There’s this tableau I have in mind, that some day I will be at the pool or the park and relaxing on a bench reading a book while the kids play. This, after all, is the image most commonly proffered in various media – that of the disengaged-yet-nearby parent ready to leap into any emergency but not necessarily part of the fun.
It’s fair to say that most parents today don’t subscribe to the notion that we should remain on the sidelines. The message we receive – and that’s reinforced through other parents, parenting magazines and the lecture-circuit experts and shrinks – is that we need to be “interactive,” constant companions to our children at all stages. And that ranges from rolling in the grass with our toddlers all the way up to consulting with our teens on STDs and contraception.
Mostly this is a good thing. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days of the fully disengage parenting model that included wet nurses, nannies, private tutors and boarding school. What’s the point in having kids if all those barriers are put in place between you and your children? Maybe back then it was all about needing a few names for the will or hands for the field, but nowadays people mostly have kids because they’ve decided they want them. And that includes wanting them around.
I can’t say that my style of parenting came from any great strategic plan I put together on Powerpoint to go over with my wife. Since my own father was a kind of scary, mostly remote figure who only occasionally played with us, I did have it in mind to be more accessible to my own kids. As it turned out, kids seem to really go for that – at least up until a certain age — and we therefore consigned ourselves to being extra full-time parents, especially with our youngest.
So, when my wife took three of the kids to visit her mother last weekend and left me and the 16-year-old to fend for ourselves, we got a small taste of what it would be like to be sort of kid-free. I actually sat and read a book in the middle of the day and didn’t have to get up every 3.5 minutes to fill up a juice cup, tend to a boo-boo or help with a puzzle. I didn’t have anyone tap-dancing on my head or falling off the couch or asking to go outside. And we watched “Kill Bill 1&2” back to back without interruption or having to worry about the 6-year-old seeing any bad stuff.
The older kids tell my wife and I that we’ve spoiled our youngest, and I suppose that’s true to an extent. The youngest is always going to get away with more than the older ones. But I don’t recognize being on-call whenever Andy is awake as spoiling him. With older kids – one of whom has already left home – we know how short these years are, and we do our best to savor them. At the same time, “over-parenting” can wear one’s batteries down pretty quickly. Somewhere, we’re still looking for that happy median between the disassociated parent of yesteryear and the 24/7 parent of today.
Part of that, I think, is letting go of the guilt we feel when we plop a kid in front of the TV for an hour or let them play on the computer while we nap, read or work. When the call comes later to go build a snowman, play Candyland or whatever, I’ll be ready.
Just give me a minute, OK? Or make it 30.