In our culture, social forces push children and teens to look, speak, and compose themselves perfectly—achieve the perfect grades, the BMI of 20.85, the prom queen’s tiara, the undefeated season. We weigh, rank, test, measure and chart them every which way from Apgar scores to SATs. In order that our kids can achieve perfection, parenting has become a profession.
But no one can be the perfect parent or, of course, the perfect child. The pendulum swings back and forth. As a reaction to the impossible work of ‘perfect’ parenting, parents grow demoralized and become permissive and laissez-faire. If our children aren’t perfecting themselves, we can’t figure them out. What do they want? What does he need? Why can’t she behave? Focused on gymnastics practice or math homework, we don’t help them to learn simple social graces, connect to their community, or help out around the house. They don’t feel needed or appreciated. They may never understand how to pick up after themselves, write a sincere thank you note or support a sad friend because these parts of childhood don’t lend themselves to perfecting.
The culture of perfection is as deeply embedded as the American Dream. Our children still learn the mantra: “You can have everything you want—if your work for it.” Just do it. Go for it. You’ll get it all— looks, friends, honors and college admission.
Sensible adults know that this is not true. The world is not a meritocracy and luck plays an enormous role in our lives. Work hard all your life—and still you might not get what you want. We’re afraid of telling that truth. But we must. We need to focus on helping our children build resilience and problem-solving skills. A securely attached confident child has a better chance in life than one who has been pushed and over-praised, and panics without a parent’s tight rein for guidance and reinforcement.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” This is a better mantra. It should be carved into the bricks at the top of every school entrance. The quest for perfection breeds envy, jealousy, and loss of connection. Love and work are what make us happy—and neither require perfection.
Photo credit: Tracy Shaun
Just when we need a bit more proof that we don’t need to schedule our child’s every waking minute—or that daydreaming is not a sign of boredom, here comes this study from researchers Dr. Evan Kidd and his colleagues at the University of Manchester. The team compared children aged between four and six years, with and without imaginary friends. The conclusion: children who engage in imaginary play or have imaginary friends are much more likely to develop empathy and sustain attention.
Through intuitive and creative role playing, young children and their imaginary friends are learning to resolve conflicts and solve problems. This study is welcome relief for the many mothers of one who worry that their “only child” will suffer from all sorts of emotional deficits.
The ability to roam around in one’s mind and find it a friendly place serves us well in later life. When we turn every thing off, we need to be able to be good company for ourselves. Children can learn this life skill young if they are given some precious time to be alone.
So, if your child has cautioned you to “be careful,” do it. Don’t step on Alice. Even when Alice is nowhere to be seen, tread lightly. Otherwise, you tread on their dreams. As we set a place for Elijah at the table on Passover, your child may set one for Henry or Henrietta. Let them. You never know what part of themselves they are inviting to supper.
Photo credit: Maciej Chojnacki
Talking about being a mother has become mandatory—questioning and criticizing what counts as mothering, has as well.
Judith Warner, in Perfect Madness, captured the horror of this microscopic focus well. A journalist, she began by raising her children in France. Occasionally she wondered if she should feed them fewer crackers, or how polluted the public swimming pool was with waste. But, in general, she did her job of writing news and raised her kids without much fuss
When she returned to the States, she was amazed. “What’s up with all the over-parenting?” she asked. A few years later, after Sept 11th, she found herself wondering about the future of the world while also fretting that her child wouldn’t have the proper amount of “Dora the Explorer” partyware. Suddenly she realized she had been caught in the same cage she’d noticed when she stamped her passport.
I wonder if mothers are so anxious because we really want an objective rating. Maybe our children have become the grown equivalent of our weight or our grades. And, let’s not forget, materialism thrives on anxiety. We are good if we buy things for our children, especially educational things. As the main character in Shopaholic and Baby says, (and I paraphrase) “This is not shopping. This is providing for my unborn child.”
At least she bought matching sheets, 400 count, and a duvet cover for herself and her husband.
Photo credit: buttha
When Prince Charles was caught using his cell phone to send Camilla Parker-Bowles (now his wife) an intimate message, the news made headlines over the world. The Royals were ahead of us….now ‘sexting’ is everywhere in the news and ‘hooking up’ is practically passé.
For those of you who don’t yet know, and have managed to escape Twittering, sexting is the newest parental fear (that and the flu). Children, i.e those under 18, are using their cell phones to take pictures of themselves to send to their friends or partners. As usual, technology creates new problems as it makes our lives easier. Although you can now take a picture of your child anytime— your child’s picture can also be sent without consent to strangers. Worse yet, picture s/he took in privacy, foolishly or on a dare, not intending for them to be shared, are circulating through locker rooms and libraries. Girls, in particular, are used to scrutinizing their bodies. Now, rather than holding a mirror up to themselves they hold a phone camera, and the picture may travel the length of the school corridor.
Are these pictures pornography? The laws have been turned inside out as society tries to monitor the dissemination of explicit pictures of minors and by minors. Policing this problem is not the realm of therapy—but asking what this phenomenon reveals is the domain of therapy. Our children are becoming sexually aware younger and younger. And younger. Many admit sex confuses them. I see teens who can’t answer the simplest questions about pregnancy or risk of STDs. But they are going to have sex, they assert, and no one can tell them otherwise.
What we used to call “youth” is disappearing. A recent study blames television—it is an interesting study, hard to fault. Many parents feel adamantly that they won’t let their children watch more than 20 minutes of television. But what they may not notice is that their ‘napping child’ who watches reruns of Friends or Sex And The City, or Gossip Girl and reality TV, or even the advertisements in between is seeing sophisticated adult content. Just as most children hear everything, they see it, also. Next time you watch television—if your child is anywhere nearby, assume they are watching also.
Privacy is also disappearing. MySpace, Facebook, Yelp, Twitter and sexting encourage children to share what’s private to everyone everywhere all the time. We’re living our lives as if each of us is starring on our own reality tv show where the only thing that sells, apparently, is sex. Sadly what seems edgy on the internet or phone can lead to mistakes about safety later. We communicate so quickly and so often that we lose all the opportunity to check, to censor, to have that second better thought. In the noise, we never get to hear our intuition about what street is safe, how to earn a friend, when to decide someone has earned your trust. Adolescence has always been a time for risks and impulsivity. Now technology has given children, with cell phones supposedly to call home, tools to hurt themselves and each other.
Love letters. That would be a change. Words that are crafted, sealed, precious. Found in a drawer.
Photo credit: Alain Bachellier
Hard to know what to share with our children these days, especially when to children the news sounds like play. Or, is it the other way around? Navy seals have won the day. Trial awaits the pirates, boys and men.
Ironically, piracy, as a theme for children, has been hugely in vogue for birthday parties, Halloween costume, and storytelling. Magazines like Real Simple and Cookie run an articles for a pirate-themed party replete with fish and chips. And the high-end catalog, “Chasing Fireflies” offers both peace sign attire and pirate costumes for dress-up play and alternative fashion statements.
Why the popular return of pirates? Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightly and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean rule Disney and might have something to do with it. But why? These movies could have have flopped like Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy. Why do some myths ignite our culture and others fizzle?
On the face of it, pirates seem to represent greed, aggression, and lack of impulse control. They they live outside the law. Are they symbols of the greed that has caused our economies to collapse? Maybe so. Pirates capture so many parts of our imagination.
Greed can be its own undoing. Children understand this early. We have to conquer our selfishness our we won’t have friends. If two children rip at a toy in a tug of war, play is over. Resources are limited. Sharing begins.
Pirates are also knuckle-headed—they provide comic relief in the land of the “all-bad.” Pirates are antiheroes, the Sancho Panza, the court jester who is not truly evil—maybe even good at heart, like the Pirates of Penzance, who would never harm an orphan. Unlike the monsters spawned from imagination who live under the bed or in nightmares, children enjoy pirates. Pirates can be conquered. Pirates can be tricked. As a recent children’ book extolling the virtues of parents explains “pirates are fools for gold.” Pirates teach us that greed can be recognized. Children’s pirates are ugly. They don’t look like us. They stand out the way a giant does and we recognize them from the knives between their teeth, their tall back boots, and their trusty parrots.
Pirates can represent the part of the child that is at war with civilization—the self that wants things and the self that needs people. Pirates also represent the power of the outsider. Girls may adore these movies because girls often live in their imagination without real role models to follow. Much more fun to be a pirate, one might think, than Amelia Bedelia or Ramona the Pest! Girls, in their minds, can ‘sail the seven seas’ and explore new worlds. How else to explain the incredible popularity of Dora, the formulaic cartoon explorer, who conquers Swiper and new territory daily with only a map, a backpack, and her own pluck.
As I heard from mothers in recent weeks, some chose to tell their children about the real pirates. They followed the capture of the ship and the triumphant rescue. Children feel safe when they see the President make wise choices. But they may also feel confused as they love their own excited play.
Children are not the only ones who find that the rules of life are not always fair. Perhaps it is time for Robin Hood, the ‘good pirate‘ to return….
Photo credit: katiew