I am the father of two boys, Griffin and Huck. They are awesome: bright, curious, funny, and kindhearted.
Like any parent, I would love to believe that my awesome kids are a result of my awesome parenting. Sadly, expert opinion indicates it ain’t so. Genes have an enormous influence. Peers and culture have an enormous influence. But parenting styles inside the home, apart from extreme cases like abuse or neglect, have very little long-term influence on a person’s personality or success in life, at least that social scientists have been able to detect.
This isn’t to say parents and parenting aren’t important. Parents supply the genes, except in cases of adoption (or remarriage). They control, at least to some extent, the peers and environments to which children are exposed. And of course they crucially affect a child’s quality of life at home, which, as I will argue shortly, is not some minor detail.
But it’s safe to say that your kids’ long-term fate will not be meaningfully affected by the speed and timing of potty training, the brand of educational videos you purchase, or the precise tone of voice in which you discipline. A large proportion of the Parenting Industrial Complex isn’t about kids — it’s about generating content for nervous parents who feel like they should be doing something.
Another way of putting this same point is that an enormous amount of a child’s fate is determined by luck, by accidents of birth, socioeconomics, and geography. My kids are about the luckiest little bastards on the planet. They were born to stable, reasonably well-adjusted parents who have good jobs, a home in a safe neighborhood, and a large reservoir of social capital upon which to draw. (Their parents were lucky, too, in other words.) They were born healthy and haven’t been injured or suffered serious illness. They have parents who haven’t divorced, or been laid off, or faced a serious health crisis. They attend good schools alongside the children of other educated, engaged parents. They are white males, with all the advantages, seen and unseen, that come along with that.
If any one of those things had been different, parenting would be a greater challenge, no matter my parenting style. I don’t have the standing to offer any wisdom to the single mother working two jobs. I know very little about the struggles of raising children with serious mental or physical disabilities. I’ll never have to have the kinds of conversations about hatred and vulnerability that every parent of minority or LGBTQ children eventually must. My kids were practically fated to be okay as long as my wife and I didn’t fuck it up catastrophically.
If the David Brookses of the world were honest, their parenting advice would begin: Have a healthy kid, live in an affluent area (with low crime and good schools), be from a socially privileged demographic, and make a decent amount of money. From there on, it’s pretty much coasting.
Anyway, most parenting advice is bullshit, especially any I might produce.
But still. All us veteran parents believe we’ve learned a few things and are capable of helping the next wave of parents do it better. It’s one of the essential delusions that come along with parenthood. There’s no sense fighting it.
And there are lots of young, educated professionals reading Vox who are thinking about when or whether to have kids, or who have just had children. (Hi, Jose!) So, on occasion, I’m going to tell them some things I wish I’d known, or at least better appreciated, the day I found out I’d be a father. (It was Christmas Eve 2002. My wife wrapped up the positive pregnancy test in a box with a bow and told me it was an early gift.)
For today, there’s only one thing, the biggest thing of all.
Childhood is life, not preparation for life
There is a large industry in America devoted to making parents anxious, mainly so they will spend money on products and services that temporarily ease their anxieties. One recurring theme in that industry’s messaging is preparation.
To pick an example out of a hat, one popular recent parenting book is called How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Yes, after years of pressuring parents to do more, the parenting industry is now pressuring them to do less. Either way, the goal is the same: Prepare Your Kid for Success. Your child must be carefully tended to, exposed to the proper amount and intensity of stimulation, challenged but never discouraged, socialized but also individuated, taught the right skills and sent to the right lessons and schools but definitely not overparented … all to maximize her chances of Adult Success.
Remember the research, though. Most of your parenting choices pale in significance to who you are, how much money you make, and where you live. Within those parameters, your choices are unlikely to substantially affect your kid’s Adult Success at all. Whether she succeeds as an adult has to do with her genes, her friends, and a whole boatload of luck and circumstance.
You’re not on the hook for her Adult Success. You can relax.
It’s a weird way to look at things anyway: parents as program managers, kids as important projects with growth targets and deliverables. Nothing is more likely to make parents miserable than that kind of illusion of control, the idea that they can or should be managing their kids’ development, shaping, directing, and maximizing it. Those expectations make parents and children both anxious and unhappy.
The alternative to managing your kid like a project is not giving up. It’s not lack of interest, or neglect. Quite the opposite. The alternative to viewing childhood as preparation is viewing it as life, to be savored and enjoyed.
Life is just a series of moments, and it’s amazing how many of them we miss, rush past, or disrupt because our minds are elsewhere, anticipating the future or dwelling on the past. But a moment of joy or connection is its own justification, not a means to an end. Play can just be fun. Fart jokes can just be funny. Daydreaming and wasted time don’t have to be framed as developmental tools; they’re just nice.
The top piece of advice I’d give fledgling parents (which I wish I could follow better myself) is just this: Be aware of those moments, and never turn one down. If you face a choice — a moment or a chore, a moment or bedtime, a moment or work obligations, a moment or your damn iPhone — always choose the moment. They seem abundant, sometimes too abundant, in those early years. But childhood isn’t linear; it seems to accelerate faster and faster as it progresses, and when it’s over that set of memories will be all too finite.
Griffin is going to middle school this year. Soon there will be hormones and hair in weird places and, y’know, girls. Then it’s high school, and then … I’ll blink and turn around and he’ll be off, out in the world, making a life of his own. I don’t know if I’ve Prepared Him for Success, but I can already see, with aching clarity, that he’ll be gone before I’ve had enough of him.
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