- - Sunday, October 28, 2012


Culture challenge of the week: Dickensian parenting

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, was catapulted into the media spotlight recently when his sister Rachel publicly lauded their parents’ parenting style.

The elder Johnsons, both highly successful in their professional lives, took an approach to parenting that Boris describes as “character-building and toughening.” Boris and his siblings “learned to fend for themselves” as their parents continued about their own very busy lives.

In Rachel’s estimation, their parents taught them more by leaving them to function on their own than they would have by hovering over them throughout childhood. They “provided us with the essentials then got on with their own lives.”

Rachel speaks out against “wet parents” who “mollycoddle” their children in her guest chapter for the book “How Rude: Modern Manners Defined.” She mentions that her “father’s proudest boast is not that his six children all went to Oxbridge [an elite private school in London], but that he never, not once, attended a parent-teacher meeting at one of our schools.” Her mother filled her time with “much more interesting things” than guiding or engaging her children. What kinds of things? “Painting or seeing her psychiatrist,” says Rachel, who describes herself as grateful for her “Dickensian childhood.”

The Johnsons’ outspoken defense of their parents’ purposeful neglect represents the latest backlash to “helicopter” parenting — the hovering style of overinvolved parents whose children struggle to become independent adults.

But they go too far. If guiding children and attending parent-teacher conferences are “mollycoddling,” and participating in children’s lives makes one a “wet parent,” then count me in. We can acknowledge the problems of indulgent parenting without going to the extreme of advocating neglect and indifference.

How to save your family: Invest in relationships

Parents are right to enjoy their own interests, friends and careers — personal identity doesn’t go by the wayside once children join the family. But a mature and generous approach to parenting integrates those personal interests into the larger vision of family life. Parents are not entitled to pursue their own interests at the expense of caring for the little ones they brought into the world. Nor should they want to.

Becoming a parent means making the conscious decision to place someone else’s welfare ahead of your own desires. Once we make that commitment, real life demands that we adapt and “flex” as needed to fulfill that larger purpose of raising children who will grow into men and women of character.

For each family, the “how tos” might look different. Perhaps it means changing work schedules to allow for preschool play dates, giving up a golf game to cheer at a child’s soccer tourney, or forgoing that favorite TV show in favor of checking homework. Making the commitment to invest ourselves in our parenting gives us the perspective and strength to be less indulgent when our children need firmness and more nurturing when they need loving support.

The time we spend nurturing our children provides invaluable benefits to our children in other ways as well. Research shows that the time we spend with our children — reading to them, playing games and eating family meals together — gives our children a better chance for success and happiness later in life.

A powerful predictor that success and happiness are the strengths of their emotional connections. Connections to loving parents are the lynchpin of future relationships. Children without caring parents invested in their lives have a much harder time opening up to others, setting appropriate boundaries and parenting their own children correctly. That is not to say they cannot do it, but that it is proved to be more difficult.

Our children are born “preprogrammed to bond with one very significant person,” not predisposed to sail through life in lonely “independence,” says Helpguide.org, a nonprofit resource for health information. They are hard-wired to connect with people. Infants’ brains develop better, and more rapidly, when they feel secure and loved by a parent. That crucial stage of development includes the propensity for attachment — and determines an individual’s later capability for strong relationships.

Begin early, and connect often. Encourage emotional growth and openness in your children. Never underestimate the power of simply listening, and the security of a hug from Mom or Dad.

Forget the “Dickensian childhood.” Bending our other commitments to nurture our relationships with our children and foster their emotional well-being is nothing more than good parenting. Give of your time, love and energy to your children. They will be happier in the present, and more successful and well-adjusted in the future.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at [email protected]

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