The problem with parenting styles
And how many fucks does a parent need to give to get their shit done?
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Content warning: Once when my niece Carmen was little, as she stood at the bus stop on a frigid New York morning, she asked her mom if it was okay to use a bad word, if she really needed to. Her mother, a lifelong wordsmith, thought it over and replied affirmatively. “Mommy…” Carmen stage-whispered, “…it’s FUCKING cold!” My mother also taught me that it’s okay to swear, as long as you don’t knowingly offend people, and said swear word is the only way to effectively communicate your message. I feel, deep in my heart, that each and every one of the 19 f-bombs in this post is justified. But if your mama taught you something different, feel free to take 10 minutes to do whatever else you like and come back next week, no offense :)
My friend, who I’ve already told you has the most long, luxurious hair and an appreciation for 90’s hip-hop and R & B that makes me feel truly seen, said something the other day that I can’t stop thinking about. She was discussing her work, and her methods of survival as a disrupter (I don’t mean in the way that Quibi “disrupted” television-watching, more like in the “telling people shit they don’t want to hear” way) in a field where a lot of folks throw around a lot of money and don’t always think about whether it’s doing a lot of harm or good. “I’m just trying,” she explained, locks flowing all over the Zoom window, “to give the least amount of fucks necessary to get my shit done.”
As an ADHDer, I tend to hyper-focus. I find a new jam (or rediscover one from the 90s) and play it over and over and over again. I obsess over a two-foot-wide empty space in my apartment that I’m positive can be of some use. According to my husband, I keep giving the same speech about why grapes are the worst fruit. This week, I have been stuck on my friend’s phrasing - on the idea that there is an ideal number of fucks to give about a thing. That if you cross this line, either the work suffers, or you get so in your own way you can’t move forward.
I am constantly arguing with the inner parents in my head, two little homunculi that look like how I imagine I look as a mother, basically Scarlett Johansson in the happy parts of Marriage Story. One knows that my kids will likely be totally fine if xyz happens, and that even if they aren’t, I cannot walk through life expecting my children to be fine all the time. What a setup that is. Then there’s the other one, fabricated mostly from years steeped in a parenting culture that promises results and scolds on all sides and wants to optimize this experience of raising a child, like it’s a genetically modified strawberry or an online platform for tracking your diet goals. One wants me to give all the fucks, the other, very few. What, I wonder, is the least amount of fucks given required to be a good parent? And what would parenting be like if I could give just those requisite fucks, and then get the “shit done” of being a person, living an independent life even as I’m tethered to others, and actually enjoying my children rather than trying to do the right thing all the damn time.
Americans love taxonomies, so it’s no surprise that there are official names for those conflicting voices in our heads. If you believe the parenting research, and you have many good reasons not to believe it, giving too few fucks is considered neglect at worst, and “permissive” parenting at best. Neglect is real, and it can be gnarly. But, as I have learned in many anxious phone calls with Child Protective Services, not caring too much about your kids is a far cry from official neglect. Permissive parenting, on the other hand, is characterized by a lot of warmth and responsiveness but little structure and limits. These are the parents who buy weed for their kids, even smoke it with them and then hit on their friends. Or the ones who rarely track their kid’s whereabouts or follow-up on how they’re doing in school beyond reading their report cards. We are told that this is no good for kids. Shame, shame, shame.
Giving too many fucks, on the other hand, might get you called a helicopter parent (hiss!) or, if your name-callers are child psychology nerds (if this is the case, I have some great rebuttals for you), an “authoritarian” parent. Helicopter parents give so many fucks about their kids doing well that they do everything for them and never require self-sufficiency (think Lori Loughlin, the winner of the 2020 Helicopter Parenting Award). Authoritarian parents, the opposite of permissive, combine low warmth and responsiveness with high limits, imposing all sorts of rules and monitoring their kids heavily, even if they don’t jump in to bail them out or, say, bribe a high school rowing coach to pretend their kid is on their team so they can get them into college.
“Authoritative” parents are, we are told, the answer to this awful mess. They offer both a lot of warmth and responsiveness and a good amount of monitoring and limit-setting. This is, supposedly, the dream. And even though the academics who coined these terms obviously weren’t interested in marketing (if they were, they would not have given two of their three parenting styles almost exactly the same name), others have gladly picked up that mantle. If you skim a random book in the parenting section of your local Barnes & Noble (if you can find it - the layout of a Barnes & Noble is one enormous prank on anyone who wants to actually buy books), even the most “child-centered” ones will tell you that you are supposed to give a lot of fucks about boundaries and limits, but you are also supposed to set them in a really nice voice and respect and honor all of your child’s feelings about them. I believe you could call this approach “neo-liberal” parenting, and though it packages itself as being somewhat laidback, it actually requires a high level of intensity and fanaticism to perform.
But the biggest problem with these classifications is the one that plagues the conclusions made from much research, including the research I’ve ingested on pregnant women, theories of intelligence, or even reading development; life is a lot more complicated than research. In a research study, you even out or “control for” the impact of socio-economic status, number of siblings, parental educational attainment. But you can’t control for the way one parent’s strict approach, in the cultural context of their family, and with the temperament of their child, feels like just the right amount of fucks to give, while another parent’s “balanced” style doesn’t work for their kid. What of the parent who is raising a child in a high-crime neighborhood, or a dyslexic child, or a child who is at-risk of experiencing racial profiling? Surely that parent would, and should, give some extra fucks? And how about the parent who has a chronic illness, who needs to use their energy wisely? Or the single parent? Surely they do not have the luxury of giving an enormous amount of fucks, or maybe they do it anyway, because they have to, but their fucks have a different flavor to them than the fucks other parents give.
There have, in fact, been many cross-cultural follow-up studies that suggest that different parenting styles have different outcomes in different cultures. The children of Asian parents, for example, don’t seem to suffer from their parent’s authoritarian-ness (that’s the strict-not-warm one, see how bad the branding is on this???). And Spanish parents may do well by being more permissive. Even the researcher who started this work in the 1960s, Diana Baumrind, found that mild corporal punishment, such as spanking, in certain cultural and familial contexts, was not necessarily detrimental. She was slammed for this by neo-liberals, and though I’m not jazzed about spanking, I think that’s a little narrow-minded.
It should also be said that much of the parenting literature is only loosely related to any research at all, it’s just based on philosophies that we are made to understand, explicitly or implicitly, will lead to great things. And what are we measuring here? What is the outcome of parenting anyway? Surely it cannot be, absolutely, that our children are healthy and happy? How can we possibly be tasked with that, in a world so full of other forces? How can we know what’s best for our child when even the experts are really mostly talking about a few middle-class white kids from a few towns with universities with parents who would sign up for a research study? As I point out to my kids often, there is nothing inherently “normal” about a bunch of well-to-do white people.
In these early years of parenting, probably in all the years, exhaustion does seem normal. Frustration is normal. And wanting the best for your kids, wanting to keep them happy and healthy and feeling good about themselves, all normal. But if I give the amount of fucks about my parenting that I am being encouraged by writers and speakers and podcasters to give, I feel pretty confident that I will lose out on a whole lot of delight. And my kids will lose out too - because instead of being myself, I’ll be tallying up all those fucks, measuring them against some expectation that only exists in a vacuum or a Powerpoint presentation.
We all have a story about our parents, often that they didn’t give enough fucks about one thing or another. But these are posthumous. But at least some of those things may not have been the things they should have known to care about. They came to light because of a unique positioning of experiences and personality and religion and race and resources and education and a thing some kid said to you once that you still repeat in your head 30 years later. We all want to do right by our kids, but parenting is less cause and effect than we’d like to imagine. I’m still trying to figure out what doing right by my kids means to me, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean the same as it does for every one of you, and that seems just fine.
Decades after her initial studies, Diana Baumrind continued to critique and revise her own work, which is somewhat rare for a celebrated academic. When I was in graduate school, I used to see her in the locker room at the UC Berkeley gym. Even in her 80s, she swam every single day. Rumor had it that when she travelled for work, she would only stay in hotels with pools. I always marveled at her personal discipline - at her ability to get her shit done. I, on the other hand, can barely pay a credit card bill on time. Seems like Diana and I would have had very different parenting styles.