For children of the 70s and 80s, benign neglect was the parenting style du jour.
Caregivers often plopped us in playpens so they could continue to live some semblance of their lives, occasionally tossing a hot dog or a pitcher of Kool-Aid our way. Once, when my brother and I waited in the car while our mom ran errands, we came up with a little game called, “Asking Strangers their Names.” We cruised the neighborhood on our bikes, naked by today’s standards—no helmets, no sunscreen. I don’t recall my pediatrician ever inquiring about how many hours of screen time I was allowed.
We parent so differently now. We tuck our newborns into ergonomically-optimized pouches so they can stay close to us during their fourth trimester without compromising their spinal integrity. We worry we’re not being present enough with our babies even as they’re literally strapped to our bodies while we puree organic sweet potatoes for them.
We fret over their self-esteem, their social skills, their screen time, their friendships. We enrich their childhood with a well-curated mosaic of activities. We talk with them about systemic racism and gender and consent.
Or at least we used to, before the pandemic hit.
Under intense stress, humans tend to regress. Quite early on in the pandemic, and without much intention, I reverted to my 70s and 80s childrearing roots.
With last spring’s collapse of in-person school (and all other venues of childcare), something had to give. I didn’t want it to be my work as a writer or my mental health, which I treat with both medication and a rigorous level of self-care. The only place where I could find any wiggle room was my tendency to parent intensively.
My kids now enjoy approximately three zillion hours of screen time every day so that I can have little pockets of quiet to write and read and do yoga.
They eat dessert every single night. Seriously. I read an article early in the pandemic that suggested parents, “Make this time special. Try giving your kids dessert every night!” The author, like the rest of us, did not realize that eight months later, the pandemic would rage on, with no end in sight. There’s a fine line between making things special and Type 2 diabetes.
To be fair, even before the pandemic, I had already shrugged my way out of the uber-crunchy parenting style I’d slipped into in early parenthood. I’d breastfed on demand for two years, co-slept, practiced baby signs, and had planned to let my son choose whether or not to follow in my vegetarian footsteps.
He chose pepperoni. With a side of bacon.
The prolonged stress of the pandemic has inflicted incredible strain on parents. A jaw-dropping number of women are being forced to leave the workforce because their childcare has evaporated. We’re mingling our roles as parents with the role of teacher, and for most of us, it’s not going very well. To survive with our mental health and our relationships intact, we have little choice but to lower our expectations—of ourselves and our children.
So much of my intensive parenting stemmed from my anxiety. I fretted that I wasn’t a good enough mom. That if I wasn’t vigilant, my kids would stumble on the same potholes I’d twisted my ankles on. I believed I needed to do everything in my power to protect them from the low self-esteem and body image issues I grew up with.
But lately, I’ve come to believe that our kids need less from us than my anxiety would like me to think. They need us to be okay. They need us to be responsive to who they are and their unique strengths and challenges. They don’t need for us to curate a childhood for them. They don’t need us to be their full-time teachers, unless we’ve consciously chosen to homeschool them. They don’t need us to talk to them constantly about world issues. They don’t need our overflowing anxiety.
They certainly don’t need us to parent from our wounds.
I’m going to say that one again.
Our kids don’t need us to parent from our wounds.
In fact, they really need us not to.
My own anxiety has likely already trickled down to my kids. Between genetics, my sometimes unchecked anxiety, and the state of the world, they’re a bit doomed in that department.
But the pandemic has also shown me how resilient my children are.
Yes, they’ve missed their friends during the shutdown. They’ve struggled with remote learning. And experiencing a pandemic in the middle of their childhood may have long-term emotional consequences that we can’t yet foresee in a similar way to how my grandmother, a child of the Great Depression, enforced strict rules regarding the number of toilet paper squares that could be used after going to the bathroom many decades after the Depression ended.
But mostly, my kids have been okay. They are learning a crucial lesson—crappy things happen in life, and we figure out how to adapt to them.
When we’re anxious, we tend to get rigid, in an attempt to maintain control. I’m reminding myself every day to instead be open to flexibility.
And in some ways, we’ve been better than okay. The less frantic lifestyle of COVID-19 is more aligned with our family’s natural turtle-like pace. I’m practicing even more self-care than I was pre-pandemic, which means I’m modeling wellness for my kids.
Instead of wringing my hands and spiraling into self-loathing because my kids are having approximately one zillion hours of screen time a day, I’ve been focusing on what I could add to our days. Instead of tallying or restricting their screen time, I ask myself how I might add moments of connection to our day. Could we go for a family walk? Bake muffins? Play cards? Have an afternoon puppy pile, or read together?
I’ve relaxed more. I’m learning to bend.
I’m letting my kids be who they are—and most of the time, they’re pretty freaking fantastic.
I’m not saying we should rewind to the 70s and 80s, resurrecting spankings, Tang, and parachute pants. But this middle ground I’m treading, somewhere between benign neglect and helicopter parenting? It turns out it’s a pretty sweet place to be.