As a Parent, How Indulgent Is Too Indulgent?


I’m not a mother, but as far as I can tell, writing about motherhood is sort of like writing about feminism: There’s no real right answer, it’s been complicated by years of movements and counter-movements, and you’re bound to elicit disapproval regardless of what your stance is. Like, obviously. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

Yesterday’s Motherlode column in the Times, written by Sarah Buttenweiser, addressed this, in its way, by acknowledging that she hadn’t given her kids the appropriate emotional distance to deal with the various disappointments and hardships life would bring them:

I lay motionless for hours because the clingy preschooler couldn’t bear to be alone at bedtime. I pulled the shirt over the child’s head or put the food on the kids’ plates … and cleared the plates. I showed up and took photos at the performances and class presentations, packed close as sardines to all the other hovering parents…. I’ve labored to avert all kinds of natural consequences…. I thought I was supposed to do all that; I wanted to do all that. It didn’t really occur to me I could do something else and still be a “good” or even a better parent.

However, there’s still a lot of grey area in the category of “indulgent parent” that she’s referring to: My mom was (and still is) quite like her in her unwillingness to discipline or set boundaries. “Grounding” wasn’t a thing when I was growing up, I never had to do dishes, she got involved in my bad grades during a particularly rough patch with family issues to help me negotiate makeup tests with the teachers, etc.. It wasn’t until I’d grown up that I realized how involved she’d been when she didn’t have to be, but I think I’m the better for it.

There’s definitely a difference between parenting like my mom’s and Buttenweiser’s versus completely overprotective and over-involved parenting: in other words, “indulgence” is relative. (A good example: One of my eighth grade classmate’s mothers petitioned successfully to get a Jack London short story off the reading list because it involved the death of a dog and would upset her daughter.)

Narratives like Buttenweiser’s seem to spring not just from parenting theories, but from a common theme in the ubiquitous Millennial trend pieces that have been popping up lately about the current generation of twenty-somethings: We’ve all been taught we were special snowflakes who could do anything we want thanks to our over-indulgent parents, we went to liberal arts colleges to pursue unrealistic dreams, now we’re jobless and moving back home with our parents, et cetera.

And it’s easy to sell a black-and-white idea like that, but nothing’s that simple. Like I said, I’m not a parent, but I can speak for the child; if my mother were more well-versed in “No” and pragmatic parenting, I highly doubt I would have gone to the college I went to, written for the places I have, or have anything approximating the career that I have now. Now I’m helping to support her financially, and she’s emotionally supported me through alcoholism even though I’m an adult in my mid-twenties who should be able to deal with things myself.

Is all of this indulgent? I don’t think so, but to some people, maybe. They’re not wrong, and neither am I. Buttenweiser’s not wrong, and neither was my mom. Short of abuse (obviously), I just think it’s an oversimplification to assume that one particular parenting style guarantees healthier or more well-adjusted kids.

‘Confessions of a Mother Who Couldn’t Say No’ [Motherlode/New York Times]

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