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Bill's Values

My Easy-Going Myth

Bill Radke

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Mary Jane Rotheram-Borus
(UCLA Center for Community Health)
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My weekends are dominated by being a first-time father of a toddler. I've been doing a monthly series about the values I hope to pass on to my daughter, who's now turning 15 months old. Last time, I was talking to Washington Post writer Shankar Vedantam about what we teach our children, and he made an important point:

"I'm not sure it's the things you actually convey through your words that impart the most valuable lessons to your children. Most of the important things you communicate are not going to be communicated through your words but through your actions."

My daughter is watching her parents closely and drawing her mental map of the world based on her life at home. Today, I want to find out what that map looks like. What information am I giving my daughter -- are all of us giving our children -- without even knowing it?

I asked clinical psychologist Mary Jane Rotheram to pay me a home visit. Rotheram directs the Global Center for Children and Families at UCLA. The center is trying to convince parents to have these home visits regularly instead of waiting for a problem to come up. Dr. Rotheram came to my house and sat down with me, Susanna and my wife Sara in our family room. She asked us to name the most important gift we want to give our daughter. Both of us answered "self-love" and Dr. Rotheram told us it was a good sign that we agreed on this.

Then she asked us about what happens in the morning at our house. Sara described how she and I get up and start getting ourselves ready, and about 45 minutes after later we hear the crib rattle or Susanna begin to cry or talk to herself. Sara goes upstairs and greets her and receives a big smile. Susanna grabs her "snuggly," her soft crib toy. Then they sit in the glider together, Sara talks to her and nurses her, and they stay there for as long as Susanna needs to wake up and welcome the day together.

This also got a positive reception from Dr. Rotheram. She told us that this kind of consistent, positive routine has been linked to long-term healthy families, not only in the United States, but in France, Switzerland, Africa, Japan, and Vietnam. She explained that humans are creatures of habit. It's important that we think we know what's going to come next. And our daughter's case, it gives her the confidence to soothe herself in the morning until her mother arrives. Meanwhile, she always has her snuggly to hold onto.

Dr. Rotheram questioned us for more than an hour and watched Susanna interacting. She told us Susanna is thriving and that we are communicating our value of self-love.

In fact, she was so positive that I didn't completely buy it. I mean, every upbringing has some downsides, right? I wish Susanna could live at the edge of a forest -- what values are we communicating with all the concrete and pavement around her? Also, she's got no extended family nearby. And here's the big one: she spends four days a week with a nanny while her parents work. What does that say to her?

Dr. Rotheram assured us that there are no downsides of spending time in child care when it's good child care. In fact, she said, there appears to be a benefit: When both parents work, it forces children to take more responsibility.

I was skeptical. "Really?" I asked. "No part of you says, 'Uggh, parents are farming out their parenting to other people so they can make money?'" I acknowledged that maybe this was my own guilt speaking.

Sara said she doesn't feel guilty about leaving Susanna with the nanny, just sad sometimes. But I was insistent: "You don't feel at all guilty that she bonds with you, she nurses with you, she wishes you'd stay? And you're going to some office?"

Despite how strident I sound, I've always thought of myself as a mellow dad. I know all about the modern, overanxious, perfectionist parent. The helicopter parent, the over-indulgent parent, the hypercompetitive parent, out to produce the perfect child. I get it -- it's crazy. Humans have done fine for millennia without Baby Einstein. I'm enlightened.

But I'm not really sounding that way, am I?

Dr. Rotheram told me that my concerns are "typical of every parent in America right now." We're feeling uncomfortable and guilty and trying to give them more. "That kind of stress makes for long-term dissatisfaction."

I protested: No, no, my anxiety is just about her being a happy kid. I don't care about her grade point average!

"That might be true, but I would challenge that," she said. "You're thinking that you're happy and you're fine and whatever she does in achievement mode is going to be okay with you. I don't think so."

Sara agreed with her that I'm not as easy-going a parent as I think I am.

Dr. Rotheram told me that I reflect the culture I grew up in. "In America, individual achievement is highly, highly valued. Parents who want their kids to intellectually achieve at school have a whole set of things that they're doing to help those children at least be as high-achieving as everybody else in the neighborhood. And you're doing everything that parents would do to try to do that."

She was referring to the fact that when I read to my 15 month old, I point out the individual letters and spell out loud.

"She's already imitating you, touching letters and making noises even though she has no idea what it is that you're trying to do with the reading. But you are a person who highly values achievement. And while right now she doesn't go to school, wait until the first time she goes out at preschool and you're all of a sudden comparing your kid to every other preschool kid.

This was shocking to me: "I don't want to be that guy. I'm gonna be THAT guy?"

"I'm not sure," she replied, "but I'd encourage you to have the confidence. Look at what you've done so far -- a beautiful, verbal, on track, happy kid -- and still, you're anxious about it."

And so, I'm unmasked. According to this parenting expert, I am helping my daughter accept herself as she is. But maybe I'm not taking my own advice.

And how long will it be before those two things collide?

  • Music Bridge:
    Fly Like a Horse
    Artist: Sylvain Chauveau
    CD: Nuage (Type)
More stories from our Bill's Values series


  • Comment | Refresh

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    From state, NE, 09/12/2011

    Well, I believe that good morning with your family�s works positively to gain the family hood feeling, in order to gain togetherness and get closer with your kids, you need to make them feel the warmth of touch at times when they most needed even from your busiest schedule works effectively in this regard. card data recovery http://www.recoverybull.com

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    From QLZlOWyOhT, AR, 03/20/2011

    By Fred Ochs

    From Cedar Rapids, IA, 05/09/2008

    Excellent stuff, Bill. Insightful writing and good journalism.

    I too obsess about whether or not I'm being an obsessive parent. ;) It’s not only "normal", but it’s healthy to think through how my actions and expectations are affecting my two daughters. I want the best for them, so why shouldn't I reflect on whether my own parental performance is the best?

    “An unobserved Life….

    By Sandy Stork

    From Deming, WA, 05/04/2008

    Thank you Weekend America, especially Bill Radke, for your courage. I am disturbed by those who dismiss and negatively label your efforts to better understand your parental role. Clearly they are not aware of the emering field of mindfulness and neuroscience. Every child specialist knows children learn from our behavior, not our words and now neurobiology is taking this another step by showing us how the brain of a child grows in response to the environment it lives in. Look to the work of Daniel Siegel to see this is science not psychobabble.

    By Christen Hammersley

    From Chciago, IL, 05/04/2008

    Beg to differ, Jay and Earth Two You.

    I also feel guilty sometimes about leaving my kid with a nanny. Just like I feel guilty sometimes about driving to the store when I can walk. And just like that situation, sometimes driving is the right thing to do. For me, and for many working moms/dads, I work **for my kid**. Not from a financial perspective, but because I am a more balanced, happy and present parent when I am not with her 100% of the time.

    And no, this is not "hard-hitting" journalism, but it is just the kind of introspective discussion parents of young children may need. Considering how much I personally obsess about my 9-month-old, it is nice to hear about others going through -- and stepping back from -- the same situation.

    Hats off to Weekend America for discussing what is really going on in many people's lives.

    By Earth Two You

    From Boston, MA, 05/03/2008

    Forgive me, but this is just narcissistic, navel gazing psychobabble. It does not provide any balanced, valuable information or insight into parenting, it is just an inward looking story of one so-called "expert" and two highly atypical parents who are in the public eye because the story's father happens to host a radio show. This is not good journalism, good science, good information, good radio, or necessarily good advice. It is a waste of public radio dollars, and I'll be thinking twice about contributing in the future...

    By jay brand

    From wyoming, OH, 05/03/2008

    If you feel guilty about leaving your kid with a nanny deep down inside you know you are right to feel guilty. It is a trade off time and money at work or time and less money with your child. I have an 18 yr old twins boy and girl. My wife has not worked as they have grown up. They are some of the best people I know. So far they have turned out better then I could have ever hoped for or expected.
    I hope and pray for you and your child and wish all of you the best of luck. You will do fine however you go, because you love your child and are concerned about your child and her future.

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