Each time my wife and I think we have moved past one parenting issue, a new one arises. Our son starts sleeping a little better? Then meals become a challenge. Our daughter starts listening better? Welcome to potty training!
That’s why I loved this article from psychologist Alison Gopnik, who is one of the most respected researchers about the science of raising children. As she notes, too often, middle-class families focus on “parenting” — trying to solve specific problems focused on topics like homework or screen time.
But as Gopnik notes, while these issues certainly concern parents, there’s very little evidence that worrying about these issues will have an impact on how kids turn out. Even more striking, if you look online or ask your Facebook friends for advice about specific topics, you are likely to find totally contradictory suggestions.
But in truth, the fact that there are many different ways to parent our kids is not a bug — it’s a feature. As Gopnik says, there’s strong evidence that suggests that the reason kids are so dependent on their parents is that they need to know how to deal with change, and need to be able to deal effectively to a variety of circumstances. As she argues:
The immediate trigger for human evolution seems to have been a period of unpredictable climate variability in the Pleistocene era. It wasn’t just that the weather got warmer or colder, but that it moved from one extreme to the other in an unpredictable way…
One way that the human species may have evolved to deal with this variability was by nurturing a wide range of children with very different temperaments and abilities. This helped to ensure that someone or other in a new generation would have the skills to cope with the unpredictable and unforeseeable environments that they might face.
In other words, throughout human evolutionary history, the only constant was change. We needed to be able to respond to new situations. Even more importantly, we needed to be resilient, because no situation would be permanent.
What this also means is that the stress of dealing with “parenting issues” is much more about our stress than our kids’. And that’s why Gopnik argues that
[i]nstead of valuing “parenting,” we should value “being a parent.” Instead of thinking about caring for children as a kind of work, aimed at producing smart or happy or successful adults, we should think of it as a kind of love. Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny but to help them shape their own…
As individual parents and as a community, our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it is to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to make a particular kind of child but to provide a protected space of love, safety and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish.
So as my wife and I muddle through the whining, or the lack of sleep, or how to keep our son from pulling DVDs off the shelf, what truly comforts me is a classic story from Jewish folklore. King Solomon was searching search for a magic ring that makes a happy person sad and a sad person happy. He is given a ring with three Hebrew words on it: gam zeh ya’avor, “this, too, shall pass.”
I love this quote, because knowing that the potty training and the sunscreen wrestling match will eventually end makes me happy. But I also sadly know that my kids’ snuggles, my daughter pretending to be an Olympic gymnast, and my son’s each new “first” will pass, too.
Thousands of years of human evolution have trained our kids to know whatever happens, it shall pass. But sometimes, as a parent, I’m the one who truly needs that reminder.