Last year, a friend of mine sent a shipment of green rubber flooring, at great impractical expense, to a villa in the south of France because she was worried that over the summer holiday her toddler would fall on the stone floor. Generations of French children may have made their way safely to adulthood, walking and falling and playing and dreaming on these very same stone floors, but that did not deter her in her determination to be safe. This was, I think, an extreme articulation of our generation’s common fantasy: that we can control and perfect our children’s environment. And lurking somewhere behind this strange and hopeless desire to create a perfect environment lies the even stranger and more hopeless idea of creating the perfect child.
Of course, for most of us, this perfect, safe, perpetually educational environment is unobtainable; an ineffable dream we can browse through in Dwell, or some other beautiful magazine, with the starkly perfect Oeuf toddler bed, the spotless nursery. Most of us do not raise our children amidst a sea of lovely and instructive wooden toys and soft cushiony rubber floors and healthy organic snacks, but the ideal exists and exerts its dubious influence.
This fantasy of control begins long before the child is born, though every now and then a sane bulletin lands amidst our fashionable perfectionism, a real-world corrective to our over-arching anxieties. I remember reading with some astonishment, while I was pregnant, a quiet, unsensational article about how one study showed that crack babies turned out to be doing as well as non-crack babies. Here we are feeling guilty about goat’s cheese on a salad, or three sips of wine, and all the while these ladies, lighting crack pipes, are producing intelligent and healthy offspring. While it’s true that no one seemed to be wholeheartedly recommending that pregnant women everywhere take up crack for relaxation, the fundamental irony does appear to illustrate a basic point: which is that children, even in utero, are infinitely more adaptable and hardy and mysterious than we imagine.
And yet the current imagination continues to run to control, toward new frontiers and horizons of it. A recent book generating interest in the US is called Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. It takes up questions such as whether eating more fish will raise the intelligence of your child, or what exact level of stress is beneficial to the unborn child. (Too much stress is bad, but too little stress, it turns out, is not good either. One doctor reports that she has pregnant women with blissfully tranquil lives asking her what they can do to add a little healthy stress to the placid uterine environment.)
Then, just last month came the well-publicised British study that suggested that a little drinking during pregnancy is healthy, and that children whose parents drank a little bit were in fact, if anything, slightly more intelligent than children whose mothers refrained entirely. One might think this new evidence would challenge the absolutism of our attitudes about drinking and pregnancy, the near-religious zeal with which we approach the subject, but it’s equally possible that it won’t actually have much effect. Our righteousness and morally charged suspicion that drinking even the tiniest bit will harm an unborn child runs deeper than rational discussion or science; we are primed for guilt and sacrifice, for the obsessive monitoring of the environment, for rampant moralism and reproach, even before the baby is born.
One of my friends asked me, very sensibly, “Is it worth even the smallest risk?” about a glass of wine late in my pregnancy, and of course the answer has to be no. What kind of Lady Macbeth would place her own fleeting desire for a glass of wine above her child’s health, or ability to get into an excellent college? However, the question itself betrays its own assumptions: our exaggerated vision of risk and sensitivity to the impossible idea of control may also be damaging to a child.
If you drink a little, the popular logic goes, your child might be a little dumber. He won’t be damaged per se, but he’ll be a little dumber. Behind this calculation is the mystical idea of engineering the perfect child. But perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is, even if we can engineer him, will he grow up to be unbearable?
You know the child I am talking about: precious, wide-eyed, over-cared-for, fussy, in a beautiful sweater, or a carefully hipsterish T-shirt. Have we done him a favour by protecting him from everything, from dirt and dust and violence and sugar and boredom and egg whites and mean children who steal his plastic dinosaurs, from, in short, the everyday banging-up of the universe? The wooden toys that tastefully surround him, the all-sacrificing, well-meaning parents, with a library of books on how to make him turn out correctly – is all of it actually harming or denaturing him?
Someone I know tells me that in the mornings, while making breakfast, packing lunches and laying out clothes, she organises an art project for her children. An art project! This sounds impossibly idyllic – imaginative, engaged, laudable. And yet, is it just the slightest bit mad as well? Will the world, with its long lines in the passport office and traffic jams, be able to live up to quite this standard of exquisite stimulation? And can you force or programme your child to be creative?
The bookshelves offer bright assistance: Amazing Minds: The Science of Nurturing Your Child’s Developing Mind with Games, Activities and More; Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic; Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Kids (Without Going Nuts with Worry). These books, and the myriad others like them, hold out the promise of a healthy, civilised venture, where every obstacle, every bedtime, every tantrum, is something to be mastered like an exam at school.
Can we, for a moment, flash back to the benign neglect of the 1970s and ’80s? I can remember my parents having parties, wild children running around until dark, catching fireflies. If these children helped themselves to three slices of cake, or ingested the second-hand smoke from cigarettes, or carried cocktails to adults who were ever so slightly slurring their words, they were not noticed; they were loved, just not monitored. And, as I remember it, those warm summer nights of not being focused on were liberating. In the long sticky hours of boredom, in the lonely, unsupervised, unstructured time, something blooms; it was in those margins that we became ourselves.
And then, of course, it sometimes turns out that the perfect environment is not perfect. Take for example, the fastidiousness a certain segment of modern parents enthusiastically cultivates. The New York Times recently ran an article called “Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good for You”, which addressed itself sotto voce to parents who insist that everyone who enters their house takes off their shoes, who obsessively wash hands, or don’t allow their children on the subway and carry around little bottles of disinfectant. Apparently, there is, from a sensible scientific point of view, such a thing as being too clean; children, it turns out, need to be exposed to a little dirt to develop immunities, and it seems that the smudged, filthy child happily chewing on a stick in the playground is healthier than his immaculate, prodigiously wiped-down counterpart. I like this story because there may be no better metaphor for the conundrum of over-protection, the protection that doesn’t protect.
Homework offers parents another fertile opportunity to be involved, i.e. immersed. I can recall my own mother vaguely calling upstairs “Have you done your homework?”, but I cannot recall her rolling up her sleeves to work side by side with me cutting out pictures of rice paddies for a project about Vietnam, or monitoring how many pages of Wuthering Heights I had read. One mother told me about how her seven-year-old, at one of New York’s top private schools, received an essay assignment asking how his “life experience” reflected Robert Frost’s line in “The Road Not Taken”: “I took the one less traveled by.” And, of course, that would be a question calling out for the parent writing it herself, since the seven-year-old’s “life experience” had not yet thrown up all that many roads.
One of the more troubling aspects of our new ethos of control is that it contains a vision of right-minded child rearing that is in its own enlightened way as exclusive and conformist as anything in the 1950s. Anyone who does not control their children’s environment according to current fashions and science, who, say, bribes their child with M&Ms or feeds their baby non-organic milk or has a party that lasts until two in the morning, is behaving in a wild and reckless manner that somehow challenges the status quo. The less trivial problem is this: the rigorous ideal of the perfect environment doesn’t allow for true difference, for the child raised by a grandparent, or a single mother, or divorced parents; its vision is definitely of two parents taking turns carrying the designer baby sling. Mandatory 24-hour improvement and enrichment, have, in other words, their oppressive side.
A quick perusal of a random calendar for a random Saturday for a random member of this generation’s finest parents will reveal shuttling to gymnastics class and birthday parties and soccer, and Feeling Art and Expressing Yourself Through Theatre – entire days vanishing into the scheduled and rigorous happiness of the child, entire days passing without the promise or hope or expectation of even one uninterrupted adult conversation. (Those who fall a little short can only aspire to this condition of energetic and industrious parenting.)
One sometimes sees these exhausted, devoted, slightly drab parents, piling out of the car, and thinks, is all of this high-level watching and steering and analysing really making anyone happier? One wonders if family life is somehow overweighted in the children’s direction – which is not to say that we should love them less, but that the concept of adulthood has somehow transmogrified into parenthood. What one wonders, more specifically, is whether this intense, admirable focus is good for the child? Is there something reassuring in parental selfishness, in the idea that your parents have busy, mysterious lives of their own, in which they sometimes do things that are not entirely dedicated to your entertainment or improvement?
I also can’t help but wonder if all of the effort poured into creating the perfect child, like the haute bourgeois attention to stylish food, is a way of deflecting and rechannelling adult disappointment. Are these parents, so virtuously exhausted, so child-drained at the end of one of these busy days, compensating for something they have given up? Something missing in their marriage? Some romantic disappointment? Some compromise of career or adventure? One can’t help but wonder, in other words, what Tolstoy or Flaubert would make of our current parenting style.
The effort to control is prolonged, too, later and later into the child’s life. Colleges in the US have begun to give parents explicit instructions about when it is time to leave after dropping students off at school, because otherwise they won’t. Even at college, even with 17- and 18-year-olds, these parents are lingering, involved, invested, tinkering; they want to stay, in other words, and control more.
Built into this model of the perfectible child is, of course, an inevitable failure. You can’t control everything, the universe offers up rogue moments that will make your child unhappy or sick or broken-hearted, there will be faithless friends and failed auditions and bad teachers. The one true terrifying fact of bringing an innocent baby into the fallen world is that no matter how much rubber flooring you ship to the villa in the south of France, you can’t protect her from being hurt.
This may sound more bombastic than I mean to be. All I am suggesting is that it might be time to stand back, pour a drink, and let the children torment, or bore or injure each other a little. It might be time to dabble in the laissez faire; to let the imagination run to art instead of art projects; to let the imperfect universe and its imperfect children be themselves.
Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is ‘Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages’ (Dial Press)