You parent like an American.

In recent years one fact has emerged as a base assumption in all parenting literature: Americans are terrible at parenting.

Luckily for us American parents we can take comfort that apparently so are Canadians, Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis. Sorry to say it, guys: overwhelming politeness and/or endearing accents aren’t enough to get by this go-around. Chances are, according to the parenting literature of books, pamphlets, parent groups, and whispers in the wind, if you’ve given birth and are in the process of not-letting-your-progeny-die (also known as “raising children”) as an American, Canadian, Brit, Aussie, or Kiwi, you’re doing it wrong.

According to this mountain of literature, you can tell you’re guilty of being a terrible American* parent if your child between the ages of 0 and 30 exhibits any of the following behaviors at any time: is a picky eater, cries too much, cries too little, doesn’t sleep well, throws temper tantrums, uses a pacifier, has too much independence, has too little independence, doesn’t exhibit expert conflict resolution skills, eats snacks, tests boundaries, likes to get dirty, doesn’t like to get dirty, talks a lot, talks too little, wants to go to school, or doesn’t want to go to school.

I feel his face says, "You are a terrible American parent and you are holding me back from my cool Eurokid potential."Do any of these sound like your child? Well then, the problem isn’t that your children are human beings, the problem is apparently rather their parents speak English. Simply put: you parent like an American.

I am the first to admit I personally first bought into the notion of “chic, generally northern European parents do parenting better” hook, line, and sinker with Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, a book I have talked about many times before in this blog. I still reference back and re-read portions of this book when things aren’t going particularly well for me in the parenting department and I need to calm down and re-center my beliefs about independence and boundaries. Toward my due date and my nesting instinct kicked in I read French Kids Eat Everything and vowed never to allow my children to snack, eat on the go, or be picky about anything. Ever. (Please feel free to continue reading once you compose yourself from your laughing fit I assume you are throwing.) As my firstborn got older and I looked toward firming up my own “educational philosophy” I started devouring articles about the Finnish school system and their lack of pressure on young children – play-basedno forced reading until age 6 or 7! – all with better educational outcomes. I ripped through The Danish Way of Parenting and found many of the themes in the other books, but was fascinated by the idea of hygge, which as far as I can understand it translates to, “that feeling you get when you’re all cozy and happy with close friends and family.” It seems to be no coincidence that we English-speakers don’t have a word for this, n’est pas? I watched in awe of the slew of videos of young – 3 years old, sometimes! – Japanese children able to do things many American kids couldn’t even fathom doing at ages 8, 9, 10 nowadays, things like go to the corner grocery store and pick up a few items for the family, or walk to school by themselves. There is now a new book I have not yet had the chance to read – but it’s on my list! – about German parenting and highlights German children’s expert conflict resolution skills called Achtung Baby.

The theme of these books, articles, and essays is consistent: other countries have a generally unanimous view of what raising children should be, there are no “mommy wars” in these countries, and their children are better behaved, better eaters, better educated, and more independent than the dependent monsters we raise here.

Of course, there’s an inherent flaw with this literature I have yet to see addressed fully: those parents live there, and we live here.

Our children are supposed to eat like the French, argue like the Germans, be educated like the Finnish, love togetherness like the Danish, and be independent like the Japanese, all while their parents live in a society that in no way supports any of these endeavors.

It’s a question to which I have no answer for: sure, these books and articles about other ways of parenting are wonderful, and demonstrate the better outcomes for families as a whole. Yet, how does one actually go about implementing them on a day-to-day, non-conceptual level when you don’t live in these other countries, countries where you are not only supported in raising your children that way, but rather expected to? If I believe (and I do) that “hunger is the best seasoning” and that arriving at dinner without snacks filling my son’s belly will all but eliminate pickiness, how do I reconcile that when I am out and about and every other child’s mom whips out a delicious fruit gummy snack every hour? Yes, the books about French parenting tout that waiting is an important life skill, but if in France all the children are equally waiting for their meals without snacks it makes the entire experience infinitely easier. The temptation to beg for a bag of Goldfish crackers would simply never present itself. The problem of being a little bit hungry and watching every other child eat in front of you doesn’t exist in these other countries where children don’t generally snack. The lessons we are teaching children are fundamentally different when presented in different conditions.

“Mothers must take care of themselves” is another lesson with which I wholeheartedly agree in the pages of “Americans are parenting wrong” literature. Learning that parents exist outside of their children is a vital life lesson for children. It’s also a life lesson more easily learned with high-quality, free/subsidized** childcare available en masse. Back up even further and ensuring a maternity or paternity leave for parents is not something that is available in America, nor will it be in the near-to-distant future. (Non-American English-speaking parents of course can now sneer down at us as being with Papua New Guinea and Suriname as the only countries in the world without guaranteed parental leave.) Yes, self-care and healing are vital to all parents, we can agree after reading these books and articles. But doing so without spending an astronomical amount of money on babysitters or lost wages is very often not feasible in this country.

I keep coming back to this dialogue for almost every topic with which I completely agree in these books and articles. I want my children (and others!) to play and learn through interactions with each other for the first formative years of their life and early schoolhood, and yet our schools seem to be losing this concept. I truly believe in allowing children to attempt to resolve their own conflicts early and often as practice for later in life, yet actually allowing this to happen in America with other American parents can almost amount to getting Child Protective Services called on me. I want my child to feel comfortable and independent enough to walk to the park down the street by himself when he’s older, but I also would prefer not to land in jail.

For every time I find myself nodding my head in adamant agreement I also become baffled as to how to put these theories into practice in a different culture with different parenting norms, expectations, and support structures (slash, lack thereof).

What I find most infuriating, of course, is that for every article I see posted by my friends on social media about letting kids play freely, working out their own issues, and driving independence, I have struggled immensely to see this philosophy in action with other American parents. Of course we always talk bigger game on social media than our three-dimensional selves are ready to play, but I am nevertheless shocked every time I get a death glare when I don’t immediately jump in to mediate my children’s conflicts with others. “But didn’t you share an articles about not doing what you’re doing with no fewer than three touchdown hand emojis?” is a sad thought I have, quite literally, thought to myself on multiple occasions.

The issue of starting to think in the language of emojis aside, I don’t have a solution to this problem. In fact, I don’t even have a suggestion. (If you have any insight, please let me know.) The popularity of these “American-parents-do-it-wrong” books and articles is telling that I’m not the only one who is desperate for another way of doing things. However, at some point we have to call a spade a spade about parenting in America. The menus and food offered to children are almost universally tan and fried and I certainly have no idea how to change the restaurant industry. We have a culture where the expectation of running interference in children’s conflicts is simply expected. Finding schools that emphasize play and soft skills like interpersonal development rather than reading before age 5 is either impossible, next to impossible, or prohibitively expensive. Guaranteed parental leave, prenatal, and postnatal care is a laughable concept in 2018. Because we are unable to allow our children a free moment to themselves we have overpacked their schedules to such a degree there are articles talking about trying to figure out “one meal a week” where everyone can take 15 minutes to sit down together. Once a week! Our social trust is declining to such a rate that often children are not allowed to cross the street to walk to school, let alone down the block to go to the store.

As a parent I try to be the change I want to see in the world. My biggest phrase on the playground is yelling from afar, “You can do it, try it yourself first!” and not, “Oh my gosh, be careful, no no no, here, let me help you!” I stand back when my kids have a conflict to see if they can peacefully work things out. (Which, spoiler alert, they usually can. Next time you jump in watch how all the kids see a mediator come in and fall apart – you’ve taken the motivation for them to resolve anything internally because they know someone else will do it. The switch is immediate but palpable.) I let my kid go “up” the “down” part of the slide because I think playing is sacred and my adult rules and impositions have no place in his learning how to think outside the box and test limits safely. I am only considering schools that emphasize play in the early years, give children ample recess, and value independence and self-starting.

There are immense limitations to implementing these “other” parenting styles touted in the “look at other parents in other countries” literature, though. As much as I try to limit snacking I know that it’s part of our culture, and trying to put my kids on a “French” eating schedule in America isn’t feasible because at school they’ll snack and are annoyingly accustomed to it. I want to maintain some level of social acceptability among my parenting peers and so I do end up coming in to mediate conflicts much more than I’d like. Finding time as a family for hygge would quite frankly require a monumental shift in American work culture as a whole. We are losing an immense amount of social trust, which can at least partially explain why children in Japan are able to go out and perform tasks Americans cannot fathom.

None of these barriers really stack up to our biggest limitation, though: Americans’ intense desire to judge each other. That earlier example about kids going “up” the “down” part of the slide? It’s not hypothetical. This is a real life thing parents debate. I happen to fall on the, “If climbing up the slide will burn energy off, climb on, and if you have been warned about others coming down and get knocked down yourself, then that’s a lesson you’ll only have to learn once.” It has become abundantly clear over the years that other parents do not feel this way. What happens in America is then these differences come to define us, instead of our similarities. This isn’t limited to parenting, of course, as anyone with a pulse and access to the world around them can tell. But with every difference and camp we divide ourselves into, our village gets smaller. Our social trust erodes that much more. Humans love categorizing things and finding themselves in these categories. Dog or cat person. Tea or coffee person. Free-range or helicopter parent. Stay-at-home or work-outside-the-home. Up-the-down-part-of-the-slide or down-the-down-part-only. These ideas and theories make us feel part of a community, but our communities are growing further-reaching and, sadly, sparser.

I think there’s something deeper in our obsession with other cultures and their parenting styles. Maybe at the core of these books and texts about other countries is a sense that those parents are more supported, both by the culture and infrastructure at large and by each other. The books and articles almost always portray parents who go about the day-to-day parenting without the fear of wrath of other parenting cliques. A parenting choice is simply looked at as a choice, not a declaration of a side in the “mommy wars.” We read about what’s working in other countries not just to learn about what we can do and take into our own lives, but also to get a hopeful glimpse into what we wish we felt as a parent when we ourselves make a million little decisions every single day that amount to raising children. This doubt we impose on ourselves in parenting is lifted when we imagine ourselves simply existing in our family units as we see best fit. I think maybe that’s the true appeal in these parenting books, and maybe the hardest lesson of all to integrate.

Whether or not you agree with the premise behind the mountain of literature in the “here’s how other countries do parenting” category, I have personally found it intensely difficult to consistently reconcile my own beliefs with which I agree in these books with the realities of American parenting. I will never be the chic French mom who does not want a cupcake at snack time. Allowing children to fully self-mediate like the Germans results in my being barred from every parenting get-together known to mankind. My kids will go to school in America, not Finland, and finding a school that fits my educational philosophy has been a trial I can no longer think about without needing a glass of wine. My husband’s work schedule means I am lucky if I see him for half an hour at night, so our hygge is a wonderful theory, but sadly remains largely theoretical. If I allowed my children outside like the Japanese, even when they’re older, I would more than likely have the cops called on me.

The crux of the matter is, I find myself parenting like an American because I am an American. I think now that we understand what it is we like about these other societies we can frame American parenting into what we want that to mean. My hope is that it means more setting up a village, and less setting up war camps.

And maybe some wine with our cupcakes.


*For the sake of ease, I shall henceforth lump the native English-speaking parents into one group and refer to us as “Americans,” because, 1) I am an American and most of my readership is, too, and, 2) many non-English speakers automatically assume English-speakers are American, especially when they are doing something they don’t approve of, such as parenting in English.

**Yes, yes, yes, “free” means “taxpayer-funded.”

The S-word (subtitled: why we don’t tell our kids they’re smart)


Depending on your outlook, this is either a good or bad outcome of our general parenting approach.

Chris and I have one strict parenting rule in our house: we don’t say the “S” word to Connor (and we won’t to Daphne, either).

“Shenanigans!” You might say. “Surrender your silliness, you sly sycophant!” And while I doubt you’re actually saying that because weird, it’s none of those many S-words you just mentioned.

And it’s not that S-word. You know which one. (I know you know which one. And you know I know which one.)

The word I’m talking about here is: “smart.”

I can hear your questions and angry jeers now, and I’m starting to think this is all getting a little too interactive, especially considering these peanut gallery comments are entirely in my head. “Are you insane? Not telling your own son he’s smart? Do you want him to think he’s dumb? Do you want him to have a complex? Is this some sort of insane experiment? What do you think you’re doing?!?

To which I reply: whoa now, imaginary commenters. Calm down. You’re getting a little heated. Hear me out first.

This aversion to the s-word all started when I read this post/article on Khan Academy about why the author never tells his son he’s smart. After that I fell down the rabbit hole and came out with two very important concepts that, when connected, led to this one rule in our house.

Concept 1: Language Matters.

We know – and have known for a while – that how we speak and interact with our children matters. Many studies have shown that a large part of the education achievement gap has to do with the fact that disadvantaged children are exposed to far fewer words and less interactive language than their more advantaged counterparts in the earliest years of their life. And while that’s an entire discussion that has filled books written by people far above my pay grade with many socioeconomic factors at play (how we as a country treat new parents in the workforce/parental leave, school funding, culture wars, crime, health, education affordability and the growing disconnect between the education of the economic scales, etc. ad infinitum) that bag of beans is not what I’m actually here to talk about. What I do want you to take away from my research and my ramblings is this one thought: language matters. And what we say sinks into kids’ brains in ways we might not have realized.

I want to note many middle and upper-middle class parents have arguably taken this idea to a new overcorrected extreme and now narrate their child’s every move, all day, every day. “If disadvantaged children don’t get enough language, then my child will obviously benefit from the most language ever” seems to be a common ethos in modern (middle-to-upper-middle-class) parenting. I see this on the playground, and actually have written about it before here. Pamela Druckerman talks about this a lot in Bringing Up Bébé, as does Julie Lythcott-Haims in How to Raise an Adult. These are both books about parenting that struck deep chords with me, but also point out that while yes, language is good, children learning to be themselves in their own minds as well. It’s sort of like SPF in sunscreen: there are marked advantages to the SPF number in sunscreen to a point (SPF 30). After this, the advantages are negligible and probably not worth the cost of purchase. Talking and narrating to your children at points during the day indeed is advantageous, but after a point the costs of your sanity-prohibitive and both you and your child need some quiet time, too, since children also need the skill of self directing and experimentation on their own. Do you want someone chattering in your ear the entire time you’re trying to work out a problem? Neither do your kids. They need time to figure out problems for themselves as much as they need times of interaction and play with you.

(*I included an excerpt from Bringing Up Bébé at the bottom of this post that more clearly demonstrates this overcorrection. It is potentially my favorite passage of the entire book.)

But the overall point is language does matter. Children hear and understand more than they can express, and language comes with time over repeated instances and circumstances. So now that we have that down, let’s go on to the next foundational concept to our weird rule, and then I’ll connect them.

Concept 2: The difference between a “fixed” and “growth” mindset

First, the definitions.

I knew for sure that language is important, probably because it’s not particularly new information. What was new information for me was the concept between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.”

Stay with me. I know it sounds like jargon.

Essentially, when you praise someone (including yourself) for something they have done the praise is about one of two traits: a “fixed” trait or a “growth” trait. A fixed trait is one that exists no matter what you do: you’re born with it. Intelligence, physical attractiveness, and “natural talent” are all examples of this; you’re given a finite amount of this trait by the gods/your genes/luck and that’s what you have to work with your whole life. Growth traits are ones that, as the name implies, can be grown/cultured. Hard work, learning things, curiosity, stick-to-itiveness (real thing.), and “grit” (Angela Duckworth’s work about grit is fascinating, by the way) are all examples of growth traits.

When you start to tackle a problem or project and think to yourself, “I’m smart enough to do this,” that’s an example of a fixed mindset. You’re thinking about drawing from your pool of fixed amount of talent and using it. When you instead think, “I can work hard enough to do this,” or, “I can learn to do this,” both of those mentalities are utilizing a growth mindset. You’re thinking instead that you can grow to do something, regardless of innate talent or intelligence.

Next, why a fixed mindset is nicht so gut. 

“Okay, fine, cool, growth mindset is different. But why does it matter? If a person is smart or talented, then they’ll just succeed no matter what, right?” Well, it turns out that’s not necessarily true.

What actually happens when you have a fixed mindset is kind of fascinating yet also eventually debilitating**.

The first result is that with a fixed mindset you become less and less willing to try things that are increasingly difficult, which means less experimentation and much less willingness to stretch yourself. If you have been told repeatedly that your achievements are due solely to your intelligence (as opposed to your hard work, experimentation, trying again after you failed, etc.), you’ll go on fine for a while because your talent probably is enough to get you through what you need to do. Eventually, though, you will run into something difficult. It’s life, and it’s a sign of good things – you have progressed to a point where you need to be challenged and stretch your limits. However, if all you know is that you’re “smart”, what happens is you’re less likely to want to risk trying the difficult thing because your intelligence/talent/fixed trait might be called into question. “But, if I fail, that means I’m not actually smart,” is probably not the actual thought you’ll have, but it’s subconsciously there. You’ll be inclined to take the least risky/easiest path. And greatness isn’t achieved on that path, it’s achieved on the edges. It’s achieved in those places where the struggle is occurring. The hard thing is, though, those stretch zones are filled with mistakes and hard work. And if you’re never praised for having figured things out, or working hard, or, yes, failing and trying again, then you won’t know those are the qualities that will get you through them.

The second result of a fixed mindset is intrinsically tied to the first one but is worth breaking out on its own: people who are constantly praised for their intelligence/talent innately typically do not handle failure well. “Okay, like, who can?” you might be asking. Which, fair. Failure can feel like a punch in the gut, especially if you’ve tried hard at something. However, when you have a fixed mindset failure takes on an even bigger meaning. Instead of seeing failure as a sign to try something different or work harder, if all you’ve been praised for is your talent it means that you are a failure, not just what you did. It suddenly means that you’re not all that smart, after all, despite all praise previously indicating that you are. If you have a growth mindset, you’ll be able to frame it differently: you have found something that doesn’t work and can try something else. You can work harder. You have found yourself in a place where you need to stretch yourself, and that’s where greatness happens. When you fail, it’s not that you’re stupid or untalented, it’s simply an indication that something didn’t work. Doesn’t that seem better than you yourself not being intrinsically good enough? Of course it is – and is why when people with a fixed mindset fail it’s a catastrophe. A while back, Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, had a great video about how her father asked her every week what she had failed at, because he was determined for her to see failure as a good thing. It meant she was stretching herself. It meant she was trying something new and was challenged enough that she wasn’t able to sit comfortably on her laurels. It framed her entire view about failure not as a personal insult to her intelligence or talent, but that instead it meant that she was trying and working hard enough to be able to fail. I cannot encourage watching it enough.

(Finally) bringing it together

I’m pretty sure by now you know where I’m going with this.

We now know that language matters, and we also know that fixed mindsets aren’t good, but what does that mean in practical terms? What does that actually sound like? That’s where our rule comes in.

What we say to our kids impacts them tremendously, and while they won’t be able to express this for a long time, we can help frame their growth mindsets from the get-go through our language. When Connor figures out how to put the puzzle piece in his puzzle correctly, I don’t praise him for being smart, I praise him for working hard to figure that out, or trying, or working through it. Telling him he’s “smart” ends the conversation, and it’s a habit I certainly don’t want to fall into for when he’s older. Remember, language matters, and early language matters more than we may even realize. I wouldn’t ever tell him he’s stupid, but I also do not want “you’re so smart!” to be the only praise he hears and knows. When he fails at something I praise that, too. I tell him that means that he was trying something new, or that next time he’ll learn from it.

Look, I’m 30 years old and arguably better at building block towers than my two-year-old, but if I only praise him for being smart enough to build the tower, or – worse – if I prevent the tower from toppling I’m doing him a disservice. The learning in building block towers is twofold: the first part is the skills to build it, the second (arguably more important part) is learning that when it falls down – i.e., when it fails – what went wrong wasn’t life-ending, and that he can do something different next time to improve on it. I might show him or help him in the process, but I will not do it for him after that. He can stretch himself to his next level of greatness. If all I tell him is that he’s smart, he’ll never want to try anything new because he’s afraid of failing. He’ll only do what he knows he can do or has been shown to do with great amounts of assistance.

I want Connor to always know that working hard and figuring things out is what gets him ahead, not innate intelligence. Even if he is incredibly intelligent – which of course I believe with all my heart he is as I am a mom and have mommy goggles on no matter what – eventually he will get to a point in either his academic career or other career where he is met with people who are also all incredibly intelligent or talented. What will distinguish him then isn’t his past abilities to have easily done things, get good grades, or his intelligence. What will distinguish him is his ability to work through problems, accept failure as a barometer of what to do next time instead of as a defeat, and then try again with the new information at hand. No amount of intelligence can overcome a fear of failure or fear of being perceived as “not smart.”

Is it strange we do have this super harsh rule in our house? It sure seems like it sometimes. No matter how many books or articles I read (which I’ve listed a bunch at the bottom, if you’re interested) I sometimes feel very alone in this endeavor of not telling my child he’s smart. However, knowing that I can in some way help foster a growth mindset in my little one from literally birth is something so powerful I can’t help but try. I want him to know that he’s capable of doing anything, and not just capable of what his intelligence allows.

And so, with that, our shenanigans are up. We slyly subdued ourselves and stopped saying “smart” to our kiddo. Seriously.


*Footnote: Bringing Up Bébé excerpt

This is a quote about the constant narration and how far to the “other” extreme parenting in America has become from Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman that also brings in my favorite parenting reference book, The New Basics by Michel Cohen.

“American-style parenting and its accoutrements—the baby flash cards and competitive preschools—are by now clichés. There’s been both a backlash and a backlash to the backlash. So I’m stunned by what I see at a playground in New York City. It’s a special toddler area with a low-rise slide and some bouncy animals, separated from the rest of the park by a high metal gate. The playground is designed for toddlers to safely climb around and fall. A few nannies are sitting French-style on benches around the perimeter, chatting and watching their charges play.

Then a white, upper-middle-class mother walks in with her toddler. She follows him around the miniature equipment, while keeping up a nonstop monologue. “Do you want to go on the froggy, Caleb? Do you want to go on the swing?” Caleb ignores these questions. He evidently plans to just bumble around. But his mother tracks him, continuing to narrate his every move. “You’re stepping, Caleb!” she says at one point. I assume that Caleb just landed a particularly zealous mother. But then the next upper-middle-class woman walks through the gate, pushing a blond toddler in a black T-shirt. She immediately begins narrating all of her child’s actions, too. When the boy wanders over to the gate to stare out at the lawn, the mother evidently decides this isn’t stimulating enough. She rushes over and holds him upside down. “You’re upside down!” she shouts. Moments later, she lifts up her shirt to offer the boy a nip of milk. “We came to the park! We came to the park!” she chirps while he’s drinking. This scene keeps repeating itself with other moms and their kids. After about an hour I can predict with total accuracy whether a mother is going to do this “narrated play” simply by the price of her handbag. What’s most surprising to me is that these mothers aren’t ashamed of how batty they sound. They’re not whispering their commentaries; they’re broadcasting them.

When I describe this scene to Michel Cohen, the French pediatrician in New York, he knows immediately what I’m talking about. He says these mothers are speaking loudly to flaunt what good parents they are. The practice of narrated play is so common that Cohen included a section in his parenting book called Stimulation, which essentially tells mothers to cut it out. “Periods of playing and laughing should alternate naturally with periods of peace and quiet,” Cohen writes. “You don’t have to talk, sing, or entertain constantly.””

(Here’s a jump back for your convenience.)


**It is worth noting growth mindset thing is sometimes used as a panacea, especially around education. Let me be perfectly clear: it won’t help children being over-tested or put to sit in chairs for 8 hours a day without recesses. Or children who have increased lead in their blood because of the city’s drinking water (not just a Flint, MI problem, by the way). Or children who come in hungry because they might not get food in between leaving school and getting breakfast at school the next day. Or crumbling infrastructure. These are just a scant few of the structural problems facing our education system, and these are problems that no amount of a growth mindset will fix. Arguably, though, putting children into a constant fixed mindset puts them at a double disadvantage.


P.S. In case you’re interested in any of the articles or books about this that I linked above…


  • Bringing Up Bébé: My favorite book about parenting that ties in food, sleep, praise, and everything in between in a completely delightful easy-to-read narrative.
  • How to Raise an Adult: Think Bringing Up Bébé but for Americans, with a strong focus on the back end about the push for the “best” colleges. Written by the former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford who realized all of a sudden these kids had little to no skills on their own without their parents, and how we got to that point.
  • Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance: Angela Duckworth is so charismatic but talks a lot about how to have more grit, and why it is so important in our lives, and how the hard times are where we find greatness.
  • The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success: This really goes into the “failing is a really, really, really good thing” idea and explores examples of failures of all sorts and then how we can all fail better.



The day I realized I’m a “free-range” parent

IMG_20160308_163827It was the moment I was instructed to ask my 16-month-old if I was allowed to go to the bathroom something clicked inside me. 

Allow me to explain how this happened.

We live in Chicago and in Chicago the search for preschools tends to start shockingly early for parents for many reasons that are too numerous and possibly too politically charged to go into here. Though my friends in New York and DC are want to tell me that Chicago can’t even possibly compare to their situation (“You can still get into a preschool with a child that’s 16 months old? Pshah!”), education – even private education – in Chicago is a notoriously prickly scenario with education intrinsically tied to the politics, unions, and budget crises plaguing the city and state. Many of these reasons are why I, a stay-at-home mother of a 16-month-old, found myself attending a preschool open house. In their packet the kind folks at this particular preschool included articles outlining the values of “free play”, one of which, an Atlantic article outlining the crushing of preschoolers, I had shared on my own personal Facebook wall not three days earlier. “Is this a bastion of free play?” I thought to myself. “What luck to have a place four blocks away from our place that has also read the millions of articles about the Finnish schools allowing children to play that are circulating these days!”

As luck (I thought, foolishly, at the time) would have it this particular preschool also offered a “parent and toddler” class for the littler ones. They again boasted of pure “free play”, no light-up toys, and “dramatic play spaces” (which as best as I can gather in the preschool world now means miniature play kitchens). They offered a trial class to me in order to try the class to which I enthusiastically replied “yes,” and immediately started daydreaming about all the energy my son would burn off while he “free played” and how I could get out of the house and spend a morning talking to other parents. It really was a win-win scenario when I looked at it on paper.

When we arrived it turned out my “win-win” scenario was best left to paper. It didn’t take long for me to be grateful I wasn’t tall, else I’d fear being buzzed with all the helicoptering going on.

Prior to this the only “organized” activities my son and I had attended were a play group at the local German school where I was typically either the only American or one of two Americans and a music class we attended weekly where the toddlers all play together while the parents chat interspersed by songs or books. I very much did not want to get into a habit of overloading my son (or myself) with too many activities per week, mostly due to the fact that, first, I simply don’t have the patience for that and, more importantly, I actually wanted my son to be able to have true free time to explore his own spaces and imagine ways to play without structure. Some days we would go to the park, some days we would go to the coffee shop with a little play area, and some days we play – dare I say “free play”, even – around our home. Needless to say I was ill-prepared for the culture shock of witnessing the true-blue helicopter parenting that lay ahead of me that day.

The setup for the class was admittedly fantastic: there were two rooms, one with all sorts of art supplies such as clay, paints, sand, water, etc., and another room with toys such as puzzles, blocks, balls, kitchen and tea sets, and scooter bikes for the little ones to explore. We arrived, I introduced myself to the teacher and my son was off like a shot, ready to explore and play. I was relieved things were going to plan and then suddenly realized: none of the children were playing by themselves or with each other. I kept looking and was shocked to see every single parent playing with their child. I finally looked closer and realized that was actually a misjudgment: these parents weren’t playing with their children, they were playing for their children.

While pregnant, I read Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman and it resonated with me in many profound ways. One of the items she brought up as a difference between English-speaking parents (as she included Brits and Aussies as having this American habit as well) and the central-Europeans was the habit of a constant narration as their child played. It’s not that the French (or Germans, Italians, Swiss, etc.) don’t speak, read, and play with their children, it’s that they don’t constantly find the need to narrate their child’s every move when there is a perfectly good play environment and other children around them. That time is considered their time to explore and live in a child’s world with other children, and your time to hang back and allow them to do just that while also modeling peer-to-peer communication.

This would have been considered heresy at this mom and toddler class. Not only was a constant narration accepted, it was required. A quick soundbite went something along the lines of, “Oh, Suzy [an 18-month-old], you have a dolly? Oh do you like dollies? Do you want to put the dolly in the stroller? Can you push the dolly? Oh, are you done with the dolly now? Okay, do you want to go over to the kitchen now? Oh my goodness, the kitchen! Look at the kitchen! It’s a plate! Do you see the plate? Look at the plate! Oh, you have the plate! What goes on the plate? Does the tomato go on the plate? Oh, are you done with the kitchen now? Do you want to play with the ball?”

This narration never stopped. I was exhausted just watching these parents within five minutes. What I witnessed was not children “free playing” but children with a constant external voice butting itself into their heads. I couldn’t imagine trying to do anything with someone chattering away at me. “Oh, Taylor, are you putting away the dishes? Oh, do you have a plate? Where does the plate go, Taylor? Oh, no, the plate doesn’t go in the drawer, where does the plate go?” I would be a nervous wreck before finally getting so annoyed I would give up and let the person narrating do the dishes Indeed, this is exactly what happened for the toddlers. Upon finding a new toy and trying to play with it the toddlers would be swamped with an adult’s voice in their ear, not allowing them to discover and play on their own. Frustrated, they would then look at the parent playing with their new toy and move on only to have the cycle start again.

I refused to narrate my son’s every move. It’s simply not in my DNA to interrupt my child’s good time to needlessly narrate his actions constantly or break his ability to imagine and create on his own. The teacher every so often would come over and try to “teach” me what to do and I in turn would try to break her narrative to talk to her on an adult level. I tried making conversations with the other moms but had little to no luck. All conversation responses tended to be short interruptions of their one and only focus: their children. At one point one of the moms saw her child walk not six feet away and she broke in mid-sentence to go over to him despite him being completely content with the activity he had chosen. I felt like I had walked into an entirely different parenting universe.

In my first of what would be many errors that day I stupidly became overwhelmed with the urge to use the bathroom. To this day I don’t know what I was thinking: having a bodily function come over me like that. The bathroom was not only on the same floor as the mom/toddler class, but was so close it shared a wall. Under normal circumstances I would have seen my son happy as a lark playing on a little riding toy and I would have slipped out knowing that even if he became distressed in my absence by the time he noticed I would have been halfway back (to say nothing of the fact that I feel my son needs to learn that everyone goes to the bathroom and he will survive in the time away from me). However, in trying to play nice with the atmosphere I decided instead to notify the teacher I was going to use the bathroom so that she could, theoretically, look after my son since the adult-to-child ratio in the room would still be 1:1 even during my temporary departure.

In this moment I felt time slow between us. She not only looked shocked but appalled. I tried to fill in the space with a meager, “Is the one right next to the door okay for me to use?” as if to say, “I’m not actually asking you, you know.” She in turn filled the space with an, “Ummm” noise, a pause, and then followed with the words that would ring in my ears for weeks to come, “Have you asked your son’s permission to use the bathroom?” I thought about laughing and in a moment of rare clarity held back. I then thought about saying what I thought of this question (something along the lines of, “Why, no, because he is 16 months old and I don’t ask anyone, let alone a 16-month-old, if I may use the bathroom.”) and again, with remarkable clarity of mind, held back. I replied that, no, I had not, but he should be fine, and as I was turning around the teacher stood her ground and rephrased her position. This was not what I was expecting from this willowy teacher whose name I could only assume was something along the lines of “Moonbeam” or “Coriander.” “No,” she replied, “You need to ask his permission first so that he can understand and acknowledge what is going on.”

I walked over to my son. I knew what was about to happen but was so dumbstruck by Moonbeam’s sudden fortitude I decided to cede the ground. I looked down at my son, stammered something along the lines of, “Okay, um, so, I’m going to go to the bathroom, okay? Okay, cool,” turned around, and walked away in one fell swoop. Then, because I had not only alerted my son to my leaving but made a big deal out of it, he lost his composure and started crying as soon as I walked away. It was not lost on me that I could have already been back from the bathroom, hands washed, dried, and ready to go in the time it took for all of this to take place.

I sat down and outside the door and I heard my son’s wails not through the wall but right outside the door to the bathroom. Then I heard Moonbeam “comforting” my son, continuing the “narrate at all costs at all times” pedagogy that has been slammed into her brain, yet somehow this narrative seemed directed at me this time. “Don’t worry, don’t worry, your mom is right inside this door,” she said. “She will be right back, I promise, won’t she?” I heard her face swivel toward the door accusing me of emotionally neglecting my son as I committed the grave error of using the bathroom. I swung open the door, told my son to come in as I washed my hands, and Moonbeam half-flitted-half-stormed off.

We aren’t treating our children like little kings, I thought, we are treating them like gods. The rest of the 75-minute class continued in much the same way.

At one point my 16-month-old stumbled and fell onto his bottom running as toddlers are want to do. Moonbeam immediately comforted him and started to explain to him that, “Sometimes in life we fall down, and that’s okay…” and while I tried to stop her so as to head off another episode of upsetting my son for no reason I joked (what I was thinking I will still never know) that having a 50-pound Border Collie in the house was like a built-in big brother and my son was “resilient.” Moonbeam looked pensive and explained that while, yes, some children might seem more resilient than others, falling actually “crushed” a toddler’s self esteem. I made a mental note that my toddler was surely in the negative digits for self esteem points for all the times he’s fallen and yet somehow seems to still get out of his crib every morning. Were toddlers not designed to fall down so they could learn how to walk with their low centers of gravity and cushy rear ends? If a toddler puts one foot on top of the other and falls then haven’t they learned that’s not how walking works and they will try to not do that in the future? I was under the assumption that accomplishing something after trying different ways of doing it was what created self esteem, but again I was mistaken.

Toward the end of class my son was standing on top of a little platform and one of the older toddlers who was probably 2.5 years old actually pushed him down the ramp leading up to it. In no way do I believe a 2.5-year-old has malintent or was “bullying” my son. Instead I witnessed this preschool’s proudly-touted “conflict-resolution” in action. The adults came in with, “Oh, let’s play with this ball instead! Would you like this ball? This ball is so neat!” I sat there stunned yet again. Did I just witness what I think I witnessed? Did those adults in the room actually reward this other toddler’s behavior of pushing a smaller child down a ramp? The answer I inevitably came to? Yes. Yes they did.

Predictably, this preschool and my family were not a good fit. Moonbeam made a cursory, “Let us know if you have any questions or would…um…like to enroll in the parent/toddler class…” as we left and I made the requisite, “Oh yeah, I’m going to go talk it over with my husband and tell him all about it!” response (which, to be fair, was completely accurate) . We both knew we had just been on the childcare equivalent of one of the worst first dates in history. It was a firm swipe left on both sides.

Prior to this experience I had defiantly opposed trying to “label” my parenting style and getting caught up into a side in the “mommy wars.” This idea of non-labeling was taken straight from Bringing Up Bébé. Unfortunately the key difference between Pamela Druckerman (author) and I is that while not labeling your parenting style works in Europe it doesn’t quite translate for an American in America. By happenstance a few days prior to this entire experience I had started reading How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford, who saw exactly what overparenting had been doing to students and decided to write about not only how not to helicopter parent but also why we got to this point of believing that if a toddler stumbled it could crush his self esteem. She references Bringing Up Bébé often but frames her book from the perspective of an American parent and falls in line with actually labeling the anti-helicopter parent movement “Free-Range” parenting.

After coming home in a huff I realized it was time to decide allegiances and finally declare myself eligible for the “free-range” parenting draft.

To me the term “free-range” parent is misleading. Before reading about it I assumed “free-range” parenting equated to “let your child do whatever they want, whenever they want” when in fact it’s quite the opposite. “Free-range” parenting can better be described as, “allowing your child the space to make informed decisions, become an independent thinker, all while living within a reasonable frame of expectations and rules” parenting. “Free-range” seems a little easier to type out. It clicked with me thinking back to Bringing Up Bébé: expectations often yield reality. Essentially it’s the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy: whether you expect your child to behave like a tyrant or expect them to act decently they will satisfy your expectations. If you allow your child freedom to act within boundaries they will learn their own limits and feel secure knowing they are safe. I allow my son to climb and fall off play structures at the playground when other parents run to catch their children. As a result my son safely fell off the small obstacles but now respects edges of heights in a way I simply do not see with children whose parents have always hovered and caught them. Risk management is an important skill and begins on the playground and translates to the rest of their lives. If I do things for my son he can almost do, he will expect me to swoop in to finish the final details the rest of his life because he was never allowed to experiment, fail, and finally succeed.

Julie Lythcott-Haims goes into horrifying details about these patterns of young adults emerging into colleges and workplaces. Parents increasingly are asking to be involved in their child’s job interview processes because they have been involved with every aspect of their child’s life to that point and suddenly their children are unable to function. College students’ parents call their professors for them regarding bad grades on tests and essays. They arrive at college unable to perform basic functions such as cleaning their rooms, laundry, or basic cooking. High schoolers have a list of colleges chosen for them by their parents and their applications are entirely filled out for them because parents feel their child’s “only job” should be the job of high school and taking the SAT/ACTs. This lack of self reliance and self-actualization, Lythcott-Haims found in her research, goes all the way back to when parents like me are putting their children on the playground and not allowing them to fall or trip, believing things like “it will crush their self esteem” when in fact what you are telling your child’s self esteem that “you cannot do things for yourself, so I will do them for you.”

Many parents see unstructured, unsupervised time as wasteful. I see it as the time when imaginations and independence grow.We still do many things like reading, playing, and music/dancing together, but that is but one piece of the puzzle. I am not the center of my child’s universe, I am a part of it. An important part, but a part nonetheless. If he cannot find who he is without me he will be lost forever. 

Helicopter parents clearly come from a place of love. There is no doubt the parents in the toddler-mom class I attended love their children and feel they are doing the best they can for them. We all hope that hope. The world is becoming increasingly stratified and parents fear without their help their children will be trampled in the frenzy of college admissions, the job market, and a more complex and frightening world. The 24-hour news cycle does nothing to assuage their fears. However, some of the biggest success stories of our time come from people whose parents were decidedly uninvolved with their paths. They found new ways of thinking because they were allowed the freedom to think differently than their parents.

Parents play an important role in shaping their children’s lives, morals, ethics, and rules. They play important advice-givers and give their children the courage to grow their own wings while being supportive if they stumble. My hope for my son is that his wings will carry him to soaring heights with few crashes along the way. I think all parents hope that but have confused carrying their children on their own wings with their children branching out on their own. It is impossibly difficult to watch my son fall, but it is doubly worth seeing that frustration to see him take that next step up after he has stumbled and finally succeed on his own.

And I solemnly swear I will never ask my son’s permission to use the bathroom again.

Recommended (by me) reading:

Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman (also referenced by me before, here)

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims (shorter Washington Post article can be found here)