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Parenting in America

Whether you’re an advocate of “free-range” or “helicopter” parenting, public school or private, breastfeeding or formula, you probably know that parenting tactics and methodologies can be highly controversial in America. Here are four stories that highlight some of those controversies and considerations:

First, Quartz argues that Americans have turned parenting into a religion—and, in so doing, are destroying their marriages. A woman who told Oprah she loved her husband more than her four children “was not only shouted down by America for being a bad mother; strangers threatened her physically and told her that they would report her to child protective services. This is not how a civil society conducts open-minded discourse.”

While there are a variety of reasons parenting could become an increasingly idolized role in America, here’s one thought: our society seems to separate people according to their relational status. They’re catered to on an economic and social basis depending on whether they’re single, engaged/married, or part of a family. Even at church, congregations are often separated into Bible studies or “small groups” according to age, marital position, and familial connection. This seems to teach us that each stage of life is separately focused: that while single, we can focus on ourselves… while married, we can focus on our spouse… and while parents, we must focus on our kids. Any sort of holistic integration is discouraged. Parents begin to feel that, once they become parents, there’s no looking back: their new stage of life must be all about the kids.

In contrast, some millennial parents seem to be adopting a more laissez faire approach to parenting: Rebecca Koenig writes that a lot of Washington, D.C. adults in the 21 to 36-year-old crowd are starting to take their children with them to local breweries on weekends: “With their daytime hours and relaxed vibe, the city’s craft breweries attract the stroller set. And the proprietors of these relatively new social spaces are working to accommodate their youngest visitors.” As I’ve written before, it seems that many urban centers can have an almost anti-child vibe, and so in some ways, this could be seen as a positive development. It could signal that local restaurants are beginning to open their doors to a more diverse crowd, and that some young parents are increasingly refusing to separate their lives into “adult” and “kid” spheres. But how do you balance the necessarily adult components of a brewery with parents’ desire for a “kid-friendly” space? Are there actually limits to where parents should take their children—or is such an idea just the voice of parenting-as-religion?

Speaking of laissez faire parenting, Pacific Standard just published a Q&A with unschooling mother Milva McDonald, who believes that children’s education should be as self-guided and unrestricted as possible. She expresses her teaching philosophy (or lack thereof) thusly: “I completely disagree with the school of hard knocks philosophy, the idea that you develop strength by facing adversity. For children, I think that’s completely wrong. I think it’s just the opposite. I think that children become strong by having their needs met.”

This raises interesting questions about parenting, as well as about education. First, we must consider whether parents should have an authoritative role in their children’s development—whether discipline is an important part of a child’s mental and ethical maturation. Second, we must consider whether McDonald is right about young learners: will children sufficiently challenge their own predispositions toward laziness or ignorance without an older adult coaching and challenging them?

Finally, over at the Washington Post, Jaci Conrey talks about the “slow parenting” movement: a parenting methodology that “cherishes quality over quantity, being in the moment, and making meaningful connections with your family.” Slow parenting experts encourage parents to only allow a certain amount of extracurriculars or school activities, emphasizing instead family dinners and other time spent together as a family. Some slow parenting advocates also encourage social media fasts and spending as much time outdoors as possible.

It seems that this story could either fit inside Quartz’s parenting-as-religion dilemma, or become at least a partial fix to the problem. Many parents seem to organize their entire lives around their children, spending their days ceaselessly driving from soccer games to violin practices to church activities, so on and so forth. Refocusing children and parents on the home could result in strengthened relationships amongst all members of the family, both spouses and children. But it could also easily fall prey to the religious trappings of other parenting movements—turning its objectives into tenets, and putting children at the center of it all.

A lot of these stories, in the end, have a related concern: how do we cultivate virtuous human relationships, and how do we balance priorities in a mature fashion? When we are responsible for lives besides our own, how do we steward those lives responsibly? If you believe humans are sinful—or even just that they can make mistakes—then you know that, regardless of parenting philosophy or practice, they’re going to mess up. But each of these stories present unique and interesting questions as to how parents can encourage, instruct, and interact with their children—and whether there’s ever a limit to how seriously they should take that job.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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