Forget the buzzwords about parenting styles, let’s just be present
Every generation has a fresh take on parenting, its own personal stamp on how children should be raised. Lately, though, it seems we hear of a new style every few weeks. First there were attachment parents and helicopter parents, and now come the snowplow parents.
This last group is particularly infuriating because it means just what one might expect: to remove all obstacles in the path of a child. In other words, instead of preparing the child for the road ahead, the parent prepares the road itself. They plow it and pave it and block traffic. Sometimes, as in the case of the parents in the college admissions scandal, they even commit fraud.
As far as parenting styles named for heavy machinery are concerned, it seems that snowplows deserve more ire than helicopter parents — characterized as those who hover too close — because snowplows do more than hover. They do the work, sometimes even the dirty work, for the child.
Of course there’s a big difference between over-parenting and engaging in criminal activity. Either way, I’m curious if there’s anything positive to glean from the revelation of how far some parents go to shelter their children from the travails of growing up. How did we get here, by the way? And what can parents of more modest means (and probably stronger ethics) do instead to better prepare their children to succeed in the world?
First, let’s remember: Failure is good. Not all the time, not as a way of being or way of life. But failure teaches kids resilience, creativity, and prioritization. Through failure, we learn what matters enough that we are willing to work relentlessly toward it no matter how many times we fail; or we learn to adapt and recognize new opportunities when something doesn’t work out.
Jessica Lahey, New York Times best-selling author of the book, “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” and a longtime educator, puts it this way: “Kids need to have a positive, adaptive response to failures in order to learn from them, so every time we swoop in and save kids from a consequence, that’s a learning opportunity lost.”
When it comes to parenting, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each kid is different. The strengths and resources of parents vary greatly. And yet, one technique stands out for me, which can be summed up in two words: Be present.
Practically speaking, babies and toddlers do not exist anywhere other than the present moment. When they are hungry, hunger is all that exists. When they are in pain, pain is all-encompassing. Older children understand the concept of time, but their needs are only slightly less immediate. You can reason that you’ll go to the playground not today but tomorrow or request that no one wake you before 7 a.m. on Saturdays, but a child of any age still often needs a response in the moment.
When it comes to parenting, the most important question might not be which style we choose, but how we show up for our children in a given moment. One moment after the other. Every day. Year layered upon year, like tiers of birthday cake or bricks. Granted, no one is perfect, never distracted, or immune to a bad mood or short fuse, but before we can be “good” parents, we must first be present ones. We can borrow wisdom from all kinds of parenting styles: from Montessori or Tiger Mamas, attachment or anything goes, but it all seems secondary to the question of whether our faces light up when they enter a room. Do we take the time to be attentive in their presence?
We teach kids to stop and look both ways before crossing the street. It’s a crucial safety precaution, but it can also serve as mindfulness inspiration as parents. How often do we take pause, stopping to consider what is happening as it’s happening, rather than merely reacting? As parents, do we have a stop-and-look equivalent as the moment is unfolding?
To be present involves seeing a child for who he or she is, rather than, say, a variation of his/her face Photoshopped onto the body of an Ivy League soccer player. Ludicrous as it sounds, parents in the college admissions scandal used this technique. It’s extreme and fraudulent and laughable to the rest of us, but it also stems from a place to which even the most well-meaning among us can probably relate. Haven’t we each felt at some point that our own parents wished we might be a little different: more like a sibling, studying to be a doctor, or at least married by now?
Before becoming a mother, I confess to thinking that parenting might be a code that could be cracked if I read enough books. So, before my daughter was born, I started with sleep. I read all the sleep books. I polled friends whose children slept through the night early and easily. I would do what they did. I would read what they read. I highlighted these books, dog-eared important pages, read paragraphs aloud to my husband.
When the time came for our baby to sleep through the night, our pediatrician was adamant: We were not candidates for that approach yet. Our daughter was underweight, not dangerously so but worrisome enough, and the instructions were clear. If she awoke, she was to be fed. Not shushed, soothed, or left to cry as various sleep training methods suggest.
I never cracked those books again. I nursed our baby in the middle of the night, whenever she needed, until one night, she slept through. She made this determination of readiness on her own, and we followed her lead. This revelation was one of the first and most formative parenting lessons I experienced as a new mom. I had such a predetermined vision for how things would go, only to discover that it would be detrimental (if not dangerous) to proceed with it. The decision to recalibrate was easy and obvious, but I have thought about it a lot since because it was such a powerful example of how children have agency from the beginning. They are small people with their own needs and timing, and our role is not to enforce a future agenda but be as open and loving as we can with the realities we face together in the moment.
It should be noted that reality can often be a drag. Last week, my daughter vomited directly in my ear. If there’s a parenting lesson there, it’s probably that another human being can vomit directly in your ear and if that human being is your child, all you will think is, “Oh, god, I love you so much; I just want you to feel better.”
Even when the moment is disgusting or disappointing, heartbreaking or tedious, our kids will notice and respond most to who we are being in the moment more than what we say or will them to accomplish. But amid the everyday parenting pressures, along with social media’s drive to parent performatively, it’s easy to forget. Our vision gets obscured by the cello lessons, test scores, and acceptance letters. This one speaks three languages. That one does Russian Math. It can feel like our report card, maybe more than theirs.
Stop. Breathe. Be here, in this moment, with yourself, with your kid whom you love. That’s the job. Leave the plowing of snow and hovering at 460 rotations per minute to the heavy machinery.