"When I was your age ..."
Most kids roll their eyes when they hear those five words from their parents. They know that whatever comes next is probably not going to be to their liking. And it may not be very good parenting, either.
Of course, sometimes we parents just use this phrase to introduce some reminiscence about how our lives were different from those of our children (of course, different usually means harder).
When we do this, we're doing little harm other than probably boring them. Actually, most kids are fairly tolerant of their parents' trips down memory lane -- our meandering keeps us amused and distracts us from asking too many questions about what's going on in their lives.
On the other hand, when we explain or justify our decisions as parents with "when I was your age," we run a different risk. Basing the parenting we do solely on the parenting we received can be a simple approach to our job, but it is a simplistic one as well. We can easily wind up repeating our parents' failures while finding that their successes are no longer replicable in the world in which we have to raise our children.
Let's take a simple example, like walking to school. I did. You probably did, too. My parents could have given me a ride each morning, but they decided the responsibility and exercise involved in getting there myself was good for me. In retrospect, I think that was good parenting.
My kids didn't walk to school. Occasionally they rode the bus; usually they got a ride from one parent or the other. And once they got old enough, we managed to scrape together enough for them to have a car of some sort to drive on their own.
Now, I confess, when it came to making the decision to deal with our children's transportation needs this way I was tempted to say "when I was your age ..." and insist that my kids walk whenever possible. (Actually, I suspect I did say "when I was your age," trying to impress upon them just how fortunate they were to have a ride; I also suspect they ignored me.)
The fact is, though, that things were different. Our community was more spread out, there were fewer sidewalks, there were much busier streets and highways to cross, there were more school activities that started early or ended late, and I would have known few of the people my kids would encountered if they walked to school.
My children's environment, then, was radically different from the small town I grew up in. My parenting strategy around transportation needed to be different, too. I just couldn't take the easy way out and decide that since "when I was your age I walked to school you should, too." That wouldn't have been responsible parenting.
If only all our parenting decisions were that simple. The fact is we have to make decisions about all kinds of complex and confusing things.
What should be our approach to video violence, the Internet, sexually explicit media? How do we deal with the plethora of drugs available -- legal and illegal -- that people use to change who they are? What about our consumption-driven culture and the values it promotes concerning money, power, and prestige?
What do we teach our kids about the nature of family as they encounter the many varieties in our society? In a world which is increasingly 24/7/365, what do we say about time for rest, relaxation, reflection, togetherness?
Or (to bring us back to reality), are we really going to let our adolescent daughter walk out of the house looking like that?
Different world. So our parenting needs to be different, too.
Before you think I'm suggesting that we just throw out everything we learned in being parented by our own parents, I want to offer an alternative.
First, I think it is important that we consider the values behind our parents' parenting and choose which ones we want to emulate in our own parenting decisions.
For example, my mom placed great stock in helping other people. She did it herself and expected that we kids would, too.
Many of her decisions as a parent reflected her intent to teach us this value. That's a value I'd like to teach my own children. And it's a value, then, that can guide my own parenting decisions.
Second, some of our parents' parenting techniques can still work. If you look at how her five children live their adult lives, my mom came up with some pretty effective strategies when it came to teaching this value.
Some of these I can -- and have -- used successfully with my own kids, even in a world which is very different from the one I grew up in. I just have to think it through a bit and make sure I'm not simply falling back on "when I was your age."