Ruining your kid

AM got her face scratched by the cat two weeks ago, fell and broke her collarbone last week in Canada, and now, as we were on our neighborhood walk last night, smacked her face on concrete stairs that lead to the reservoir near our house. She fell forward and kissed the edge of the next step, biting her tongue and cutting her chin open. Thankfully it wasn’t serious, but it was bloody and it set us off. But after the initial fall she cried more about having to go home than about her swollen tongue and scraped chin. After some ice chips and a band aid, a bath and some Sandra Boynton action, she slept through the night and awoke ready to play again this morning.

I would argue that Emily and I are pretty chill parents and tend not to overreact or get hysterical when AM falls or hurts herself. But given these recent scares, imagine my guilt in reading Lori Gottlieb’s recent piece from the Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” Gottlieb’s point, hardly a new one in parenting or educative circles lately, is that we are “ruining” our children by protecting them from unhappiness. While not quite as extreme as the Tiger Mom tenets, the piece is heavy on anecdotal evidence to support a supposed epidemic of overprotective, hyperactive parents. According to Gottlieb and the therapists she quotes, parents should back off their kids and reflect on how their own issues get in the way of their child’s best interest. Parents, they say, get home from work and don’t want to spend their time arguing with Holden Caulfield. One psychiatrist goes so far to give this example: if a toddler trips on a rock at a park (or a staircase?), let her “experience that momentary confusion” in order to “grapple with the frustration of having fallen.” You hear that, kid? Wipe that blood off your own chin.

Ok, ok. I’m being a bit unfair. I work at private northeastern university, so her point isn’t lost on me. I’ve seen helicopter parenting here, for sure, but also at the relatively wealthy public jr/sr. high school I taught at 10 years ago. My wife saw the same narcissism at a private local K-12 school in the last five years. I’ve seen the effects of inflated self-esteem in some of my students and my teaching evals sketch me as a tough grader. I understand the problem is out there and how it gets in the way of honesty. That said, Gottlieb refuses, like Atlantic authors before her, to ignore that the “us” and the “our” tends to be families of privilege. “Nowadays,” she frames the problem, “it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier.” And by the way, too many choices leads to a personality crisis.

The latter complaint reminds me of Jean Anyon’s classic article “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” In her essay, Anyon notes that the extent of “choice” children are given in their schooling is reflective of social class and what also factors into whether said child will enter into a mechanical profession or one that is more geared toward knowledge work (managers, lawyers, doctors, etc). The working class student, so it goes, will be told what to do. The affluent professional’s kid is always given options.

I bring this up only to say that what bugs me about this article is not only its exaggerated claims (a very small minority of parents will fuck their children up by helicoptering), but that the evidence simply places too much emphasis on the agency of the parent at the expense of ignoring the social-political context of family itself. While a parent can certainly “ruin” a kid through abuse or through spoiling, Gottlieb’s arguments smack of upper class anxiety (or perhaps, resentment). Either way, I’m not buying it.