Parents are sensible people. The fads that appear to sweep the parenting world are topics for discussion. Mostly, it’s columnists with inches to fill that make it all seem so polarised. The really important changes in child-rearing take time, and come in long and slow.
Tiger mothering, for example, was not so much a “thing” as an indicator of a worrying trend – the narrow, and quite unsupported idea that success in school and then career were somehow a path to happiness. So much so, that all of childhood and the lives of mum and dad must be sacrificed to the very non-Buddhist goal of the far distant future.
In fact, Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was self-mocking, and ultimately described how she learned to lighten up. But by then the cat was out of the bag, and a generation were worried that they weren’t competitive enough.
Of course failure isn’t great, but in all things parental, that middle way matters so much. Stress does not make for sustainable happiness, and a marriage bust-up or a kid on drugs can be an ironic, let alone tragic, outcome of everyone trying too hard.
It was never the author’s intention to spark squadrons of helicopters hovering over homework desks. It was also a misnomer – tigers are wildly indulgent of their cubs’ playfulness. Competitive parenting is more the domain of hyenas. But being a Hyena Mother doesn’t have the same ring.
Hands-off parenthood was another fad that washed through. When New Yorker Lenore Askenazy let her nine-year-old go on the subway alone, she was condemned by millions on social media.
Not one to miss an opportunity, she turned out a book about how we needed to stop mollycoddling kids and let them experience both independence, and a modicum of failure or even some occasional salutary harm. Of course, for risk-averse high-rise parents in America, she definitely had a point.
We have now realised that playgrounds should be places where you can – non fatally – fall, scratch yourself, bruise and even be lost from view.
But psychologists here in Australia, myself included, generally worked with the kind of parents whose children were neglect-steeped, and had injuries to prove it. I once co-presented with Askenazy at an Ideas Festival.
On the way home, I was on the train platform at Central Quay. Right before my eyes, a young mum struggled with getting a stroller onto the train, and let go of her toddler’s hand. The child instantly slipped down the gap, to end up screaming with their middle wedged between platform and train.
I – and about 100 other people – yelled out loud for the driver to wait, and thankfully they did. The child was retrieved.
This could was just an ironic twist, but six months later, in Lenore’s own mellow part of New York, a seven-year-old was abducted and killed while walking alone, by a teenager who had never shown any such tendency.
Parenthood is a frightening thing. As I said, the middle road. And a deep breath.
Fads come and go. But the big stuff moves in like a slow tide – and makes all the difference in the world. Changes I have worked on for 40 years – like father-involvement; slowing down your life; not starting school too young; remembering that love matters more than things; that an ability to cry or ask for help; be vulnerable and depend on each other, especially for boys and men – are long-haul projects.
They resemble and are not unrelated to our big world worries like the earth burning up in our children’s lifetimes. We are all growing up, and all raising ourselves to live in this world. It takes time.
- Steve Biddulph is the author of Ten Things Girls Need Most and Raising Boys.