Confessions of a Laissez-faire Mother

Family Matters on 05.30.11
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Image Credit:Kelly Rossiter

I was really interested to read Katie's post earlier about whether or not mothers today are more thoughtful or neurotic than those of the past. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and around the same time my local newspaper ran an article about how much easier it was to be a mom in the 1970's than it is now. The woman being interviewed had adult  children and grandchildren and had an adopted 8 year old daughter who required much more effort than her older children had done, and she felt that difference was largely societal.

When my family moved into the suburban home my mother still lives in, I was just about to start Grade 1. The street we lived on boasted a large number of children and a bunch of us who were pretty much the same age walked to school together every day. My mother never once took me to school, nor did she pick me up. I was 6. Granted, this was 1964 and there was much less traffic, and we had a crossing guard at the one 4 way stop we had to cross, who actually crossed the street with us, unlike the guards today to stand on the sidewalk and hold out their sign in a kind of futile suggestion to drivers that it might be a good idea to stop. We played outside all the time, unless the weather was really punishing (snow didn't count), and in the summer we ran outside and only came in for meals. We went straight back out after dinner and the rule was we had to come home when the street lights came on. Our parents trusted that we were pretty close by, and sometimes they were right.

As Sami points out in his post on allowing some danger in his child's life, when he ran around outside, just like I did, his parents worried as much as anybody today, but they knew that some childhood freedom and independance was necessary. My mother is in fact, a massive worrier to this day, but somehow she knew we had to have some space. My generation was the first, I think, to smother their children with attention and rules, and the endless programming that keeps children busy without any free time to think, play and, dare I say it, be bored. I get Katie's point that there are more avenues for information than ever before, but sometimes I think, at what cost? I thought my generation was judgemental in the extreme about the way other people chose to raise their children (What!? you didn't put your child in French Immersion? was the battle cry of my day), but we were never open to the abuse and ridicule that is constantly bombarding young parents on the internet now.

I certainly raised my children differently than my parents did, but I took my cues from them in many ways. My parents never read to us when we were little, because they thought we should read for ourselves. I on the other hand used to pull a pile of books off the shelves and spend the morning reading with my kids all the time. I was a stay at home mother, while my own mother worked. I spent far more time with my kids and I played with them, while my mother believed that that's why children had friends. When I was a young parent there was no talk of home/work balance, because women either worked and had nannies, or they stayed at home. It seems to me that young women are now expected to do both, to be constantly available both physically and emotionally, and to have careers. I guess that's why so many women write blogs, or have their own cottage industry businesses these days. If mothers are more neurotic than in the past, it must be the social pressures that are largely to blame. The aspirations for enrollment in the perfect school to create the perfect kids, have a perfect job, a perfect marriage, the perfect house all while working out to get the perfect body are, I think, potentially crippling.

The important thing that my mother taught me and that I passed on to my kids was to think for myself, and to do what I wanted, not what someone else wanted. I didn't organize their lives to the limit, nor did I  stand over them while they did their homework. I didn't choose their courses for them, nor did I choose their career paths. I've never told them what I thought they should do with their lives, because that is up to them. I remember when my daughter was in her last year of high school and a bunch of mothers were chatting about the upcoming year and our girls going out into the world. One mother said she had spoken to someone whose daughter had just finished her first year at university. Her advice? Stop doing everything for your kids and make them do it themselves. I thought, my daughter and I are already there, and she'll be just fine. And so she was.

I know my husband thinks I should have pushed our children more, that I should have been more of a tiger mother, but it isn't in my nature. They both did well in school, but it was never important to me that they be the head of their class in absolutely everything. They were both on their school's rowing teams and it never mattered that they didn't have a wall of medals, what they learned from the experience was far more important. My children may not have enrolled in Harvard and be in line for high-powered, high paying jobs, but they won't be enrolled in therapy, either. They have both chosen fields with a lot of work, a lot of job satisfaction, and not so much remuneration, which doesn't make their father so happy, but I think is great. They are smart, healthy, well educated and happy. What else could a mother ask for?

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