Tough Mom

Once again, a tough mom is getting lots of attention.  In the Styles section of the New York Times today, Julie Bosman writes about an article in Vogue in which a mother describes the strict methods she used so that her 7-year-old daughter would lose weight.  Ms. Bosman suggests that based on her approach, this mother may now have taken over the “Tiger Mom” title.

Apparently the Vogue article created quite a backlash.  Although the mom in question had some defenders and was praised for tackling her daughter’s weight issues, for the most part the reactions were critical and angry.  There was even a suggestion that the mom’s approach was a prescription for later eating disorders.

Ms. Bosman quotes a number of people connected in some way to publishing.  The conclusion seems to be that calm and gentle parenting books, with soothing advice for rearing children, have given way to those with an element of tough love and harsh restrictions.  One editor quoted says, “There’s something about these books on parenting that gets people angry.”

What accounts for this new advocacy of such approaches, and why do these books and articles provoke so much anger?  In a most basic way, the anger and critical response would appear to be an understandable reaction to the criticism that is being leveled at American parents.  In effect, parents are being told that certain problems are their fault, they have been doing things the wrong way, and that the solution lies in the tougher methods being advocated.

In the most basic sense, of course, parents have been given that message all along.  Even the “calm and gentle” books have always suggested that there is a “right way”, a better way, to do things and that problems can result from doing them the “wrong way”.  The implication has long been that parents are to blame when things go wrong.  These new books are once again telling parents there is a right and better way to rear children than they have been using.

Now, however, not only are parents being told the “right” methods to use, these are methods that run counter to everything parents have come to believe about what is important and good for children.  In this way, the methods being advocated are an indictment of accepted “truths”.  Such methods seem to threaten who we are as parents.

There is another aspect to the emotional responses that have been aroused by these newly prescribed approaches.  The books and articles in question strike a nerve because they seem to target aspects of children’s behavior that have been identified generally as problem areas.  Michelle Obama has raised national consciousness about obesity and the need for healthy eating habits.  Concern has been expressed about children having problems with self-control.  Questions have been raised about the ability of parents to control their children.  Many parents themselves have questions about their children’s behavior.

There is a somewhat pervasive feeling in the culture generally that certain aspects of children’s behavior need to be “fixed.”  And the methods being touted seem to suggest a way to fix what is wrong.  The central issue, reflecting a debate in the larger society, appears to revolve around the role and use of authority.  What these new books have in common is that mom is clearly the BOSS.  Mom must assert her authority over her children in strong and often harsh ways.

In many ways this wish for, and enforcement of a strong authority figure is nothing new, but rather a return to an older time of “spare the rod and spoil the child”, when children were to be seen and not heard.  But that was also a time when Dad, not Mom, ruled the roost, including Mom herself.  Which may be a good reminder to be careful what we wish for.

The problem is that the wish for a “fix” can lead to extremes.  The so-called “permissive” child-rearing that has so often been criticized was itself a reaction to the kinds of authoritarian methods that are now once again being advocated.  The move in the direction of understanding more about child-development and allowing children more of a voice in the family, may at times have led to parents forgetting just how to stay in charge.  And the balance between the role of parents and that of children keeps being tilted, first in one direction, then another.

Raising children is hard work, taking much thought and effort in the ongoing search for that balance.  There is an understandable wish to cut through all that, and find the magical method that will produce the result we want.  Mom, the tough authority figure, may now seem like an appealing solution – until we deal with the fallout that is sure to come

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.  Better to keep working on getting the temperature right.

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