Raising A Human
Wisdom Letter #34 | The One About Parenting
(Click here to read this post in Hindi)
Are you a parent?
Do you have a kid? Or kids?
I’m sure you know someone who has kids, and once upon a time, in a world far far away, you yourself were a kid as well.
How do you think your childhood has shaped who you are today?
Specifically, what actions of your parents lead you to become who you are? And what will you do now, raising children in the 21st century. What will you adopt from your parents’ tactics, and what will you strictly stay away from?
And will it even matter? The specific micro tactics you follow in raising your child, do they have a real impact? Isn’t it a macro game, where the broad strokes matter more than the fine lines?
What are your expectations from your kids? What vision do you have of their adulthood, what should they become, how will your parenting style shape them into the adults you want them to become?
Speaking of parenting styles, which latest fad do you follow? Do you believe in RIE parenting, or authoritative parenting, or permissive parenting, or just “go with your gut, crash, burn and learn” parenting?
The world is full of children, we are surrounded by them, billions of them, and new ones coming in every minute. Our species seems like a never ending conveyor belt of children. The birth of every child is a rebirth of two more individuals.
Parents who are still figuring out their own life on this planet, still trying to work out why did they take the plunge into this lifelong project at all? Still confused, scared and nervous about the infinite possibilities of the future.
They know this one decision will alter their life forever, but they have no idea how. They are placing themselves to be tremendously vulnerable in known, unknown, and unknowable ways for the rest of their lives.
And yet, they took the plunge.
In Spite of all the uncertainties and challenges that being a parent brings along with itself, they decided to go ahead and open this personalised pandora’s box anyway.
Being a parent takes a lot of courage, and it also takes a certain kind of crazy to believe that the world will be better with more creatures of your kind. It takes a lot of crazy to believe that your own life would be any better by nurturing and caring for another person over a significant part of your life. A person who has her own safety, security and selfish interest as her top priority.
Being a parent is quite complex and challenging as it is, add to that the task of sifting through loads of parenting advice you are bombarded with all the time. That is another daunting challenge.
Parenting in the 21st century means dealing with contradictory but well meaning pieces of advice on a day to day basis.
Do you co-sleep with the child or not, what age do you start to feed them solid food, when do they crawl, or walk, or talk. God forbid if they are late with any of their milestones. What about the vaccine debate? And worst of all, the screen time debate.
At what age do you introduce your child to screens. And how much visually stimulating content is okay for a child to consume on a day to day basis.
At what age do you give them their own smart device? What apps do you allow them to use, do you allow something like Snapchat on your teenager’s phone. Do you even know what snapchat is and how it works?
Being a 21st century parent means making trade-offs on a day to day basis about things you have no idea about and the world seems to be divided upon in polarising manners.
The nature of the parenting challenges previous generations faced might be similar, but the content and degree of those challenges have certainly changed a lot today.
There’s little space for nuance in any parenting debate these days.
Today on The Wisdom Project, we go looking for some nuance in parenting, we try to find balance between the extremes. We try to understand what, and how much impact, do our actions as parents have on our children’ lives. And we see how the modern “parenting project” is different from the experience of just “being a parent”.
What responsibility do you have towards your children? Apart from the physical sustenance and care of the child, what else must you do to become a competent parent? And what should you expect from your children?
Should they become mirror images of you and your spouse? Mere shadows of people from an old era?
They should have the space and time to explore their own individuality. To become the best person they can become. Without the overbearing weight of expectations from their parents.
Perhaps the best way to think about this eternal tension comes from a century old short poem from Kahlil Gibran’s seminal book ‘The Prophet’.
Maria Popova of BrainPickings recently wrote about this poem. Its heat touching and beautiful. I love the way it starts and can’t get the opening lines out of my head —
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
Checkout the whole poem on the BrainPickings blog—
The Overparenting Trap
Our lived experience teaches us a certain kind of definition of success. We tend to look at certain people, professions, careers as benchmarks of success, happiness and a fulfilling life.
And then when we become parents, we want out kids to match up to those benchmarks. It comes quite naturally to us because that is what we know about success and happiness, and we want the best for our kids. Of course.
We feel it’s our responsibility to steer our kids in the direction we know gives them the best chance of a fulfilling life. And that argument holds true to a certain degree. But very soon our well-meaning advice turns into overbearing expectations.
We start to attach our ego to our kids academic and professional success. After all, we want to brag about their achievements to the world.
I know every young parent reading this right now is nodding his head and sees the problematic nature of such unfair expectations. He/she vows to never fall into the same trap.
But we must realise that its only human to have expectations from people you love, and we often become overbearing with our kids without actually realising it ourselves. It’s a cunning trap this.
All parents are intelligent and well-meaning, even the most micro-managing ones, it’s just about keeping a check on your own self, and staying away from defining strict definitions of success and happiness for our children.
This 2015 Ted Talk from Julie Lythchott-Haims is a good reminder of what not to do as a parent. Her passion is infectious, check it out—
Nature & Nurture
It’s good to acknowledge and keep reminding ourselves to not be micro-managing our children’s lives. It’s also interesting because science tells us that what we do as parents actually has very little impact on how our kids turn out as adults.
The nature vs nurture battle is mostly won by nature when the child is in the womb. Of course that doesn’t mean that how we treat our children doesn’t matter. There’s a slight nuance here that must be understood.
Psychologist Steven Pinker explains that nuance brilliantly in this 5 minute talk from 2002.
You must strive to cultivate a healthy nurturing relationship with your child, and provide for a happy childhood. But your tiny mistakes here and there, or even well-meaning interventions will not have as much of an impact as you think they would.
Checkout Dr. Pinker—
Read this funny article from ‘Vox’ that says most parenting advice is worthless, so here’s some parenting advice.
Yes, a lot parenting advice is worthless, but we still need to make important decisions about how we raise our children, and we need pointers for that. But if most advice contradicts itself then how do we make any decision at all?
We turn to data.
Yes, data can help us understand which interventions have worked before with other kids and which have not. Yes, its hard to derive causation from subjective data, especially when most insights only point to correlation.
But correlation is still strong enough evidence to get us started. It gives us a head-start, from there we can make our own mistakes then and learn more.
This podcast from Freakonomics Radio advocates a data driven approach to sane parenting. It tackles some of the most controversial topics in the area, from breastfeeding to co-sleeping, to vaccines and screen time and technology.
Most of all, it makes the argument for parents to just calm the heck down.
Checkout the podcast—
How do you think about “parenting”. Do you do it as a job? As a project? As one of the many hats you wear through the day? Is it even possible to do it like that?
I believe parenting is not something you do but its someone you ARE. Period.
You can go running and be called a runner, or you can go swimming and be called a swimmer, but you can’t go humaning and then be called a human. That, you just ARE.
Being a parent is a lot like that.
From the moment you take up this ordeal it changes you as a person, for better or for worse. The change reflects in the way you live your life, in the thoughts you think and the actions you perform.
There are entire industries devoted to get you to do “parenting” right. Tips and advice columns and books and products that help you ace this project.
But alas! it’s not a project, your child is not a recipe that you can perfect if just get the right ingredients, she is not a dog you can train for a dog show. Your child is not a product you are building to showcase to the world.
You are not a carpenter chiseling away at a piece of furniture with all the tools in the world. You are a gardener whose only job is to build a nurturing garden for a wildflower to flourish.
This idea is beautifully explained in the book “The Gardener and the Carpenter” by child psychologist Alison Gopnik.
Throughout the book she takes down the “modern parenting” philosophy and implores the reader to pursue a gardeners approach to being a parent.
The book has good doses of evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. Its a must for every parent to understand their child, themselves and this relationship they are going to build for the rest of their lives.
Check it out—
The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children
Signing off for the week, here’s a quote worth pondering —
If parenthood came with a GPS it would mostly say…Recalculating
Yup, most of what we do as a parent is ever evolving. It’s a constant struggle to calibrate our best response in novel situations. The thought is both frightening and liberating at the same time.
It’s interesting to note that children learn more by what we do than what we tell them to do. Children are born scientists who learn tremendously by observation. Knowing this we owe it to our children become the best version of ourselves.
We don’t have to do anything external to become good parents, we just have to understand and appreciate who we ourselves are, and strive to become who we can become.
The kids are smart enough to learn from there.
Think about it!
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This was Wisdom Letter #34. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 33 letters, checkout our entire archive.
And if you’re wondering why we are doing this project, what is the point of it? checkout the intro post, it might make some sense!
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Aditi & Ayush
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