The Problem With Parents
Those of you who come here often know that I’m no fan of the more obnoxious elements of the “child-free” community, and indeed positively delight in their snitty impotent rage at small children and the people who breed them. That being said, I will give the childfree folks credit for harping on one very important truth, which is that becoming a parent often turns people in assholes.
Which is to say: They weren’t assholes before (or maybe they were and either they hid it well or were in such a way that they were generally indistinguishable from other non-child-bearing people), but later, in the performance of their child-raising duties, they somehow became sphincterfied. In other words, they’re not assholes who happen to be parents, they are assholes because they are parents. Simply put, there are a lot of asshole parents out there, and if their numbers are not growing, then they at the very least drawing more attention to themselves.
I say this in the wake of reading the cover stories of last week’s Time and Newsweek magazines: Time’s cover story was on how obnoxious parents are making it difficult for teachers to teach, on account that they go ballistic every time junior comes home with a “B” instead of an “A”; Newsweek’s piece was how today’s mothers feel suffocated by “The Myth of the Perfect Mother” — the idea that they can be great moms and great at work and great spouses and, oh I don’t know, great at origami, too. Naturally, living up to this expectation is no fun and a lot of women are running around ragged and irritable at the end of the day, and secretly (but no so secretly they they didn’t confide it to the author of this Newsweek article) enjoy childrearing about as much as they enjoy any other dreary household chore. And naturally they feel guilty about that. In the case of the Time parents, they really are assholes; in the case of the Newsweek mothers, they’re worried they are assholes if they’re not perfect, and making all the effort required to be perfect is likely to make them a bit of an asshole.
I’m an asshole, and I’m also parent, although I try not to be former because of the latter. Be that as it may, I feel I’m qualified to comment on both topics. So let me forward one theory of mine, which, while not the complete answer, is at least part of it.
This is the era of the Gen-X parent, and if we know anything about the Gen-X stereotype, it’s that this cohort of Americans was shaped by Atari, Star Wars action figures, and divorce, divorce, divorce, divorce. Thereby, I suspect that many observers might say Gen-X parents are fueled by a desire to do a better job at parenting than their parents, and yet, given what a botched job their parents made of it, feel like they have no positive role models and/or ideas on how to go about being a good parent. So they overcompensate in their neurotically smothering way. If this essay were a Gen-X movie, this would be the part where a goateed Ethan Hawke would explain, between unfiltered cigarette puffs, how he and all his friends were raised by Bill Cosby and Meredith Baxter Birney on Thursday nights far more than their own fathers.
As attractive as this is as an excuse, it’s a pretty crappy excuse, and I don’t know if it’s on point. For one thing, the majority of the Gen-X cohort is now on the far side of 30, and the unwritten rule is if you’re over 30 and still blaming your parents for, well, anything, you need to be taken aside and told quietly to get a life (you get a pass if your parents are still actively trying to screw with your life, but honestly, that takes more effort than most senior citizens are going to make). Yes, yes, it’s awful you were in the middle of that horrible divorce. Here’s a hug. Now move on. And point of fact, most Gen-Xers have moved on, settled their issues with mom and dad, and I doubt are actively taking these dormant issues out on their kids thereby.
I don’t think it’s that Gen-Xers are asshole parents because they have issues with their own parents anymore, I think they’re asshole parents because they have issues with each other. Allow me to posit a central truth regarding Gen-Xers: We don’t much like other Gen-Xers. It should be obvious: We’re all witty and smart, in that casual, pop culture-y way that makes for amusingly light banter at get-togethers that cleverly disguises the true purpose of Gen-X communication, which is to find that weak link in someone else’s intellectual defenses that exposes them as a fraud, confirming that they’re not really your equal no matter how much money, sex or prestige they have, relative to you. It’s a generation of defensive egalitarians — it’s not “we’re all equal,” it’s “none of you is better than me.” And that’s no way to run a railroad. As Gen-Xers get older, this approach to their cohort has expanded to deal with people who are older than they (because we’re all adults now), and adults younger as well (because they don’t know much).
How does this liberal (and, coming as it does from a Gen-Xer, self-incriminating) beating on Gen-Xers relate to parenting? In relation to the parents having issues with the teachers, simply enough: When a teacher suggests your kid is something other than your own personal conception of your kid, it’s an implicit criticism of you, and that’s not to be bourne, because what does the teacher know? If the teacher were actually someone important enough to be listened to, they wouldn’t be a teacher, now would they? Fucking teachers, man. The problem lay not in you — it couldn’t — therefore, the problem is the teacher, or the school, or the damn No Child Left Behind act that all those red state bastards rammed through Congress. And out come the knives and out comes the attack. Meanwhile, little Jimmy is over there eating his crayons and not actually learning much. But this is the point: It’s not about the kid, it’s about the parent. The poor kid, in this instance, is an extension of the parent’s twitchiness in dealing with the world in general.
(This also goes back to the childfree folks’ complain about parents in a general sense — they’ve got these children completely off the hook in a public space and when someone calls them on it, the parents get monstrously defensive. But they’re not reacting to the criticism of their children’s behavior — they’re reacting to the criticism of them as a person. Again, the kid enters into the equation only as a tangential.)
With the “perfect mother” issue the “Gen-x self-dislike” factor is somewhat more muted simply because the expectations of mothers in general is a rather more complicated, and I think that in this situation there’s a lot more concern for the actual children involved. At the risk of sounding sexist, I think “motherhood” is more child-oriented than “parenthood”; “Parenthood” is a slightly more dispassionate state that acknowledges the rest of the world, whereas “motherhood” is about what happens between you and your kid (“fatherhood,” ideally, has the same dynamic). But naturally we compare how we handle out relationship with our child with how others like us handle theirs, and in the Gen-X, with its implicit undercurrent of antagonism, this is fraught with issues.
What to do? Well, naturally, I think the first thing for Gen-X parents to do is to get over themselves and whatever festering defensiveness they have regarding other people. Gen-Xers are capable of liking people their own age, of course: We all have close friends. It’d be nice if we didn’t automatically question the competence and/or worthiness of everyone else we meet. In other words, try to reset our defaults to actually like people until and unless they go out of their way to prove they are, in fact, generally unlikeable. It’s a thought, anyway. The end result of this is that parents then might be able to listen to teachers and other without feeling like it’s a referendum on them as a person. It’s not (generally). It’s about your kid, and what your kid needs.
Which is the second thing. Your kid: A little person who is probably like you in a lot of ways and yet is not you at all. Despite your best efforts, your kids will turn out as someone who is not you, and who has their own agenda in the world. In my opinion, the goal of parenthood is to teach your kid how to explore the world and find himself or herself in it; this naturally requires that the focus is on the kid, and not the parent. The parent who is leaping in and mud-wrestling a teacher over a “B” or bribing the local daycare center staff to get their kid in is probably not focused on what the kid needs so much as what the parent thinks he needs to prove. The parent who gets her hackles up about someone complaining her kid is acting like a hopped-up monkey in a public place isn’t actually doing her kid a favor if the kid is, in fact, acting like a hopped-up monkey.
What it comes down to is that when parents act like assholes, it’s usually because they’re thinking about themselves more than they’re thinking about their kids. As parents, it’s time to get over ourselves. It’s probably better for our kids, and it’s certainly better for how the rest of the world sees us as parents.