I like Frank Bruni. His weekly New York Times opinion column is my first stop on Sundays (well, after Real Estate). He’s smart, connected, opinionated and an excellent writer, all of which make the column a must-read. That is, about his usual subject matter, which is mostly politics. But I gotta ask: What does he know about parenting? According to his recent piece, A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn, it’s plenty, which strikes many of us who are busy putting putting the ing in parenting as a little … off. You can agree or disagree with everyone from Dr. Sears to the Tiger Mom, but they have one thing Bruni doesn’t. Namely, children.
Qualifying his observations by stating his long status as uncle, Bruni shares his bafflement over the very word, parenting. What my grandparents would have called “keeping the kids alive” is now not just a capital-P pursuit, it’s also got plenty of hyphenations to tack onto its front, like tiger-, free-range-, and helicopter-. (I wonder: did Bruni’s column get put to bed before he got a chance to see Susan A. Patton’s viral, cringe-inducing letter to the women of Princeton, urging them to consider her highly marriageable son before it’s too late? Those’re some sharp helicopter blades!)
Bruni feels the urge to wonder why we offer our darlings so many choices (who decided that families work best as democracies?); why we agonize about what they’ll eat (too many chicken nuggets, for sure); or why we spend so much energy ensuring their playing fields are even (and come with trophies). Instead, he insists, we should fret far less, and teach them how to overcome obstacles without looking back at mommy dearest for a snack and a snuggle. He entreats us to take a breath, chill, and revel in loving our children while also setting sane limits.
Here’s a secret: I agree with Bruni. In fact, I read his column once, then twice, picking out the ideas that seem to have been cribbed from my book, Mean Moms Rule, such as remaining above the fray of tantrums, declining to fix every upset -- and not buying them an iPhone. Yet even while I nodded all the way through, it stung a bit, hearing such strong parenting prescriptions from the childless side of the fence, in the same way I bristled when getting marriage advice from a Catholic priest, something Bruni, having written often about the Church, might sympathize with.
There’s just no way to coat a childless person’s advice in anything that’s free of judgment, no matter how well-meaning. All of us do it – judge, that is, often laying the harshest criticism on the mom in the mirror – but at least when we’re sniffing at or dissing other parents, we do so from a position as, well, one of them. Bruni can qualify all he likes, but he’s still going to be taken for an outsider, one who’s simply never walked in the shoes with the spit up on them.
So Mr. Bruni, thanks for sharing your baffled-bystander take on what my generation of parents has wrought. Me, I think you’re spot on. But that’s an opinion I’ve earned the right to spout.
Denise Schipani is the mother of two boys and the author of Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later (Sourcebooks). She blogs at Mean Moms Rule.