The Mars and Venus of Parenting

Before we married our respective wives, Steve and I were bosom buddies. We were single Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with lots of points of view and friends in common. Today, we both have young boys, so we still share lots in common in our everyday lives.

However, as it turns out, we’re the Mars and Venus of parenting.

Steve’s boys swim on a club team and have numerous ribbons from competitions. My boys haven’t had a whiff of organized sports and don’t know how to swim. On the other hand, I make sure they play vigorously outside in our neighborhood every day.Steve is sending his six and four year-old boys to month-long foreign language immersion camps this summer. The only camp my five and 1-1/2 year-old boys are going to this summer is the neighborhood summer camp I ran in June, “Camp Yale.” Also, my boys have never attended one day of an academic class or camp. Ever.

These differences make for some awkward conversations. I like Steve a lot – I always have and I always will. However, what do I say when I hear about his boys’ swimming ribbons or their foreign language camps? “Great!” is about all I can say. Can I offer any similar accomplishments from my boys? Nope. Nada.

Should I explain that my boys don’t participate in these activities? No, because I would end up sounding preachy. I’d be saying, in effect, “My wife and I don’t believe that participating in activities like these is good for kids at this age.” In other words, I’d be saying, “We don’t think your parenting approach is best for kids.”

Saying that would alienate Steve, so I keep my mouth shut and smile.

I realize now that my wife’s and my choice of parenting style – centered around neighborhood play rather than organized activities outside the house or screen activities inside – has divided us from most of our friends who have kids. It’s akin to a profound religious difference. We can still be friends, but there’s no denying that we’re a bit more distant because we fundamentally disagree on an issue that is central to how we live our lives.

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8 Responses to The Mars and Venus of Parenting

  1. playborhoodhunter says:

    It is important that we recognize that in parenting there are no rights or wrongs – except when it comes to your own child. So, you are doing what is right for your child, and Steve is doing is not wrong for his.

    You send your kid to the backyard to count bugs, and Steve sends his to a language immersion class.

    You can ask what they do at these immersion classes, and what their child can now say in a different language. You can even revel in how quickly kids learn and how much without feeling that this was imposed learning on the child. Once you celebrate the childhood of their kid without looking at it from your parental prism, you will notice that Steve and his wife and his kid will be more interested in bug counting. They may even send their kid to your backyard to play, and the children may truly have a blast together.

    In the end, when your and Steve’s kids grow up, you hope that your child will be a balanced person – but not that your child will be a “more” balanced person than Steve’s.

    It took me some time to see things that way, to accept other’s parenting method without being judgemental, to accept that the discomfort was mine and not theirs or the kids’.

  2. Anonymous says:

    While I’m generally supportive of your less-structured approach to child-rearing, there are some cases where I think that avoiding structure as much as you’re doing might perhaps be going a bit far. In particular, while it is just fine that your kids are not winning swimming ribbons, having taken enough swimming lessons that they are able to swim and play safely in the water is an example of something where a certain amount of structured activities can actually create the possibilities for more freedom in a child’s life.

    For contrast, imagine a parallel construction:

    “Steve’s boys race bikes on a club team and have numerous ribbons from competitions. My boys … don’t know how to ride a bike.”

    I think you would agree that while the children who are bike racers may be missing the ability to just ride around the neighborhood on their own, so too are the ones who haven’t learned how to ride. Sure, they can go on scooters, but you can get much farther and faster on a bike.

    Riding bikes and swimming are different, of course, but while it is easier to learn to ride on your own without risk of much more than scrapes, that doesn’t mean that taking swimming lessons and learning to swim well isn’t every bit as important, perhaps even more so.

  3. Mike Lanza says:

    Alex – Neither Steve’s family nor mine lives anywhere near a lake or a beach. The closest pools are not within independent roaming distance for kids. However, both families have driveways attached to very calm streets.

    Thus, for an independent child’s life, riding a bike is far, far more important than swimming. It’s not even close.

  4. Virginia Balogh-Rosenthal says:

    Living in Manhattan in the late 60s/early 70s, l would walk by myself to and from the local public school three blocks away starting in second grade. By the time I reached fourth or fifth grade, I was allowed to also cross First Avenue to head to the park to use the swings, slides, monkey bars, or play Hopskotch, Knock Hockey, or Scully. Or we would head back to the schoolyard (after we changed from school clothes) to roller skate or play ball with our friends. So we had plenty of opportunity for independent unstructured play.

    My younger siblings and I did, however, do gymnastics at the local Sokol (Czech athletic organization) twice a week and attended the peer groups at Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association after school once a week. My mother didn’t work and we didn’t have much money but my parents felt these activities were important in addition to all the freedom we had.

  5. Noël H. says:

    They need not be mutually exclusive philosophies. My boys (4 and 6) have been at a full time immersion int’l school since age 3, but every day for hours after school and during breaks and summer they are completely unstructured. Lots of make-up games, biking, fishing, critter collecting… No camps or organized sports, only violin for the older child at his request – go figure. I guess we are either the middle ground or conflicting extremes.

    I did hire a swim instructor for the boys last summer. We swim daily and live near lakes which both of my boys have already fallen into. Being able to swim is a necessity here (Houston) and it’s a critical life skill to master (my 19 yo nephew drowned three years ago.) My husband grew up in the Pacific Northwest swimming infrequently and never having lessons and he regrets it. Some things (such as languages and swimming) really do benefit from an early start for mastery. I tried teaching the boys myself but they were far more receptive to a cool 17 year old dude.

    Best of luck to you Mike – I found your blog through the Free Range link. I admire what you’re doing. I know at times it may seem alienating from friends who have a different approach, but it needn’t be so. The first poster articulated it very well, that it isn’t about whose approach is the better one, and it isn’t much different from other parenting differences (organic v. conventional, vegetarian v. omnivore, strict v. permissive… ) Just do what you think is best for your family and keep an open mind. Cheers!

  6. Marion says:

    This is a wonderful topic, and cheers to all the parents out there who love their kids and want to raise confident, effective, well balanced individuals.

    I feel very fortunate to live on a short two block cul de sac with 21 kids ages 6 and under! Most of the families are in and out of each others kitchens and yards all the time, with an enormous amount of unstructured outdoor play.

    On the other hand, I started my kids swimming (3 and 5 years old), and have seen the most astonishing boost in their self esteem. I never would have believed it would make such a difference! The pride my 5 year old daughter felt when the instructor picked her up and tossed her by surprise into the pool, just to see her swim confidently to the edge and get out, brought tears to my eyes. It has made a difference in every aspect of her life, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

    I truly believe there is a time and place for all of the various activities that we can engage our children in. I was raised in a house where the rule of thumb was that we each chose a musical instrument to learn, and one sport to play, and had no other lessons and a lot of unstructured play. We could always change instruments or sports, but the emphasis was on the health and joy these activities could bring to our lives.

    I love to see my children thrive, and think that what you are doing in your front yard is wonderful. I agree with the above, that a sincere warmth and respect can exist between parents of wildly different styles. At the end of the day, we all parent to our strengths and beliefs, and that seems to count for more than any structure or lack thereof.

  7. lr_khaimovich says:

    This post became longer than I anticipated. Hope you will read to its end.

    I believe that if you are REALLY good friends and even if you just REALLY respect each other, discussing your differences in opinions will be received as useful and helpful for arriving at a better point of view. Saying “I respect your view, but still I disagree with it” when dropping the topic forever, actually indicates lack of real respect.

    I am really happy that Alex Dupuy in his comment above disagrees with you and explains why. This is a sign of deep respect, I believe.

    Speaking about my position, I think that unless some skills are really necessary, it’s better if children pick them up from each other (I can explain why). Actually, if there is a vital skill and children are not learning it naturally from each other, it’s a symptom that something has screwed up in the society. Maybe additionally to hiring a pro to teach your child that skill, you should try to figure out why it’s not happening naturally.

    Yes, Mike what you are doing does require much more energy and effort than sticking one’s children into a market-driven machinery, which efficiently spits out shiny cogs as its outcome. Yes, it’s more difficult to focus energy on an uncertain task of creating far-from-perfect though maybe more human creatures than on making the shiniest cog possible. Especially when one knows that there is already a place and need for polished cogs to keep the machinery, which creates them, going. And when one sees that the civil society, which needs other kind of humans to function well, is already in shambles.

    So, first, not everybody has enough energy, resources, and determination to do what you are doing, and those people who deeply inside agree with you may not want to see it clearly, because it would be painful. Many people are very tired and stressed out already to the breaking point.

    Second, discussions about the parenting styles will bring out a topic of the future development of our society as a part of more and more interwoven humankind. It’s quite a complex topic. How many of us can say that they know where we will be as a society in 25-100 years? But depending on what kind of world it will be then, people with some skills and abilities will be better prepared for it than others. To make things even more interesting we should consider not only an issue of fit into the future society but also of an ability to bring up children (it means, our grandchildren), who will be harmoniously living in their thriving society 50-125 years from now. And so on… No surprise that this kind of discussion will easily lead to religious and other universal values and deeply held beliefs – not something we know how to discuss even with pretty good friends.

    Finally, there is a place for radiant cogs and their opposite in any society and at any point of time. Yet the ratio of the two is changing. Also, there is an infinite number of shades between these two ends of the spectrum. These ideas were developed in terms of Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft by Ferdinand Tönnies and Organic vs. Mechanical solidarity by Emile Durkheim. So, maybe both you and Steve are complementary rather than the same. And the same bond may keep your children together. And maybe there is a place somewhere for my children…

  8. Mike Lanza says:

    lr_khaimovich – Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. Your reference to polished and unpolished cogs reminds me of a vital topic that I keep intending to write about: the need for real pluralism is kids’ lives. I believe that they should have relationships with all sorts of people on a daily basis. That’s one of the promises of the idealized public education. Unfortunately, as is documented in the book, The Big Sort, our society seems to be polarizing more and more, so that we only end up associating with people like us.

    Having said this, it still is very important to me that I find and associate with other parents who have a similar philosophy of parenting because the problems of this blog – the lack of neighborhood play, lack of responsibility among youth, lack of autonomy, etc. – are *social*, not individual problems. In other words, my kids’ ability to live their lives according to the principles I believe in depends on their being able to find many other kids who live the same way. One kid who believes in neighborhood play won’t be able to practice it if no one on his block is a believer. It’s pretty difficult to be a responsible kid if everyone else is irresponsible. Soooo, we do need to have some decent proportion of like-minded families around to be able to live the way we believe we should. It’s the same reason why Jews would rather live in New York or LA than in Dallas.