“We don’t do pop.”
That was the response a neighbourhood mom gave a friend of mine (let’s call her Charlotte) when Charlotte offered the mom’s son a root beer during a recent playdate. Charlotte was telling me and my wife about this encounter as we sat in our living room one Saturday, 5-ish—or it might even have been 4-ish—sipping chardonnay (we definitely “do” booze chez nous). On another occasion, when Charlotte suggested the kids come over to have “breakfast for dinner,” the same no-pop mom said, “We don’t do breakfast dinners.” It all got me thinking: Where do we draw the line between being good parents making good choices for our kids, and being smug and superior “sancti-mommies” and “sancti-daddies”?
To be honest, though I think she could’ve been less rude about it, I get where the sancti-mom was coming from with the pop. My sister lives in North Dakota and she’s been sufficiently Americanized that she and her children drink pop with every meal, and also in between. Now my sister is—hmm, how shall I put this without seeming rude myself—no willowy Gwyneth Paltrow-type, and neither are her kids, yet she never makes the connection to all the sugary drinks they consume. My mother, when she visits, has been tempted to say something—and really, if she did, would that be so bad? Would she be guilty of being a “sancti-granny”? I think not—just a concerned citizen dropping a little nutritional 21st-century science on my sister, just as if my sis was smoking in a minivan full of kids (I know it’s not the same, but bear with me for the sake of argument). But no breakfast for dinner? When did we get so precious about everything?
Ask any parent and they’ll tell you they live their lives in a perpetual fog of finger-wagging, pooh-pooh-ing and unsolicited advice/criticism. I know one working mother of three beautiful, well-behaved children who recently had a dinner guest suggest she take a parenting course because she was “too strict.” Another mother I know, who adopted a six-year-old Ethiopian boy—at great personal expense, flying back and forth numerous times to Addis Ababa with her husband, cutting like Edward Scissorhands through a thicket of paperwork and experiencing the emotional rollercoaster of adoption—was recently lectured over lunch by a guest for being “too permissive” for letting her son play with an iPad at the dinner table.
“You can’t win, these days,” says Leah, a mother of a nine-month-old son. “Parenting is like the Olympics of moral judgment, especially for a new mother. I feel like people are making judgments about me constantly: I’m over-breastfeeding, under-breastfeeding, I’ve got the wrong kind of stroller, I let my kid cry too long, I pick him up too soon…”
A lot of it is coated in a saccharine shell of passive aggression, she says—like the friend who told Leah she “couldn’t bear” to listen to her kid cry when Leah mentioned she was sleep-training her baby. But she admits she does the same thing: “I have things I am privately judgey about—stupid baby names, for instance, or mothers who don’t even try to breastfeed or parents who follow their kids around the playground—but for the most part, I try to keep my trap shut.”
For most kids growing up when I did in the ’70s, there was little hand-wringing over safety or hovering by the folks. There is excellent documentary footage of my parents smoking and drinking in the backyard while I, diaper-clad and sans sunscreen, turn lobster-red in my playpen. My wife tells tales of climbing a rotting rope up the side of a rusty freighter with her brothers, her parents having no idea where any of them were. “Parent” has gone from noun to verb, with all that this entails: instead of just being around while our kids do all the doing, now we’re hyper-involved.
Carl Honoré, author of Under Pressure: Putting the Child Back in Childhood (Vintage Canada) attributes part of this shift to the fact that we’re having fewer kids and having them later in life. Our ultra-uptight parenting style also reflects our fears for the future—and desire to spare our children all the pain of living. “We live in a control-freak culture that wants to eliminate risk and doubt from every human endeavour,” he says. “The upshot is that parenting has become a rat race where anxious, well-meaning parents fret over the tiniest detail of their children’s lives, convinced even the smallest error will scar them for life.”
Honoré advocates what amounts to an approach you might almost call “The New Neglect.” He cites, among many other examples, The Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife, Scotland, where preschool children spend the whole day outside in the woods, learning to negotiate the dangers of open campfires, poisonous mushrooms and harsh weather. “They thrive on the freedom they are given,” says Honoré. “The Secret Garden kids are highly sought after in the surrounding schools because they are able to sit still and concentrate.”
Closer to home, a dad-friend of mine points to a revision made to a playground in his neighbourhood as symbolic of the whole sancti-trend in parenting. After it was destroyed by a fire two years ago, the structure was rebuilt with great fanfare—and one critical difference: “It used to be parents couldn’t get into the main castle-themed area and it was like this neat secret fort the kids could hang out in,” he says. “But when they rebuilt it, they made it so the parents can get in and now they’re all in there hovering over their precious children and the whole experience is ruined. The ability to create and role play is lost,” he says. “I mean, what do they think could happen in there?” I get the anxiousness that comes with being a parent, but are our kids losing out when we get too in their faces?
I was a stay-at-home dad for many years (I still am, I suppose, though my kids are all older and in school now), and there’s no doubt there was a raised-by-wolves quality to my parenting style. I never changed their diapers until they were heavy as bricks, practically hanging around their ankles. I have recollections of going to the park and all the organized mommies would pull out carrot sticks, juice boxes and Goldfish Crackers and my kids would turn to me: “Dad, I’m hu-u-ungry.” And I would force them to become little snack-panhandlers: “Please Miss Total Stranger Mom, could I have a cracker?”
I guess I have never had that guilty-parent gene. I tell people, “My children were brought up in an atmosphere of benign neglect.” And I only say benign to make it sound good. If at the end of the day they’d eaten well, spent some time outdoors and were all in one piece, I figured I’d done my job. But I love them to bits, and three more soulful, thoughtful and polite kids would be hard to find, if I say so myself.
So here’s my very modest proposal: not a return to ’70s-style parenting, but to give our kids a little space. And to get off each other’s backs a bit, be more supportive and less critical of one another as parents, and realize that most of us are, in fact, doing an awesome job. Maybe the real line between good parenting and sancti-parenting is when you start to judge others and/or feel judged even when you know your kids are healthy and happy. So to that, I say: my wife and I make our choices, other parents make theirs. Let a thousand flowers bloom.