By Jack Petrash
learn my parenting lessons in the oddest ways, but even so, this last
lesson took me by surprise. I was trying to engage my fifteen-year-old
daughter in cheerful dinner conversation, refraining from serious
questions about homework or music practice. And I thought I had
succeeded when my jokes elicited a chuckle. But the joy was short lived.
She looked up from her plate, lowered her fork and said, “Dad, you are
smile froze and she left me wondering if this parenting roller coaster
we were on had left a permanent mark on my psyche with its dramatic ups
and downs. How could it not? Parenting is awash in bi-polar opposites –
highs and lows, joys and sorrows, work and play, responsibility and
freedom. The list is endless and that’s what makes parenting such an
emotional stretch. I wanted to reply, “Of course I’m bi-polar. I’m a
is an art and like all of the arts it exists between opposites. Artists
always work with polarities: light and dark, space and counter-space,
foreground and background, piano and forte. The only difference with
parenting is that we don’t get to practice our art in solitude. We’re
not at a piano in the quiet confines of a studio or in a lovely pastoral
setting with watercolors and an easel. Instead, we get to fashion our
artwork in the carpool or in the kitchen, and always at the dinner
table. Our creative endeavors take place seven days a week, at all hours
of the day, and over long stretches of time. And because parenting is a
most demanding art, it requires even more conscious awareness to
reconcile and mediate opposites. That is what makes it so complicated.
The Parenting Essentials
doesn’t seem complicated when we start out on the journey. Aside from
loving our children, there are essentially two basic assignments: to
provide for our children and to protect them. These are the primary
parenting responsibilities that we take up selflessly in order to build a
foundation of trust, safety, and dependability. It is the important
work that we do on a number of levels. We provide nourishing food and
clean clothes for our children, but more than this we establish a
consistent routine of caring. We hold our children when they cry, change
them when they’re wet, talk to them, sing to them, wash them, and
comfort them continually. Amidst the confusion of the first weeks of a
child’s life, we establish a dependable rhythm of consistent care. This
protective environment enables our children to rest assured and to begin
their lives in a healthy way. In their book, The Irreducible Needs of
Childhood, T.Berry Brazleton and Alan Greenspan, note that having a
safe, predictable environment is one of childhood’s irreducible needs
because it influences the way that children’s nervous systems develop.
Calm, dependable environments give rise to calm, dependable children.
protected physical environment must also be accompanied by a protected
emotional environment. The softness of our words, the gentleness of our
touch, our patient attention, all convey to our children another level
of safety. In the home, feelings are safeguarded as well.
the confusing part of the parenting paradox is that protection as a
parenting goal is inherently flawed. Years ago a friend of mine went to a
marriage counselor. He was told that in relationships, the very
characteristic that draws us to an individual, will in the end repel us.
Find a reliable, dependable spouse and their predictability will
eventually disappoint us. Become involved with a carefree, free-spirited
person and sooner or later we will long for steadiness and
responsibility. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words probably express this best:
“Every excess causes a defect… Every sweet hath its sour.”
same is true with parenting. Provide the important protective
environment for our children and over time the need to provide a
markedly different environment will make itself known. The pendulum
invariably swings the other way.
Overprotecting Our Children
in our society, we are much better at protecting our children than we
are at allowing them to develop independence and a little daring. With
all of the best intentions we have sequestered our children in our
homes. Fear of automobiles, pedophiles, injuries, and lawsuits has
denied our children the opportunities we had growing up. We rollerskated
without knee pads and helmets, walked to school, to our friends’
houses, and to stores without supervision. We played in the schoolyard,
climbed trees and fences, and stayed out after dark. So few children do
the same today.
In her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Traditions to Raise Self-Reliant Children,
Wendy Mogel notes that it is also a parent’s job to teach children to
manage risks. Mogel contends that if young people today were faced with
the opportunity to do something dramatic and life-changing, like the
Exodus from Egypt, most would decline, enslaved more by fear than by
the second half of childhood, parents need to help children manage
risks as a counter balance to the protective home environment we have
developed during their early years.
ten years my wife and I worked at a summer institute in Maine. This was
a fine arrangement for our family as it allowed us to leave the heat
and humidity of Washington in the summer and to spend six weeks in
northern New England. From the time our daughter was four, we all headed
north in July and our daughter took part in the program that was
provided for the children. In many ways the environment there was ideal.
The Steiner Institute was housed on a small college campus and my
daughter and her summer friends could walk anywhere without restriction.
prior to her fourteenth birthday, our daughter began voicing
reservations about returning to Maine. She complained that there was
nothing to do. We reminded her that there were art classes, kayaking
trips, beach excursions, swimming, innumerable opportunities provided by
the program, but she was adamant. So we began to explore other options.
My wife did some research to find alternatives and discovered a
wilderness canoe trip solely for teenage girls led by young women
guides. This trip would be vigorous and rugged. The group would head off
for a ten-day adventure with extensive paddling and extended portages.
They would have to camp out, cook their own food, make do without the
comforts of home (no showers, no toilets), and be at the mercy of the
bugs and the weather. We thought for sure that our daughter would
express no interest whatsoever. We were wrong. She wanted to go.
her on this trip was a huge step for us. We had to leave her with her
brother in Boston and know that she was getting on a plane for Canada
and that when she got off one of the tour leaders, whom we had never
met, would be there to meet her and a few other girls and take them six
hours north of Toronto to the base camp where they would join the group
to begin their trip. The only communication that we would have during
the two weeks that she was away was a phone message that she had arrived
in Toronto safely and two e mail messages – one when they left the
base-camp for their canoe trip and one when they returned.
the end of the two weeks, my wife and I drove back to Boston eager to
pick her up at the airport. When she came through customs with the
stewardess, she flew as an unaccompanied minor, we were there waiting.
She looked so pleased with herself, self confident and mature. She was
strong from the canoeing and portaging, healthy from the days outdoors,
and different, not just because of the hair rinse that the girls had
shared on their adventure, but because she had been through a rite of passage and was so pleased with herself.
year she was eager to return. She saved her babysitting money and spent
nineteen days in the wilderness braving mosquitoes, whitewater, and the
SARS epidemic. Protecting our children is essential, but not protecting
them can be just as important.
Parents as Providers
for our children is another of parenting’s paradoxes. Because our
children start out in life depending on us for everything, it is vital
that we live fully into our role as providers. Food, clothing, and
meaningful experiences are all a part of what parents work hard to
provide. The more thought and care we put into providing for our
children at an early age, the more they benefit. Providing healthy food,
warm clothing, and good medical care are just the kind of assignments
that good parents take seriously. It is our job to provide the very best
for our children and over time these decisions will involve schools,
camps, after school lessons, and all sorts of teams. But here too,
Emerson’s words apply: “Every excess has its defect… Every sweet hath
his book, Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an
Indulgent Age, Dan Kindlon points out that providing too much for our
children for too long, impedes character development. When Kindlon did a
survey on “too good to be true teenagers”, the kinds of healthy
children parents hope to raise, he found that there were certain
characteristics that these young people had in common. They cleaned
their own rooms. They did not have a phone in their room (I assume that
also means a cell phone). And they did some kind of community service.
What the parents provided was very simple; these children ate dinner
regularly as a family.
is clear from this study is that we should always provide our children
with opportunities to give as well as receive. This can mean different
things in different families. It can mean that children make their own
beds or do the dishes. It can mean that adolescents do their own laundry
or clean the bathroom. And with teenagers it can mean that they work
outside of the home on weekends or in the summer to earn their own
spending money, keeping in mind that independence fosters responsibility
and that leads to self-esteem.
number of years ago, the state of California offered a work program for
young people modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, the
federally funded program during the Depression. The California program
promised “hard work, long hours, and low pay.” It had a waiting list,
mostly with young people from well-to-do families who wanted to find out
what they were really worth.
the end children must provide for themselves. How many kids today pay
for their own car insurance, their gasoline, their cell phones, or their
credit card bills in college? What message do we send our children when
we give them so much, other than the message of privilege or
has to be a bi-polar undertaking. We are called on to protect our
children, but not over-protect them, to provide for them, but not
indulge them. These are the challenges that parenting sets before us;
and as with any art form, there are no easy answers. We simply have to
be present in the moment and move between the opposites to achieve the
right balance. Sometimes this work seems overwhelming and I must say
there are nights when I get down. It is then that I look for a little
help with this work and this quotation by E.F. Schumacher from Small is
all our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites
which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled… How can one reconcile
the demands of freedom and discipline in education? Countless mothers
and teachers, in fact, do it, but no one can write down a solution. They
do it by bringing into the situation a force that belongs to a higher
level where opposites are transcended – the power of love.”
These words remind me that I am just a struggling artist who really loves his work.