Let Them Run Free: Why It’s Harder Than Ever To Be A Parent Today
Is our obsession with being perfect parents hurting us – and our kids?
While I was out for a run in the park the other day, I noticed something odd. Or actually, I noticed something actually not that odd in today’s world, but which suddenly struck me as strange. Every parent I jogged past was staring at a smartphone. Some were pushing toddlers in strollers, some had babies strapped to them in front-carriers, and all of them had their eyes glued to screens as they walked.
My kids’ father (and my ex-husband) has often said he thinks the reason our daughters were hyper-verbal at a very young age is because I talked to them so much when they were babies. I’d pop them in a sling and head out for a long walk, trying to sweat off the sixty pounds I put on with each of my pregnancies, chatting away the entire time. I knew they couldn’t understand me, which meant I could say whatever I wanted. (Honestly, those one-sided conversations weren’t so different from the ones I have with my current therapist, lying on his couch while he “mmm-hmmms” behind me.)
I never really bought my ex’s theory crediting my talking to our babies being behind their advanced vocabularies. I think their precocity is probably more a matter of genetics and luck. But I have often been grateful that our girls were born before smartphones were ubiquitous. (I didn’t even have a mobile phone until our oldest was two – and then, it was just a dinky little flip phone.) And seeing those parents on their phones in the park really made me aware of how extremely lucky I feel not to have had an iPhone when they were babies. Because if I’d had one, I’m pretty sure I’d have been glued to it, rather than my babies’ sweet faces, most of the time. And what kind of parent would I have been then?
If it sounds like I’m saying I’m a better parent because I paid more attention to my babies than today’s smartphone-addicted parents do to theirs, I’m not. I just wonder if I was a different kind of parent back then than I would be now, when I’m fully addicted to my phone, just like everyone else.
When my girls were in elementary school and I finally did get an iPhone, I quickly got into the habit of checking it approximately 37,000 times a day. (Okay, that’s perhaps a slight exaggeration: a study from Deloitte found that the average person looks at her phone 47 times in a 24-hour-period.) That glowing rectangle might as well have been glued to my hand. My daughter once fantasized about throwing my phone on the subway tracks when she realized I hadn’t heard a word of the story she’d been telling me about her day at school. I’m just as addicted to my phone as the next parent.
On Twitter recently, a writer who just gave birth to her second child wondered how people managed to breastfeed before smartphones. I thought about all the books I read during the years I nursed my girls. They got used to having a book balanced on their head while they ate, and I rediscovered my love of reading, which had waned during my college years. If I’d had a smartphone, would I have read any of those books? Or would I have spent those hours scrolling Twitter, playing Words With Friends, or – more likely – obsessively reading about child development and parenting theories?
Once my daughters were old enough to go places without me, I insisted they have iPhones. Some of my friends said they’d never give their kids smartphones, smugly declaring that they’d wait as long as possible to give them a phone at all, and that even then it would only be a flip phone. (And also – no social media! To which I say, whatever.) But I wanted to be able to track my kids via GPS, be sure that they’d seen my messages and vice versa (the only acceptable use for read receipts, in my opinion), and know they could access navigation apps if (when!) they got lost.
Just like the mom marveling that people breastfed before smartphones, I now wonder how people ever allowed their kids out of the house alone before they had the ability to GPS their location. But what is it doing to us – and our children – to be so plugged in all the time?
From Spock to Sears
All this musing about screens and social media got me thinking about parenting, and parenting philosophies, in general. Smartphones aren’t the problem – at least, I don’t think so. The first problem is that we’re all so obsessed with being perfect parents, giving our kids the utmost advantages in life, and doing things the “right” way. The second problem is that “parent” has not only become a verb – it’s become a competitive sport. But unlike football, there’s no official rulebook for parenting. Or rather, there are many rule books, all of them offering conflicting advice. And maybe the biggest problem is that when it comes to parenting, it’s impossible to know if you’re winning or losing.
You’ve got to let your baby cry it out. If you don’t train infants to sleep alone in their rooms, they’ll never learn to sleep and will still be coming into your bed when they’re teenagers. Co-sleeping and carrying your baby in a sling 24/7 is the key to raising securely attached kids who will one day be more independent and better socially adjusted than their sleep-trained peers. Breast is best! Formula is just as good! Send your kids to the best private school you can afford. Send them to public schools, or be labeled an elitist snob. Homeschool! Unschool! (No joke, a “home-based radical vegan preschool” is apparently opening near me next month.)
It’s exhausting, listening to all the “experts” out there.
New parents often lament that newborns don’t come with an instruction manual. But in fact, when Dr. Benjamin Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946, that’s exactly what it became: a go-to guide that became the final authority on how to raise healthy, happy children. Pediatricians and parents alike relied on Dr. Spock’s wisdom, and his comforting approach (“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”) helped the book skyrocket to the top of the bestseller list. In volume of sales in the United States, it came in second only to the Bible.
In the years since the publication of Dr. Spock’s landmark book, many, many more books have come out, all vying to become the new bible of babyhood. One of them, Dr. William Sears, was my personal favorite. He and his wife Martha, a nurse and co-author of The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two, advocated keeping your baby close at all times: co-sleeping, babywearing, nursing on demand, child-led weaning. As it happened, these things felt natural to me, and I happily followed their tenets of “attachment parenting,” and my daughters thrived. I felt like I’d found the key to parenting perfection, and tried (often unsuccessfully) not to feel superior about the ease with which I navigated motherhood.
The world’s worst mom
Luckily, as my children have matured, so have I. Nearly 17 years into this motherhood gig, I finally understand that the line I always parroted – “different things work best for different families” – is 100 percent true. The trouble is, even with that in mind, most of us still mercilessly judge our fellow parents.
No one knows that better than Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free-Range Kids and president of the new non-profit Let Grow. Back in 2008, she wrote about letting her nine-year-old son ride the subway by himself in New York City and was promptly called the worst mother in America by the Today show, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR. (Her son, by the way, made the trip without incident.) Skenazy spun her notoriety into a book deal and a job hosting a reality TV show called, naturally,World’s Worst Mom. Last year Utah even passed a Free-Range Kids law.
I emailed Skenazy to find out if she thought parenting is harder now than it was in the Dr. Spock era, when it seemed like everyone was following the same rulebook. “The hardest part about parenting is that it has become such a spectator sport,” she told me. (At which point I guiltily recalled how I’d eyed those parents on their phones in the park, and felt complicit.) “So even if parents are doing the best they can – and of course, almost everyone is – there’s the worry that someone else is going to call them out for the non-organic grape, or the timeout, or the lack of a timeout.”
I have to admit, I’ve done my share of judging other parents. Maybe I didn’t call them out directly, but I’ve certainly done it in my head, and even made snide remarks in gossip sessions with my friends. (Although in my defense, the things I’ve said pale in comparison to some of the take-downs I’ve heard from other moms.) Why are we all so terrible?
My friend Hannah, a mom of three and therefore wiser than I am, says we judge each other so harshly to validate our own parenting choices (and perceived failings). “We want to reassure ourselves that we aren’t that bad. Like for example, we might think, ‘I would never give my kid all that junk food.’ A better attitude would be ‘that could totally be me giving my kids junk food.’ Because we all have our good moments and bad moments. We wouldn’t want others to judge us during our worst moments.”
And another thing, adds Hannah – “Who’s to say that what we are judging is even a bad moment? We shouldn’t judge other parents by our own rules and traditions, or pigeonhole them. When I let my kids have a treat or eat Halloween candy, am I therefore ‘the mom who gives her kids junk food?'” (I told you she was wiser than me.)
The illusion of control
Other than our propensity to judge our peers, what does Skenazy think makes being a parent so hard these days? She says it’s the idea that we can be in control of everything. “Technology has given us the ability to be aware of our kids’ every step, keystroke, text, test grade – even their blood oxygen level at any given moment,” she tells me. (No joke – there’s actually a product on the market that does that.) “We now have a kind of omniscience previously only available to God. But instead of this making us calmer, it ratchets up the anxiety. Why? Because it’s a lot of pressure to be God!”
This ability to be hypervigilant, says Skenazy, means that when something goes wrong, we blame ourselves – or the unfortunate person whose child got hurt (or worse). “Remember the baby in the gorilla cage incident?” she asks. She’s referring to the 2016 tragedy when a little boy fell into the gorilla pit at the Cincinnati Zoo, which resulted in the fatal shooting of Harambe, the gorilla who was either trying to drag the boy to safety, or who was attacking him, depending on who you ask. In any case, the court of public opinion was quick to blame the boy’s mother for not watching him closely enough.
Kimberley Ann Perkins O’Connor, who witnessed the incident, called it “a bad situation where a four-year-old didn’t have the attention of his mother for seconds.” Seconds. Have any other parents out there looked away from their toddler for a few seconds? Just me?
“There’s no room for sympathy when everyone assumes, ‘That would never have happened if you hadn’t dropped the ball!'” says Skenazy. “Only obsessive, 24/7 supervision is good enough.”
And here’s where I have to admit my habit of using my phone to track my daughters’ GPS locations rather, well, obsessively. They’re teenagers now, so I can’t hold their hands all the time, but I can check in to see where they are, watch their Snapchat stories, and text them anytime I feel a twinge of maternal dread. Skenazy thinks this might not be entirely healthy. “Back when my mom sent me off to walk to school in the morning, she didn’t spend the next seven hours worrying, ‘Oh my God, did she make it? I haven’t heard from her! Is she alive? Why didn’t she text?'” But of course, we couldn’t text back then. If they’d had the technology, I’m pretty sure our moms would have GPS’d us, too.
Navigating a brave new world
Still, Skenazy says technology isn’t doing us any favors. “All our new surveillance devices promise parents peace of mind, but they deliver the opposite. The ability to be constantly aware equals the ability to be constantly worried.”
And if parents are worried, how is that affecting our kids? Is all this confusion over the best way to parent totally screwing up the next generation? “I’d say the belief that our kids are in constant danger is what is having the greatest effect on our kids. Parents worry that anytime they give their kids any independence they will live to regret it. That leads to a hyper-supervised childhood, and that is making kids as anxious as their parents,” Skenazy tells me.
So what should we do? Throw out our phones? (Obviously not.) Throw out all the rule books? (Goodbye Dr. Spock, Dr. Sears, and the rest of you!) Ignore sanctimonious Internet commenters and stop judging each other? (Yes, probably.) Skenazy’s new venture, Let Grow, was founded to help parents navigate the current climate of overprotective parenting.
“Our goal is to make it easy and normal for parents to give their kids (and hence themselves) a little more freedom. We don’t have a rule book, but we do have some easy ways to roll back the idea that our kids are in constant danger.” Joining Let Grow is free, and by putting in their zip code, people can connect with likeminded parents for support, which, says Skenazy, “is the real thing all parents need! The best thing we can all possibly do is give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
Okay, so maybe I was judging those parents on their phones in the park the other day, just a little bit. But never again, I promise. At least, I’ll try. After all, isn’t that the most any of us can do?
Comment: Do you think being a parent today is more complicated than it used to be?