Wednesday, October 14, 2009

License to Breed

The other day during an in-service training at work, one of the administrators was demonstrating different classroom activities meant to help us move away from lecturing and whole-group instruction and toward differentiated and small-group instruction. One of the activities involved putting up signs in four different areas of the room that said "Agree," "Strongly Agree," "Disagree," and "Strongly Disagree." The idea is that the instructor makes a statement relevant to some part of the lesson, and the students move to stand near one of those signs. Then you mix up the groups and have them try to convince each other.

The statement that we had to agree or disagree with was "Parenting classes should be required for anyone planning to have a child." I know that's something people joke about and throw out after stories of particularly bad or stupid parenting. And I think most people kept their thinking about it at that level, because every single faculty member moved to either "Agree" or "Strongly Agree," except for me and one other guy. He's new this year, and I'm pretty sure single and childless as well. As I walked over to "Disagree," he was sort of waffling between staying there and going to join the crowd, but as I stood firm he said "I think I'm going to stay here."

We were running short on time, so we didn't do the part where we switch groups and try to change each other's minds, but I imagined incredulous questions being hurled at me, and what I would say. Things like "Who would teach those classes and set the standards for 'good parenting'?" To which I imagined replies like "Well, it would just be basic things. Things that anyone with sense would agree on." But I could list several debatable things that some people might include in that "common sense" category, like that all babies should be born in hospitals, or that every child should be vaccinated with every new vaccine that comes along, as early as possible. That spanking works. That there could possibly be one way of parenting that works for every child and every family.

Maybe it's because of the way I feel so micromanaged at work lately, but I've been thinking a lot about what a travesty it is when everyone gets treated like the weakest link. The one-size-fits-all standardized approach to education, work, parenting, life...it's a myth and it's hurting us. Where is the rugged individualism? Where is the American belief in individual freedom and choice, even if that means some people make bad choices?

There's a church down the street from my house with a sign that says "Every home is a school. What do you teach?" When I saw all those teachers standing over next to "Agree," I thought about how our whole society is a parenting class. As a society we have an incredibly strong tendency to censure certain choices. What sitcom doesn't have an episode about kids who breastfeed for too long, moms who live vicariously through their daughters, dads who get too worked up over their sons' sports, spinster aunts whose mothers ruined them and grown men who can't cut the apron strings? Every legal drama shows us children killed by their loving but deluded parent's wacky belief in faith healing or natural medicine or fear of vaccines or experimental child-rearing techniques. We get plenty of messages about what is expected of us as parents, what is and is not acceptable.

The idea of requiring parenting classes is no different from any other band-aid approach to a social problem. Giving away our power to instituions is not the answer. I like to believe that in a real conversation, there would have been far fewer people agreeing to that idea. Because if we're all taught some faceless entity's idea of good parenting/teaching/whatevering, and we're all held to a single standard, maybe there will be fewer people falling below the bar, but there will also be fewer rising above it.

20 comments:

Secret Agent Mom said...

I think it's hard for most people to look past the "driver's ed" analogy and consider those greater points. Or the simple fact that kids ain't cars.

I do wish someone had forced me to take infant CPR, though. Would have prevented a lot of late-night mental catastrophe sessions.

Shannon said...

excellent post.

Stephanie said...

When you first presented the parenting class question, my mind didn't immediately go to teaching "best practices," which are of course subjective. Instead, I thought of the basics that we tend to assume everyone knows about parenting, even when so many don’t.
An educated, middle-class woman hears “parenting class” and worries that a teacher might push their beliefs on nursing vs. formula, cloth vs. plastic, etc. But there are plenty of people who need simpler guidance on those topics- like how to tell if your child isn't thriving (no matter what they're eating), or how to change a diaper and why it's important not to leave a dirty one on too long (no matter what it's made of). Or maybe how NOT to respond to your child's crying (shaking it into unconsciousness comes to mind as a "don't"), or what crying might mean, or any of these very basic issues that many mothers don't know anything about. I don't think it would have made me a better or worse parent to have attended a class like that, but it would certainly keep more kids healthy and alive, which is a serious problem we have in Memphis.

Sassy Molassy said...

I'm not against classes like that being offered, and I'd be willing to hear arguments for tying a class like that to certain types of government assistance, like WIC, where we have groups who are shown to be at risk. My issue is with every parent (or teacher, or whatever) being treated like the "least common denominator." If I am not situated in an at-risk group, or if I haven't demonstrated poor parenting or poor teaching skills, then I think I should be left alone to take care of my business as I see fit.

Andrea Baker said...

I could NOT agree with you more.

Stephanie said...

For the record- I definitely don't want to be treated like the least common denominator, and I would resent the hell out of being forced to take a class like that. I'm just enjoying this discussion! How do we pass along this basic knowledge to folks who need it without "forcing" it on people in some way?

Sassy Molassy said...

I think looking at where the problems are and focusing efforts on those areas is a good start. There is plenty of data, and that still leaves room for choice in that if you choose to apply for WIC, you already agree to certain conditions--why not this one too? Also, think lots of people would take advantage of these classes without being forced if they were presented and "marketed" in the right ways.

Chip said...

No matter how individualistic we all would like to be, there are still universal truths, even with parenting. (Like the baby shaking example Steph gave.) There are probably plenty of people out there who think they don't need any sort of class before they own a gun, but I'm ok with the law requiring EVERYONE to take a class on gun safety before they become owners, whether they need it or not. (It goes without saying that I think laws should actually go much further than that when it comes to guns.) The fact is, there are people who are responsible and smart enough to educate themselves before they become parents, and those who squeeze a baby out and say "what the hell is that?"

Sassy Molassy said...

Right, but if I am one of the former, I shouldn't be treated like one of the latter. I think the best we can do is offer the information, make it available and accessible, and then accept that some people still will not take advantage of it. It's a trade off--there are costs to personal freedom. We haven't done enough to minimize those costs, but that doesn't mean it's time for Big Brother to step in.

Mrs. Katherine said...

I took a childbirth class during my first pregnancy that basically taught me to stay home during most of my labor and where to go once I got to the hospital, but I don't think that's the type of parenting class we're discussing. I also took an infant CPR class and a prenatal yoga class, but I've never heard of a class that teaches parenting styles or the rights and wrongs of parenting. I've never seen one offered in all my panic-induced Google searches. Where does one find such a class?

My grandmother volunteers at a parenting center to help teach young girls who decide to keep their babies should they become pregnant, and she used to send me the worksheets that they gave to the girls. I think the information they gave was more along the lines of what Stephanie talked about though. I remember one that stressed the importance of eye contact with your newborn. I had heard, of course, that it was important but this particular article really put into perspective why it was so. I could see this kind of information being very helpful to all sorts of parents-to-be.

To be honest, I never really knew there were specific, different styles of parenting--just different parents.

Sassy Molassy said...

Like I said, I have no problem with those kinds of (completely theoretical) classes being offered, but I disagree with the seemingly popular sentiment that "parents should be required to take a class before they're allowed to have kids." That was the statement I was disagreeing with, and my reason for that is that it violates people's personal freedom of choice.

RJA said...

I think babies should take gun safety classes.

Sassy Molassy said...

Steph: "When you first presented the parenting class question, my mind didn't immediately go to teaching "best practices," which are of course subjective. Instead, I thought of the basics that we tend to assume everyone knows about parenting, even when so many don’t."

I kind of surprised myself when she first made the statement, because my very first, knee-jerk reaction was to laugh and think "Yeah," but then this voice in my head started saying "No, no, no! Who has the power? Who has the power in that scenario?" And I think that's ultimately what it comes down to for me. When we create a position of power, we immediately lose control of it, and it can then be filled by anyone pushing any agenda.

Stephanie said...

I think the discomfort of sitting through a class like that for someone like you, who is fiercely independent and rebellious, pales in comparison to the good that would be done for society as a whole. I am always willing to give up a little bit for the greater benefit of the whole. Sitting through a class like that wouldn't make me feel like I'd lost any power or sense of myself. I wouldn't feel like anyone was in my business telling me what to do. I'd just be glad that information was out there for people who need it. I'm a rule follower! I don't bristle when someone tells me what to do. I question it, but I'm not bothered when I need to accept it. Being told that my baby needs a clean diaper every few hours wouldn't bother me in the least, but I can see how just the concept of it would bother other people.

You should write here more often. It's so fun!

Rita.the.bookworm said...

Here in MN, we have this program called ECFE (early childhood family education). It's run with state education funds.

They have a representative from your local ECFE facility visit you in the hospital. This person asks after your well-being, gives you print literature (along with lots of phone numbers for all sorts of free resources in the area) that she goes over with you (in case you can't read, I assume) and asks if you need anything. These people are paid by the state to hang out at the hospital with new mothers, pass out their information and answer questions. It's zero pressure and for some women, it would be valuable information. I would have liked it with my first kid. As it was, with my third, we'd already had Katie through the whole ECFE process already, anyway.

ECFE continues to offer support (on a sliding fee scale) to families from birth through elementary school age. They have tons of resources for the children and their parents (including groups parents of kids with various special needs, classes for english as a second language and so on). It's very cool, and something that we really treasure.

I'm sure that the slant of the classes (like Liz's parent discussion group in pre-school) is different depending upon the circumstances of the members. In ours, we talk about the importance of nature and how to tell if we're overindulging our kids. Still important stuff, but...

And, of course, this is not required. You can toss the ECFE rep out on her ass when she visits you and that's that. And, you can choose to never call any of the numbers or use any of their programs. And, in the classes, you're free to disagree with the facilitator (a privilege I use often).

I don't know how I'd feel about any mandatory parenting education. I don't know that the way I parent would be universally approved and well, it works for us and I'm really happy with it, so I'm not interested in people who would tell me I'm wrong. So, I wouldn't necessarily want others to be told they're wrong either (unless they are wrong, by being abusive or neglectful, as defined by the law).

It's taken me a long time to realize that people parent differently because not everyone has the same goals. What I want for MY kids is perhaps exactly what someone else has nightmares about. So, how can there be a "universal" parent educator?

Sassy Molassy said...

It's not about me as an individual not wanting to sit through a class. It's about the bad that would be done to society as a whole if we created a dynamic in which there was one standard of parenting to which everyone was expected to adhere.

Sassy Molassy said...

And also the bad that would be done to society if we accepted that we must be so stupid that every one of us needs to be told how not to kill our own offspring by accident. It's about how we see ourselves as a society and whether we are a society that respects individual competence and choice. We don't dumb down the whole curriculum just because some kids are slow learners. You can't treat everyone as if they have made terrible mistakes when they haven't.

Anonymous said...

What sitcom offers the od breastfed kids? That sounds funny.

Anonymous said...

Personal freedom, individual responsibility? Don't say that Sassy Molassy is becoming all conservative on us!

Sassy Molassy said...

I think individual freedom to live as one sees fit, regardless of the status quo or social pressure to conform to a given set of values, is a perfectly liberal idea. And with great freedom comes great responsibility, and also at a cost.