Six months ago, I had dinner with a friend who told me that their brother (not a parent) had, in hushed whispers, called me a helicopter parent. Slightly hurt, I called my mom the next day to talk it out. "Am I REALLY a helicopter parent?" She - never one to mince words - affirmed that I *had* been a touch too close at the outset, but had made some important adjustments and assured me I was doing just fine.
This whole thing makes me laugh - including my (still slightly) hurt feelings. Many times, I feel like my parenting borders on something like a four year old painting; certainly I enjoy the challenge and the messy fun, but in the end, I really do want to hold up my piece of paper and have someone come running and say, "It's lovely!"
**Note: I will talk about this impulse in a later post about Dr. Montessori and self-affirmation.**
It is in this spirit that I attempt to consider our culture of competitive parenting, where critiquing other parents is commonplace. I do so recognizing that my parenting has had a strange relationship to my need for affirmation (particularly the need to be a good woman), a journey I've been on for several years. All that aside, I want to think about potential strengths and weaknesses of parental critique amongst peers. What does this spirit of critique do? How does it interact with the fullness of parenting - and the individual contexts out of which we parent? Are there possible positive outcomes of our guttural reactions to be critical of people's parenting? (Could our concern with others be a source of upbuilding rather than destruction?)
In order to attempt to address these questions, I'm going to start with a specific example. In this post I will discuss the category of the "friend-parent." Of all the nasty whispers about other people's parenting I've heard, many of them have been about permissive parents; a parent who gives in to their child's desires or demands too easily. A "friend-parent" is considered inferior for not dealing with hard bits of parenting. They may be seen as lacking discipline and attention to safety, or neglecting to consideration future consequences. I hear this idea flung around often where one parent in a couple (married or divorced) is concerned a junior parent and derided as being "fun". I also hear it about parents (particularly mothers) who are described as "too soft."
I find this language troubling (and not just as someone who tends toward a snuggle-it-out kind of parenting). What I find troubling is the tendency to simplify other people's parenting and to give side-ways feedback (non-constructive criticism). Because parenting is understood as competitive and independent, we're supposed to be able to parent without the help of others. I suspect the proclivity to think of and discuss parenting in categories, and even dichotomies, is a result of this problematic parental isolation. Take for example the dichotomy between the cold or strict parent (the tiger mom) and the overly attentive parent (the attachment guru). We talk as if a parent was simply "strict" or "caring" - as if parents fit neatly into categories. In short, we imagine our own parenting as a neat, isolated, individual thing. It is what we alone do. No wonder we think simplistically about the dimensions of other people's parenting! We talk as if subscribing to one particular ideology explains what we are doing when we parent. (And as if we as parents consistently respond in one way.) In short, ignoring the dynamic, fluid exchange that happens in live relationships.
One could say that they subscribe to "the breathing approach" to living and disagree with the "heartbeat approach." It would not change the fact that breathing, pumping blood, eating, etc. are all necessary for life. In the same way, saying that we believe in attachment parenting doesn't change the fact that parenting is living organisms in contact with each other. It is a live, fluid process and - very often - parenting choices are driven by problem solving around real situations for real children.
Most parents resonate with a variety of theories and ideas, try a variety of methods, and vacillate between tactics. In light of this, discussing other parents with simplicity as a "type" of parent is misleading (and probably inconsiderate at best). More than that, it problematically frames the full responsibilities of parenting - safety, nurturance, and socialization - at odds with each other. Just as we need to breathe and pump blood and eat to stay alive, so too a myriad of "approaches" are necessary for parenting in the flesh.