We suburban parents are all about doing stuff for our kids. That's why we moved here in the first place, so we could give our kids good schools and cul-de-sacs and backyard play forts and all that kid-friendly wonderfulness promised by suburbia.
Maybe we are going a little overboard.
I'm still pondering the meaning of Independence Day when a reader passes along an article from The Wall Street Journal that is making the rounds in parenting circles. It says that by focusing so much on doing everything "for the children," we haven't done a good job of teaching our children to do things for themselves, according to an ongoing study by anthropologists at the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California, Los Angeles. The researchers, who study parenting in several cultures across the globe, say American middle-class parents sometimes coddle their children, struggle with balancing work and family and often idealize the guilt-inspired scheduled "family time." An online question-and-answer session with those researchers and The Wall Street Journal earlier this year was titled "The Helpless American Child."
In other cultures, children apparently are far more self-reliant. I appreciate the story of how a preschool-age Amazon girl in Peru shimmies up a tall tree to pick papaya, even if the suburban dad in me thinks there should, at the very least, be some sort of cushy foam playground surface installed under each tree. I'm not sure if that girl's dad made a conscious parenting choice to boost her independence or just took the easy path of not paying attention. On the other hand, I sometimes think it's easier to do something for a kid (pick up his dirty clothes) than to bug him about it for days. Suburban parents, including my wife and me, seem to be in a constant struggle with the issues of protecting versus coddling, encouraging versus pushing, helping versus enabling, involved versus hovering, common sense versus fun times.
Sometimes it seems as if we want our children to be independent so much so that we are willing to hold their hands every step of the way until they get there.
Our 16-year-old twins recently took the road to an independence milestone in earning their driver's licenses, and I was grateful to ride shotgun. As stressful as it was at times ("Noooo! It's 'right turn on red,' not 'left turn on red!'"), I enjoyed my part in their required 50 hours of driving with a parent. It wasn't a "family outing" and rarely included more than two of us, but I consider those driving hours much more of a quality father-son time than an earlier planned family bowling outing when I spent too much time grouchily urging each of the teens to "put down your iPod" or "take your left hand out of your pocket" when bowling.
Driving together gave us a level of understanding and trust. Yet, last week, when one son drives off for the first time to his summer job (yes, his mom and I are proud of him for getting a job), I follow him. I just want to make sure he knows the way and doesn't park in a tow zone. I suspect he resents being tailed, but I think he agrees with my logic that a meddling dad is better than a $250 tow fee. Part of me thinks a better parent might have let him learn that lesson on his own.
Meanwhile, his brother celebrates his driving independence by spending two weeks on the farm in Indiana with his 85-year-old grandmother, a manual typewriter and no cellphone. My wife and I approve the plan, but we worry. The worst thing that happens (that we know of) is his sloppy parking job at the drive-in where I cruised as a teen. Even that, thanks to a very understanding and forgiving grandma, turns into a teachable moment when he learns how to buff out the scratches he put on grandma's car.
Our 13-year-old looks as independent as a Peruvian mango-picker as he perches atop a ladder in the 100-degree Hoosier heat on Saturday to paint the second floor on our family cabin. The work ethic and maturity shown by him, his brother and female cousin lead me to say yes later when all three teens (including the two without licenses) ask to drive our car on a deserted gravel road -- a parental decision I could not have defended had something gone awry.
It's a tricky thing, this rearing of independent kids. I think I put more thought into fatherhood than my dad did, and yet, I make far more mistakes. I think I over-think a lot of my parenting decisions.
Researchers continue to study the American family, working parents, "family time," whether women can "have it all," the "male mystique" and the odds of our children growing up to be as independent as the kids of Peru. Those reports might help suburban parents, if we weren't too busy parenting to read them.