When I was 14 years old, I had a friend who lifted her white cotton tank top to show me the scars from words she’d carved on the flesh around her belly button. Another who rolled up her long sleeves to the spot above the crook of her elbow where the horizontal red slashes stopped. One who took a bottle of pills and was found by a neighbor slumped next to the sink, and one I never knew who became the poster child for the “underground drug ring” of our high-achieving village.
I write about girls from my hometown with visceral sentences like these, and you probably think I came from a crazy place where children are driven to the brink. In some respects you’d be right, but that isn’t the picture I want to paint.
In a recent opinion piece in the NY Times titled How to Raise a Child, the same sort of one-dimensional view of suburban streets filled with children pruned for the Ivy League and crushed by parental pressure is criticized. In Madeline Levine’s recent text Teach Your Children Well, columnist Judith Warner argues that the hyper-parenting diagnosis is blown out of proportion–the vignettes of teenage self-medication, cutting, anxiety, and unrealistic expectations of “success” too over the top.
Walking the hallways of my super-competitive high school in my mind, I can remember the girls who hurt themselves. Their experiences shaped me in many ways, but I can’t say they define the parenting style of my hometown or my generation.
Though there are undoubtedly problems with the tangled feedback loops of expectation facing adolescents and young adults in modern American culture, I am beginning to see how true these same dichotomies are for parents as well. As I grow older, I gain the ability to place myself in different shoes. When I was a high school student and a wide-eyed freshman in college, I couldn’t see myself as a mother. Though I’m still only 21, I am beginning to think about what my future family will be like–sorting out my own principles and values and ethics as I negotiate the coming steps of the ladder of my life.
Levine’s book focuses on 30 years spent as a therapist for children in pressure-cooker school districts. Reading her descriptions I’m sure she’d call my hometown one of those overwhelming places.
She expresses her disgust at “mind-deadening homework, narrowly focused test scores..and parents who profess to want nothing more than ‘happiness’ for their children” (2). She points to parents who are physically present behind the granite countertops of American Dream kitchens, but somehow absent at the same time–living out a cultural script of “good parenting” that, in reality, screws up their children beyond belief.
I have shared this same thread of thinking more than once. I too disagree with the testing schemes that run our dangerously mechanized education system and believe that “success” is more than a paycheck. I frown at the parents who scream from the sidelines and the ridiculous honor student bumper stickers slapped across the rear windows of SUVs. However, (and it’s taken me awhile to get to this point…) we need to cut these parents a break.
In an information age of filter bubbles, a million-and-one things that could kill your child, the politics of stay-at-home parenting and a wide range in opinion on where the fine line between pushing your child toward a bright future and pushing your child to the edge of sanity begins, it’s understandable that parents are overwhelmed as they figure out how to approach the role of “Mom” or “Dad.”
You might give your child everything–offering support without being overbearing, letting her choose her own extra-curricular activities, walking on eggshells as she gets straight As through self-motivation and without any needling. You might send her to a college that helps her find her passion, see the world, and find meaning. You might do all this and she still might not get a job. You might do everything “right”–buying into the “self esteem” mantra of All-American parenting and following all the rules, and your son or daughter could still fail. Meanwhile, all of those kids with “bad” Tiger Moms are getting into Harvard and law school and multi-million dollar condos. The assessment of what it means to be parent becomes duplicitous–just like the confounding expectations for high school graduates and 18-25 Emerging Adults.
There is too much advice. There are too many judgments. There is too much anxiety–but not just for the children. The tests parents face are just as narrow as the tests their offspring take with number two pencils and oval bubbles (or, I guess if I’m keeping up with the times…a mouse and a computer screen.) You are a good parent if your child goes to a renowned institution of higher education and ends up with a high income and home like the one he or she grew up in. At least that’s how I felt when I was 17–trying to live up to the reputation I’d set for myself and that I imagined had been set for me by my town. I suppose I feel that way at this point in my life as well, thinking about how I’ll start my life after college and who it will impress.
And yet, I also know that my parents would support me in whatever I chose to do. I can’t lump them in with the rest of those crazies Judith Warner and Madeline Levine point their fingers at. I can’t lump the parents of those girls with the pill bottles or scarred flesh in with the madness either. Because I knew their parents. Because I know how hard they tried to protect their wavering teens. It is never just one thing. It isn’t just detached parenting or societal expectations or hormones or rebellion or the economy. It’s all of these things… and then some. Yes, I am a product of my homogeneous hometown and the pressures of my high school and the liberal arts ideals of my college. But I am more than that– I have more control than either Judith Warner or Madeline Levine give me credit for.
If I can remember this when I have my own kids, maybe I won’t fall victim to the plight of the “supermom”–fighting to jump through too many hoops at once and failing to see the bigger picture. We need to keep fighting for quality education and offering opportunities and asking questions and staying present, but maybe…just maybe, the kids will be alright.