Friday, November 12, 2010

day 12 : the "good" parent

I've been doing a lot of reading lately (trying to buff up on current events, particularly in health and medicine), and I stumbled across this article from the most recent issue of Scientific American Mind: "What makes a good parent?" Interested, I clicked and read about the "top ten skills" ranked and correlated to how well incorporation of these skills in the parenting scheme can predict a "strong parent-child bond" and a child's "health, happiness, and success." Here's what were found to be the "Parents' Ten":
>> 1. Love and affection. You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
>> 2. Stress management. You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxation techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.
>> 3. Relationship skills. You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relationship skills with other people.
>> 4.Autonomy and independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
>> 5. Education and learning. You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.
>> 6. Life skills. You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.
>> 7.Behavior management. You make extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only when other methods of managing behavior have failed.
>> 8. Health. You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child. 
>> 9. Religion. You support spiritual or religious development and participate in spiritual or religious activities. 
>> 10. Safety. You take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness of the child’s activities and friends. —R.E.
This list is striking to me not for what it puts on top but for what it throws at the bottom. Life skills, behavior management, health, religion, and safety - these are things that are less essential than love and affection, stress management, relationship skills, autonomy and independence, and education and learning. On the one hand, I can see how stress management would be an important tool for maintaining composure in parent-child interactions; on the other, I struggle with the applications of this list - these qualifications for parental "competence" - to a low-income setting. This list of qualities is cute when you consider the potential audience for Scientific American. Of course life skills is not nearly as high as it should be, and safety seems a small concern when the biggest potential threat to your child's health comes from playing in the street in your gated suburban neighborhood.

What about the families living in the South Side of Chicago? What are the most important factors for "parental competency" when your struggles go beyond checking that Timmy has done his homework and gets a kiss before bed? Can we say "all you need is love" when Timmy lives in a food desert and walks everyday through gang territory to get home? Maybe doesn't even have a stable home?

Of course, love and affection are necessary, and sure, modeling healthy relationships in front of your kids is important for allowing them to internalize and emulate these kind of relationships throughout their lives. But I think there are some preconditions that need to be qualified before anyone can make a top ten list of parenting skills. Even beyond the acknowledgment of social disparities that impact family life and child development, I feel like there must be some recognition of the fact that children are also very different in their needs physically, mentally and emotionally. How is a child's "health, happiness, and success" reliably qualified, and how do you measure the strength of the parent-child bond? By and large, it seems like to raise your children in a "competent" way as described by the "Parents' 10" presumes a formulaic end goal of "health, happiness, and success." These vague terms say nothing to me. In fact, if anything, they suggest that there is some ideal child I should strive to raise, and this offends me.

It seems to me that, in reality, parenting competency should be about anticipating, meeting, and reflecting on a child's needs, whatever they may be. Culling skills and values from this list seems like a cop-out for the real job of parenting: discovering the life that is your child and assessing and re-assessing what exactly it is you need to do to cultivate it.

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