A trend in parenting?
Peculiar similarities seem to be arising in two areas of society that often appear to be quite independent of each other; parenting and politics. The connection may be worth a closer look as the origin of some seemingly troubling societal shifts seem to be stemming from positive intentions – protective instincts.
In How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims documents some trends in parenting in the US and other countries. Working in schools, I feel that I have glimpsed some of these behaviors described, but you do need to be cautious as you get older and feel compelled to critique the ‘now’ from vague notions of a ‘then’ we can barely remember. However, the book convincingly documents certain shifts such as the increasing parental presence on US university campuses where parents continue to try and solve problems for their child-adults well into tertiary years and beyond. This is a new, but not a uniquely US phenomenon.
This parental presence on US university grounds is presented as the end of a long series of over-protective parental problem-solving that is increasingly following children all through their school experiences. It is argued that an increasing fear of harm, a powerful instinct to protect by solving their problems for them, has been leading to a more adversarial response by parents when their children confront problems in areas such as schooling and organized sports, for example. The effect of the extremes of parental problem-solving in the world of the child is that the critical thought that is part of successful problem solving is banished. Alternate perspectives have no place where the welfare of the child is concerned.
An example could be a parent abusing a coach when their child does not get a full game, a more familiar story nowadays in Australian sporting life where parent behavior has shifted markedly. Interactions with referees are even more intense. Children’s sporting competitions now outline specific behavioral expectations for spectators (parents) to protect the referee and the child players and try and ensure supportive, positive behavior is modeled by the adults. Parents can be asked to leave the grounds and play does not resume until they comply. The introduction of these now strictly-enforced rules into children’s sports hints at the increasingly active role parents are playing in solving their child’s perceived problems.
It must be said that trends are not the way people are, just certain patterns that are recognizable if you are looking for them. The pattern that is discussed in this context is the blame inherent in a response to a child’s problem and the parents’ focus on fixing the problem, protecting their child. The teacher, the referee or a coach become the adversary from the start. In these cases, it is the parent that can be seen interacting with the world, not the child. In my experience, this is not the norm by any means, however, incidences of this type of overly active parental problem-solving (which is a very subjective label, of course) seem to be on the increase.
The child learns much through these experiences; mostly blame. In times of conflict, emotions run high and there is no room to consider a situation in terms of an idea (or ideal) such as ‘respect’ for example and frame a conversation around this idea, listening and considering the thoughts of others. When we are striving to protect, we don’t search for solutions, we defeat adversaries. For this reason, we need to be careful of the behaviors that we model for our children for, in a culture of blame, problem-solving and responsibility may not have the opportunity to develop as part of a child’s life skills, absent from their repertoire as adults. Yet, how widespread is the influence of these shifts in parenting strategies? How many individuals would need to shift in order to push a population past a certain tipping point?
A trend in politics?
Various commentators have noted the increasing division between political parties in a range of different countries and it is interesting that the types of interactions between parents and the perceived problems facing their child (a bad mark from a teacher, a bad call from a referee etc) bear a striking similarity to examples of the interactions of politicians when talking about perceived problems. Immigration debates raging around the globe focusing on religion rather than immigration and people are a good example. Fear-driven rhetoric, blame and an unwillingness to consider other perspectives (not even an interest in them) have long been a part of politics, but were these tendencies more often on the periphery in the past?
If these types of interactions are becoming the norm in politics, what would this say about our expectations for our political leaders? Do we expect them to consider other perspectives, to frame discussions around ideas such as respect, compassion, courage and sincerity to take just a few examples? Are political leaders being freed of the necessity of critical thought; of being informed; of engaging in meaningful debate around these bigger ideas; of adjusting their actions and opinions based on these reflections?
If our politicians are permitted, and even encouraged, to interact without attempts at a critical consideration of the ideas of others in their public life, the permission could only be coming from the voters. I am wondering if the child-adults Lythcott-Haims warns us about are connected to this shift in expectations. After all, if a child’s world has been the fear and blame of an over-protective parent, would it not be reasonable for them to pass those expectations onto their political leaders when they reach the age to vote.
As the protectiveness of a parent and the related urge to identify and solve problems for their children is a natural, wonderful instinct, we may just need to rethink the level of support we provide our children in relation to this natural drive. We can support, but also allow them to interact with the world and solve their own problems, the smaller ones, and the bigger ones. Increase the presence of critical thought in the environments in which they grow up. Celebrate ideas. Listen and consider the ideas of other people. Be flexible. Be courageous enough to change your own opinion. Question others. Be prepared to be questioned yourself. Perhaps, parents, this is all we need to do. A shifting set of expectations that our children see could one day be passed onto expectations for those on the ballot who are responsible for representing us.