Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Parenting 101

At my oboe lesson today Kyoko and  had a good laugh over the fact that a Baby Einstein video she saw recently introduces little kids to the instruments of an orchestra but does not include an oboe. 

"No oboe!  Can you believe it?"

"I guess they skip tuning altogether," I said wryly.  

"The wind section did have a saxophone and recorder, though," Kyoko recalled.

On my way home I started thinking about videos and television for kids. I do think these media get demonized a lot.  They're not all bad; some programs are quite good and well-produced, in fact.  I can still sing some of the Sesame Street jingles from my 70's childhood. I think it's excess or poor quality that should be criticized. 

That's one thing I have to admit I found annoying during Obama's campaign:  he kept telling parents to turn the T.V. off in a tone I found rather critical.  I whole-heartedly agree in principle that too much T.V. can be a bad thing - as can too much of anything - but I found such an unqualified imperative presumptuous. There are many things on T.V. my kids and I would not have wanted to miss enjoying together, just as there are things on film, in books, in museums, and in any number of sources that we would cherish as well. I didn't appreciate being judged for something that so far has not been a hindrance or a big problem to our children's development.

I have a couple of pet peeves when it comes to parenting advice.

On the one hand I resent the manipulative condescension of some parenting books, gurus, and medical personnel - those that claim to know what's best for children, assume that we don't, and proceed to tell us that we should do as they say, or else our children might not grow up to be smart, talented, successful people - the implication being, of course, that it's not enough to be an ordinary, hardworking, decent person; one must be smart, talented, and successful (whatever that means).

There's a fear-mongering tone in some of the patronizing "advice," almost a superstitious-ness: Oh my goodness, better not let your toddlers even SEE a television set before the age of two; they might grow up to be illiterate, violent pot-heads!  They might not become "worthy" of an Ivy League School!  Ack!  Don't let little ones crawl into bed with you when they have nightmares!  They might not learn to be independent!  Hmm.  An independent three-year old?  Isn't that an oxymoron, and isn't it SUPPOSED to be an oxymoron?  Isn't it better to console a fearful, tearful child and let him or her know there's someone to turn to for help, and it's ok to ask for it?

On the other hand, I deplore the equally manipulative messages of companies that market products designed (supposedly) to boost children's developmental capabilities, intelligence, or whatever else people think needs boosting.  There's magical thinking in such messages - an appeal to our superstitious side, the part of us that needs to try to control what happens in life.  Hey, folks - what we do now can make them geniuses later! Don't you want to do what's best for your child?

I am very much in the moderation camp.  What we do for, and more importantly with, our children has some impact on their future, but so does what our children are physically and chemically born with, and what they discover apart from our influence.  There's only so much we can control.  Mozart isn't a magic spell; sharing music with our kids, and really listening to it and each other, might be, though. 

Do I let my son play video games? Sure. I'm comfortable with that because he also reads at least two grade levels above his actual grade and voraciously devours books with curiosity and thoughtfulness.  Do I let my daughter watch T.V.?  Yup. We try to watch with her.  We respond to the shows she likes.  We also respond to the songs she composes and the stories she writes, the films she dreams of making, the shows she's in. We try to put nutritious food in front of them but we don't criticize them (or beat ourselves up) as if it were the end of the world if they have a slice of cake every once in a while.  Moderation.

There are a couple of things we do try to be consistent about.  We try to make sure we can answer yes to the following questions - 

1) Can our children perceive and be absolutely sure of their parents' unswerving love?   
2) Are we teaching them right from wrong? 
3) Are they learning, and motivated to learn?  and 
4) Are we spending quality time together as a family and with each of our kids?

Perhaps this sounds simplistic.  Perhaps it's a little smug of us not to read piles of parenting books and stick to a hundred little rules we and our babysitters absolutely must follow.  But here's the thing I can guarantee ANY parent, whether they fall closer to our style on the parenting spectrum or to some other style:  

Are you a terrible parent?  

YES, you are - sometimes.  

Am I?  Ditto.  

Are you a wonderful parent?  

YES, absolutely - sometimes.  

Am I?  I certainly hope so, at least some of the time.  

Will most of our kids turn out just fine even if we make a few mistakes along the way?  

I believe they will, barring any special problems or situations, provided we proactively teach them right from wrong, and they can perceive and be absolutely sure of our unswerving love.

That's my approach to parenting.  I didn't get it from a book, or from my master's degree in child development; I just try to take my cues from my kids and to be there for them when they need me.  I guess we'll see how that works out!


Michael Leddy said...

Some of our most interesting times as a younger family came when we paid our kids not to watch television, 50¢ each, a day, just as an experiment. It lasted for a couple of months or so, I think.

But they also watched plenty, mostly PBS, and now they have strange and wonderful episodes of nostalgia going back to it on YouTube.

dm said...

Interesting post. In particular, I'm very happy to see the positive attitude to video games -- it seems quite popular to condemn video games as agents of sloth, vice, and intellectual laziness.

I've always found video games to be quite enjoyable, and have many good childhood memories playing with friends and family. I'd recommend Mario Kart / Prince of Persia : Sands of Time for your son if you have a Gamecube, or the Lego Indiana Jones / Lego Star Wars series if you have an XBox 360 :)

Elaine Fine said...

We did get tapes out of the library, though: Sherry Lewis and Lamb Chop were great, and there was also (gasp) Wee Sing, and the deeply-important "Baby Songs." Sharon, Lois, and Bram were honored guests in our house, both on the television and on cassette tapes when the kids were very little and we had cable.

It was when television started to start to dominate their lives that we started paying the kids not to watch. We got rid of our cable, and bought an antenna that brought in three or four stations, so the kids didn't see it as that much of a major sacrifice (their friends had cable and Nintendo machines).

I think we kept it up for longer than a few months. The jar next to the TV got pretty full of quarters. We used the money to buy games, books, and video tapes. Eventually we had to choose between a tree and an antenna, so we chose to keep the tree and get cable again, but this was when the kids were already teenagers.

T. said...

Funny - my husband and kids are playing together on the Wii as I write this. All kinds of raucous laughter going on in the other room. Then we'll get ready for tomorrow. Then we'll probably watch Glee together. NOT a typical night for us, honestly!

We do set pretty firm limits on all these indulgences, be they video games, internet use, T.V., or what-have-you. Reading, NPR listening, classical music listening, and other thoughtful pursuits carry no restrictions. As long as we don't catch ourselves sacrificing the good stuff for the fluff, or letting ourselves get consumed by the fluff, we don't put a lid on a little fun / frivolity.

DM - my son loves Mario Kart. I'll have to see if he knows of Prince of Persia. His other favorites seem to be Age of Mythology and AdventureQuest. At the same time, he's engrossed in Rick Riordan and Susan Cooper books, progressing with violin, and acing school. Life is pretty good for the little guy! :)

The Girl said...

Great post! I agree completely. :)

Kim said...

Great post T. I agree with EVERYTHING you said. Sounds like you and I run our households similarly. Piano playing, books, listening to good music...those sorts of things are never off limits...heck, even a good game of Oregon Trail on the computer is considered good here. TV gets watched and I'm not one of those people who won't let their two-yr-old watch. My son learns a LOT from PBS moderation. It can be a big help in the morning time when I need to get through Spelling with my daughter...he may watch 2 shows. If he's not interested, he goes to play in his room. Even he understands moderation in simplest form. lol.
I love what you said about we parents making mistakes. Honestly, I use my mistakes as a parent to teach my children. Humility is such a huge lesson to teach our children and what better way to teach it by showing and telling our children how we as adults make mistakes? Daily. Great post...super great post. :)

Old MD Girl said...

When it comes to kids, people do seem to get very militant about things that don't matter very much. Somehow common sense gets thrown out the window every time.

For the record, My parents gave me one of those 8 bit Nintendos for Christmas when I was 9, and managed not to turn into a junkie/serial killer. My mom used to play with me. Fortunately I (almost) always beat her. :-)

I still love video games. Too bad there's no time for them anymore! *sigh*

K. said...

So true! My parents gave us no limits on TV watching and still I became an avid reader and did fine...sometimes when you are too strict it backfires on you!

I also let my kids play video games and watch TV (within reason) and I actually LOVE watching Spongebob myself! We love imitating the characters and quoting kids learn a lot of great vocabulary from that show! It can't be that bad!

T. said...

An interesting related article:

We've never seen any of the Baby Einstein videos, but I must admit we've been fans of many Disney films.

I must agree wholeheartedly, though, with Michael Leddy's post decrying Disney's total omission of Charles Dickens' name from their latest project, A Christmas Carol. THAT is disgraceful, arrogant, ignorant, and wrong. Check out his post here: