Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the areas of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.
Two weeks ago I became a grandmother. It’s as exciting and wonderful as I imagined. As they say, if I’d known how much fun being a grandparent is, I’d have done that before I had kids.
Last week, on the day the baby was one week old, Eli, my six-year-old grandniece from Montreal, came to stay with us for three days. Eli was of course excited to meet the baby. You don’t know this about me, but my husband and I sort of share a house with our son and his wife. And new baby. The house is divided into two very separate units.
So here’s Eli. Max, my son, brings the baby downstairs to meet her. Eli sits on the couch and holds the baby. That feels safe. Then Max says it’s time to take Alice upstairs for a feed. Eli says: “I wanna carry her. I can do it.” My first thought is no way. But I stay silent because I’ve been informed that baby Alice is not my kid.
Max lets Eli carry the baby up to the third floor! Unaided!
I can’t believe it. Does he know something I don’t know? Like maybe Eli is a 30-year-old in a six-year-old body?
And then I figure it out: This new generation of parents has seen the bubble wrap, and they’re rejecting it. In thinking about how they want to parent, they’re looking at what we’ve modelled, and they don’t like it. At least not the helicopter part. The part where we try to stand between them and their every booboo or disappointment, where we cushion them from … so much.
I asked him where it came from.
Max said: “I was thinking that, if I let Alice go through her life and I go through my life with Alice worried about any little thing happening to her, then she’s not going to have grit and resilience, and I won’t have grit and resilience when raising her. So I might as well start from the beginning building resilience and building a healthy acceptance of risk. The resilience has to be in me as well — because there obviously is risk here. If Eli had dropped the baby she would have bumped her head. She would have gotten a bruise and cried. I have to know that babies get bumps and bruises, and that’s all right.
“I’m driven by seeing my peers worrying about stuff, things potentially beyond their control, or overwhelmed with worry. Some of my friends avoid doing so many things because they’re worried, and that negatively affects their quality of life. I don’t want that for me or my child.”
Where did he learn this? Certainly not from his mother.
So many of us became champion worrywarts when we bred. We didn’t know any better. But these young people have watched us: ‘tis human to learn from the mistakes of the previous generation. That’s part of how civilization evolves.
They’ve made a conscious decision not to snowplow the path for their kids because they’ve experienced first-hand how high the cost is of putting their life on the video-cam. They’ve felt smothered, they’ve inherited our worries, and too many of them have grown up anxious.
I’m not blaming my generation of parents. I promise. I don’t blame myself. We all did the absolute best we could, every step of the way. But two factors made it hard for us to take a step back from our kids when they might have done better with a little benign neglect. One, we were reacting to how so many of us were parented. So many of our parents had no idea what we were doing, when, how or with whom. We didn’t talk to them about much, and they liked it that way. I didn’t tell my parents anything important about my life and lied to them regularly with no consequences. Their hands-off parenting led to a reaction on our side. And pendulums do swing.
Then there’s the Me Generation phenom. Starting with my generation, humans began to look inside. For the first time in history. Therapy, previously the exclusive province of the privileged mentally ill, became common. Our every feeling became fodder for discourse. Bye-bye stiff upper lip. That change leaked into our parenting as an obsessive need to hear our children’s feelings. As with our fears for their physical safety, we invaded their space to ensure their emotional safety.
My new prescription for parenting, especially for us, is to follow our young folks’ example and go more hands-off. This requires, above all, optimism. In matters both private and communal, we are often called upon to choose between optimism and worry. I am a worrywart. It’s a challenge to choose optimism, and a crucial one. When we telegraph that we believe in them and they can do it, they mostly can.