There’s a show out on Netflix that’s been airing in Japan for years called “Old Enough!” that I can’t stop thinking about. The premise is a family sending their young (2.5 to 5 year-olds) on their first “errand.” These errands are guaranteed to make American parents’ jaws drop. One episode sends two 3-year-olds up 202 steep steps to the top of a popular religious shrine to pick up 5 packages of takeout to bring home. Another is to send a 2 years and 10 month-old a kilometer away from home across a busy street to buy several items at the grocery store. The worst thing that ever happens is that the kid forgets an item at the store or scrapes a knee.
The cultural context, of course, is very different. Japan has a very low crime rate, a racially homogenous population, pedestrian-friendly design, and it seems like a kindly grandma on every corner making sure these adorable tikes get the correct change, a pat on the head, and a watchful eye out the door. The vibe from the adults they encounter appears to embody a more collectivist idea about child rearing along the lines of, “How cute. How can I help you?” rather than an alarmed look full of judgment, silently screaming, “Where are your parents??”
But don’t mistake this interest in toddler independence as evidence that Japan is some kind of laissez faire parenting paradise. Japanese parenting expectations can often be highly time consuming, especially on mothers. But cultivating independence in kids is valued, but not just for its own sake. I was struck by how all the errands were somehow in service of the larger needs of the family, like making juice for the grownups while they harvest oranges in the family grove, or taking a father’s dirty uniform to the cleaners and getting him a fresh one so he can go to work.
The reason the show has stayed with me is because it lays bare some of American parenting culture’s most baffling contradictions. We are a country obsessed with individualism and making it on your own, and yet don’t prioritize teaching independence to kids. Every episode I saw of “Old Enough!” contained “evidence” that could get Child Protect Services called on the parents if it happened in America. This highlights how we veer towards criminalizing parenting decisions in the US, especially among poor families and black and brown mothers.
I spoke to Dr. Patrick Ishizuka who’s researched parenting attitudes around “concerted cultivation,” a term coined in the early 1990s by psychologist Annette Lareau. It’s defined broadly as “a parenting style where parents take an active role in their children’s education and development.” When Dr. Lareau first published her book, Unequal Childhoods, concerted cultivation was seen as preferred method of middle class parents, whereas “natural growth” parenting, where parents took a more hands off approach in letting children navigate aspects of the world on their own, was more common among working class and poor families. This was seen as the result of not having the time or resources for the more hands-on parenting methods. While Lareau noted pros and cons to both approaches, she never officially weighed in on which was “better.”
We are a country obsessed with individualism, and yet don’t prioritize teaching independence to kids.
In a 2019 study, Dr. Ishizuka researched how attitudes about these styles of parenting have changed. He found that across race and class, around 75% of the study participants thought concerted cultivation, also known as intensive parenting, was “good or excellent” whereas only a third agreed natural growth parenting was good or excellent.
“Intensive parenting” is a bit of an umbrella term that can manifest in many ways. I’m going to drill down and define some of the components. Everyone has the dial set to different degrees on these categories. This framework is NOT meant to judge or shame anyone for their past, present or future choices. This is about taking a lens to big picture the cultural forces that shape how we parent. There are no “correct” choices here. I just want to highlight these particularly American constructs.
Interactive parenting: This is talking a lot to babies and young children, reading to kids, explaining how to do things, and validating kids’ emotions. Helping with homework, asking how a kid’s day went and listening to the answer could also be an example. This can continue into (unrealistic, IMO) expectations of near constant interaction, like encouraging parents to “co-view” TV with kids rather than getting a break while a child enjoys a show on their own.
Cruise Director Parenting: I’m defining this as manifesting parenting through the prioritization of kids’ interests and activities. This can involve spending time and money coordinating multiple schedules and lessons and teams and all the related transportation. The higher the dial is turned up on this, the less opportunity there is for kids and grownups to have unstructured play and rest and the time to do independent and self-directed activities. Cruise directing can also lead to the sublimation of other family priorities, like eating dinner together, socializing with friends, attending religious services or community gatherings, or even family vacations.
Snowplow Parenting: I didn’t coin this term, but I find it very evocative. This would include working to create an upbringing that tries to avoid most forms of hardship and obstacles, even minor ones. A small example would be immediately replacing the $20 bill an 8 year-old lost because she didn’t put it in a safe place so she doesn’t have to face the disappointment of not being able to buy what she wants. An extreme example would be bribing college admissions officers to get your child into the university of their choice. How this likely manifests for those who don’t commit felonies on behalf of their children is being an advocate or intermediary for your kids with peers or people in positions of authority. Think: calling a kid’s teacher to try to get a grade changed from an A- to an A. And this dynamic can last long past when offspring are actually children, as Kathryn Jezer-Morton discusses in a recent newsletter about her encounter with a 25-year old’s mother.
The burning question I had for Dr. Ishizuka is, how in a society so diverse and so polarized as ours, did such consensus emerge (despite some more recent pushback) that intensive parenting is better for kids?
He has a couple of theories. “Intensive parenting is viewed as the model that's most recommended by people who are seen as experts, pediatricians and developmental psychologists. And there are real benefits of using language extensively with kids and interacting with them directly,” he explains. But there isn’t much evidence other manifestations of intensive parenting, like cruise directing with lots of structured activities and extracurriculars results in better outcomes in adulthood.
How in a society so diverse and so polarized as ours, did such consensus emerge that intensive parenting is better for kids?
Part of the popularity of intensive parenting over the last 30 years is likely related to economic inequality and anxiety in a culture with minimal safety nets. Parents probably don’t consciously think, if “I sign my kid up for a competitive hockey traveling league at 10 that’s going to cost $2k we’ll all be less likely to end up destitute living in a cardboard box in 40 years.” But they might think, “If I don’t sign him up for this now, he’ll fall behind the other kids and won’t make the high school team. Sports will look good on a college application, and therefore my son will be more likely to go to Penn over Penn State.”
The American college admissions process has an outsize role on how we experience family life that can’t really be overstated. Matt Feeney, the author of the book Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age debunks the idea that going to an elite college is essential for long-term financial stability in adulthood, and yet many parenting choices in middle class and higher families are geared around this myth.
Dr. Ishizuka (who also has three young kids, including pandemic twins) and I also theorized that America’s now below replacement birth rate makes it possible to put much more of that time intensity into raising one or 2 kids, rather than 3 or 4. At least for me, my will and ability to execute all kinds of intensive parenting standards had withered inside of me with three children under 7.
One of my personal problems with intensive parenting as expressed through cruise directing is that it puts the needs of one member of the family above others, including the parents. I would much rather have friends over with kids of similar age to let the kids play with bamboo sticks from my neighbor’s yard while we chat and drink cocktails than filling my precious time that I’m not doing paid or unpaid labor with driving to structured activities or standing on a sideline making small talk with strangers. Bamboo forts and adult socializing works for the whole family. For your family, that might look like something different.
I would love to see more rigorous studies of parenting methods and social expectations and how they impact maternal mental health or happiness and satisfaction. My friend Jessica Winter points out that gentle parenting philosophy seems to exist in a vacuum that ignores the realities of the parent or other children in the family. Another example recently thrust upon us by the experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics is to increase breastfeeding recommendations from one to 2 years. In a society with minimal public support for mothers, this is a reminder that so much of what experts recommend can at times feel cruelly aspirational.
Studies do show, definitively, that untreated depressed mothers are associated with a huge host of negative outcomes for kids. Everyone who reads this newsletter knows that caregiving, especially of young children, can involve lots of drudgery, and this is without adding a lot of additional intensive demands on top of it that likely make little difference in long-term outcomes.
It seems logical to me to conclude that parental happiness and satisfaction is likely a key determinant of overall success as an adult, way more so than how many years a kid did traveling soccer. And yet this HUGE factor seems pretty much ignored by “experts” who spout specific parenting directives. So let’s challenge the idea that saying no to packed schedules is somehow “selfish” or “depriving” our kids of something, especially if it impacts other meaningful ways we want to spend time as families.
It seems like parental happiness and satisfaction is likely a key determinant of overall success as an adult, way more so than how many years a kid did traveling soccer. So why do experts ignore it?
Dr. Ishizuka suggests he hopes that some of the massive slowdown in planned activities during the pandemic gave parents a window into another way to be as a family. And while many of us aren’t longing for lockdown, are there lessons we can carry forward from it, rather than just “making up for lost time” and returning to a full speed status quo?
Watching “Old Enough!” and then looking at my toddlers, I’m not really sure it convinces me they are ready to go grocery shopping alone, but it did make me realize my rising second grader should be able to get himself completely ready for school on time and walk there alone starting in the fall. (It’s across the street.) It also frames for me that it’s OK, and maybe even healthy, to prioritize skill development that supports the whole family. Teaching your 9 year-old how to pack lunch every day for himself and his younger siblings may not be outwardly rewarded in the same way as winning a regional swim meet, but it’s exciting for us to open our minds to a wider range of possibilities for what makes a “good parent.”
For tomorrow’s members-only prompt, I’ll be asking you all how you were raised and how it impacts how you think about intensive parenting. I am LOVING our member threads full of thoughtful, nuanced comments and discussion. JOIN US for a heavenly oasis from the typical mom internet.
If you’ve seen “Old Enough!” feel free to share the impressions it made on you in the comments on this post.
UPCOMING JULY EVENTS
JULY 17TH! Operation SAVE ABORTION! I am organizing a Raleigh/Durham/Triangle Operation Save Abortion virtual training event open to all and I'd love it if you'd join me IRL. RSVP/interest form here.
Workplace Revolution with Erin Grau July 20th at 3PM EST. We are hosting a 'Fireside Chat' with the one and only Erin Grau. She's the co-founder and COO of Charter, a media and services company that aims to transform every workplace. She's also a "founding mother" o the new advocacy organization, Chamber of Mothers. Join me in conversation with Erin as we talk tactics, and why she believes there's so much more we need to change so much more about our workplaces beyond family leave policy. And of course, take your questions! In celebration of our relaunch, this event which would typically be for members-only is open to all. RSVP here.
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