Are We Too Obsessed with Our Kids?

“Why Are People Obsessed With Their Kids?” is a fascinating piece by Vanessa Richmond at AlterNet, which in turn quotes from a fascinating (long!) piece in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore, all about how parenting has become the focus of our lives, when it used to be just a PART of life. Not a definition. Not a calling. And not something you really had to study hard to succeed at, like AP Biology.  An excerpt from Richmond’s piece:

Most people today don’t grow up caring for young siblings or other kids, and don’t know how to do even basic things like bathing or soothing babies. First-time parents can’t count on grandparents anymore in most cases. And all of this means parenthood has become mystifying.

You are a danger to your kids

Into any scary, mysterious void come snake-oil salespeople. In this case, magazines and experts, like in Parenting magazine, arrived on the scene about a century ago, and turned child care into a science.

The public bought the idea that they were essentially a danger to their own kids and had better pay money for advice, that they’d better try really hard to do a good job, and they’d still inevitably fail. (Even though, as Lepore points out, kids are actually safer now than ever. In 1850, more than one baby in five died before its first year, by 1920 that had dropped to one in 20, and today infant mortality is at one in 200.)

The article that reinforces a basic Free-Range Kids point: Society has foisted upon us  exaggerated fears and, in doing so,  made us trust our own instincts less, and their gizmos and advice books more. That’s good for anyone with anything child-related to sell — and bad for anyone actually raising the child. Especially anyone who would like to give that child a little freedom, but is being told: That is not what “good” parents do. Good parents are overinvolved, all the time. And they buy  a lot of stuff, too.

— Lenore

33 Responses

  1. Yeah, man, AP Biology was hard! Parenting just lasts longer. It’s more fun as well.

  2. “The article that reinforces a basic Free-Range Kids point: Society has foisted upon us exaggerated fears and, in doing so, made us trust our own instincts less, and their gizmos and advice books more.”

    That is so true! Even though I had younger brothers I helped care for, I wanted sooo much to do everything “right” when I had my own baby. The result of which led to some less than stellar decisions and complete and total burnout, which then led to depression and all that comes with it. I now try to take a more moderate approach: I read the information but take it with a grain of salt and trust my instincts.

  3. John Rosemond talks a lot about this, how parents have surrendered their partnership and in the case of single parents their selfhood to spend all their time focused on their kids and how kids end up worse rather than better b/c of it. I do NOT NOT agree with all his ideas, but I think he is on to something about this. If kids see their parents’ lives revolve around them, will they see any benefit in growing up in all?

  4. My mother was an only child who had both me and my brother a continent away from her parents, and both of us turned out (a) fine, (b) emotionally close to our parents, (c) self-sufficient, and (d) adventurous.

    So my plan was always to ask her what she did, and then see how much of that would work for me. Unfortunately I won’t be able to, because she passed away several years ago.

    Fortunately, I still have my dad, who will know answers to at least some of my questions. I also have a copy of the edition of Dr. Spock that she probably used–she was always a fan, because she liked the practicality of his advice. So I’ll see what works for me there, too.

    But ultimately I don’t think people are lacking in advice from specific sources–I think too many lack a big picture. Children are born and grow up under all kinds of circumstances, all over the world. Therefore they must be pretty resilient in nature, and there must be more than one right answer to a great many child-rearing issues.

  5. Jill: Yes! I don’t agree with everything John Rosemond says either, but he does have several great points, and I think you hit upon one of the important ones. Parents should first and foremost be concerned with the health of their own relationship, and keeping that intimate and strong. Children are happy when their parents are happy.

    I think people tend to disregard these types of parents as selfish and neglectful. But no one is saying you should ignore your children — it’s just that the priority should first be on the health of the core of the family, the parents. And it’s important to convey to children, “You are a PART of this family, but NOT the center of it.”

  6. I have to say in my opinion, smaller family sizes have contributed to this as well.

    I know we are in the minority, having six kids, and I get plenty of crap from people who thinks that way too many.

    But, my kids are well cared for, loved, and really wonderful people. And I think part of their character comes from growing up in a large family.

    They know from early on that they are not the center of the world. There are other people who require attention and sometimes we have to wait for things we want or, heaven forbid, share.

    They take care of each other and we take care of them and it works for us.

    I’m not saying everyone needs to go out and have a bunch of kids…but when you only have one it isn’t too hard for that one to become the center of your world…and the center of their own world as well!

  7. That’s an excellent point, Denise; thank you for sharing it. 🙂

    I know I’ve mentioned the whole “new parents have no idea what they’re doing now!” thing before but I’m happy to see it brought up again. Thanks to smaller family sizes (in most cases) and geographical distance, new parents sometimes really have no idea how to care for a newborn at ALL; with no little brothers/sisters/cousins to help raise and only the occasional babysitting gig when they were younger, parents my age (I’m 25 for the record) mostly don’t have a CLUE when it comes to babies.

    I think the West has really lost something now that the family is basically mom/dad (or any combination of gender pairs) and kids, maybe grandparents. Aunts, uncles and cousins now generally have very little to do with the raising of a family member whereas in most of the rest of the world (that’s not industrialized anyway, which is most of it) that’s the norm. Kids are missing out on so much passive education and development by not being around their WHOLE family.

  8. Jill, your comment, “If kids see their parents’ lives revolve around them, will they see any benefit in growing up in all”, is so right! I get a lot of criticism from my own mom and from others for it, but my attitude has always been that there are TWO people in my family, and we are both equally important. As a single mom with an only child, I feel like if my daughter is the center of MY world, she’ll grow up thinking she’s the center of THE world. I don’t want that for her, and have been telling her since she was 2, “It’s not all about you”. At 4, when she was insisting on something or another that I was not accomodating (not because I couldn’t, or because it was inappropriate…. just because for whatever reason at that moment I didn’t want to, and her “want” did not overpower mine every time), I said “It’s not all about you”, and she responded very nicely “I know, it’s all about both of us”.
    I don’t feel guilty when I put my own needs, or heaven forbid my own wants, before hers. Obviously the health, safety, and basic needs of everyone in the family are important… when we get beyond those things, though, so many people think that they need to plan every second based on what will be the best for their child. My daughter is not lacking in any way – she plays soccer, swims, and is taking guitar lessons. We started a parent/child book club together this spring, she does well in school and loves reading and learning, and has lots of friends and plays happily both with others and independantly. Yet I also get involved in many things because *I* am interested, and she spends time with a babysitter or alone while I fulfill my responsibilities. I don’t make every decision based on what is best for her… I make most decisions based on what is collectively best for BOTH of us, and occasionally just make one or the other a priority for a particular decision.
    I don’t even feel bad about that… my life, interests, and activities are just as important as hers. Again: there are two people in my family, not one.

  9. Agree wholeheartedly! I have had to work very hard to not take to heart comments about my free range style parenting. My kids are very important to me -VERY- but they are not my whole world. What kind of pressure is THAT to put on a child?


  10. A fantastic book I read recently, The Anthropology of Childhood, by David Lancy, points out how the time/energy investment that parents make in children changes as a function of cultural expectations but also something as simple as birth rate: adults in industrialized countries have fewer babies, so have more to invest in their children, and so want to protect the investment. I’m not saying this as a counterargument to the free range position; I’m simply pointing out that the “obsession” with children has some logical roots.

    Lancy also has a brief Flash slideshow (available on the Web; URL below) that lays out his argument for two types of childrearing outlooks he calls “pick when green” and “pick when ripe” — the fruit metaphor is his way of distinguishing approaches to how children are socialized and educated. In the US, we live in a “pick when green” society, as demonstrated by how we name fetuses, are eager to get ultrasound pics, do “belly talk,” and try to educate children even before 3 years old. In the presentation, Lancy seems to be critical of the pick when green mode, but in the book he does a better job of laying out how Americans/westerners live in complex societies that require individuals get a lot of education to thrive.

    Lancy’s presentation/book might also be useful for free range parents to see what a pick when ripe sort of childrearing model is like. The presentation is here:

  11. This doesn’t relate specifically to this entry, but you often say “turn off the news”. I would like to know how. I don’t even have kids but I have been a long time believer that children and the elderly have their rights stripped from them and it’s wrong. I think Free Range Kids demonstrates that, and I am on board!

    Now like I said, I don’t have kids. Some my friends do but not a lot of them. I was on Facebook just now and a friend of mine who doesn’t have kids posted a link to a heart wrenching article of people leaving their kids in cars in the hot months (sounds like another product needs to be made and people need to buy, like a baby car alarm). It was awful and I don’t feel like I learned anything from it other than I wanted to cry a little. I would have preferred not to have ever known it was out there as it didn’t give me any new knowledge.

    You can’t get away from the “news”. It sneaks up on you from everywhere. What can be done to end the sensationalism that seems to be infecting society? I realize this isn’t really your mission but I can’t help but wonder how much nicer things would be if we really thought about if what we were communicating was really necessary or just… too much.

  12. Lenore and other Free-Rangers,

    I’ve been going through a painful few days. Recently a man I work with was arrested on child prostitution and related pedophilia charges. It turns out that he lives (or rather, lived) in a tightly-knit neighbourhood with some non-work friends of mine, whose children play with my own child. This man’s son and my friends’ sons are best friends, and I’ve met the boy who had been prostituted out.

    I’ve been doubting my own parenting skills and free-range philosophy since this news broke on Friday, and as the weekend went on and I learned more about my ties to this man (who I haven’t actually met, or at least not met in any memorable way). Yesterday I had some work-related duties to this case, and there was an intruder in my building (unrelated to this case), and my doubts as a parent just came crashing down over me. I had exposed my child to this man (indirectly) in two different ways – through my work, where he hangs out occasionally, and through his playing with his friends at their house.

    I read this column just now, and the one about Irving as well, since I couldn’t read it on Friday, and I wanted to say that the reminder about how it’s usually someone you know/live with who attacks children helped. Societal expectations of how safe this man’s community is helped protect my child far more than if I had just forbidden him to play with his friends and their neighbour. I’m glad that you did say something about the attacker knowing the victim, because even though I’d read it a hundred times, it wasn’t until it was in the context of something that affected my own life that I REALLY needed to hear it. This guy doesn’t live with us, he never will, and it’s even very unlikely that even our friends’ children were in any danger. I feel horrible for the children of the accused, of course, and the accused’s partner, and the rest of my friends’ neighbourhood, etc. and so forth, but it’s good to remember that societal expectation protected our friends’ children and the other neighbour kids from this man even if they didn’t protect his own children.

    I’m not going to quit being a Free Range parent. Even though my world got rocked pretty hard (and there are still aftershocks), the basic principle is sound. It’s just – some days are harder than others.
    Thank you.


    What a horrible day, horrible man, horrible revelation.
    I really don’t have anything I can say except I am very sorry for the children who were harmed by him, and very sorry that evil exists in this world.

    The best we can do is try to prepare our kids to stand up for themselves should they ever encounter bullies, or worse. Naturally, I think that letting them have some Free-Range experiences makes them more confident and resillient, but it cannot totally protect them any more than keeping them inside forever would, either. There is no such thing as total safety. It’s an illusion that drives us mad in its pursuit.

    What can make us safer, I believe, is each other. Community. The more we can create a connected, caring community that watches over all kids (and adults), the safer — and happier — everyone will be. But we will not be able to erradicate all danger, no matter how hard we try. And your letter is a sad reminder of that fact.

    I’m with you — this whole parenting thing is hard.

    I sure am glad he got caught.

  14. Lenore: In particular, Predator Panic can actually destroy the sort of community that genuinely helps keep kids safe. I keep thinking of the case of Shawn Hornbeck, the kid who was kidnapped at 11 by the owner of the local pizza place and held as essentially a sex slave for several years. If the adults in his community hadn’t been scared to try to strike up a conversation with a kid for fear that it would brand them as sex abusers themselves, they’d have quickly realized that something was badly wrong (kid who doesn’t go to school and doesn’t seem to have any community ties) and his ordeal would have been cut short very quickly.

  15. I just read the New Yorker article last night and was really impressed by it. I’ve been reading extensively about the whole issue of parenting and motherhood since I decided to stay at home for the past 15 months after my son was born. I’ve been trying to understand why it is so hard.

    So much of the difficulty is wrapped up in the reality that raising children is hard in and of itself and that our culture and society really doesn’t do much to support those who are primary care givers. And that lack of support really shows up in the extent to which the powers that be don’t want us to feel comfortable with the jobs that we are doing as parents.

    It’s not just baby knee pads that they want us to buy. It’s not just the fear that our kids will be a plot of CSI that they want us to believe . But, I honestly believe it’s that they want us to be so downtrodden, so filled with self-doubt and self-recrimination, so isolated and confused over our roles, and so fearful to share our experiences with others for fear of judgment that we can not stop and say, “wait a second, something here isn’t right”.

    Somewhere along the line we went from being adults who had children and had extended networks of family, friends, and neighbors who supported us and the children to being “PARENTS”! Solely responsible for the welfare of our children; solely identified as in relation to our children (no longer individuals in our own right); made to be both omnipotent and incompetent with the same brush stroke.

    No wonder in this environment people become helicopter parents. No wonder when there is no support, no help, no resources, no favorable cultural identity associated with parenthood and the primary perception being mother as “slave” and/or “incompetent negligent parent” for not being able to anticipate every possible thing and preventing it. Being truly free-range isn’t just about liberating the children from oppressive parenting, but it’s liberating the parents from it too.

    In the movie “Finding Nemo” the father, Marlin, says “I promised him I’d never let anything happen to him [his son].” Marlin’s friend Dory replies with “Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.” Marlin is surprised and says “What?” Dory says: “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo. ”

    Absolutely Dory! Take the leash off the kid and you take the straight jacket off the parent.

    Sorry for the rant, this is just very close to home.

  16. ((Bryn)) & ((Kit)))

    Elizabeth, that was extremely well said. Thank you!

  17. Well, I’m childfree so my opinion is quite possibly irrelevant. But I do think that a lot of people have the tendency to assume that everyone loves their child as much as they do…and this is not the case.

  18. I have a great book called “For Her Own Good” that covers trends in advice to women. Some of the chapters are on making things like domestic work and parenting more “scientific” to give them credence –and then taking authority away from the woman in the house and giving it to the (usually male) experts. A fine read!

    @Denise — not only are there smaller families, also in most places kids are constantly grouped only with kids their same age. This is good for certain types of learning, but the kids miss out on learning how to be patient with littler ones, having role models of older kids to challenge them, etc.

  19. This posting reminds me of a friend I have. They are insulted if anyone suggests an adult only outing. They think their children should go “everywhere” with them. They even showed up at a wedding with their 4 children when the invitation said “Adult reception”. I don’t understand – I look forward to those nights out without my children! I need them.
    Another story: My daughter’s hockey team was at a hotel for the weekend for a tourney. The kids, probably 10-12 were playing knee hockey in a recessed corner while the parents were on the other side of that wall in the bar. The bar had windows but everyone was shocked that we didn’t have an adult on the other side of the windows to make sure nothing happened. They went to the manager and we were told our children had to be supervised more closely for their own safety. We put them in one of our rooms watching TV with the door locked and had another hour of adult conversation. Come on, what predator is going to approach 10 kids with a room full of adults visible through windows and try anything?!

  20. For that matter – what are the chances that 9 kids are gonna watch little Sally walk off with a complete stranger and not come get one of us adults?

  21. woohooo

    I saw a clip about this book on some morning show a few weeks back and have been telling my g/f’s about it every since! Glad to see there is a blog 🙂

  22. DJ, you said it about age segregation! That’s another thing I like about homeschooling, that children of different ages get to be around each other (and adults of varying ages too) so much. We really shouldn’t divide children (or even adults) up so much by age. When children are learning at different levels, to some degree it might be best to try to keep them separated only by that. Just a thought….

  23. @Katie: The more I think about it, I think the age segregation works best for teacher/parent led activities. When trying to do crafts or experiments with my two (8 & 5), I can get very frustrated trying to “help” and “teach” them. They are in two very different places in their abilities and interests and by the end I just want to throw up my hands and scream.

    When I let them do the activities themselves and just answer questions (“Mom, what bowl is microwave safe?”) then we are all much happier and they seem to thrive on learning by themselves and from each other (and from the 4th grader who occasionally does crafts with the little one).

    But, then again, you can’t measure and confirm what they have individually learned from these activities, so it wouldn’t work for a standardized test environment.

  24. @DJ & Katie

    This is one of the wonderful things about Montessori School. The children are in mixed age group classrooms from 2.5 years to 6 years old. It’s amazing how much children can learn and the ways they can develop when they are working within varied age groupings. My daughter’s language skills jumped a mile within weeks of joining the classroom at 2.5 years old and now, as a 4.5 year old, she is helping to “take care” of the “little ones” as she calls them. It has brought out her nurturing side. Mixed age group is a blessing.

  25. I grew up caring for my siblings.

    So I don’t think it is that we didn’t grow up caring for siblings. I was taking care of a 6 week old baby at the age of 13–all by myself.

    One thing that WAS different for me was the baby’s crying, etc., etc. did not freak me out. The intensity of caring for an infant was not upsetting to me in the way it was for some other mothers that I met.

    But I still freak out totally about my child’s safety. And her tiny-ness and her vulnerability totally scared the crap out of me. I was terrified something would happen to her.

    I don’t think inexperience with children is the explanation. The explanation is partly (1) the social expectation that others have set and (2) a generalized anxiety about safety created by something in the culture and (3) I’m not sure what else.

  26. Some of us have younger siblings (or cousins nearby) and others don’t, and that’s none of our own faults. It’s just where we fall in birth order.

  27. My 16 month old child already goes on walks with me and ranges all over the neighborhood under my supervision (just close enough that I can catch him before he runs out into the street). We haven’t had so much as a close call, he’s met all the neighbors and seen all kinds of wonderful things, and he’s learned to do things that most kids won’t until they first venture out of their baby cages years later – and I haven’t forced, guided, or trained him to do any of it. The kid has literally walked a mile or so at a time, is completely tireless and has endless curiosity, and the worst habit he’s developed so far is that he likes to pick up and throw away litter (ew).

    Maybe it’s because I grew up with three younger brothers in a lower-middle-class setting, but the neurosis surrounding kids these days is mystifying to me. I went just about anywhere and did just about anything I wanted as a kid (often to my parents chagrin) and the worst I ever got was a scraped elbow. My youngest brother is still in the house, and my parents have bought into this nonsense to the point that he rarely gets out of it. I often wonder how they think I survived.

  28. I am so glad I found this blog. I was starting to feel guilty for wanting my teenagers away from me. Of course I like spending time with them on a limited basis, but we are not our kids’ friends. One thing that really galls me lately is that you are considered some kind of a freak if you aren’t the “mom of the neighborhood” to your teens’ friends, providing them and everyone else with unlimited drinks, snacks, and movies. The mentality is that they would rather have their own kids “safe and sound” in their own house rather than “who knows where.” Well, my mother was not my peer nor was she my friends’ peer. I didn’t know any mother or father who really wanted the whole neighborhood in their house.

    I figure once your child is a teen, he or she should be capable of wandering away from home without constant supervision. Teach them safety rules and provide limits, not friendship and food bribes for sticking around the house!!

    It makes me gag when I see grown ups saying that they miss their little darlings when they are in school. There is a cure for that and it’s called “getting a life of your own.”

  29. @AllThings: I am right there with you. It seems the new thing to talk about is how much your childrens’ friends adore you. I don’t mind that mu kids have friends over but there are times when my door is definitely closed. After work, homeschooling the kids, and housework I want to lounge in my pajamas and not entertain anyone.
    My parents always expected me to entertain my friends when they were at the house and I did. It seems that some of the kids that come over now expect me to be involved in everything they do and talk to me about everything. I don’t really have much to say to a 9-year-old that I’ve only met a few times. I’m trying to teach my kids that their time with friends is mommy’s time to read a book or tan.

  30. Justen, I had the same experience when my kids were small. I would let them do things, and other moms would respond “I didn’t know they could do that at that age!” Well, did you try? Did you try letting them climb up the stairs as soon as they could, and teach them to get down safely by themselves, instead of gating them away from the stairs until they were 2? Did you try giving them play doh or paint at age 1 and see what they did with it? Did you try letting them tricycle down the block by themselves when they were 4? Well, if you don’t let them try, how do you know what they can do?

    Parenting has always been an experimental science. You try something. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, you try something different. But as long as you are not dangling them out a window or feeding them poison dipped glass shards for dinner, why not just do your best and trust that they will come out ok? Oh right, that doesn’t sell any products. Silly me.

  31. I had my first two kids about 2.5 years apart, and then the last one about 5.5 years after the second one.

    With the second child, the first wanted to help, but was really too small to do much other than bring me things. But with the last one, both were old enough to do quite a lot. Both older ones now know about how to sooth babies, help them potty/diaper them, dress/undress them. More importantly, they treat younger kids like real people–something that is sorely lacking in a society that insists on putting kids in rooms of same-aged peers from birth on (if the child is in daycare). In adulthood, this is never the case, so this in no way prepares kids for real life. There is something to be said for multi-aged classrooms–or better yet, kids that are “free range” in terms of education as well.

  32. Agree wholeheartedly! I have had to work very hard to not take to heart comments about my free range style parenting. My kids are very important to me -VERY- but they are not my whole world. What kind of pressure is THAT to put on a child?

  33. […] don’t believe that parents should be obsessed with their children. I know from my own experience how being a “little god” led to no […]

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