Monday, December 31, 2012

Third World Green Daddy 39: Benign neglect and childrearing styles

My wife and I have been in charge of three kids for the past year and a half:  my son Sam, my stepdaughter Gabri, and my wife's nephew Manuel.  In many ways, raising these three kids has involved three different parenting styles, because we got them by three different paths.  Sam is two years old, and he was born of our marriage.  Despite occasional debates as to how best to raise and treat him, things have been relatively easy thus far, because he's our kid and no one else's (though of course he has a phalanx of grandparents and cousins and his sister that help raise him).  Plus he's still just a baby.  Raising Gabriela, my teenage stepdaughter, has been a fairly distinct experience from Sam, first of all because she's much older, but also because she's not my biological daughter.  There are certain things I don't feel comfortable imposing on her, and she wouldn't accept my authority on them anyway.  Plus our family has to coordinate with her dad in many decisions as to her upbringing.  All that said, and despite many years of butting heads, Gabri is in many ways more like me than I would ever have imagined.  Her sense of justice, her occasional intolerance and conservatism when it comes to things she considers frivolous, and increasingly an austere, anti-consumerist lifestyle have clearly been influenced by me; I hope some of my inputs have been positive, and that she hasn't simply adopted my most radical, intolerant stances.  Manuel has been yet another situation.  He was raised by his mother until he was 17 (with considerable input from his aunt, my wife Caro), and we have only taken over since the middle of last year.  He was already pretty well formed as a person when he came to us, and I haven't ever felt very comfortable participating directly in his upbringing, though my wife has done a wonderful job bringing out his finer points and discouraging any bad habits he might have.

There was a period about a year ago when our two teenage charges didn't come to many family get-togethers.  Caro's family is very big, and they try to get together at least once a month or so.  We always have fun seeing everyone and catching up.  At any rate, Gabri and Manu often didn't want to go to these events, and Caro let them stay home and do their own thing.  I asked myself if this was normal in families, whether in Colombia or the US.  Family events had never been optional in my childhood, and I wouldn't have wanted to miss them, anyway.  Had childrearing changed since I was a kid?  Was the situation different with bigger kids that could take care of themselves alone, as opposed to my situation as an only child?  Was it a difference between lenient parenting in Colombia and stricter mores in the US?  Or was our teenage kids' non-participation in family events a sign of the steady disintegration of tradition and family that seems to plague all modern societies?

This type of thing also had me wondering what to do with Manuel at times.  As I said, years spent with Gabri have endowed us with a certain understanding of what each one can or can't do with the other, and I am able to incur to some extent in the decisions that affect her.  But Manu grew up as someone else's kid, and came under my care precisely in his most lethargic, apathetic phase of adolescence.  Maybe his non-participation in family events, as well as other non-participations in various aspects of life, was simply a part of normal male adolescence.  A Chicago Public School teacher friend of mine once remarked in response to the increasing concern for poor male performance in high school that the problem of "What do we do with adolescent males?" is by no means a new one.  Many cultures send them to war, or to hunt, or otherwise remove them from normal, acceptable norms of daily life.  I've heard that the Vikings lived in communal longhouses, and a normal part of male development was that a teenage boy would spend a year or so just rolling around in the ashes of the central fireplace, acting like a crazy person.  Maybe this was what Manu and other teenage boys needed.

Colombians certainly do have a different childrearing style than I am accustomed to, though as I remarked above, I think most of the particularities of raising our different children has more to do with their respective situations and our relationship to them, as opposed to cultural norms.  To me and to my Spanish father-in-law, Colombians seem to spoil their kids.  Well into adolescence and adulthood children will cuddle with parents, ask them to do basic things for them like warming their food or bringing them things from another room, and generally act like spoiled babies.  Colombians call this way of babying people "consentir", though it doesn't have the negative connotations of "to spoil" in English.  In fact, Colombians of all stripes seem to regard this type of spoiling as the ultimate expression of care and affection.  Mix that up with the economic inequality inherent to Colombian society, and you have a whole ethic where gettting others to serve you (even if they're hired help and not family members) is viewed as a cute show of affection and closeness, and not as imposition or oppression.  Obviously I'm sort of appalled by this way of doing things, because it contrasts so strongly with the ethic of self-sufficiency, fixing things, and not being a burden to others that I was brought up with.  That said, I wonder how typical my upbringing and my ethic was in the US, and how common the opposite happens, with parents spoiling their kids and never teaching them valuable qualities like responsibility.  The society-scale evidence in the US would seem to indicate the latter approach; we are increasingly a soft, spoiled, rash people with little sense of responsibility or self-control.  At any rate, a positive spin on Colombian parenting would be that it encourages a realistic recognition of our interdependence with others, and prizes affection and gentle words.  In any case, I can't say that one parenting style or the other seems to have created a clearly more healthy society.  Both Colombia and the US are beset by problems of inequality, irresponsibility, laziness, and lack of consideration.

A quick aside on this note has to do with something I read about food pouches that parents can give their kids to suck on instead of actually preparing and sharing a meal with them.  This idea sounds ridiculous to me, and is just one more component of a sick lifestyle where people are harried, eat like shit, don't spend time with their families, and in general are oblivious to real life.  It is what the article refers to as unstructured, "free-range parenting".  Another vomit-inducing quote:  "mobile food technology for the modern family".  The author does a pretty good job of exploring the ethical concerns raised by the existence of these food packets.  I'm especially pissed off by the quotes from parents who claim they just don't have time to feed their kids real food.  I don't know many people who are more busy or productive than my wife and me, and yet we always make time to sit down and eat real food in a family.  When I read nonsense like this, I think it would be more accurate if people were to say, "We have chosen to live two hours from our workplace, to watch hours of TV every day, and to be surgically attached to electronic entertainment devices, so that doesn't leave much time for eating real food or enjoying our family."

While we were studying in France, my wife and I were exposed to a very different parenting style.  One author in the New York Times lauded the French approach, but I would characterize it more cynically as yelling at and shushing kids for the first 15 years of life, and then leaving them to act like silly, wild, partying teens until they're 30, at which point they'll hopefully have finished college and gotten some kind of job.

Over the two years of our son Sam’s life, I feel that my wife and I have gradually adopted (or fallen into) a sort of benign neglect in certain aspects of parenting.  An example of an intentional policy is when we leave him alone and unsupervised in a room as he plays by himself, because we feel that it is best for him to learn how to operate and feel comfortable on his own.  A less deliberate bit of neglect is for instance our failure to have thoroughly childproofed our home.

Months ago I read an article in the New York Times about how parents should crawl aroundtheir home and identify any potential hazards for their child.  Obvious measures to take involve plug outlet covers, securing bookcases to walls, and locking devices to close medicine cabinets and storage areas for toxic cleaning products.  

For a long time we had not taken any of these measures.  I find this shameful in certain cases, such as our having lots of heavy bookshelves, some of them precariously constructed of bricks and wooden planks.  In other cases, like not covering all our plug outlets, I have become convinced by the Colombian example that this precaution is more a superstition of US culture than anything else.  It would be very hard for a kid to stick any part of himself into an electrical outlet, and consistent remonstrances whenever your crawling toddler touches an outlet seem to leave him thoroughly conditioned against playing with plug sockets.  As for locking away toxic cleaning products, we rely more on keeping them high up on shelves so they’re out of Sam’s reach, though we probably haven’t been as assiduous about this as we should.  We don't have TVs or window treatments, so I guess we're okay on that count.

At any rate, I attribute most of whatever irresponsible oversights we’ve committed to our having spent the last year and a half in a crazy limbo of rehabbing two houses in two towns and moving out of two apartments in two towns.  There are a lot of responsible, settled things that I have dreamed of doing, like childproofing our house(s) or setting up a decent handyman’s workshop, that I am only now able to start on thanks to our having finished our epic rehab project in our hometown and moved into this new house.  Just this weekend I managed to fix our bookshelves to the wall so they don’t fall on our kid.

As I mentioned though, there are many aspects (obviously not the life or death things) in which I think it’s good not to be so responsible or attentive to your children.  A few recent articles bear me out in their argument that, if they never face and overcome adversity, childrendon’t grow and development into healthy, responsible, happy, productiveadults.  This is something I’ve always instinctively felt, and that drives even little actions like when I don’t help Sammy untangle his pull-along truck from a chair, but these articles helped me see it in a more conscious, explicit light. 

By the same token, we are now shopping around for a new preschool for Sam in our hometown, after a year in a very well-run preschool in Bogota.  I have written before about the more silly,touchy-feely aspects of Sam’s Bogota school, but I really believe that their basic, common-sense mix of having kids play freely, do art and dancing and things, and pushing them to develop motor and mental skills and discipline, is just what kids need at Sam’s age.  On the other hand, today in our hometown we went to what was surely a well-intentioned preschool, but the influence of petty bourgeois concerns and excessive worries was evident everywhere.  Starting when kids are less than a year old, this school has them sitting in a classroom and doing set workbook activities according to a curriculum.  They pride themselves on things like a focus on computer skills, intensive English exposure, newly-installed security cameras, a full staff of psycho-, speech, and other therapists, and having TVs in every room to reach kids intellectually who are accustomed to seeing lots of TV.  Not only does all this structure seem like bullshit for little kids who should just be running around and pooping on each other, but I fear it is a sure path to the type of constant anxiety and obsession with external appearances that seem to be plaguing upper-middle-class kids and parents in the US.   

The saddest thing is that this preschool isn’t particularly expensive, and I don’t imagine the parents who send their kids there are much different from most people in our town—simple people who, whether laborers or professionals, are usually not more than a generation removed from the peasant life.  I get the feeling that in our town, it may be precisely this type of humble, normal person that insists most on vacuous bourgeois trappings when selecting an education for his children.  The director of the school actually made it a point to tell us that if we come to pick Sam up and see him playing tag, he’s not wasting time, because they are explicitly tailoring his play to the curricular goals.  I imagine all this rigid, neurotic setup is a response to the types of parents who are more concerned with the quantity of official things their kids are doing, with feelings of status and an outward appearance of busyness, and not the quality of what the kid is doing.  “Why isn’t that two-year-old making a productive academic use of her time?”  These must be the same types of parents who look for the most expensive or prestigious private school to send their kids to, and then don’t take ten minutes a day to talk to their kids or help with their homework assignments.  Pure appearance, little content.

I actually think a rigid, conservative school like the one we saw would be good for Sam or any other kid when they’re a bit older.  I don’t believe too much in loosey-goosey alternative educational models that don’t even give kids the basic, rote mental mechanics (reading, writing, arithmetic, consulting a dictionary) that are necessary before you can engage effectively in any higher intellectual pursuit.  And furthermore, I think the sense of not being so special, the sense of arbitrary anonymity you find in a big, orthodox school, both imbues a healthy sense of one’s (relatively small) place in the larger society, as well as a clear indication of ugly things and injustice that should be fought against.  But all of my opinions on the matter apply more to higher levels of education, at least first grade and up.  A two-year-old like Sam doesn’t need to feel insignificant, and is too little to rebel meaningfully against perceived shortcomings of the societal model.  Furthermore, even when Sam is older, I don't want him to suffer for my rigid, anti-elitist dogmas.  He's a kid, not a mission statement.

In general I think my living in a developing country like Colombia has endowed me with a less rigid, normative sense as to how things should happen in life.  As I’ve indicated, at times this is negative, as when it somehow allows me to accept not removing imminent dangers like falling bookshelves from my child’s environment.  But in general I believe it’s a healthier way to live, more in tune with the real possibilities and impossibilities the world offers us.  And living within the means of your world is a big part of what sustainability is all about.

A major manifestation of our having to accept the possibilities dealt us is our desire to have more kids.  We have long dreamed of adopting lots of kids, because we like raising kids and because we want Sam to have siblings closer to his age.  But hectic work, limited economic resources, and above all our not living together have prevented my wife and me from seriously pursuing this project until now.  That said, God has seemed to be signaling to us that it’s not that we aren’t to have more kids, but rather that for now they will come in the form of errant teenagers, and not adopted babies.  Since last year our nephew has been living with us, and we’ve been lucky enough to receive a lot of help from the rest of the family in taking care of him.  We briefly had a friend of my stepdaughter staying in our Bogota house after his mother could no longer pay his rent for college, and in our town, my brother-in-law’s stepdaughter has been living with me as she is in college away from her hometown.  This week we learned that an ex-boyfriend of my stepdaughter’s has been kicked out and cut off by his father, so now we are working out a deal whereby he lives with us and we help him to go to school, in return for his helping us with lots of projects around the house and also with our burgeoning business ideas.  It is how the Haitian restavek system is supposed to work (though in reality this latter usually involves very young children working as slaves for a family and unable to go to school).  At any rate, for now we’ve got plenty of kids, though few that are cute and cuddly and bear our last names.

1 comment:

  1. No se en qué momento pero este blog me evocó a este artículo:
    Creo que no es una decisión individual, ni familiar se da en un contexto que es este... cultura vs contexto vs opciones de vida es difícil marcar el lmímite