Model parents of today love their kids so much, they choose friends for them. They set up play dates for them. They coach their sports teams. They work in their schools. They plan myriad structured activities for them, and then they take them there.
This is how we define excellent parenthood in the 21st century. The more involvement in our kids’ lives, the better.
I’m a bit embarrassed to say my wife and I don’t want to do any of these things. Any. We don’t want to choose our kids’ friends, set up play dates, coach their sports teams, work in their schools, or drive them to tons of structured activities.
Does this mean we’re bad parents? Well, maybe, but not necessarily.
Our oldest is four, so we’re still trying to figure all this out. We haven’t yet encountered much of the parent peer pressure that afflicts elementary school parents.
We very much want our kids to have some measure of autonomy to decide what they do, with whom, and when. Of course, we want them to be safe and smart, but most importantly, we also want them to have a strong sense of who they are and what they can contribute to the world.
William Damon writes of the crisis of American children’s lack of a sense of identity in his recent book, The Path to Purpose. He describes today’s youth as being unusually lacking in a sense of purpose in their lives. “They report an inner life of anxiety and a sense of feeling trapped in a life that is not under their own control. They feel disappointed in themselves and discouraged by what life has offered them thus far. They despair at the emptiness and meaninglessness of their daily activities.”
Madeline Levine writes of the problems of alienation in current adolescents in The Price of Privilege. The book is devoted to discussing a swelling tide of adolescents who, “indulged, coddled, pressured and micromanaged on the outside, . . . appear to be inadvertently deprived of the opportunity to develop an inside.” Levine adds, “They lack spontaneity, creativity, enthusiasm and, most disturbingly, the capacity for pleasure.” Many end up very depressed, listless, or even suicidal.
Today, Levine writes that fewer and fewer adolescents
. . . are able to resist the constant pressure to excel. Between accelerated academic courses, multiple extracurricular activities, premature preparation for high school or college, special coaches and tutors engaged to wring the last bit of performance out of them, many kids find themselves scheduled to within an inch of their lives. . . As a result, kids can’t find the time, both literal and psychological, to linger in internal exploration; a necessary precursor to a well developed sense of self.
Wow… That’s a breathtakingly eloquent argument against the hyper-involved parenting approach that’s in vogue these days.
So, my wife and I have figured out what we don’t want to do, but that still begs the question, what do we do?
Well, our basic idea is to try to be facilitators for our children to find their own identities and achieve their highest potential while teaching some absolute guidelines for safety and morality.
As facilitators, we want to bring our children into challenging situations, model behavior for them, and then provide them with the opportunity to start doing parts of these things on their own. It’s important that we do this in our own neighborhood, so we can monitor and guide the process as we feel we need to.
I’ll give you an example. My son Marco just turned four, and practically every day he and I ride our bikes in our neighborhood. In a few short months he’s gotten very agile on a bike, and his judgment has improved tremendously.
He’s still a four-year-old, but his maturity on a bike is very impressive. He and I regularly cross El Camino Real (a large six-lane road) together, and my wife and I now let him ride the sidewalks and street in front of our house without our watching. We still check in frequently, but due to lots of maturing through experience, he’s proven to us that he can handle it.
In addition to riding with him, I spend a lot of time walking with him to neighbors houses for chats and impromptu play sessions. Because he’s become so comfortable in front of our house, we’ve encouraged him to go knock on our next-door-neighbors’ doors himself when he hits a ball into their yards and wants to retrieve it. So far, this has worked out quite well.
Finally, as I’ve written earlier, we’re working on making our front yard into an outdoor family room. The big idea here is that our kids will gain confidence and social skills as they entertain guests who come to their home turf without the invitation of parents.
So, we’re working hard for our kids, but we’re not doing the things that “model parents” around us are doing – choosing friends, setting up playdates, coaching their sports teams, working at their schools, or driving them to lots of structured activities. Instead, we’re trying to build a strong foundation in our neighborhood for our kids to develop their confidence and their own identities. Of course, since it’s right outside our front door, we can get involved anytime we feel we need to.
We’ll see how this works out, but thus far, we’re quite excited by the possibilities…