Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” talks about the challenges of working mothers. She makes some good points (workplaces are, in some ways, unnecessarily unfriendly to parents), and some frustrating ones. But one detail in particular stood out for me.
Slaughter worked while her kids were young, but came home from Washington to spend more time with her teenage son: “But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him.” Later in the essay, she reiterates the point that teenagers “need” a great deal of parental care: “many peak career opportunities are coinciding precisely with their teenage years, when, experienced parents advise, being available as a parent is just as important as in the first years of a child’s life.”
This seems odd. Infants needing constant care is a universal fact of life. In every human culture, where there are babies, someone‘s job is to watch them. But the idea that a teenager needs as much parental care as a baby does is historically and globally weird.
Among the “professional classes”, there are two assumptions that pretty much everybody makes:
1. In order to have a chance at a financially secure future, teenagers need to do certain things, like get good grades and “stay out of trouble”.
2. Teenagers will not reliably do these things without near-constant adult supervision.
If you believe those claims, and you’re a good parent, you’ll spend as much (or more) time on your kids when they’re teenagers as when they’re small children. That was Slaughter’s paradigm; it was also my parents’. My mother liked to say, “Little children, little problems; big children, big problems.” When you have big children, from this point of view, you have to work really hard to prevent them from making big problems.
The thing is, that’s not a correct outlook. It used to be that getting good grades and staying out of trouble would get a teenager into college, which would set him up for success later on. But if a perfect high school record is worth less in the future, it’ll be less worthwhile for parents to prevent their children from not adhering to the standard “track”.
The future will reward self-reliance and initiative more than parent-aided perfectionism. Teaching children to take care of their own responsibilities, which includes allowing them to fail, will produce teenagers who don’t have to be hovered over to make sure they study or work. I remember feeling a terrible sense of helplessness as a teenager. I couldn’t do anything right, so I had to be bossed and monitored and helped, which seemingly made me even worse at doing things on my own. I may exaggerate — but there was a hint of that screwed-up cycle in my own adolescence, and I saw more than a hint in other families.
Something different is possible. Parents shouldn’t have to be held hostage to cleaning up their teenagers’ messes, and teenagers shouldn’t be trapped in a cycle of helplessness and micromanagement. In most of the world, teenagers are adults.
Domestic responsibilities aren’t what they used to be. A “housewife” doesn’t have to spend nearly as much time on cooking and cleaning as she used to, due to labor-saving machines and changing priorities. What’s left is parenting. And accordingly, women are spending less time cooking and cleaning, and more time caring for children.
That extra parenting time is more a choice than an unavoidable necessity — it’s doubtful children who grew up before 1995 were horribly neglected compared to today’s kids. If parents value family time, that’s fine, but if they wish to spend more time at the office, they probably can without too much harm to their kids. If we believe the evidence that genetics and family environment matters more than parenting, then spending too much time grooming kids into the perfect college applicants is unnecessary.
I’m not a parent, but from my perspective, it seems like parents (especially mothers) have made decisions that make parenting much harder and more extensive than it needs to be.
(This is an edited version of a private post by my friend Sarah.)