Parents and Peanut Butter Cups
What if parenting is hard to get wrong?
You all! As of today, we’ve got 1,000 readers! Our 1,000th subscriber will be receiving a Nueske’s meat basket of my choice when they least expect or want it! Thank you all for reading, sharing, caring, all the -ings. It is a joy and privilege to write what you feel like writing and have a small handful of people be even mildly interested.
If you are anywhere between the ages of 35 and 50, you are very familiar with this image.
In the mid-90s. after discovering in their market research that consumers had a variety of ways of eating their chocolate and peanut butter delights, Hershey’s launched a campaign featuring the tagline “There’s No Wrong Way to Eat a Reese’s.” They went to great lengths to prove their groundbreaking thesis, demonstrating the premise using a vampire, a librarian, an IRS Agent, a mentalist, and many other spokespeoples (and spokes-bloodsuckers) of the diverse landscape of candy-lovers. The campaign was quirky, inclusive, and joyous.
Decades later, after the good people at Reese’s and their marketing strategists turned their attention to other things, their proclamation of acceptance remains true. There is no wrong way to eat a Reese’s. (Except of course, if you’re the Florida woman who was caught eating one while driving 127 mph with nine kilos of cocaine in her trunk.) Might it give you a tummy ache to eat a Reese’s in three seconds? Perhaps. Would eating a Reese’s with a sardine on top repel potential sexual partners? Yes. But none of this would be WRONG. As long as you’re being yourself, enjoying the blessed combination of chocolate and peanut butter, it’s all good.
Last week. I received an email from the admin of a parenting conference I registered for but will likely not attend, with the subject line “Parenting Skills Quiz: How Do You Rank?” Always a masochist, I could not resist. It’s not that I didn’t agree with some of the strategies they were pushing, like getting down on your kid’s level to talk to them or trying to stay in the moment, but I didn’t know if the deep shame I felt reading over the obviously ideal answer to each question and then choosing the one that was actually true for me, was really worth the feedback. And I didn’t see how someone who doesn’t know me in the slightest could know what was “best” for me and my kid.
In psychology, we are constantly having to weigh whether something will do more harm than good. If you call a client out on a pattern of defensiveness, will that shut them down or open them up? If I disclose something personal about myself, will it make someone feel less alone or uncomfortable? If I teach a parent a new way of doing things with their child, will they feel inspired or overwhelmed? The question is always: What good does it do them, and is this information being offered with integrity?
Of course there are some wrong ways to raise a child. But there are a lot more right ways. There are also some highly popularized ways, some of which have a few research studies behind them (done mostly by and with White, middle class folks) some with nothing but a theory or philosophy to back them up. Some ways we think about parenting are vestiges of thinkers who were downright misogynists, like Freud, referred to as “a man of his times,” who famously said “Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.”
Theories and philosophies are fine, they can be wonderful even, but the problem is that we have been convinced that these things are not ideas about different ways one could parent, but prescriptions that lead to better outcomes for our kids (nevermind our own needs). In fact, as I ranted about earlier this year, we know very little about how different approaches to parenting impact children, especially in the long term, in any real and meaningful way. I believe that children need to feel loved, accepted, and that they belong, and research on childhood trauma certainly lends some heft to those beliefs. But there are lots of ways to show love, and a hell of a lot of ways to belong.
My brother, a graduate student in education, recently embarked on the project of interviewing our favorite old teachers (I mean former. I am very, very young and so are the people who taught me thirty years ago). In reminiscing about these educators, many of whom loomed large in our collective childhood experiences, my brother and I pondered the traits that make a great teacher. There were many warm and flexible ones in the bunch, two traits I value greatly in my own teaching and encourage my student-teachers to communicate. But, there was one teacher, I’ll call him Mr. G. who was, well, not. How to describe him? He was the kind of teacher who would not let a child go the bathroom unless they correctly used the term “may” and not “can.” He was a yeller. He liked to air his grievances with individual students in front of the whole class. But he also, we could just feel it in our bones, 100% had our backs. He seemed to believe in every student. He loved us, we knew it to be true. He was kind of a jerk. But he was also a constant favorite of the thousands of children who must have passed through his care.
There are others, too. Mr. Sullivan, who was old school AF but also taught us true ethics and checked to see if everything was okay with me during the week, sophomore year of high school, where I change my hair color at least three different times. It wasn’t so easy to say, looking back at all of the teachers who had made us feel safe and challenged and cared for, that there was a right way to do it all.
I am not writing 1,000 words to convince you to publicly humiliate the children in your lives. I’m just asking for a little curiosity, a little ground-up effort from my field about all the different ways that love and care between an adult and a child can manifest. Parents do need the space and time to process this work we do, to think about what kinds of parents we want to be and whether, at least some of the time, we’re actually succeeding. We do need encouragement to pay close attention to our children, to take seriously how what we’re putting out there lands for each child (and every damn one is different). Parenting deserves at least the respect and vibrant discussion and dissecting that is given to, say, the current season of Succession, but all of that doesn’t need to come at the cost of stripping parents of our instincts in service of some artificial right path.
My name is Sarah. I’m kind of a spazz. I am often highly distracted from the things my children want me to give my full focus, like playing “fancy night.” I frequently tell my kids they did a “good job” and are smart instead of praising their effort, which I have been told is very bad. We eat candy every single day. Sometimes I get so mad at my children that I scare myself. When I talk to my kids about the history of racism in this country, I feel crushed under the weight of my direct ancestors’ enslavement of other people, and I have not yet found the actions or words to make it even remotely right to anyone. Many things that are happening in my children’s world, some of which I have control over, do not feel ideal.
I also DJ a mean living-room family dance party. I am good at apologizing. I can make a birthday cake that looks like the moon. I gave my children a beyond bountiful extended family. I managed to get my three-year-old to take a covid test without screaming. I like to freeze peanut butter cups, of all brands, and then begin by eating the tiniest bites imaginable until I can no longer stand it and shove the rest into my mouth.
What’s your deal? I bet there’s at least a few things right about it.
If we’re going to talk about ways to eat round, chocolatey things, we’ve got to talk about the most amazing media moment of the past week, this two-minute interview with NBA superstar Giannas Antetokounmpo, who will not admit that he is the best basketball player alive, wherein he explains how he a) grew up so impoverished that when he got rich and his rich friends were buying cars and shit, he was busy indulging in packaged cookies, b) spends a lot of time shooting the shit with random children and c) is just the best person imaginable. If you want more context, go here. When the aliens (or Mother Earth) finally come for us, we will show them this clip and they will, for one brief moment before they obliterate all of humanity, consider that we may be worth saving.