It’s hard to be a parent, especially in today’s world.
That’s a common sentiment, and I don’t disagree. There certainly are new trials (social media, for one) facing parents raising children today. But sometimes, I think we’ve created the majority of the challenges ourselves, and a look at some popular parenting-related headlines circulating this month provides insight into how.
In mid-September, an 11-year-old boy in Virginia, wrote to the White House and asked to mow the lawn. He was granted the privilege, and many great photo-ops were had. It might have been the one feel-good story coming out of D.C. lately.
Then, Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times writer, posted this on Twitter (twitter.com/greenhousenyt): “Not sending a great signal on child labor, minimum wage & occupational safety.” Later, when people challenged him with the expected I-was-mowing-lawns-when-I-was-7 response, Greenhouse tweeted, “What this kid wants to do is noble, but sorry, I’m mindful of problems — I’ve written lots about child labor & kids being hurt by machinery,” and “I know the dangers of child labor—Academy of Pediatrics says no one =N:E= should use push mower.”
Side note: I read about this story while my 10-year-old son was outside getting a lesson from his 16-year-old brother on how to use the weed whacker.
The mowing story and Greenhouse’s reaction predictably stirred up old debates on social media about at which ages children should be allowed to have more independence for certain things. When can they mow a lawn? Have a job? Stay home alone? With the help of social media, there are a lot of cooks in this parenting-advice kitchen.
Around the same time that the 11-year-old mowed President Trump’s lawn, Time magazine released a special edition, The Science of Childhood. One of the reports was titled “The Secret Power of Play,” (time.com/4928925/secret-power-play/) and it outlined all the benefits of unstructured play, how it’s slowly being eliminated from childhood, and what things might happen in its absence. For instance, a neuroscientist in Alberta studied the brains of rats who were allowed to play and the brains of rats who were not. Spoiler: The latter had less developed prefrontal cortexes.
Finally, this was something the majority of mothers could agree on: Children should play more.
Except, in 2007, Time had published another story titled “The Overscheduled Child Myth” (content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580388,00.html), by John Cloud, which stated that, according to a study out of Yale, “kids’ well-being tends to improve when they participate in extracurriculars.”
So, do I sign my kid up for all the things, or not?
After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, an article titled “Thoughts on Vegas, and Why Men Keep Doing This,” (byrslf.co/thoughts-on-the-vegas-shooting-14af397cee2c), written by Charlie Hoehn started circulating in parenting groups on Facebook. Why? Because Hoehn’s second reason for America’s mass shootings was this: males have been deprived of opportunities to play. “There is a strong correlation with play deprivation and mental illness,” writes Hoehn, and America’s mothers collectively gasped.
But I thought the media sometimes pointed to playing video games as a root cause, too?
Thankfully, we have Free Range Kids’s Lenore Skenazy (www.freerangekids.com/is-there-a-link-between-a-lack-of-play-and-mass-shootings/) to set us straight: “There are 320,000,000 people in America. And all but one did not unleash a massacre in Vegas. What’s more, the man was 64, so he grew up in the golden era when kids WERE allowed to play outside till the streetlights came on.”
And we sent our kids back outside to mow the lawn.
Now it’s mid-October – just in time for all the Halloween scare stories about poisoned treats and accidents on dark streets. Fliers will come home with ideas for “safer” Halloween activities, and mothers will be conflicted again. Do we let them roam free around the neighborhood? Or do we follow behind them in the mini-van?
Basically, if your parenting how-tos are based on news headlines, you’re probably feeling scared and confused. First Time tells us scheduled activities improve kids’ brains, then, 10 years later, they tell us a lack of play might destroy them. We can’t let our young kids mow the lawn (or can we?), and depriving our kids of play might cause mental illness (or will it?).
In no time, eggs will be bad for cholesterol again, too.
All of this – all of the headlines and fear – does one thing: it creates more work (emotional and otherwise) for moms. How am I supposed to work and have my own life, like the feminist books say I should, if I can’t also ask my children to take care of household chores like mowing the lawn? How do I exercise and take care of my body, like the women’s magazines say I should, if I’m supposed to help my children get to all the extra-curricular activities? Or am I supposed to eschew extra-curricular activities in favor of free play? And who oversees that? Does anyone oversee it? What did Time say 10 years ago? What about now?
It really is hard to be a parent today, but not only for the reasons many of us had thought.
— Sarah Smiley is a syndicated columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.