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Thoughtful Parenting

The thinking dad

Unexamined parenting is not worth inflicting.

There is a line, often quoted, that says something to the effect that parents only become good at their job about the time their kids have grown up.  Put another way, by the time they have become experienced, they are unemployed.  Moreover, I don’t think it matters whether we have one child or ten.  With each child we add another variable to the equation, and we always commit a few rounding errors in solving the problem.  Because we learn through trial and error, we cannot help but gain wisdom at the expense of our children.  This, it seems to me, is a therapist’s basic business model, and the prevalence of psychologists today speaks to the model’s value.

I once raised this idea with a therapist friend.  Specifically, I asked him how he responded to his children (all mostly raised) when they complained about the way he had raised them.  He said, “I tell them exactly what I tell my patients to tell their own children.”  Which was?  “The average parent might make as many as a thousand decisions each day affecting his or her children’s lives—from the trivial to the monumental,” he explained.  “It would be an unprecedented feat in human history to get every decision right.”   So when his children complained anyway?  “I tell them they are right.  I got some things wrong.  But I got a lot of things right.”

Coincidentally, I met a different therapist about the same time.  The second therapist worked at a big university in child psychology.  He had one son who had just started at a prestigious college and his father told me of the various ways he had prepared his son for success.  He had a variety of games that taught him perfect recall.  He had a few techniques that made him a stellar writer.  When the boy became a teenager, the father introduced him to various drugs and alcohol in their home, within the family, so as to take the glamour out of these things.  My own sons had just entered the world, and I felt like I should commit as much to memory as this man offered.

Well, you can probably guess how things turned out.  I got to know the son a little better, and the kid was a giant mess.  He had become a closet alcoholic as a way to deal with the pressure of the massive expectations resting upon him.  He was probably bulimic (which he hid by joining the wrestling team).  When I found myself in a heart-to-heart with him over his latest self-destructive act, I started to say “you should consider therapy” when I realized how silly it would sound.  He had already been the ultimately therapeutic project, subject to the best psychological engineering around.  What he needed was normalcy and space.  He needed a lot less parenting.

And therein lies the rub.  We want to parent perfectly, but too much perfection and we destroy our child.  In some ways, I suppose, this should come as no surprise.  Just about all aspects of human health reside within this paradox: too much food and we’re obese, too little and we starve; too much strain and our muscles tear, too little and they atrophy; too much attention lavished on our loved ones and we smother them, too little and they feel neglected.  We are condemned to a never-ending process of adjustment and readjustment as parents.

So, thoughtful parenting means balancing, on the one hand, Bill Cosby’s idea that “in spite of the six thousand manuals…. child raising is still a dark continent and no one really knows anything” with the equally important thought expressed by Rabbi Kassel Abelson, that, “the Hebrew word for parents is horim, and it comes from the same root as moreh, teacher.”  In short, “the parent is, and remains, the first and most important teacher that the child will have.”

One Response to “Thoughtful Parenting”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by My Baby Radio, Lisa Smith and Joshua Schlinsky, FunctionalFather. FunctionalFather said: Thoughtful Parenting http://bit.ly/4tnurK via @AddToAny [...]

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