11 December 2005

On Sheltering Children.

Carol Band's "Household Word" Column in December's Colorado Parent captures a phenomena that most middle class parents I know are familiar with:

for a few years, I was successful in sheltering my children - and my mental health from the loud reality of battery-operated toys. I told them that the little door onthe bottom of the Rescue Heroes Headquarters was a bank and hte taht tiny compartments on the back of Baby Mircle Moves was to hold Cherrios. . . .In pursuit of that ideal, I not only withheld the double A’s, I told them that the only station on TV was PBS, that rice cakes were cookies and that computer games would burn out their retinas. They believed me. . . .Then it all fell apart. They met other kids, went to their houses and came home with tales of wonder.

Our family's personal parenting plan doesn't include outright misrepresentations about anything, not even Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but one can fairly easily achieve more or less the same end without doing that if you have an experienced lawyer and an former college administrator on the case.

Just about the only time our television leaves PBS in the presence of the children is to watch the Olympics or a DVD. Their earlier years included no soda, very little juice, and virtually no other junk food. They don't use computers at home, let alone computer games. And, few of the toys in the house run on batteries.

But, of course, those plans aren't sustainable. No later than elementary school, they discover what everyone else was up to all those years. The theory for sheltering children is that the early years set habits and help development, even if sheltering can't be sustained forever (and may not be desirable, even if it could be).

This, of course, raises an even deeper parenting issue, which turns out to have legal and moral relevance in a wide variety of situations. The issue: "When and what parenting is more important?"

What to Expect When Your Expecting and related books inform women that their actions during pregnancy is absolutely crucial to their child's lifetime development -- letting parents breath a little sigh of relief when their child earns a good Apgar score and has a good birth weight minutes after birth. The Head Start program, for example, is based on the premise that the pre-school years will make or break a kid. For a long time the British educational system operated on the premise that a child's ability to succeed in school was established by age eleven. And, the playwrights and poets of the world don't hestitate to tell us that adolescent girls need a strong father in their lives while they are in their teens.

I'm not a developmental psychologist. I don't have a very well informed view of the matter. And, I recognize that the answer is likely to be complex. When it comes to environmental toxins, pregnancy is probably most important, then infancy, and the older a child gets the less you need to care. Oral language learning ability is another very age dependent matter, and again, earlier is more important than later. But, it isn't at all obvious that the trend is universal.

For example, it isn't at all clear to me that children who learn to read by kindergarten have an edge over kids who don't master that skill by the beginning of the second grade in the long run. And, it may well be that kids learn things like social skills or their own parenting tendencies later in life.

Until a couple of decades ago, courts had a formal doctrine called the tender years doctrine that held that young children should be in the custody of their mothers while older children should be in the custody of their fathers. The doctrine is gone on the argument that it is a gender bias, but the results aren't strikingly different under current gender neutral jurisprudence.

Another tough gender issue in parenting is the relative role of each parent, and the great "quality" v. "quantity" time debate. Is full time parenting better than morning, evening and weekend parenting (the norm for working parents), and if so, how much and at what ages is it most important? Are we right to push single parents and parents in families where both parents work full time, to rush back to work to support themselves, even if they have young children? Would children benefit if they had more time with both parents home at the same time? Is there such a thing as "quality time"?

Finally, of course, there is the question of how much good parenting, as opposed to a mere freedom from absolutely miserable conditions, even matters at all.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that while I don't know the answer, and have some doubts about how well even pretty informed sources know, these are answers that would be worth having, as they would make parenting a less anxious process for everyone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo. It's hard to find answers until the question is clearly stated. Good insight, I have often wondered about the same things.