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Why Humans Shouldn’t Parent Like Pandas

Two dangerous myths surround parenting pundits.

Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Two very common myths affect parents of successful children. The first myth is that the child’s success is a direct consequence of parenting. The second myth is that a parent can clearly describe and define her or his behavior, particularly the behavior that had a positive influence on the child. A third common myth, which I won’t discuss here, is that a parent’s measure of a child’s success is accurate and complete.

All of these myths are evident in many parenting books—most recently Esther Wojcicki’s How to Raise Successful People. Wojcicki promotes the meme-like message that we should parent like pandas—cuddle our offspring from time to time, discipline them with claws, and let them go their own way.

Parent pundits like Wojcicki parade their children as proof of their parenting prowess. But like any catchy slogan, much is omitted, including nuance, personality, and the uniqueness of each parent/child relationship. In generalities, too, lie inconsistencies. For Wojcicki, the directive to “set up a plan with your kids, not for your kids” is undercut by strict directives about what to allow and disallow. Interpreting the Ten Commandments (a term used by Wojcicki for her directives) is tricky, and people who appear to agree may have very different ideas about how to implement, for example, the directive to plan with your kids. There are many children whose parents claim to consult them, but who do not feel a real part of the process.

Any parent whose child thrives is tempted to see such good luck as proof that they did everything right. It’s difficult not to take credit when things go well. I look at my daughters and think, “Wow! I did okay,” but I am also aware of how my behavior, throughout those intense parenting years, could have had different outcomes for different children. A more accurate description than pride is relief: They grew up in an environment that offered them sufficient positive responses to allow them to thrive, and they were resilient in face of the inevitable parent/child glitches and mismatches along the way. In short, I love who they have become and think, “How wonderful! They have survived having me as a parent.” This is not a good starting point for a best-selling guide to parenting, but then that is not the point or purpose of genuine reflections on one’s parenting.

Every day, in the course of my professional and personal life, I meet parents who love as much as I do, who show as much care, who expend as much energy, and yet whose children are depressed, anxious, obese, or drug dependent. They are quick to assume they have done something to damage their child. I have seen a parent wracked with guilt, certain that the cough medicine she gave to her son as a child is at the root of his alcoholism. I have talked to parents who live, day in and day out, with a sense of failure, because their child’s life is blighted by problems, while the children of their friends, neighbors, and relatives are angels of decorum and development. And whenever a child takes his or her own life, an entire family is seared with shame over some possible omission of love, care, or attention, while often no such omission (out of the ordinary) is evident.

In the most helpful therapeutic contexts, the focus will not be on what a parent is doing wrong, nor will it be on how to be a perfect parent. Instead, possible ways of modifying the child’s environment so that he or she has easier access to what’s positive will be explored. Parents may be helped to hone their awareness of this particular child’s needs and to tune in to the child’s cues for “relational requests” or signals of need. Children might learn in such a setting to accept inevitable constraints in their lives—constraints stemming from their physical or cognitive abilities, their health or their family situations. Both parent and child might be asked to draw maps of their relationships as a means, primarily, of understanding how each takes part in this family dynamic.

None of this involves determining a causal link between parental behavior and a child’s “success” or lack of success. It involves accepting the inevitable: that the relationships within which a child develops are always complex and in this complexity lie imperfections. The needs of a human child are varied, multi-faceted, and context-specific; therefore, corrective lessons are intensely focused on detail, not on blithe generalities (such as “parents should relax and trust their gut,” or children should be taught “trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness”), which may be true, but are also likely to be meaningless within the actual rhythms of family life and their unpredictable repercussions.

Buying into those two false myths—that parents’ behavior is the primary determinate of whether a child thrives, and that parents have a clear and accurate fix on what it is they do that works for a child—can be self-defeating. Books modeled on the message, “I’ve raised successful children, so I can tell you how to do it, too” make us all feel inadequate. Yet instead of running away, we are drawn to them with the promise that they offer a remedy to our deficits. Such rulebooks might work for pandas whose remit for success is very different from that of a human. After all, pandas don’t suffer from the elusive pain and lethargy that may have no medical explanation, nor do they do ruminate about suicide, nor underperform at school. So, when a panda does not thrive, we don’t blame the parent; we look at the broader environment, including social interactions, climate, diet, and access to stimulation and exercise.

On reflection, these “parent like I do” books won’t work for pandas, either.

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