There are a lot of parenting pundits in the world. But when I survey these voices, I find an important one missing or at least not broadcast with equal volume—that of the senior who has made the oceanic voyage from start to finish safely, who can look back on an effective life cycle of parenting with true perspective.
I’ve heard of tiger parents, attachment parents, biblical parents. What these and innumerable other self-titled parenting styles share is titanic risk. They are dispensing advice in medias res, when the outcomes of their methods are still unknown. It’s like claiming your hand-made raft is unsinkable when you are less than half way across the ocean. Alas, hubris has sunk far sturdier ships.
Here is my appeal to seniors: Yours is the parenting voice I don’t see enough of, hardly ever really. You have not only been a parent but are now a grandparent, so you can see the legacy of your parenting. You have more answers concerning how your own children turned out, how they as parents seemed to accept, reject, modify the style of parenting they received from you, how your grandchildren have grown up.
Young parents are often quick to dismiss the perspective of seniors because technologies have changed in the interim, or the kinds of drugs that are available, or the selection of sports teams, schooling, whatever. But these are variables that in the long view should not invalidate the voices of those who parented forty or fifty years ago.
I am less interested in parenting advice from young parents whose kids are still kids; in other words, parents who still have no idea how all their strategizing, philosophizing, training, guiding, coaching, educating, is going to turn out. Bravo TV’s new show, An Extreme Guide to Parenting, is extremely entertaining if nothing else. It puts a spotlight on a series of well-meaning (hopefully) but very ideological parents. The producers at Bravo are hip to the fact that dispensing parenting advice is generally more entertaining than it is instructive or enlightening.
I realize there are two inherent problems with my request for more senior parent contributions and they have to do with limited vision.
1) An eighty year-old may not really recall that many details of their active parenting years. If they didn’t keep a journal, they may only be able to speak in broad, general terms about events that took place fifty years prior. This is when the added perspective of grown children comes in handy.
2) As a young or new parent, you have a great ability to speak in detail about day-to-day experiences and methods that you are currently using. However, you are as they say, in the trenches. You’re in the middle of it, and therefore unable to see up and over that trench line to the next few months, the next few years, how they turn out as adults. Your vision is also limited.
By way of disclosure, I have two boys ages fourteen and ten. I have declined to read most parenting advice columns and books because when I encounter them, they are typically authored by people who are discouragingly close in age to me and usually with younger children. By today’s trends, I had my babies relatively young, while I was in graduate school. Many people my age are just starting out with their families, but there is a pervasive cultural din when it comes to these voices and parenting.
The illusion of authority
I can see how new parents who are in their late thirties and well into their forties can be tempted to speak authoritatively on parenting. People in this age group (who also exhibit the trait to publicize their thoughts) have likely experienced success in other areas of their life by this time. They can speak authoritatively on college and graduate school, career development and advancement, real estate, even pregnancy.
Success in other areas of our life seduces us into thinking we are authorities on parenting and family when we are no such thing. We are just active participants who, at best, can provide entertaining commentary on an experience that remains in progress for a good long time.
I can imagine what many parenting authors are thinking right now—that even an eighty year-old grandmother might eschew the mantel of authority on parenting or family. Plenty of seniors may feel like parenting failures, far from authorities. There is certainly no such thing as a true expert on the topic. There is no right way; that is an illusion. All true.
However, given the inherent margin for error, the impossibility of a perfect authority on parenting, the voice of someone who has lived it and watched their offspring beget more offspring must carry more weight than the voice of someone whose children are still children.
That is what I am seeking to publicize. If I were inclined to read an article or a book on parenting, I would favor that of a seasoned elder. This is probably why I currently don’t read many articles or books on this subject. The ones I have read contribute to my theory that their claim on expertise is mostly aspirational.
The lack of a senior voice on this topic is symptomatic of the larger phenomenon wherein we have few statesmen or stateswomen in American culture. Few real sages (that get recognized much anyway). The Internet’s democratization of information and sources has made it increasingly challenging to fish out the valid and wise from the sea of babble, self-promotion, and fakery. Thus, my sentiments on the need for elder voices extends to a great deal of topics beyond parenting. I trust information derived from a legacy of experience and outcomes more than the rhetorical equivalent of an Instagram uploaded from a raft in the mid-Atlantic that may or may not be dangerously close to an iceberg just outside the camera frame.
See also, a recent WBUR Cognoscenti article, “Living Longer: The Untapped Skills of Senior Citizens,” by writer, Barbara Mende here.