The Perils of Overthinking

This week I look one of the common pitfalls of parenting: overthinking everything, which often results in not giving kids space to think at all.

This came up in my conversation with Bunmi Laditan a few weeks ago: the fact that it’s easy as a parent to drive yourself crazy by scrutinizing every food label, studying every parenting trend, reading every conflicting article about what’s good or bad for your kids. Sometimes it leads us to pretty drastic conclusions, like the examples I cite in my column.

If you’re interested, here’s the full article on animals in children’s media by Julia Ostertag and Nora Timmerman. As I mention in the column, I don’t think they’re totally off-base but I do think this is a rather extreme position.

An interesting side note that I didn’t have the space to tackle in my column: I was struck by the absence of male voices and perspectives in Ostertag and Timmerman’s article. In a 17-page research paper, they use the word “father” only once, in a tacked-on parenthetical aside. And in their final paragraph, they say they want to “celebrate and build support for… the diverse women, parents, guardians and early childhood educators who question and explore animality with very young children.” You could argue that men are included in “parents and guardians,” but their repeated singling out of women and mothers stands in stark contrast to the conspicuous–and, I imagine, deliberate–absence of men and fathers.

What am I getting at here? For one, I think that intentionally or not, the authors are subtly perpetuating the same type of long-standing cultural biases that they contend against in their article. The unspoken message here is that mothers are the nurturing, sensitive ones who are capable of teaching kids how to overcome the insidious “patriarchal norms” of our society. This isn’t “Dads’ work,” apparently. That in itself seems like a very old stereotype to me.

Secondly, and pardon me if I start to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but I’m wary of what we might call “overcompensation by negation.” Ostertag and Timmerman point out–quite rightly–the inherent biases in our society, but they attempt to overcome them by veering sharply in the other direction: we live in a patriarchal society, so let’s not talk about men at all.

A similar principle is at work in the school decision to do scrap Mother’s and Father’s Day in favour of the International Day of Families. The unspoken gist of this decision is, “we’ve given the ‘societal norms’ their due already so instead we will do something as inoffensively generic as possible.”

As I say in my column, I really don’t care if schools celebrate invented holidays. And I’m not eager to join the (mostly) conservative-minded folks howling about a “war on the traditional family” either.  But I do think we lose something when we try to ignore or flatten differences in the name of being inclusive.

There has to be room for both/and. We have to find a way to widen the circle, overcome our historical biases and respect different experiences while still acknowledging that we do, in fact, bring different things to the table. Kids need male and female role models and input in their lives. That’s true whether their parents are married or divorced, in or out of the picture, straight or gay, black or white, rich or poor. In our striving to be sensitive, let’s not erase the richness of our differences.

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2 responses to “The Perils of Overthinking

  1. Every year I shake my head in wonder at our school’s “holiday” concert. The renaming doesn’t bother me, it’s the song selection. What’s wrong with Little Drummer Boy and Silent Night when you are also singing an equal number of Hanukkah songs? Instead, the kids sing generic winter songs and Hanukkah songs. The Muslim family I sit with still isn’t represented…

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