The Power of Prime

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Parenting: Should Parents Raise Their Own Children?

Maybe we should outsource our child rearing.

This is, I realize, a rather heretical question to ask given the size of the “parent-industrial complex,” the fact that the word parent has morphed from being a noun (i.e., what someone is) into a verb (i.e., what someone does), and the recent proliferation of “I am a better parent than you” genre of books (e.g., Tiger Mom and Bringing Up Bebe). Yet, it is a question that I have been asking myself a great deal lately both as a so-called parenting expert and as a parent.

Let me preface all this by saying that I find just about all parents perfectly well-intentioned people who love their children dearly and want what’s best for them. But, as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with,” well, you know the rest. The problem is that parents don’t always translate those good intentions into actions that are actually in the best interests of their children. And that is where my question arises from.

As the author of four parenting books who also works with parents and children in my practice, I see many reasons why parents shouldn’t raise their own children.

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An unfortunate reality is that parents are, first and foremost, human beings who carry all of the requisite “baggage” from their own upbringings. Sadly, most parents, rather than unpacking their baggage before they have children, end up passing that baggage onto their children. Of course, parents do a lot of good stuff for their children, but that excess baggage can weigh children down for the rest of their lives.

Our popular culture sure doesn’t help these days. Parents feel immense pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” lest little Johnny or Mary (or should I say Jayden and Sophia) fall behind their peers, placing them on a certain path to utter failure (at age 5!). Add in parents’ profound anxiety about their children’s economic futures and this double burden drives parents to the craziness that we see at youth soccer games, with Tiger Moms, and on Toddlers and Tiaras. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against pushing your children to be successful (I actually wrote a book about it), but there is a fine line that many parents cross.

Increased affluence, disposable income, and free time have given many parents the freedom to turn their children into products to mold, projects to finish, and trophies to burnish. All of that free time, and not enough meaning or satisfaction in their own lives, has caused many parents to become so overly invested in their children that their self-esteem becomes based on their children’s achievements. Imagine what it’s like for children when how they perform in, for example, school or sports, will determine how happy their parents are (and whether their parents will love them). Talk about pressure!

As a parent, I also see many reasons why we shouldn’t raise our own children. My daughters are pretty good kids, yet I’m amazed at how uncooperative, selfish, and downright resistant they can be with my wife and me and the tantrums they can throw at the slightest provocation at home. Yet, the reports we get from their teachers is that they are absolute angels: cooperative, kind, and sweet tempered. Better angelic with others and demons (occasionally with us) than vice versa, of course, but, come on, why wouldn’t they want to be little darlings with the people who love them the most (and can make their lives most difficult!)?

When I try to instruct my daughters in the activities they participate in, they turn a deaf ear. Yet, when their sports coaches (or chorus instructor) ask them to do something, they are only too happy to oblige.

Another reason parents shouldn’t raise their own children is that we have no idea what we’re doing. We’re not required to take parenting classes and the parenting books out there can help, but don’t always translate well to the real world. We’re left to figure things out by trial and error which, as we all know, is not a good way to do anything.

Most parents don’t try to fix the plumbing, perform surgery on themselves, or defend themselves in court. Instead, we turn to experts to do those jobs for us. Why would we try to do something as important as raising our own children, something we also don’t know anything about, when we could hire professionals to do a much better job than we could (I realize that many parents don’t have the option of outsourcing their child rearing)?

Because our children are, well, our children, parents often don’t react well to them emotionally. I read a study recently that 88% of parents yell at their children, though my own informal poll among our friends suggests that this number is closer to 99%. Children have a way of getting under their parents’ skin and pushing their buttons (sorry for the double metaphors); parental exasperation, frustration, and anger are always just a look or comment away from rearing their ugly heads. Children seem to be born pre-wired to provoke strong emotions (good and bad!) in their parents. They just can’t help themselves. We all know, and the research shows, that yelling is not good for our children, yet most parents do it anyway. Why? Because they just can’t help themselves.

Yet, have you ever seen a teacher, instructor, or coach yell at your children? Okay, maybe a coach, but it’s pretty rare. Why is that? Several reasons. First, these “hired help” aren’t so invested in their little charges that their hot buttons get pushed easily. Second, remember that your children are little bundles of joy with everyone except you. Third, they know that if they do yell at your children, they’ll probably get fired.

Yes, yes, I know that if we didn’t raise our own children, we would miss out on all of those special moments of parental bliss that make actually raising our children bearable and sometimes enjoyable. But how often do those moments occur? Far less than those special moments of parental insanity and far and away less than your daily life that has no moments at all. And let’s not forget the research indicating that having children is associated with lower, not higher, levels of happiness.

So, I think I’ve laid out a pretty good case for why parents shouldn’t raise their own children. I must admit, though, that my idea isn’t likely to gain any traction because it’s just not very practical and, despite all of the challenges, we still love our children madly and want to be with them. But you have to admit that there is a certain logic (perhaps twisted) and a certain attraction (perhaps perverse) to the idea.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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