a view from the sidelines

Three kids ago, it probably would have boiled my blood. But last week when I read Frank Bruni’s article about the foibles of modern parenting I laughed, I shook my head knowingly, I winced in a few places, and then I posted a link to it on my Facebook page with the caption: ‘a view from the sidelines’. That’s exactly what it is – the perspective of an admittedly baffled bystander – and it’s not trying to be anything else.

The question it raises, however, is this: what’s the protocol here? How much can non-parents weigh in, critically, on what they haven’t experienced directly? The answer is: it depends. There are internal critiques and there are external critiques and both have value. For as long as humankind has had the wherewithal to reflect on it is own experiences, this has been the case. Bruni’s essay is a particular kind of external reflection. If you read it as advice, it will bristle. If you think about it as satire, it works better.

Satire has been an effective tool of rhetoric since ancient times (shout out to Aristophanes). It uses humor and hyperbole as as weapon, but it is also uses them as a spotlight. It illuminates, in other words, situations that look ridiculous from the outside. Which is not a bad thing…if skin is thick. Yes, we offer seven ‘last’ chances. Yes, our kids sometimes subsist on chicken fingers and yogurt. Yes, we follow them around like germs. Bruni’s got this spot-on. The reason he’s not allowed to say it out loud is because he might not understand why we do it. Well, that’s our story to tell.

The discomfort some of us might feel about this piece is, in one of those rare examples of perfect irony, precisely a part of what he is underlining as the problem: we parents take ourselves too seriously. Just a little bit. On occasion. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s important. Yes, it’s not always what we thought it would be. But none of this changes the fact that we behave in certain ways vis-a-vis our kids that could stand a little self-analysis.

The detached point of view, in this way, can serve a purpose. Not always, but often. It’s kind of like when someone less emotionally attached to your baby (who happens to be up every hour on the hour) suggests sleep-training him. They may not know what it’s like first hand, they won’t have to do it themselves, but it doesn’t mean the idea itself isn’t worthy of consideration. If spoken with empathy and kindness, these ‘alternative’ voices can lead us down avenues – positive avenues – we might not have otherwise travelled. The rub with Bruni, perhaps, is that readers weren’t convinced his words harbored either of those things (see the ‘satire’ point above).

I have two people in my life who don’t have children, but whose parenting observations I value hugely. They know my kids well, heck they know a lot of kids well, but more importantly they are perceptive people plain and simple. This takes us back to the ‘depends’ part. Advice is only as good as the person giving it. The aunt with no children of her own but eleven nieces and nephews might just have a better insight into the dynamics of the large family and the siblings ripping each other’s hair out than the mother of one.

I have recently apologized to a good friend of mine for anything blithe or idiotic I possibly said about her twins before I had my own. Re-reading our correspondence in light of my life now, I see that some of my thoughts were valid and not totally off the mark – I did have, at the time, two consecutively-spaced children. But some of them were definitely misguided. What was missing from my side of the conversation in general was a true emotional access to her experience, empathy can only take you so far. Or as my mother would say: until you have walked a mile in someone else’s moccasins…

With this in mind, one could argue that the difference between twins and a singleton (or having one kid and two kids, or two kids and three kids, etc) is quantitative, whereas the difference between having any kids and having none at all is qualitative. And that the latter divide is just too vast to comfortably allow for criticism. Maybe that’s right. I still think, though, that the view from the sidelines can capture something relevant of the game as a whole. Whether the players on the field want to hear that particular commentary or not is another issue altogether.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “a view from the sidelines

  1. Philippa

    Yeah, it’s a good one. Having lived a large part of my adult life child-free, I used to hold strong observation-based opinions on parenting in pretty much the same way as Frank Bruni. And actually I still agree with much of what he says. I guess I just have more insight now into how bloody hard it is to be the parent you want to be. I too have child-free friends whose opinions and objectivity I value; you absolutely don’t have to have children to have perfectly valid thoughts about what makes good parenting, and becoming a parent doesn’t in itself make you an expert on the subject either. It’s more that the commonality of aspects of the experience can offer a sense of kinship and sometimes empathy. I’ve found parenting a humbling experience, and I look back at some of my child-free thoughts (about the parent whose toddler is screaming in the supermarket – ‘Why can’t she just shut him up?!’) with a guilty sense of karma. But it’s all about where you are in life. When my first child slept beautifully through the night from six weeks old, I congratulated myself on my settling techniques and sometimes wondered what all the fuss was about when others complained. When my second child did not sleep through the night until she was over four years old I unwillingly gained a new perspective. And I daresay I still hold other opinions that certain things are straighforward common sense when if I had to walk in different shoes I’d feel differently. So we are all on the sidelines really, even if some of us know what it’s like to be on the pitch…

    • oh this is a super comment, philippa, as ever. alas, a better piece might have been titled: ‘we are all on the sidelines’! i think that was what i was inching towards at the end, the idea that each family situation is unique and the question becomes why we can, on the whole, accept criticism from people who have some kids – but not as many as us, or not the same spacing as us, etc – but recoil when such criticism comes from the childless. as i was reading the reactions to bruni’s piece i kept thinking about pamela druckerman who writes these wonderful books about the french perspective on parenting and basically highlights the same problems bruni does: can’t say no, too many snacks, hover, hover, hover. her critique is couched in a broader cultural perspective and perhaps that makes it more palatable. or maybe because she is a mother of three…? i also think you are right in that how we respond to these things depends on where we are emotionally at the time of reading. we all have moments, phases, of feeling more or less precious and sensitive about our parenting. maybe what i liked best about bruni’s article is that i finally feel in a position to laugh about it!

      • Philippa

        Ha ha, yes, getting to the point where you can laugh about it should definitely be celebrated! You should write a piece about the advice you would now love to be able to give to your newly pregnant self 7(?) years ago… I’d love to read that:-)

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