parenting models outside our borders

I’m a proud parent of a healthy, happy 11-year-old girl, and I still have some learning to do.  I think all Americans could learn a thing or two from other cultures and the way children are raised beyond our borders. My daughter climbed trees as soon as she could reach the branches, barreled down steep hills as soon as she could walk unaided, and learned to use a knife in kindergarten while other American parents watched aghast. “How could you let her do that?” they asked. Why would I stop her, I wondered. The only thing warranting a visit to the emergency room since infancy was a spider bite that ballooned on her wrist.

Christine Gross-Loh writes eloquently on the subject after years of living abroad and researching the subject of child rearing. I’m not saying that any one culture is doing it perfectly, but I have noticed dysfunctional trends among high school students, some of which I blame on my generation of well-intentioned but overly controlling parenting (“helicopter parents”) and their opposites, who bend over backwards to please their children (permissive parenting). Neither of these models works well in isolation, and experts seem to point to authoritative — not authoritarian — models as being more successful. I would say it does take a village, and children do need boundaries. [Read more in a Scientific American article in response to the Tiger Mom phenomenon.]

A recent brouhaha at my educational institution highlighted the need for clearly defined and communicated structures and agreed-to norms within communities in order to keep all members of that community feeling safe and included. Without guidelines and rules, people may go too far, particularly those whose job it is to push the limits, to try new things, to experiment. I’m talking about teenagers here, and in the aftermath of the insult many felt recently in our hallowed halls, teenagers themselves are asking for more structure.

In parenting, experts say that structure is important so that children feel safe and supported. Too much leniency can result in increased aggression toward others or anxiety when facing developmentally inappropriate choices [see LR WIlliams et al, from a 2009 study linked here and referenced, among other results, here]. Establishing clear boundaries for behavior and safety is not the same as controlling. Consistent enforcement of those structures is not the same as punishing, degrading, humiliating, which can have severely destructive effects on a child’s sense of self-worth [See a well-referenced academic summary on corporal punishment here and a more general article on authoritarian practices here].

As is often that case, a middle ground that pulls best practices from various realms is a good strategy. I have made it clear to the children I teach and my own child that they are free to make mistakes, but that disrespecting others is never acceptable, whether it’s a racist comment, a homophobic joke, a sexist epithet, a rude gesture, or a sassy attitude. Allowing this behavior will not be tolerated, and the challenge for us as adults is to call our children on their behavior and talk to them to help them understand the transgression while establishing appropriate consequences. Those consequences should depend on the circumstances of the incident. Flipping an adult off the first time might warrant a discussion about respect; the second time a child might sacrifice a privilege; and so on.

I don’t know what will happen to my lofty ideas as my daughter enters adolescence — she is still the sunny, naïve, reasonable girl I’ve always known her to be. Yet I hope that I will be able to keep things in perspective, and not allow my feelings in the moment (“I’m too stressed out with my own life to deal anymore”; “I’d rather she get drunk at home than at a party and drive”; “I give up because she doesn’t listen to anything I say” — I’ve heard all of these from parents of teenagers) to color my idealism about the possibility of having healthy and productive dialogue with my teenager.

What I heard from the students at my school this week made me proud and gave me hope: they see the issues, they see the contributing factors, and they can even propose some solutions. Not all of them, to be sure, but enough to get a critical mass of buy-in when the adults finally decide it’s time to listen to them and take action. Hopefully the clueless ones will be respectful enough to follow.

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