When I wrote last week about Erica Jong's essay on attachment parenting, a lot of people commented both here and elsewhere that one of the big problems in her article is that she confused attachment parenting with helicopter parenting. Certainly, the two are not the same. In fact, they belong on different axes altogether. While attachment parenting and helicopter parenting are different things, it doesn't mean that they never meet. There may be some attached parents who are also helicopter parents. But there are also plenty of attached parents who are not helicopter parents and plenty of helicopter parents who are not attached parents.
But as I started writing that post, explaining the differences in parenting styles, I noticed a bigger problem. It became apparent to me that our society, in particular the media, like to put extreme parenting on display and then tear it apart. A friend of mine was supposed to be appearing on CBC's The National in a segment on what Canadian families eat, but in the end they were too "normal" for the show (not enough shock value for national television, I guess). Her experience, and the many, many articles and shows I've seen about parenting leave me asking: Why can't we celebrate the wide variety great ways that parents can raise a family, rather than victimizing those we perceive as "doing it wrong"?
So I started plotting this diagram in my head (read the rest of the post before you write your angry comments!):
This diagram is intended to display how I think society perceives certain parenting styles and not necessarily how I perceive them. Let me break it down.
- "Good Mom": In the middle you have the smiling face of the "good mom". She is a little bit of everything and specifically all of the good parts of everything and none of the bad.
- Acceptable Parenting Styles: In the green area, you have the range of parenting styles that are accepted and celebrated. This includes being connected to your children, being involved in their lives and activities, giving them some room to explore via your "free range" attitude, and not forgetting your own ambition as you raise your children. Some parents tend more towards one or a couple of these and others aim for a mix of them all, but all of them are generally accepted. There is a lot of debate about which one is the best, but for the most part people in this "green" area are within the range of "doing it right".
- The Extreme Parenting Styles: In the corners, you have the parenting styles that society considers to be "bad". These are the ones you see on reality TV. These are the ones you see torn apart in newspapers and magazines. These are the parents that everyone likes to point their finger at. The martyrs never think of their own needs and let their children do anything they want. Their children will grow up to be selfish and disrespectful. The "smothers" are overinvolved and want to ensure that everything is absolutely perfect in their child's life and in their relationship with their child, but never give their child the opportunity to learn any independence. The neglectful parents probably didn't want to have children anyway and just don't care one way or another. They don't show their children affection or provide them with any support. The narcissistic parents are selfish and pushy and are looking to achieve their own goals vicariously through their children who are, of course, going to be the valedictorian, go on to be brain surgeons and also make a killing with their abstract art hobby.
Our society rewards minor displays of any parenting style. Of course, sleep close to your infant (but not in your bed) and breastfeed for the first 6 months, but don't do anything ridiculous like co-sleeping with a four year old or nursing a toddler. Go ahead and let your child walk to school if you can see him the whole way there, but never ever let your child take public transportation alone. Help out with your child's school project, but don't write her college application for her. Insist on having a mom's night out once per week, but if you travel regularly for work you're taking it too far. The closer you are to the middle of the diagram, the more you will be patted on the back for being a "good mom". The further you move towards any of those extremities, the more likely you will be called a "bad mom".
I am a big advocate for talking about what works and doesn't work in parenting. I enjoy looking at research, analyzing it, interpreting it, and pulling it apart. But I do not enjoy the polarization and victimization of parents that often results from putting certain parenting styles on display and making them look ridiculous. Society likes to turn parents into victims and the media enjoys fueling and exacerbating that.