The Good Old Days of Parenting

There is an amplifying backlash against helicopter parenting. On one hand, I think, “Huzzah! Sing it!” On the other hand, people with whom I broadly agree are throwing around baseless claims and anecdotes to make their points.

We should be clear: the data on specific parenting interventions is severely lacking. We don’t even agree what it means for a child to turn out well. Does it mean not having behavioral or psychiatric problems or a criminal record? Does it mean attending an Ivy League (okay, maybe Amherst in a pinch)? Does it mean being kind-hearted and charitable? Does it mean being self-reliant and confident? There are some data on how to achieve the kind of well-being that I mentioned first, i.e., how to raise your children not to be actively f*cked up. That’s much more quantifiable. But even those data are seriously limited. Studying child-rearing practices requires years and years to see outcomes, and there are almost always too many confounding factors to isolate.

Like many anti-helicopter-parenting types, I strongly suspect that self-reliance is encouraged by entrusting kids with responsibility and allowing them to make mistakes on their own. I also consider self-reliance an important virtue. But those of us who feel that way should remember: we do not have knock-down proof. And the claims made by more-involved parents that they can encourage cognitive development and a sense of trust have not been disproven.

I am a less-involved parent with little evidence, then, because I find it both effective in the short term and easier for me. If my kid bonks his head when playing under the table, he learns much more quickly to be careful playing under a table than he does if I just tell him over and over to be careful playing under the table. He also doesn’t have to save face and continue playing under the table just because I’ve told him not to. Also, while I do think a child’s interests should have some degree of primacy over a parent’s, a parent’s interests are not worthless. I wouldn’t want to raise my kid so he subsumed all his achievements and enjoyments in child-rearing – so why should I allow that to happen to myself?

I feel this way about my intellectually and developmentally disabled kid, too. I know several people who have given up their jobs and taken on partial homeschooling of their kids with I/DD. They take their kids to every available therapy. And there is something admirable in that. But while there is evidence that therapies help disabled kids, no one really knows how much therapy is necessary or what kind. (An exception for this is physical therapy, where the goals are much clearer (e.g., learning how to walk) and the ways to achieve them better studied.) But, again without evidence, I strongly suspect that I/DD kids are like typical kids in that they benefit from downtime and from figuring things out on their own. It may take many more repetitions, but they do. And a day spent brushing, massaging, exercising, and coaching my kid is a day not having fun with him.

I know my friends, who are mostly more-involved parents, think I’m curiously inattentive. And I think they are overattentive.

These parents know enough not to praise capacities, so they (usually) don’t say, “You’re so smart!” But they praise every action that is polite (“Great sharing!”) or is counter to a perceived weakness of the child (“That was very brave how you went right in the room without needing to hold my hand!”). I’m a bit more sparing, because I’d like my praise to be more meaningful. I like to express that politeness and sharing is expected, not a major achievement. I can’t imagine how frustrated I would get if my husband started commenting on my performance of daily tasks, even if it were largely positive. If he said, “You’re really cleaning up the stove area thoroughly, great job, honey!” I’d want to throw a rag at him. No one likes to feel watched. It’s also not necessary to constantly positively reinforce desired bahaviors. My kid is as well-behaved as other kids his age, I think.

I find that when I give my oldest kid tasks to do, and expect adult-level performance from him, his behavior in general is better. For example, when he sets the table, and I expect him to put the forks in the right place and have everything lined up nicely, he is perfectly capable of doing it. And he’s much more agreeable generally for some time afterward. Why? I’m not really sure. With my disabled kid, I get him to clean up his table and to help me get him dressed (holding out an arm or a leg, etc.).

So that’s why I practice this kind of parenting, but it is indeed absent proof that it’s the best parenting long term.

But although I agree with the larger point, I get seriously irritated when I read stories like this one in the New Yorker. The piece describes kids in a Peruvian Amazonian tribe, the Matsigenka, who are given much more responsibility at a much younger age than Americans.  They are expected to wield a machete for cutting wood and grass at age three. They are much more willing to help without being asked than American kids. The tone is self-lacerating – why can’t we be more like the Matsigenka?

First of all, there’s a touch of the Noble Savage condescension about any kind of demand to return to an earlier practice of parenting, no?

I have no doubt that kids can be made to be much better at things at a younger age than American children generally are. As I’ve written, a parent can help make a kid into, say, a top notch golfer by forcing practice from day one. There’s a reason why Tiger Woods was on the Mike Douglas Show at age three. In the antebellum South, slave girls were expected to participate in baby care when they were five years old. This doesn’t mean early competence is best for them overall. Again, I suspect that the kid’s early self-sufficiency is beneficial, but I have no proof. Meanwhile, there are other measures of success in child-rearing. I’m sure that many American kids do beneficial things that I’m reasonably sure Matsigenka kids don’t: they learn to read, read lots of books on their own and with family, purposelessly explore their environments, frequently pretend play, travel, interact with diverse groups. Not all American children do these, but many do, and to a greater extent than the Matsigenka. Maybe such activities require time that would otherwise be spent on early competence in adult tasks.

There’s also no information on how Matsigenka parents ensure compliance. Do they hit their kids? You can force a child to be a boot black in a factory and whip him for poor performance, but it may not be a good way to raise children. And how many Matsigenka kids get machete injuries?

Whenever we look at one aspect of child-rearing in isolation, we might be missing a bigger picture. And let’s be humble. None of us have iron-clad data about what’s best for kids.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I really don’t have a right to comment since I’m not a parent and haven’t even been a babysitter. But I do suspect that any parenting strategy has to account for the specific child. Some children, I hypothesize, need to be allowed frequently to make their own mistakes, while others might need more guidance, or praise. With some children, it might be better to be strict and with others it might be better to be indulgent.

    Again, not only do I have no proof. I have no experience other than having been a child once.

    • I will say I am an uncle, with 9 nieces and nephews, and 8 great nieces and nephews (with one more on the way in October). Although I’m proud of them, I really can’t take credit for their upbringing.

    • I suspect you’re right, and actually, I’m much more apt to praise my I/DD kid. He responds much more positively to it than my typical kid (my typical kid gets absolutely infuriated when someone praises him unwarrantedly) and my I/DD kid also needs more information about what constitutes success.

      Also, free-range parenting can be taken too far. My parents were big practitioners, and I just felt very at sea, and I certainly never confided for them or trusted that they could help me if I were in a jam.

  2. First of all, I really like the way you wrote about this. Good blogging! Great job!


    Anyhow, the advice I give parents is similarly low-key. I try to reassure them that, assuming a reasonably loving and attentive household, their kids are probably going to turn out just fine no matter which overarching parenting approach they choose. Parents should raise their kids in the manner that suits them, and doesn’t seem forced or prescribed.

    • I’ve always heard that the best thing that two parents can give their child is to love each other.

      While this may not be always possible (and that’s a pity), it strikes me as true.

      • For the parents to love one another? Or for each parent to have a loving relationship with the child?

          • I am of two minds on this… One reminds me of the theory that your parents’ relationship tends to serve as your model for your own; the dividens of being parented by a loving couple are obvious there. The other makes me feel for children of divorce and/or who bore witness to loveless marriages; as someone who was raised in a home with both, I think I turned out okay (my sibs on the other hand…).

            Not agreeing or disagreeing… Merely pondering.

          • There are thousands of good things that good parents can give their kids, of course. Very good things indeed.

    • You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves.

      Yes! We’ve got to work it out for ourselves!


      Tell us more!

  3. You’ve captured why we shouldn’t, as a rule, be dogmatic about parenting and teaching: we simply don’t know enough.

    For my part, I don’t have a ” parenting system” in place, but I suppose you could call my gropings in the dark a kind of Aristotelian approach. I aim to guide my children in the development of the virtues–physical, moral, and intellectual. I want them to form good habits. I give them instruction, but also leave them room to make their own decisions (about some things). You can teach virtue, but you can’t force it. Time will tell if they’re learning it.

  4. Children rise (or fall) to the level of expectations. Expectations arise from the axioms and paradigms we’ve set up: the Nuclear Family as a formal structure is rare in human society. Day was when a whole cluster of adults had mandate in the raising of a child. At least six people in my life were authorised to give me a cuff if I was being bad, not just my parents. It was like the damned old Elephant’s Child from Kipling, spanked by everyone.

    Every kid is different. There’s a bit of the Book of Proverbs which says in the King James “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” A really bad translation. “Train” in this context is the verb to prune and tie up grape vines. It should read “Prune a child according to the way he is growing because when he is old, he will still be that way.” Future continuing tense.

    Work with the kid you’ve got, not the one you think you want. If I had one thing to do over with my own kids, I would have been less disappointed with them when they failed. I don’t hold with this Everyone Gets a Prize philosophy and think Self-Esteem is just another word for narcissism. Yeah, each kid is special. Catch your kid doing something right, every day. But for crissakes, let him make his mistakes and learn from them.

    That Matsigenkas girl was behaving like an adult because her parents were behaving like adults. That’s what kids like to do, emulate us. I see Amish kids around here, startlingly mature children, caring for their younger siblings, standing straight up at the front of a wagon, guiding a team of horses across a hay field, his older siblings stacking hay. That’s what he can do. When he’s strong enough, he’ll be in the back, pitching hay.

  5. They are expected to wield a machete for cutting wood and grass at age three. […] The tone is self-lacerating

    Much like 3-year-old with a machete.

  6. Lots of thoughts and comments on what I think was a really well-written, nuanced piece…
    “I like to express that politeness and sharing is expected, not a major achievement.”

    I worked with a woman during my second year of teaching who gave out a sheet of pointers for other teachers working with her students. One thing on there was that children should not be thanked for doing what is expected of them. I found this odd and a bit cold. But as I thought about it more, it makes a lot of sense, for many of the reason articulated here. I’ll still offer appreciation or praise for expected things from time-to-time, especially if a child was struggling and it lets them know I notice their efforts, but generally, I try to avoid it. There are plenty of other ways to teach and model manners than being overly effusive when a kid does what he’s supposed to do.

    “We should be clear: the data on specific parenting interventions is severely lacking. We don’t even agree what it means for a child to turn out well.”

    Anytime someone trots out data on how American kids/students are trailing their Japanese or German or whichever counterparts on *IMPORTANT TESTS* I want to scream. How can you compare groups that aren’t even seeking the same objectives? As I’ve started to do work more formally on “education reform”, I keep coming back to the same question: What is the goal of our education system? If we can’t even agree on that or even articulate it, how the hell can we figure out how well we are doing or what steps we should take to get better? If you value independence and marching-to-their-own-beat, your style SHOULD be different than if you value conformity or respect for authority. And there are merits to both measures of “turning out right” such that there are merits to any thoughtful approach to seeking those ends. We need to abandon the one-size-fits-none mindset, especially when we aren’t even all trying to achieve the same thing.

    “Parenting styles” in general often seem to be predicated on a complete ignorance of the notion of it-takes-two-to-tango. “Parenting” is an interplay between parent and child. It works in both directions. Children are not blank slates; tabula rasa is bunk. One child living in a highly-restricve, authoritative household will turn into a highly-restricted adult who is deferential to authority. Another child in the same household with the same parents and the same treatment will turn into a pierced-nose, purple-haired, chain-smoking rebel. And there is an extent to which any parenting style would have made the first child not prone to being deferential and the second child not prone to rebellion. The forms and intensities these traits might take will vary but there is a certain amount of hard-wiredness-going on.

    All-in-all, a great piece. Looking forward to the ensuing discussion.

    • Oooo, one more…

      “Also, while I do think a child’s interests should have some degree of primacy over a parent’s, a parent’s interests are not worthless.”

      This is something I talk with parents about a lot, especially those of only children. If kids never have to acquiesce and their needs/wants/interests always take primacy, they begin to expect that everywhere. I often advice parents to sometimes go out of their way to not meet their child’s needs/wants/interests (particularly the latter two) immediately. I tell them that sometimes they should insist on going first in the next game of CandyLand, even though it seems silly to argue with a 4-year-old about something so trivial to an adult. But absent siblings who often serve as natural curbs on this tendency or other opportunities to learn the all important skill of understanding that society is practically defined by the balancing of competing needs/wants/interests, parents need to to offer this. Or their kids turn into monsters. MONSTERS I TELL YOU!

  7. As a child psychologist and a mom, I’ve spent lots of time discussing what I think is “wrong” with our generation of parents (myself included). Here’s one of the biggest differences that I think exists and that is that we are the generation who have all been to therapy and blame our parents for our mistakes. So, when the table is turned and we have children of our own, we are terrified of “damaging” them in the way we feel our parents “damaged” us. I talk more about it here:

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