Parenting on the Margins

Last week, I attended our preschool’s monthly “night class” for parents, or as I like to refer to it, the “why I’m a terrible parent” class.  Every month I go in thinking “I got this” and I leave with my tail between my legs and the realization that as hard as I try, I’m doing more wrong than right when it comes to raising our little preschooler.

I really like the parents in our class; everyone is doing the best they can for their children and they are a well-intentioned and helpful group. But within minutes of arriving at class I’m struck by how much emphasis we – like parents everywhere — put on every decision related to our children.

The topic at this month’s class was “feeding our children.”  We discussed the challenges we all have at mealtime: struggling with picky eaters, children that won’t sit at the table for more than one bite or how to manage two kids who eat on different schedules.  This is one area where I was pretty much at ease.  Alex is good eater and generally tries new things and, let’s face it, he’s a way, way better eater than anyone else in my house (including the labradoodle, who finishes her bowl of kibble 1 out of every 3 days).

Alex eats a ice popsicle minutes before dinner.  Reward for being a great boy at the park.

Alex eats a ice popsicle minutes before dinner. Reward for being a great boy at the park.

As the conversation advances, however, I quickly realize that all this time we’ve been doing everything wrong…well maybe I already knew that.  We’ve been known to bring food to Alex vs. at bring Alex to the table.  We have (dare I even admit this?) actually let him use his iPad while eating (OH THE HORROR) and we’ve given him cookies at night, after dinner is over.  But, in general, Alex enjoys eating, eats balanced meals and is able to sit for as long as we want him to both inside the house and at restaurants.  When I was his age, rumor has it that our family was kicked out of a restaurant in New York City after one of my parents’ children who shall go nameless thought it would be fun to use a fork to launch a glass across the restaurant.  I’m sure my parents were very proud of their young physicist.  Anyway…I digress.

One of the topics our class discussed was whether to allow our kids to have a snack after dinner but before bed.  There was pretty clear consensus that snacks after dinner are a no-no except maybe something very small and healthy because kids will take dinner less seriously if they know there will be more food later.  I get that, but at the same time, after one parent clearly was now going to stop her after-dinner snack-giving, I regret not speaking up to at least say “do what you think is best for your kids, whether they have a snack or not will not have any bearing on their future.”

Alex knows he can have one of these if he eats his dinner.  He takes all of about five licks before he's "done."

Alex knows he can have one of these if he eats his dinner. He takes all of about five licks before he’s “done.”

All of this got me thinking about whether we (Amy and me) “under-parent” our kids or others over-parent?  Let me be clear that I think the worst thing parents can do is judge other parents.  I try very hard not to judge unless your kid is truly an asshole.  And everyone has to parent in a style that suits them; and as long as your child is a net-benefit to society and doesn’t hurt my child physically or emotionally, then have at it.  I might not want to give omega 3 supplements to my three-year old, but I have no problem if you do, and honestly, you’re probably smarter than I am for doing so.

But selfishly I wonder in my own family whether we’re “under-parenting” and actually not doing all that we can for our children.   Perhaps we should be more like the parents I met at the park recently who let their two-year old daughter watch Frozen only on the weekends on their iPad even though she begs all week to watch, while we allow Alex his iPad mostly whenever he wants within reason (Note: why do some parents assume a two-year old knows the difference between weekdays and weekends?)

My personal belief is that too many of us are parenting on the margins, focusing on all the small stuff while missing or not knowing how to help support a child on some of the bigger things like establishing self-confidence, decision-making, risk/reward/failure, fostering independence, and how to show love and compassion. I sure as hell don’t know how to do it, but I hope that the mere fact that I think about it all the time will at least give me a fighting chance.

Most times when I feel insecure about whether we’re doing the right thing, I look to my own childhood and how I was raised — or to be fair, the memory of how I think I was raised.  I’d like to think my parents raised four pretty normal, well-adjusted kids (I was so tempted to say three of four kids right there just to drive my siblings crazy).  So, in no particular order, here’s how I remember the lessons I learned, none of which are on the margin:

– Nothing is more important than an education.  School always came first, including snow days when no else went to school, though it didn’t mean we had to be perfect students.

– Violence solves nothing.  It takes more courage to walk away than to be in a fight, which is why I lost the only fight I was ever in.

– The worst words in the English language had to do with race or religion — they were way more upsetting to my parents than the run-of-the-mill curse words because of how hurtful they were.

– If you want something, you need to work for it.

– You can’t play outside on the Jewish holidays unless you are dressed up.  To this day, I hate collared shirts because of that.

– Tell the truth.

– There’s nothing more important than family.

– Don’t drink and drive — you can’t un-ring that bell.

– Call home if you’re going to be late.

– Be yourself.  It’s what’s on the inside that counts.  I personally think my parents took this too far. I think in reality it does matter what’s on the outside too otherwise you may become scarred for life that your gym teacher in sixth grade always called you a girl because you had long hair and everyone laughed at you.

But in all seriousness, the most important lesson I learned — whether under-parenting or over-parenting — is to be present.  Be truly present both physically and emotionally.  Nothing is more important for a child to know that they’ll always have someone in their corner.  When I call my parents at 2am because one of our kids is sick and I need someone to tell me it’s going to be ok, you can bet the phone is answered by the second ring with a claim of “no, no, don’t worry, I was awake anyway.” (or just today when I sliced my finger cutting an apple and was bleeding everywhere, my mom knew exactly how to stop the bleeding and both of my parents called within the hour to make sure I was ok and hadn’t bled out on my way to urgent care).

And about everything else — it’s called moderation.  It’s probably the only thing one really needs to know.

There’s nothing wrong with a child using an iPad or having a snack after dinner.

As long as they share.



Categories: Food, Parenting

Tagged as: , , , ,

6 replies »

  1. HI Neil, I really love this blog- probably because it makes me look good and every now and again I need an ego booster.

    I think you are right on. Eating is the one thing that a child can control. You can’t make a child eat without it becoming extremely unpleasant if it becomes a war of wills. If you remember Eric, he was absolutely the world’s worst eater. I was not sure how anyone could live on clam chowder, rice and french fries. I asked Dr. Shen about it and he told me that children know when their bodies need something. Eventually he would eat something else. Just keep showing him other food and don’t make an issue out of it. Eric eats every kind of food now – although I still don’t know if he’s ever eaten a hamburger. He used to take a plain bagel to school every day for lunch. At one point the school called to ask what the problem was (i envisioned being reported to ACS for child neglect). After that, I told Eric that if anyone asked about his lunch he was to say, “I eat when I get home.”

    We put too much importance on “healthy” food. Do you want to eat a carrot for dessert? Why shouldn’t a child have a snack after dinner? Grownups eat dessert, don’t they? As you said, moderation is the key. And listen to the inner voice that says “uh oh – I think that’s a no=no”. That gut feeling is usually spot on.

    JUst for the record, I think you are a fabulous parent. I am horrified by some of the parents I see – the one’s who let their children ride their bikes across a NY street while the parent walks in front texting. Whatever happened to making the child get off the bike at a crosswalk, or if not that, having the parent hold the handlebars and walk alongside the child on the bike. There is a time and a place for independence. Safety trumps independence. Why are small children allowed to take up a seat on a bus when an adult is standing? Why isn’t the child put on his parent’s lap so a paying adult can sit? The word “no” is a really good word. Especially if it is applied for a good reason and not because a parent just can’t be bothered. Too bad it is becoming obsolete. Helaine learned as a teenager that I had two types of “no’s”. One was “no, but I’ll think about it” This meant that if you had a really good, logical argument it might turn into a “yes”. The other was what I called “a non-negotiable no”. This was when I sensed the request had some kind of inherent danger and you could ask until you were blue in the face, the no would never become a yes. Parents are so worried that they are not emotionally present for their children that they compensate by over-parenting minutae and under-parenting the really important stuff like values. As I said before, you are a really good parent. You figured it out! Sent from my iPad


  2. Hi Neil,

    I just read your latest “Man on Third” article.  I have enjoyed reading all of them and I hate to mention one as better than another, but this one was Great.

    I was a little taken aback at the beginning when you say it’s a “why I am a terrible parent” class.  I have told you that I think you are a great parent.  Then at the end you mention exactly why I think you are a great parent.  You need to be present.  Everyone makes mistakes and you can’t always be doing the right thing, but you can be there.  Alex will remember that you were there and you can’t go back and correct that.

    Keep up the great job.

    Also I hope you are feeling better.


  3. Love! You are so right about looking at the big picture. You spend tons of quality time with both boys and that is more important than the presence or absence of after dinner snacks.

    Now any tips for getting toddlers to share the iPad with their parents?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s