The Parenting Trap

It's that time of the year. Father's Day is around the corner and adoring children are everywhere, singing praises of their devoted sires in sappy commercials, feel-good articles, and Hallmark cards. We love our parents, right?

Not really.

Hectored by experts, bullied by the media, and disdained by their own children, American parents have it pretty rough these days. First there is the deluge of bad publicity. Each day brings fresh evidence of parental incompetence, ignorance or just plain abuse. Bad parenting is the favored cause du jour for the gamut of social ills that afflict modern life, be it obesity, violence, falling test scores, sexual dysfunction or depression.

Breeders can't get a damn thing right -- even with an army of experts doing their best to help them do just that. Hey, you, fumbling with the stroller! Always talk to your children, and only in the right way and at the right time. Remember, build, build, build their self-esteem! No guilt, fear, or shame allowed. And while you're at it, make sure the kids have the right kind of toys, friends, food, entertainment, values, clothes, education and, let's not forget, therapist, in order to become confident Ivy Leaguers who make lots of money, find true love and maybe self-enlightenment.

Sure you'll spend the bulk of your life riddled with anxiety and exhaustion, but it will all be worth it one day. The day when your all-grown-up daughter wearily rolls her eyes, and declares to a roomful of her peers in theatrical dismay, "God! My parents are coming to town!" In our child-obsessed culture, there is nothing more uncool than parents -- and the kids know it. Apart from Hollywood's sentimentalized images of selfless martyrs and doting onlookers, parents are mostly dismissed as boring, tiresome, and at times loathsome creatures who must be tolerated by their long-suffering progeny.**

Blaming your parents is the great national pasttime. Hate your body? Mommy wanted to be a beauty queen. Killed your co-workers? Daddy had control issues. Dropped out of school? Parents didn't make it to your play. Any confession of misdoing is usually accompanied by a long litany of childhood woes: "I didn't do it. My parents made me." Stories of personal triumph also include at least one indifferent-absent-cruel parent playing the bad guy. Parents are always the primary villains in the repetitive saga of familial dysfunction that is now de rigeur for both sleazy talk shows and high-brow literature. "The Corrections" is just the most recent example of erudite parent-bashing. Sure the kids are pathetic, but whom does the reader blame except the emotionally crippled Alfred and Enid.

American culture is exceptional not in its neurotic focus on children -- common enough in other parts of the world -- but its complete lack of respect for parents. The loud, public cheerleading that passes for "family values" -- and approaches a roar around Father's and Mother's Day -- is aimed at the job of raising kids, not at the people who actually do it. It makes for an unusual and schizophrenic combination.

According to a recent spate of books, disregard for parental intelligence was a defining feature of the 20th century. "Anxious Parents" by Peter Stearns reveals a Century of the Child marked not just by an excessive concern for children, but also an increasing distrust of the parent's ability to ensure their well-being. The more valorized our image of childhood as innocent and "fragile," greater the sense of parental ineptitude. With each passing decade, the ideal of the Good Parent grew more formidable, driven mainly by consumerism and advances in human knowledge.

Raised in this climate of perfectionism, it is inevitable that as children we've learned to judge our parents by these punitive standards – and find them lacking. And due to the meteoric success of psychotherapy, certain precepts of the field have been distorted, internalized and become basic modes of thinking. Stearns writes, "If childhood was simultaneously flawed and causal, parents bore a huge responsibility for outcomes. Americans were distinctive, by mid-century, in their willingness to attribute personal problems to parental mishandling."

While the profession of psychotherapy has moved toward more complex frameworks of understanding, popular culture continues to view parental blame as integral to the process of self-discovery and self- fulfillment, the touchstones of the collective American psyche. Whatever genuine affection and respect we may feel for our parents, we live in a "therapy culture" that encourages us to meticulously document their shortcomings.

Today, research on the intricacies of the human brain has merely added to the increasing pressure to "do no harm." Turn on the TV and there is an extended segment on not-so-talkative mothers who can damage their baby's language skills. A recent article in Science warns against the effects of modern life -- the combined din of traffic, the vacuum cleaner and lawn mower -- on a child's hearing ability. Thanks to the field of neuroscience, our children will have a whole new set of reasons to blame us for their failings, imagined or otherwise.

Apart from the pseudo-scientific blamemongering, let's not forget the adolescent whining that is a staple element of everday social interaction. There are the seasonal displays of gloom, more befitting a teenager, that accompany the prospect of a Thanksgiving or Christmas visit home. And then there's good old-fashioned party conversation.

"My mother's so awful!" announces a young woman at an awards party, as she launches into an elaborate tale of maternal misconduct (which primarily consisted of an off-hand remark about her career). The audience of relative strangers murmurs in sympathy, offering commiserative tales from the parental dark side. Make that a story about a spouse and we would have stared at the ground in awkward silence. Bitching about your parents is not just acceptable but "normal" in polite society.

Going by accepted notions of filial attitude, it's the parents who impose a burden on their kids -- leaving it unclear as to exactly who in this relationship sacrifices sleep, leisure, resources, and a bulk of their lifetime for the other. "American kids think, 'Well, they chose to bring us into this world,'" says a colleague in amused response to my irritation. It explains why as a culture, we regard the idea of filial appreciation, leave alone gratitude, as absurd. Don't be a burden on your children, warn the insurance ads. Parents, on the other hand, are expected to give continual thanks for their child's very existence. Doesn't he give meaning to their sad, empty lives? Besides, lack of appreciation would hurt little Johnny's self-esteem. Bad parents!

Unfortunately, this routine condemnation also has a serious downside for the children. Like the generations before us, many of my Gen-X peers will have to live up to the exacting standards we use to dismiss our inept, bumbling parents. Not only are we fixated on not repeating their mistakes -- especially as parents -- but now fear the prospect of raising kids exactly like us.

Mummy Lit, the hottest genre in publishing last year, is filled with thirty- somethings terrified of being judged by their children. In "A Life's Work," Rachel Cusk frets over her 1-year-old daughter: "I forgot that she would one day spring to life, would one day walk and talk and tell me what she thought of me. I wonder if I offended her with my reluctance, my fury. I wonder if I tormented her. I hope I have been good, like Cinderella, when it was hard to be; not like the ugly sisters with their big feet and horny toes, whom retribution has unforgiving in their sights ... " In each decision to bake a cookie, walk out the house, pick a birthday present lurks the prospect of filial censure. We truly can never do enough for our children.

It's no wonder that wannabe parents like me contemplate our future with such wavering resolve! After decades spent in pursuing nothing less than sainthood, we face the prospect of sulky, resentful offspring who we hope will find it in their heart to forgive us for not getting it exactly right. Contrary to what Sylvia Ann Hewlitt and her ilk may claim, the truly remarkable social trend in our parent-bashing culture is not that we postpone having kids. It's a miracle we have them at all.


** Popular American culture that I discuss in this article reflects white, middle class notions of parenting and attitudes toward parents. Ideas about parent-child relationships vary among black, Latino, or Asian communities and are mostly absent in mainstream debates over parenting.


Lakshmi Chaudhry is a senior editor of AlterNet.

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