of Baby Boomers who were injured by his distance and inability to express emotions?

Well, maybe. Which is where we parents of today have an advantage: The trick now is to maintain Old-School Dad's nonchalance while simultaneously showing our progeny that we're ignoring them because we care, and not just because, Jesus Christ, can't you see I'm busy refreshing the new Digg RSS reader, hoping it will one day update as fast as the old Google one?

In fact, the more I accept this new-old philosophy, the manlier I feel. In fact, I'm beginning to wonder why I'm even spending so much time discussing the subject, when there are so many more important things I could be doing in the other room, like mixing a Manhattan or simply grunting. CTFD is a fine way to parent, but honestly, if I'm going to adhere to it properly, I have to say I don't give a damn how you parent. And besides, the game is on. We'll talk about this later.