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Essay

So, What Is the Goal of Parenting?

  • July 12th 2012

Guest Blogger: Lawrence J. Cohen, psychologist and author of "Playful Parenting" reflects on what he gained from his peers at Aspen Ideas.

I joined the panel on the goal of parenting thinking it might be a knock-down drag-out fight between advocates of play and connection (like me) and advocates of hard-core achievement and academic preparation (like Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother). I think we were all pleasantly surprised to be on pretty much the same page. Amy, for example, proudly revealed that she and her family have lots of fun times, play times, and down times together.

Erika Christakis noted that playing and learning are not in opposition. She talked about Harvard undergraduates arriving with “every box checked” for academic excellence and extracurricular achievement, but without basic social and emotional skills. I had to laugh at that, because when I give workshops on Readiness for Kindergarten I always say the exact same thing!

Ellen Galinsky played a video of young people answering the question, “What would you want different about your parents?” They didn’t ask for more time or more permissiveness, but for parents to be less stressed. As one girl said, “Take a nap when you’re tired, but not for too long.”

Lori Gottlieb, the moderator, noted that childhood is it’s own thing, not a preparation for adulthood. Especially an adulthood that we choose for our children, whether it makes sense for them or not. I agree. If you’re in preparation for the future you miss out on the present.   

The goal of parenting can’t be the same for every family and every child. Some need a stronger push; some need more empathy and support. Or, as a supervisor of mine told me, quoting his preacher father: Our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

In the spirit of balance, since Amy stepped away from the extremes of Tiger Mothering to talk about the value of fun and play, I will also go against the grain and quote Edwin Land, the inventor and founder of Polaroid: “My whole life has been spent trying to teach people that intense concentration for hour after hour can bring out in people resources they didn’t know they had.” But children can only concentrate in this way if they are loved, fulfilled, cherished, and validated. 

“When in doubt as a parent,” Mr. Rogers used to say, “think about what you would have wanted as a child.” 

(Photo above: Ellen Gallinsky, Lawrence J. Cohen, and Erika Christakis. Not pictured: Amy Chua, and Lori Gottlieb)

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