Book Club: Chapters 1 and 2 in “Teach Your Children Well”

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According to psychologist Madeline Levine, one of the reasons we parents can’t see that we’ve gone crazy over caring for our kids is because we are too busy – overscheduled and overcommitted ourselves, we’ve simply failed to notice that changes in culture and technology may be unmooring us. In Chapter 2 of Teach Your Children Well, Levine says,

“Perhaps we have become so seduced by the possibility of being able to cultivate ‘outstanding’ children because we are a bit lost ourselves. Technology has revolutionized communication. While smartphones, tablets, Skype, Facebook, and LinkedIn increasingly connect us they can paradoxically make us feel disconnected as we devote less time to basic human needs for empathic, resonant communication, eye contact, and touch. Increased mobility robs us of the stable community that once provided the emotional resources to weather the challenges of child rearing. Instead we are immersed in a culture that emphasizes individuality, competition, and self-centeredness. This cannot possibly nourish our own needs adequately, and it often leads us to feel isolated and even a little bit desperate. We hunker down and immerse ourselves in our children’s activities at the expense of adult relationships and our own continued development. Decreasing the sphere of our own lives makes us increasingly dependent on our children for a sense of meaning and accomplishment.”

Ouch.

Since the first two chapters of the book – “The Kids are Not All Right” and “How Did we Get into This Mess?” – clearly address the parents, I thought it would only be fitting if Parent Book Club addressed us tonight. So, for tonight anyway, forget the kids. According to Levine, our kids don’t receive the message that life is a series of high-pressure pass/fail tests, devoid of free time or play, from the ether; evidently, they are getting the idea that life is a performance, and a chore, from us. Levine emphasizes over and over in these first two chapters how modern parents have no time for themselves, and many of the parents she knows have carved out little time for their own hobbies and friendships. (Ostensibly because they are “too busy” and life is too demanding to have the time.) But why is this? She suggests that parents put their children first at ever opportunity, choosing to do for their kids and careers what they dare not do for themselves. Levine even goes so far as to point out that people who only fulfill the needs of others on a constant basis are going to feel overwhelmed, overscheduled, desperate, and depressed – the exact emotions she sees in her young patients. Could it be that we parents are modeling the very behavior causing so much distress in our kids?

And, let’s be honest, it’s causing distress to us, too, if we took the time to admit it. But until we admit that it’s a problem, we can’t fix it. I can’t help but think of a moving article I read recently about the happy, healthy, relaxed inhabitants of the Greek island of Ikaris, called, unnervingly, “The Island Where People Forget to Die.” The long-lived residents, who work in their gardens, get up when they feel like it, and stay up all night playing dominos and drinking wine, seem to have openly admitted the secret to life – having fun. I couldn’t help but contrast it with my own current situation: we rush from one half-assed activity to another, and whenI do see other parents, we complain about how busy we are, and how we wish we could be less so. Looking at why kids can’t be kids in our current culture, I can’t help but see Levine’s point: we are doing nothing more than showing our children their future, and the future is this – life is a chore, created to be endured.

Not to say that there isn’t meaningful work, or pride and accomplishment in doing something well. But have we fallen over the deep end entirely? This book suggests that it’s a possibility.

The one burning question I had after finishing these two honest chapters is the subject of tonight’s talk.

Tonight’s Talk: How on earth do we possibly change our own behavior? What are the things you are doing to resist the temptation of throwing yourself into everything but yourself – including your kids’ lives? Or, are you safely out of the danger zone – enjoying your own activities, career, friends, life? If so, please share your secrets.

I am so looking forward to reading what you have to say!

5 thoughts on “Book Club: Chapters 1 and 2 in “Teach Your Children Well”

  1. I’ll start. One of the ways we try to keep things sane is the “one activity at a time” rule: since my three boys are fairly young, they are allowed to participate in one organized activity at a time. They both chose baseball in the spring; my oldest played fall ball as well. But, if they want chess team and basketball at the same time? no can do. They have to choose the one they want to do the most. We can adjust it as they get older, but for now I feel that one activity at a time is plenty. You?

  2. Another thought I had is an NPR story I heard about Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Here’s part of the review from Publisher’s Weekly:

    “As the digital age sparks increasing debate about what new technologies and increased connectivity are doing to our brains, comes this chilling examination of what our iPods and iPads are doing to our relationships from MIT professor Turkle (Simulation and Its Discontents). In this third in a trilogy that explores the relationship between humans and technology, Turkle argues that people are increasingly functioning without face-to-face contact. For all the talk of convenience and connection derived from texting, e-mailing, and social networking, Turkle reaffirms that what humans still instinctively need is each other, and she encounters dissatisfaction and alienation among users: teenagers whose identities are shaped not by self-exploration but by how they are perceived by the online collective, mothers who feel texting makes communicating with their children more frequent yet less substantive, Facebook users who feel shallow status updates devalue the true intimacies of friendships. Turkle ‘s prescient book makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other.”

    Maybe this should be the next book club pick? Or, should I take it as a hint that all the Parent Book Clubbers are out having face-to-face fun tonight instead?

  3. If we parents see ourselves as mentors and there is plenty of informal learning we can do with our kids and at the same time focus on relationship we will be less inclined to give them so much extra activities. There is an intervention for challenging kids , especially those on the autistic spectrum called – RDI – relationship development intervention which shows the importance of relationship not only for attachment reasons , but by teaching kids the skills of being in a relationship.

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