Parenting Persons, Not Projects

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This piece was originally published at Christ and Pop Culture. We’re grateful to Valerie for allowing us to share it here.

“F**k nuts.”

“What did he just say?”

“Pop-tart—he dropped his Pop-tart.”

This was a lie, but I told it confidently before plucking up my potty-mouthed two-year-old and bringing him into daycare.

Image by Vania Raposo via Pixabay.

My cheeks were flushed by the time I got back to my car and typed the following phrase into my smartphone: “how to get your toddler to stop swearing.”

I don’t know where he got the word. Surely not from home, I told myself. Probably from another child at daycare, one whose mother had not bothered to Google about swearing toddlers. He’d been saying it for weeks, and I’d been trying just as long to end it. I’d put out a call to fellow parents on Facebook, some who suggested we ignore it, others who thought we should firmly discipline him every time he said it. Still another group thought it would be most effective to suggest another word to him—one that might be just as fun to say—and so we offered up “nuts.” For the record, he did seem to quite enjoy that one, too.

Google offered me no infinite wisdom. I felt certain that I was slowly but surely dismantling my son’s future. I was either not strict enough or too strict, depending on whom you asked. I worked too much. I didn’t work enough. I didn’t feel like a very good mother. And, subconscious though the thought may have been, I didn’t feel like my son was turning out to be a very good child.

According to many parenting experts, I am not alone in feeling this way. In fact, many believe that American parents experience a culturally unique sort of parenting crisis, one that centers on merit—both parental merit and the merit of our children. According to Sara Harkness, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut, “nearly 25 percent of all of the descriptors used by American parents were a derivation of ‘smart,’ ‘gifted’ or ‘advanced.’” This focus on achievement affects not only American children, but their parents as well. Sharon Hays, who is a sociologist at the University of Southern California, put it this way: “The mothering you see today in America is culturally and historically unprecedented. We expect selfless devotion to what we interpret as the child’s needs, wants and interests at every moment of the day.”

American parenting is multi-faceted and stylistically very different from home to home (when this is not really the case in other cultures)—but the one thing that broadly seems to inform American parenting is the idea that the future is in our hands, and we must parent in such a way that maximizes this potential. According to Jennifer Senior, “We believe we get to invent our future, our opportunities and who our children are going to be. Which is wonderful, but also very troubling.” And so we obsess, we micromanage, we hover—and instead of feeling less worried in light of this exertion, we feel more worried.

This idea is still being explored, but it’s not a theory that surprises me.

Almost from the time my son was born, I felt insatiably bent toward achievement. “Is he sleeping through the night yet?” No, he’s not. Maybe I need to revisit Baby Wise. “Has he smiled?” Yes, but was it gas? Perhaps I need to restructure his day to include more stimulation.

It is endless. It is exhausting. And, ultimately, it undermines the philosophies I otherwise claim to prioritize.

What ever happened to the Imago Dei? I love referencing the Imago Dei—the concept that human beings are intrinsically valuable because they are made in the image of God. Syrian refugees, Donald Trump, Kim Davis, Bernie Sanders, the person who stole my parking spot this morning—they are all made in the image of God, and so I, in my best moments, take care to regard them charitably—to see beyond the picture a headline paints or my anger etches.

I don’t parent this way. I don’t gaze at my child with the same grace. My own anxiety, the American expectation to have and do it all, the Biblical charge to “[t]rain up a child in the way he should go,” my hyper-sensitivity to the milestones my son is or is not reaching—these factors all affect the way I view my son. They affect the way I view myself as a parent, and, really, as a person. I expend so much energy on managing these factors that there is very little room left for grace; there are very few moments in which I acknowledge my son as intrinsically valuable because he’s been made in God’s image.

The day I brought my poorly swaddled newborn home from the hospital, I laid him next to me, brought my face close to his, and whispered the following refrain for I don’t know how long and for I don’t know what reason: “You are Declan, and I am Mommy. Declan, Mommy.”

He is still Declan, and I am still Mommy, but three years later those identities are bulky things, weighed down by overzealous expectations and a subconscious compulsion toward merit.

I don’t regret holding standards for my son. Standards are important—in fact, I don’t know that it’s possible to understand the gospel without them—but I do regret weighing my son’s worth via a meritocratic scale. I do regret the parenting style I’ve employed—not because I’m too strict or not strict enough (depending on whom you ask) or because sometimes we eat McNuggets for dinner. I regret it because I have put my son at the center of my family’s orbit when he should be alongside us instead. In doing so, I have designated my identity and worth as strictly what I’ve achieved as a parent; I have made it nearly impossible to extend grace to a child who throws fits, says bad words, and hits the dog—to see him as existentially valuable.

American parenting seems to demand we be all on, all the time—never to utter a frustrated or negative word about our children, or about how, at times, parenthood is not enjoyable. This undermines the Imago Dei in that it requires us to see our children not as persons—people who hold value just by existing—but as polished finished products. When my worth as a person is determined by whether or not my son is on a forward trajectory toward achievement, I strip my son of the right to fail and still be valuable; I strip myself of the other facets of my personhood — the ones that exist outside of motherhood.

“Of course we love our children and want what’s best for them. Our problem is that we’re not sure what, exactly—in our driven, achievement-oriented country—is best,” Brigid Schulte asserts in her piece for the Washington Post.

I’m still discerning what’s best—and I’m sure that whatever I decide today will evolve or be entirely replaced by some other theory tomorrow—but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the cornerstone of my parenting should be a mirror with which to examine, not a scale with which to measure. I hope that my child will behave well, but undergirding that hope should be the grace to look into the defiant stare of an angry three-year-old and see a person.

“It was incredibly freeing to realize that there was no single way to do things and it’s totally okay to make mistakes as a parent,” said Dr. Christine Gross-Loh of her research. “It gave me space to let my children be who they are, and let them grow into that.”

I want to be the best mother I can be, but perhaps the most efficient way to go about this is to remove my child from the center of my universe. Perhaps then I will allow myself to be a holistic human being; and perhaps then I can grant my son that same freedom.