Okay, taking fun photos with the webcam aside, how would you answer the question of whether childless folks — your sister, your friend, the checkout lady at the market, a New York Times writer — have opinions about childrearing you should take to heart? It’s a tough question.
Have you looked back — with honesty — about the things you thought, assumed, presumed about parenting before you had kids? Can you replay a little film in your head, a montage of times you said things to parents you knew at the time that you cringe at now? On the other hand, can you also pick out a few clips in that montage that reflect ways your thoughts and convictions about parenting before you became a parent have remained constant?
And does that matter? I mean to say, even if you’d say the exact same thing to that lady in the line at Target (or to your sister or your best friend), today as you would before you had kids, did you have any right to say it back then? Even if it was good?
Is there a way you can think of that saying something — making a parenting call, offering advice — as a childless person can be totally judgment free?
I’ve been pondering those questions ever since an opinion piece, called A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn, came out in last week’s New York Times, by regular columnist Frank Bruni. In it, the childless-but-many-times-an-uncle Bruni shares his bemusement and bafflement about some of the facets of parenting he seems all around him. And here’s the thing: I agree with everything he says, just about. (In fact, the piece was pointed out to me, before I had a chance to read it myself, by a friend who has read my book — she said, “this guy says all the same things you say!”).
But I’m a parent.
Then again, most of the core beliefs I hold about parenting are the same as they were before I procreated. The difference now is that I’ve tested them, tweaked them. The difference is that now I have two living, breathing (fighting, scheming, delightful, infuriating, and so, so beautiful) boys that I have the responsibility to raise as best I can.
As best I can is a big deal, don’t you agree? I felt, reading Bruni’s piece, that even though I agreed with him, that somehow his almost identical theories or opinions have less weight coming from someone who has had the chance to test those ideas on actual humans (uncles don’t count).
The day after Bruni’s piece came out, Parenting.com asked me for my take on the piece, suggesting I might want to call out the guy for making parenting pronouncements from a place in which no one’s ever called him Dad. I could agree about that last part, so I took the challenge and wrote this post, for Parenting.com’s “Mom without a Filter” blog. Read it, but here’s a highlight of what I wrote:
Bruni feels the urge to wonder why we offer our darlings so many choices (who decided that families work best as democracies?); why we agonize about what they’ll eat (too many chicken nuggets, for sure); or why we spend so much energy ensuring their playing fields are even (and come with trophies). Instead, he insists, we should fret far less, and teach them how to overcome obstacles without looking back at mommy dearest for a snack and a snuggle. He entreats us to take a breath, chill, and revel in loving our children while also setting sane limits.
Here’s a secret: I agree with Bruni. … [but] there’s just no way to coat a childless person’s advice in anything that’s free of judgment, no matter how well-meaning. All of us do it – judge, that is, often laying the harshest criticism on the mom in the mirror – but at least when we’re sniffing at or dissing other parents, we do so from a position as, well, one of them. Bruni can qualify all he likes, but he’s still going to be taken for an outsider, one who’s simply never walked in the shoes with the spit up on them.
Several childless people I know pointed out one thing I know, but hadn’t brought into my post, which is that the childless live in the same world with the people we parents are raising, and as such, certainly have an opinion, and that’s valid. If my kids kick your airplane seat, that affects your trip, right?
But it’s more than whining kids on planes or in restaurants. My childless friends may end up sitting across a desk from my son one day, looking to fill a position at a job. That childless friend has a stake in how my sons and his cohort turn out, you know, in that larger, global, we-all-have-a-stake sense. But does that childless friend, right now, have a say in what I feed my son or how I discipline him? Even further, does the childless person who sees me in a bad moment at Target have say in how I parent?
I don’t necessarily think that the things I said or — more often, thank goodness — thought about parenting before I had my kids should have carried much weight with those whose kids I was merely observing.
What do you think?