Recently B.J. Novak published a book of short stories. One of the stories is called "Constructive Criticism," and features a 10-year old construction enthusiast (Don Jr.) who goes with his father (Don Sr.) to his worksite. The boy casts a skeptical eye over his father's construction choices and completely dismantles his self-esteem. As they leave, his father turns to him saying, "Hey, I thought you said, 'constructive criticism." The joke here is that Don Jr. has been engaging in "construction criticism," offering up advice that is too little too late. The building is already complete and his words end up being only hurtful to his father. I open with this story because I want to suggest in this post that is natural for us to think about the things we are interested in. If we are interested in parenting, we are going to be naturally attentive to what other parents are doing. It is natural that we will notice and think about what they are doing. However, must this attention result in the kind of criticism I suggested earlier? If we lived in a culture where competitive parenting wasn't the order of the day, would this impulse play out differently?
For the final part of this post, I want to think about the potentially positive outcomes of parental criticism. Maybe we need a different word besides criticism.) Perhaps we should stick with the Greek krinein - to seperate, to divide. Or perhaps we should simply just call it "parental attentiveness." What we do when we watch other parents is very important - but that doesn't mean that we are superior to them in any way, but rather that we are learning from that. For that, I suspect, we should be thankful instead of snippy.
It is easy to berate other people for berating other people. And yes, it is uncomfortable to hear other people call you things like helicopter parents (sigh). It is easy to dismiss them as inconsiderate. But in reality, we do need others to help us see ourselves. We cannot dismiss other's opinions or assessments of us so easily. In Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, Adriana Cavarero opens with by examining Karen Blixen's "The Roads of Life." Cavarero recounts her tale - of a man wandering helplessly at night only to discover in the morning what his wandering had produced.
Blixen uses this tale to describe the trails of life, the "ups and downs" as she says. Cavarero, however, uses the story to suggest that we cannot see the patterns of our own lives. She argues that we all crave and desire having a story of our own, but that the story is only possible because we are connected to each other. Moreover, she argues this in terms of childbirth being the moment when someone else starts telling us our story - our mothers.
Cavarero is not the first to suggest the importance of others in being able to fill in our blind spots. (Bakhtin, also not the first, is one of my favorites.) This is the final concept that I want to consider in parental critiques. The fact is that we need others help - not simply practically - but in the creation of our own stories. I opened with the idea that my parenting sometimes has felt like a child with an art project who badly wants to be seen and affirmed.
Competitive parenting results in highly private, highly perfectionism-driven parenting. Instead of working together to help other people see their weaknesses, criticism has become a blind and silent dagger. We simply disapprove of each other.
In the case of the friend-parent, however, what if parents are not deficient but attempting to bravely navigate the murky waters of authority and power? What if they are being far more courageous than we could ever imagine?
Our attitudes toward that criticism don't seem to help. (See right.) Other people's vision of our parenting could undoubtedly help us as parents, however, we dislike this notion immensely. Again, our sense of self-importance in this culture is derived from being self-sufficient individuals - which prevents feedback from being acceptable. So in the end, we have a culture that criticizes parents - at the same time we are taught to rejects all criticism and prize only our own opinion of ourselves. It is a difficult tension. We are expected as parents to have mastered something we cannot master alone.
The ironic part, of course, is that this is often EXACTLY the opposite of what we attempt to teach our children. We generally try to teach our children to accept their faults, to not cry and make a scene when they make a mistake. To get over it. Quickly if possible. Does our parental expectations follow this same model? Do we allow ourselves what we allow our children - mercy? Moreover, do we enact the same bravery we ask our children to have on a daily basis? Do we allow ourselves to learn from others, to admit our mistakes?