It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Interview Question Number 4: Societal Parenting Messages, Good and Bad

Question 4 in the Interview Meme, which follows questions 1, 2, and 3!

4. What does our society do well with respect to parenting? What does it do poorly? Phrased another way, which societal messages would parents do well to absorb, and which ones should they resist?

For me, the critical message to reject is the notion that children are fragile, that any parenting action could scar your child for life, that you, the parent, are 100% culpable for any negative emotional or relational circumstance your child may experience, either now or in his/her adulthood.

We put way, way, waaaaay too much burden upon ourselves by accepting this idea. Yes, we do our best for our children. Yes, we try to ensure they are capable of loving, mutually beneficial personal relationships, fulfilling career relationships, and general capability in life. But is all this really going to be threatened because we lost our temper one afternoon when they were three? Or decided to use CIO for three weeks when they were 8 months old? Or didn’t breastfeed? Or chose Preschool A over Preschool B – or didn’t send them to preschool at all? Or were impatient with the Terrible Twos or the Hysterical Thirteens? Or were, just, generally, slightly less than perfect?

(Hint: No.)

There are others: I have issues with messages that suggest that the multitude of changes you experience after the birth of a child are a) unnecessary and b) completely within your control if you “just” organized yourself better (and, thus c) merest self-indulgence).

I don’t like the way mothers are set against one another: working-for-pay vs. working-for-free. I certainly don’t like the way so many mothers are willing to choose a side and leap into the fray which only demeans all mothers. (The “Mommy Wars” manage to both bore me witless and enrage me beyond belief, all at the same time.)

I don’t like the way we set children as the fulcrum of the family. That they are the heart of it, I have no doubt. That is as it should be. But that everything should pivot on the child and his/her needs, with everyone else taking second place? And that to balance your child’s needs against your own – and sometimes let your child’s take second place – is somehow a parental failure? I completely reject this one.

Okay. I’ll stop here, and move on to the positive messages society provides us.
Well, there’s — but then again…
Okay, what about — well, perhaps, but then…
Well, then. I am rather surprised to realize how much difficulty I’m having with this one. What are useful societal messages for parents? Every possible positive I’ve come up with, I’ve immediately seen so many contradictory corollaries, I end up discarding it as a possibility.

Obviously, I need help with this question! Any takers? What do YOU think? What are some positive, useful messages our society gives us? What are the negative, unhelpful ones?

July 29, 2007 - Posted by | controversy, memes and quizzes, parenting, peer pressure


  1. Society does program us to believe that as parents we have a different sort of compassion for the future. I hijack the word compassion there but that is what I mean. That we do borrow the future (the environment especially) from our grandchildren is something thrust upon parents.

    I can get behind that.

    Comment by mo-wo | July 30, 2007 | Reply

  2. I think one of the newer ideas running around is that sometimes, Moms do know best and that it’s ok to second-guess the “experts”. There’s a lot of disagreement on exactly which times those sometimes are (vaccinations, best time to start solids, preschools, you name it), but in general, there is less of a meekness to motherhood. We’re not expected to blindly follow, but instead to make our own informed decisions.

    Comment by ktjrdn | July 30, 2007 | Reply

  3. I think the flip side of the children-as-fulcrum-of-the-family (love your metaphors on that one) is that our society does value kids and mostly even accept them as children. I’m thinking about lots of things here: The many, many children’s museums. The reserved parking spots for parents with small children at the YMCA. The fact that it would be shocking and possibly illegal to hear about rental apartments that did not allow children (something which is quite common in some countries in Europe). We probably do expect too much parental sacrifice and at least in the US, we could do with more policy support for parents, but that we, as a society, value children does not seem to be really in doubt.

    Comment by girlprof | July 30, 2007 | Reply

  4. Society values parents, of course. In one sense, it may not feel that way because it’s just the norm – it’s what’s expected. I think that people who never married and had kids feel more marginalized in our society than those with children. There’s Mother’s day and Father’s day to honor us, there are government benefits like income tax deductions and mandated parental leave. I guess I’m saying that the primary beneficial societal message that we get is that – parenting matters. What you’re doing is important. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so much debate (who’s fit to parent), legistation, etc. about it.

    Also, I think that society’s message is that parents are heroes. There are so many songs, stories (e.g., Obama’s “Dreams from My Father”, and tributes to parents. Here’s one that makes me tear up, from a recent country music hit:

    Comment by Lynn | July 30, 2007 | Reply

  5. Amen. I’d like to add something clever here, but you said it all. How nice it is to find someone who feels the same way I do about this.

    Comment by nomotherearth | July 30, 2007 | Reply

  6. mo-wo: I do hear that, and I’m suspicious, that you out there on the Granola Coast hear it even more than me, but I don’t see much evidence of it. Parents ferry their children when they could walk them – and ferry them in humungous SUV’s and vans, when a small or mid-size car would be just as good. We live in enormous houses. We buy new instead of used; some even turn their noses up at the thought of consignment shop clothing for their children! We have stuff, stuff, stuff out the wazoo. Are parents any better than non-parents in these regards? I don’t see it.

    In fact, what with the perceived need for larger vehicles and larger homes for families, what with disposable diapers, disposable diaper wipes, disposable bottle liners, diaper genies, and the masses and masses of stuff, stuff, stuff we feel we must have for our children — I think it’s arguable that parents are worse.

    ktjrdn: In fact, that’s an old idea coming back – and a good one. The old idea is that it’s mothers who know this stuff – since the dawn of time, young women would learn mothering from their mothers and grandmothers.

    Then a bunch of (mostly male) doctors intervened, convinced women that science knew better, and gradually mom’s advice was undermined and undervalued, and, eventually scorned to such a degree that nowadays many mothers of young mothers are highly reluctant to “interfere”. Once upon a time, it would have been utterly unnatural for a mother NOT to help out her daughter with the grandkids.

    I do agree that there’s “a lot less meekness to motherhood”, and I see this as a good thing. I also think women should be willing to bind together, and your mother’s generation should be perceived as a source of wisdom, not a group of parental has-beens whose perspectives we scorn. Parenting fads and fashions change, styles change. Children don’t, much.

    Ooo. Bit of a rant, that, when really, I quite agree with what you’re saying!

    girlprof: I thought of this one, myself, and I had a “well, yes and no” response to it. All the examples you cite are true, and yet… Can a society that gives no paid parental leave really be said to “value” children?

    Children are valued, yes, but as a homeschooling parent, I was often given the impression that it was inappropriate that my children be out and about in the community, that people would have preferred if they were tidily tucked away out of sight in school. I know – they were probably just reacting to the unusual sight of a schoolage child during school hours, and yet…

    I think, this message is good, but its implementation weak and inconsistent. Still, it is a good message, I agree.

    Comment by MaryP | July 30, 2007 | Reply

  7. Lynn: True. Society has always valued parents. Though I, who’ve been a parent of one sort or another, for dozens of children for over twenty years, kind of wince at the superlative ‘hero’ for the role. It’s an important role – a vital one – but virtually every human on the face of the planet for all of human history has been one. So, to me, hero kind of overstates it.

    I think ‘heroic’ is best reserved for those who parent in extraordinary circumstances: during wars and famines, with a child of extraordinary needs and/or frailty, that sort of thing.

    The rest of us are decent people doing the best we can. Ordinary folk, mostly. 🙂

    nomotherearth: How nice that you stopped long enough to leave an affirmation in the comments, even when you felt you had nothing to add to the discussion. Thank you!

    Comment by MaryP | July 30, 2007 | Reply

  8. Mary P., well said. I need a longer time to think about the positives society puts forth toward parents. Give me time, maybe I will come up with one.

    But, I would like to add to the comment you wrote back to ktjrdn, regarding when doctors took over and moms and their experience and opinions were put on the WAY back burner. The same is true with education. There used to be a time when education consisted of homeschools and one-room schoolhouses. Then, the Department of Education intervened, convinced parents the educated teachers were expert (and schools were king) and to leave the teaching to them. Well, 40+ years later and triple the money spent, education is what it is here in America and parents are supposed to sit back and let the experts take charge. I believe parents are likewise reluctant to interfere with their child’s education as they are with their health. And those that do are the difficult ones.

    (I say this with some experience on both sides of the issue. I was educated in a public school, and was a 2nd grade teacher before my children were born. Now, we are choosing to homeschool our kids. But, that is another discussion entirely.) 🙂

    Comment by Karly @ Indescribable Life | July 30, 2007 | Reply

  9. One positive thing I’ve noticed (although this may be culturally dependent) is the higher expectation we now place on fathers/partners to be equal partners in parenting. The gender lines are blurring, I think, when it comes to parenting. Dads are changing nappies! They’re staying home to look after the children (well, some).

    One justification for parenting decisions that I always treat with suspicion is the one that points to “nature” or biology to provide benchmarks for acceptable behaviour. I believe in civility, and I challenge anyone to show me an animal in the wild that can be civil.

    Comment by Kat | July 31, 2007 | Reply

  10. with respect Mary… I didn’t claim parents are good at taking care of the earth.. just that it is a valid societal pressure. Here’s hoping for improvement. Sounds like you should book on here:

    Comment by mo-wo | August 6, 2007 | Reply

  11. Karly: It would be good if we could view the experts and resources and consultants, but not as ultimate authority. Parents should hold that role – with due consultation, as needed, with these resources.

    Kat Another good one. We have a ways to go: there’s a huge gap between the theory and the practice of parental equality for fathers, but at least we’re espousing good ideas here!

    We’ll know we’ve achieved it when:
    – moms don’t write to-do lists for dads when they go out
    – moms don’t refer to it as ‘babysitting’ when dad tends to the kids
    – moms let dad dress and feed the kids as he sees fit – and lets dad deal with the consequences if the decisions were not too well-thought-out
    – dads don’t expect to be thanked for tending the kids or changing diapers (well, no more than moms do, anyway)

    There may be more…

    mo-wo: You know, I thought of that very point later, when I was far from my computer, then completely forgot to address it when I was. You’re quite right: I asked for societal messages, not an analysis of how well they’re adhered to. This message is indeed out there, and it’s a good one: too bad we don’t heed it more!

    Comment by MaryP | August 6, 2007 | Reply

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