Sunday, January 3, 2010

Will slow parenting lead to slow children?

Since the boomers became adults there has been a perceived trend towards their raising overscheduled, stressed out children. Classes, sports, lessons every hour of the day, no downtime, no time to just be kids. Even a decade ago every article and cultural reference presented this as a bad thing.

We are now seeing the rise of more formal reactionary movements, slow parenting etc. in an attempt to bring some "sanity" back to to children's lives. It is a seductive notion. And not just for WASPs and other "privileged" classes, but also for those in the process of assimilating. One can find articles, like this one counseling the american born/raised children of Asian immigrants on how to understand and deal with their overbearing parents. Parents, who, having been raised in poverty and worse, found that good grades were a chance to escape, sometimes literally from death. Philip Guo writes:

I'll never forget the story that a middle-aged Vietnamese man close to me told about his childhood. He said that he grew up being sort of a slacker and never taking school seriously. But when the Vietnam War started, the government drafted boys to be in the army. The only way to get out of the draft was to get high enough grades and test scores to be admitted into an elite high school (the government wanted to spare the smartest boys from war so that they could instead be groomed to be the scholars and leaders of the next generation). Since going to war was pretty much a death sentence, he and his youngest brother studied their asses off in school and for their standardized tests, and did well enough to be admitted to an elite high school. They had 4 other brothers who didn't do well enough --- all of them were sent to war and died. Many of his other friends who didn't do well enough on those exams also died in the war.
But I wonder if the golden age being extolled by the slow parenting movement parents and immigrants wanting a more "normal" american childhood for their kids, isn't an age that is dead and buried for us.

Childhood, certainly the teen version thereof, seems mostly a recent invention. Today's children in the United States lead lives nothing like those in aboriginal, agricultural or even early industrial civiliations. And children who grew up post-WWII — the boomers, most especially, but continuing through today, led lives of unprecedented privilege. No requirement to work. Usually one parent at home. School and education the only requirement.

But most importantly, being white and middle class plus was sufficient for automatic access to the good life. An aristocrat's birthright spread to an entire population. Not that there wasn't a recognition of various outcomes based on talent, luck, ambition, etc. But it seemed that there was a floor for anyone (white, middle class and American) who put out the minimum of effort.

And this is what the slow parenting movement looks back to. A time when kids could just be kids because you didn't have to worry about your children's future. It was guaranteed.

But perhaps it is the immigrant parents that have it right. If the American empire is finished, or fading, no one in this country's place is assured. Your kids are competing with the best from around the world. And those children's parents are not so concerned that they are overstressed or  overscheduled. Education and the access it brings they continue to view as a matter of life and death or at least a decent life and an impoverished one.

I have a friend from a well-off WASP family. While his brothers' went to Harvard he choose a more artistic, 'self-actualized' life, with the indulgence of his parents. Now, with his own family to support he says he wishes his parents had kicked his ass into gear.

Maybe the choice is really between a fun slow parenting childhood today followed with a 3rd world factory job as an adult; or a stressful overscheduled childhood today but a chance to stay in the new global middle class as an adult. Not so seductive a notion but worth considering.

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