Tag Archives: parenting

The helicopter was invented a long time ago

“…she had to stay with him at nursery school every morning for four months, or else he went into a violent frenzy of tears and tantrums.  In first grade, he often vomited in the morning when he had to leave her.  His violence on the playground approached danger to himself and others.  When a neighbor took away from him a baseball bat with which he was about to hit a child on the head, his mother objected violently to the “frustration” of her child.  She found it extremely difficult to discipline him herself…”

“…In a Westchester community whose school system is world famous, it was recently discovered that graduates with excellent high-school records did very poorly in college and did not make much of themselves afterwards.  An investigation revealed a simple psychological cause.  All during high school, the mothers literally had been doing their children’s homework and term papers.  They had been cheating their sons and daughters out of their own mental growth…”

“Whereas in earlier years it had been possible to count on the strong motivation and initiative of students to conduct their own affairs, to form new organizations, to invent new projects either in social welfare, or in intellectual fields, it now became clear that for many studnets the responsibility for self-government was often a burden to bear rather than a right to be maintained… Students who were given complete freedom to manage their own lives and to make their own decisions often did not wish to do so… Students in college seem to find it increasingly difficult to entertain themselves, having become accustomed to depend upon arranged entertainment in which their role is simply to participate in the arrangements already made…”

“…a new and frightening passivity, softness, and boredom in American children… incapable of the effort, the endurance of pain and frustration, the discipline needed to compete on the baseball field, or get into college.”

Today’s overinvolved helicopter parents are robbing kids of the character-building experiences of failure and frustration they need, and raising a generation of incompetent narcissists!

Except of course all this is from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963.  (The third passage is testimony from the president of Sarah Lawrence, the rest is Friedan herself.)

It’s amazing:  you can open this book to just about any page and find material more relevant to contemporary life than 95% of “how we live now” articles published this month.






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What is it like to be a vampire and/or parent?

Andrew Gelman contemplates a blog post of L.A. Paul and Kieran Healy (based on a preprint of Paulwhich asks:  it is possible to make rational decisions about whether to have children?

Paul and Healy’s argument is that, given the widely accepted claim that childbearing is a transformational event whose nature it’s impossible to convey to those who haven’t done it, it may be impossible for people to use the usual “what would it be like to to X?” method of deciding whether to have a kid.

Gelman says:

…even though you can’t know how it will feel after you have the baby, you can generalize from others’ experiences. People are similar to each other in many ways, and you can learn a lot about future outcomes by observing older people (or by reading research such as that popularized by Kahneman, regarding predicted vs. actual future happiness). Thus, I think it’s perfectly rational to aim to have (or not have) a child, with the decision a more-or-less rational calculation based on extrapolation from the experiences of older people, similar to oneself, who’ve faced the same decision earlier in their lives.

Here’s how I’d defend Paul and Healy from this objection.

Suppose you had a lot of friends who’d been bitten by vampires and transformed into immortal soulless monsters.  And when you meet up with these guys they’re always going on and on about how awesome it is being a vampire:  “I’m totally glad I became undead, I’d never go back to being human, are you kidding me?  Now I’m superstrong, I’m immortal, I have this great group of vampires I run with, I feel like I really know what it’s all about now in a way I didn’t get before.  Life has meaning, life has purpose.  I can’t really explain it, you just gotta do it.”  And you know, you sort of wish they’d be a little less rah-rah about it, like, do you have to post a picture on Facebook of every person you kill and eat?  You’re a vampire, that’s what you do, I get it!  But at the same time you can’t help starting to wonder whether they’re on to something.


I don’t think it’s actually good decision-making to say:  people similar to me became vampires and prefer that to their former lives as humans, so I should become a vampire too.  Because the vampire is not the same being as the human who used to occupy that body.  Who cares whether vampires like being vampires better than they like being human?  What matters is what I prefer, not what the vampiric version of me would prefer.  And I, a human, prefer not to be a vampire.

As for me, I’m a parent, and I don’t think that my identity underwent a radical transformation.  I’m the same person I was, but with two kids.   So when I tell friends it’s my experience that having kids is pretty worthwhile, I’m not saying that from across an unbridgable perceptual divide — I’m saying that I am still similar to you, and I like having kids, so you might too.  Paul and Healy’s argument doesn’t refer to my case at all:  they’re just saying that if parents are about as different from non-parents as vampires are from humans, then there’s a real difficulty in deciding whether to have children based on parents’ testimonies, however sincere.

(Remark:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is sort of about the question Paul and Healy raise.  Many have understood the original movie as referring to Communism, but it might be interesting to go back and watch it as a movie about childbearing.  It is, after all, about gross slimy little creatures that grow in the dark and sustain themselves on your body.  And then the new being known as “you” goes around trying to convince others that the experience is really worth it!)

Update:  Kieran points out that the reference to “body-snatching” is already present in their original post — I must have read this, forgotten it, then thought I’d come up with it as an apposite example myself….

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Men in science

This from Katherine Reynolds Lewis in Slate, in an interesting article about why men lie to social scientists about how much childcare they do:

Take Jorge, 29, a bank manager who lives in Burke, Va., with his wife and their two toddler sons. Coming into marriage, his idealistic goal was to be an affectionate father and equal partner with his wife. They both work, and he figured that whenever the inevitable child-care emergency arose, they would decide who could handle it on the spot. But when it’s Jorge’s turn, he encounters astonishment from some colleagues who “can’t conceptualize that the father is the one taking responsibility for some of these things: the doctor’s appointment, taking care of the sick child.” Once, he was without child care and had to take his son to a monthly team meeting at work, held in the early evening. One peep from the preschooler, and Jorge was admonished not to bring him again. “The workplace doesn’t really accept the modern-day father,” he concluded.

I’ll say this for academia; fathers deal with a lot less of this nonsense than they do in the quote, real, unquote, world.  Nobody in the department blinks if I have to leave early to pick up CJ from day care, or stay home with him because he’s sick; or if I bring him to number theory seminar, or a faculty meeting, because preschool is off for the day.  I wonder if academic moms reading this feel the same way.

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In which my friends write things

  • We’re already on to the next Jewish holiday, but Jay Michaelson’s piece on the financial crisis as Purimspiel is still well worth reading.
  • Opening Day has come at last, and the Orioles rang it in by drubbing the Yankees 10-5, in a weird-all-over kind of game.  I can’t describe it better than Tom does.
  • Alison Buckholtz, a year ahead of me in high school, has a book out. Alison’s husband is a Navy pilot, and Standing By is about the world of military spouses, who occupy a funny boundary space:  of the military but not officially in it.  Alison’s little brother Charlie was a year below me — his essay about surving a car accident, “Catheterized!” has stayed with me for twenty years. He has a book too, about the mysterious death of the guy who wrote the “Lady in the Radiator” song.  I think he should write a novelization of “Catheterized!”
  • And yet another book, from Cary Chugh, a.k.a. What Went Wrong‘s husband:  Don’t Swear With Your Mouth Full!, which offers an approach to parental discipline based on behavioral science.  Endorsed by Dr. Mrs. Q!   CJ, of course, is always instantly and cheerfully compliant, and would never, for example, insist to the point of hysteria that “getting dressed for school” requires putting his underwear on his head, his sweatshirt over his legs, and one sock on his genitals; so I have no need for this book, but maybe it will be useful for some of you.
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Punished by praise

New York Magazine ran a feature story about a year ago, by Po Bronson, warning that telling your kids they’re smart is bad for them. The scientific peg is a series of studies by social psychologist Carol Dweck, in which one group of children was praised for their abilities on a task (“You sure are good at this!”) and the other group for their efforts (“You sure did a good job on this!”) The former group, at follow-up, was less inclined to take on challenging tasks, and more prone to give up after experiencing minor setbacks. Dweck’s explanation: the “abilities” group is getting the message that success is explained by your inherent characteristics. If that’s the case, then any task that presents difficulties must be one you’re inherently bad at, and there’s no point trying to get past the difficulties.

I’m reminded of a very strange argument I had with a tearful first-year calculus student, back when I was teaching at Princeton.

“This class is really hard!” she said.

“Math is supposed to be hard!”

“No, math isn’t supposed to be hard!”

“Yes, I’m the professor, and I say the course is supposed to be hard!”

“But it isn’t supposed to be hard!”

And so on.

When I started teaching I really liked Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn. Kohn isn’t just against praising students’ abilities — he’s against praise of any kind. And he doesn’t like grades, good or bad. His contention is that all these things instill in students the pernicious idea that the goal of learning is to get the reward (the A+, the compliment from the teacher, the approval of the parent) And that the praise rewires you so badly that once you get hooked, you can never really go back to learning for its own sake.

And now? I’m not the radical teacher I used to be. But we do try to avoid imputing to CJ too many inherent attributes. “That was a good song!” not “You’re a good singer!” “We like it when you share,” not “You’re a nice boy.” It’s not as hard as Po Bronson makes it sound.

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