Thursday, March 28, 2013

Parenting Your Great-Grandmother Would Recognize

In his book "Food Rules," author Michael Pollan offers useful guidelines for healthy eating.  

One of them is "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." It's such a simple explanation of what has happened to modern nutrition, and it's also a great practical guidepost for how to behave.

I mean, not that I'm giving up Oreos or anything, but it did make me wonder whether this same rule might prove useful for parents.

With that in mind, I offer you this list of things that my great-grandmother would not recognize as parenting:


I sometimes find myself uttering phrases like:

"What is it about these shoes that is making you so angry?"


"Tell me why peanut butter is so frustrating."

My great-grandmother would not recognize this as parenting.

I think it is great to respect our children's inner world, but with the great-grandma rule in mind I need to also remember that there are whole categories of things that kids just need to suck up regardless of how it makes them feel.

My grandmother's mother was born in 1864 (yes, the generations in my family are remarkably long). She gave birth to ten children, six of whom survived to adulthood. I did not know her, and yet I feel confident in telling you that she spent exactly zero hours of her life worrying whether or not her children "felt sufficiently heard".


Let's take, for example, DECIDING ON A KINDERGARTEN.

In the past several months I have spent countless hours researching school options, polling fellow moms about which teachers seem the most knowledgeable yet firm and loving, and (because I live in Los Angeles) comparing emissions levels for a myriad of campuses.

Would my great-grandmother recognize this as parenting? I'm going to give this a firm "NO".

In the 19th century, people had more kids. As those kids aged, they provided child care for the younger ones and then helped their parents with all manner of work.

In the 20th century, that formula flipped as people had fewer and fewer children and began focusing on how they could better provide for their offspring.

Both models have merits and drawbacks, but the 1800s one may help us gain some needed perspective. My great-grandmother was far too busy worrying about things like, say, cholera to spend much time on the minute details of her children's daily lives, and her children still managed to thrive in a world that was much more challenging than the one my children live in.

Which I think means it's possible (just possible) that my kid will probably survive and do fine at any of the schools I'm considering.

I think.


When my father was a young boy growing up in Brooklyn he was free to walk all over the neighborhood unsupervised. The one demand that was placed on him was that he never cross the street alone. And so every time he would get to a corner he would reach up his little hand to whatever stranger was standing there and say,

"Hey, cross me, Mister!"

And that stranger, rather than throwing him in the trunk of a car and driving off, would instead guide him across the street and then send him on his way.

My Mom, unknown then to my father and living two dozen miles away in the Bronx, would take to the streets each October for "Mischief Night". The event involved hundreds of local children dressed in black and armed with tube socks full of flour roaming through the night on poorly lit streets. 

The point of the evening, as my mother explained it, was to

"Bludgeon as many other kids as possible."

Kids got hurt. Older kids targeted younger kids in ways that were unfair. Kids ganged up on one another. Tears were shed. And each one of them came out again the next year excited to do it all again.

If I allowed my children to replicate either of these pieces of their grandparents' childhood, it would no doubt result in my immediate prosecution.

Of all the things about parenting that my great-grandmother wouldn't recognize, I think this one is the saddest. We live in a world where children are valued and protected in unprecedented ways -- which is GOOD! -- but the flip side is that our kids far too rarely get a chance to play, fight their own battles, or interact independently with the world around them without adults around.

I try to teach my kids that it is OK to turn to "strangers" for help, and I want them to have the confidence that comes from the kind of rough-and-tumble freedoms my parents enjoyed in their youth.

But it's hard.

When I let my kids get a bit behind me at the mall, helpful strangers shout, "You've got one lagging, Mom!" When I let my boys fight over a toy at the park as I feed my baby, secure that they'll eventually work it out, fellow mothers tend to cry, "Whose kids are these? They're fighting!" 

I appreciate that these women are looking out for me, but sometimes I want to tell them, "It's OK - I'm just rollin' like Great-Grandma today!"


  1. I LOVE this! It was especially encouraging to me because we have a large family (8 kids) and I fret over the fact that I don't have time to fret over the minute details of their individual lives. :)

    I had to laugh about the intervention of other parents. Last spring, we went to the park and I let the kids explore the creek. They were wet and muddy and loud. Another mother came by and her kids asked if they could get in the water. She hastily responded, "NO! Stay on the path like civilized children!" LOL!

  2. This is a great post. I agree one hundred percent!

  3. I totally agree! I've also found that the families that stick with all the old foods(not necessarily organic) tend to have healthy kids with fewer problems. I have changed my ways since #1 and #2 and found that #3 and #4 follow in this kind of pattern also.

  4. How funny! I've got the same problem, just an hour ago I sent my boys outside to do some sidewalk chalk and came out to find a neighbor mom sitting in my driveway "supervising them".

  5. You know what does it for me? Is that as much as I intellectually KNOW that the chances of Stranger Danger are slim, that little nag in my head says, sure, but what if? Then there was the time I let her walk by herself (while I watched out of sight) to our neighbors' half a block away, and when she left their house she immediately darted across the damn street. On the bright side, my mother-in-law was there to witness the whole thing.

  6. love this post! and the comments- laughing about suburban snapshots' MIL!

  7. I like this and agree, esp abt the playground rules. Agree w suburban snapshots perspective, tho... it is very hard to fight the what if demons. Great post.

  8. On the subject of Mother-in-Laws, why is it that these women who grew up with all of the freedoms mentioned above, and allowed their children the same freedom, now think that my son can't handle the same, simple, everyday tasks? And why is her response always, "Life is more dangerous, now"? When in fact, it's much safer now than when my wife and I were growing up (late 80s/early 90s).

  9. Heath, I have this argument with my own mother constantly. I don't remember her being a helicopter parent at all, but man, she sure is a helicopter grandparent.

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