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Susan Weissman, M.Ed.

Susan Weissman M.Ed.

Help! I Don't Know What Kind of Parent I Am

What if parents stopped calling themselves names and just DID it?

In the years since my son Eden was born and diagnosed with life threatening food allergies there has been a counter trend towards laid back parenting, often called "slow" or "free range" parenting. Lenore Skenazy championed this movement a few years ago when she wrote Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Take The Subway Alone, which turned into a blog, a book and reality show. Free Range parenting backlashed against both the "Tiger Mom" types who bring up protégées first, children second and the new generation of educated, over-aware, anxious parents. Ms. Skenazy is a child-safety myth buster and her central idealogy is that children will gain when parents worry less.

However, when parents begin swimming amongst all these labels the water can get murky and it's difficult to see true wisdom without involuntarily confining oneself. For example, I am vigilant about Eden's allergy safety protocol ... (Over Protective Mom?) and yet I continually teach him allergy self-management techniques ... (Empowering, Free Range Mom?)

Names aside, what are parents doing when they parent? In an insightful New York Times article, Let The Kid Be, Lisa Belkin notes that the term itself "was never used as a verb before the 20th century, when medicine reached a point where parents could assume their babies would survive." Therefore, "parenting" springboards from an assumption of a healthy child. Our parenting generation wants to spread some frosting on their cake - a successful child rearing as they deem it. That success may be measured in their child's sense of morals, or their leadership skills, or success might imply a renaissance child who seamlessly travels from soccer practice to drama club.

But what if survival is in fact an issue for your child? What if your child has definitive health issues? Maybe your child has developmental delays and lacks social judgment. Or they have a cancer in remission. Or they are hearing impaired. Or they have a chronic medical condition like juvenile diabetes, juvenile arthritis. Or, like one of my children, they have life threatening food allergies. Despite vast differences, these children can be lumped under the popular labels "challenged" or "special needs." And the parents of those children often wear those words as well.

In the past, I've heard these parents conclude, "Well, when Evan was diagnosed it sure gave me perspective." Or "Ever since Celia's therapy, I know what really matters!" Some of us believe that our children's health issues clarify our parenting choices; therefore we worry about the right issues to a correct degree. I'm not sure that's true. I believe that parents of special needs children aren't necessarily more enlightened; we just know what matters to us. Our children's needs are for the most part, crystal clear. I know my stepladder of priorities for Eden: physical safety regarding food, emotional safety regarding food, and all else follows. But I have a friend whose child has physical delays and so he wears leg braces. Her priorities for her son are to provide him safety from bullying, to build his physical confidence and all else follows.

Moreover, our parenting philosophies are also affected by our varying capacities for anxiety. I think I'm a medium worrier. When my daughter (who doesn't have food allergies ) went on her first overnight camping trip, I worried that she would be afraid of the dark or bitten by mosquitoes. But if my son goes on the same trip, I'm certain that my overriding concern will be safety of his food and the proximity of the nearest hospital. I may forget to pack bug repellent and I will worry about that too but not as much as his food.

If we consider the complexity of raising a child - the balance of the parent's temperament and needs with those of the child - maybe parenting is not so much philosophical ideology as it is an ongoing and improvised dance. Instead of confining ourselves with words, I prefer to use every inch of our stage.

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About the Author

Susan Weissman, M.Ed.

Susan Weissman, M.Ed., is the author of the new memoir Feeding Eden and an expert in raising a family with food allergies.