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Do Moms And Dads Know What They're Doing? A Closer Look At Parenting Advice

Amy Coulter, center right, and her husband Mark walk together with their children April, 7, left, and Kendra, 12, at the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, April 6, 2018. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
Amy Coulter, center right, and her husband Mark walk together with their children April, 7, left, and Kendra, 12, at the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, April 6, 2018. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

With David Folkenflik

“Nobody knows anything,” the late William Goldman famously wrote about the alchemy of success in Hollywood. Now comes Jennifer Traig to make much the same case about parenting.

She is to parenting rules as Robin Hood is to the laws of Nottingham. She observes them at a great distance and with an even greater disdain. Traig, a writer, memoirist and mother of two, writes with evident frustration that children are baffling, mysterious little machines that most of the time can’t even tell you what’s wrong.

Does anyone know anything about raising their kids?


Jennifer Traig, memoirist and humor writer. Ph.D. in literature. Her children are ages 7 and 9. Author of “Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting.”

Carvell Wallace, writer, and father of two teens, ages 13 and 15. Co-host of Slate’s “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” podcast, and he co-writes Slate’s “Care and Feeding” advice column. (@carvellwallace)

Interview Highlights

From Our Callers

Al, from Monroe, Connecticut

“I’m a single dad to three boys, and I have been alone with them for seven years. At the time they were 11, 9 and 7, and I was self-employed and had to let go of my work in order to be with them because I couldn’t just let someone else come in and watch them. So, at the beginning of this show, you mentioned how you weren’t their entertainment center or director, and I tried to be, but it’s impossible with the three of them, and I pretty much did everything wrong.

“I remember the shame of not being able to get my youngest, who is disabled, to school on time. He’s hearing impaired and school wasn’t working out for him because of his impairment. The school wasn’t meeting his needs, but at the time I thought it was my failure. And I hadn’t quite let go of work, and I remember thinking about how my son has absolutely no concept of what I think is important to me. And mostly it was motivated by my shame of failure because I didn’t really have any experience in parenting and I wasn’t sure how to do it.

“This show is the first time I feel I’ve been affirmed, because I didn’t have any reflection from anyone else, and it was really hard for me to reach out to other — what I called — normal families. Not that I’m alone, because there are a lot of single parents.”

Elisa, from Boston, Massachusetts

“I’m a therapist who works with families in Boston, mostly with families who have children with various mental health diagnoses. I think one of the myths that I’ve encountered the most, and I find to be the hardest to deconstruct, is this idea of respect, that kids should always respect their parents no matter what, and that’s a given.

“A lot of times I end up having to spend time with a parent asking them, ‘What does respect actually mean to you? How did you respect your parents when you were little? How was respect shown to you?’ And just sort of helping them understand that respect doesn’t happen because they’re a caregiver, that you really have to model the behaviors that you want to see your kids show you.

“[Respect] usually gets in the way of the parent maybe being a little bit more introspective, and looking at what their own behaviors have done to make their own child feel disrespected. That old lesson of ‘you can’t get respect if you don’t give it.’ Even with little kids, you can’t just expect that they’re going to respect you as your parent if you’re not showing them that you’re investing in the relationship, that you understand what they are going through, and that you are modeling for them how you express anger and frustration and sadness.”

On the simple importance of a parent being present with their child or children

Jennifer Traig: “I think that’s really the whole job. I spend a lot of time repeating the mantra: I am not my children’s entertainment committee. I am just there to be there and to make sure they’re safe, but I don’t have to program the day. A lot of the stuff is really just bells and whistles, all the extra stuff that just exhausts us. We don’t need all of that.”

On the issue of screen and TV time for children

Carvell Wallace: ““I view it as a battle that we [as parents] sort of have lost. I think we both view this as, when they were these little tiny babies, and we said, ‘We’re only going to feed them organic kale at all times, and they were going to watch five minutes of screen time a day for the rest of their lives, and that’s going to be it, and it’s going to be educational.’

“The extent to which we have completely lost that. My lovely 13-year-old just will sit and eat Hot Cheetos and watch Netflix sitcoms for like five hours. It’s just like, we can’t intervene. We can’t stop her. We try. But it’s like, at a certain point, what am I going to do, physically go in there and throw stuff out the window? And I know that some parents want to do that, but I honestly feel as a parent I have been defeated by that. I have lost that.

“I don’t have a great silver lining for it. I don’t have a like, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad and maybe I’m overreacting.’ It’s just like, that is the thing that I wanted to do, that we wanted to, which is limit screen time, and we failed at that, and our kids are lost. And so now we’re just trying to operate clean-up, and the way I look at it, a lot of that has to do with helping the kids recognize on their own what the impacts are of multiple hours of screen time.

“My son is starting to get there. He’s starting to have a thing where I kind of go in his room, and you’re like, ‘Hey, you’ve been in here watching YouTube for like three hours, you should probably go outside.’ And he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I probably should actually,’ and he’ll kind of shake it off. But he’s beginning to recognize that he has his own feelings when he holes up and watches screens for a long time that makes him feel not great. I think that’s the best we have at this point.”

On being the “perfect parent” or trying to raise the “perfect child”

Wallace: “A lot of the advice that I give boils down to trying to de-program from the kind of obsessive-compulsive belief that there is a perfect way that you can do it, and that if you just organize everything correctly, then you’ll end up with a perfect-result child, and if you don’t get the perfect-result child, which means a child who does exactly what you want at all times, then it must be because you are not doing stuff organized and well enough.

“It doesn’t work that way; you’re not going to align everything and set the right bedtime and have the right roles and say these words but never say these words. You don’t spit it all into a machine and have it result in a perfect child. It’s not a mathematic function.

“Kids are individuals. Kids are people. As we know, there’s no set of rules that you would apply to all human beings on the planet, and have them all react the exact same way. Kids are in fact part of the human beings on the planet, they’re people. And so there is some fluidity and some confusion and some softness and some things that don’t work out the way you want, and that’s fine.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Act Natural” by Jennifer Traig

There is some debate about when the practice of parenting originated, but the word itself only came into common usage about forty years ago, which I guess means parenting was invented after I was. Like many nouns that became verbs and changed history for the worse—jam, trip, streak—this happened in the 1970s. Before that, children weren’t parented, but reared, which did not require much anxious philosophical examination. You loved them; you did your best to make sure they didn’t die; but you didn’t give a lot of thought to optimizing their cognitive development or nourishing their self-esteem. If they kept a handful of their teeth and lived to thirty-two, you’d done your job. Maybe you taught them a few psalms or how to write their name in the dirt. Any parental efforts beyond that just weren’t, in seventies parlance, anyone’s jam.

This is presuming the parents were the ones making the efforts in the first place. Often they weren’t. A big part of the reason it wasn’t called parenting is that for much of history, parents did so little of it. A cast of wet nurses, dry nurses, tutors, servants, slaves, clergy, older siblings, other relatives, and apprentice masters did the day-to-day labor. Sometimes this was because it was necessary for economic survival, sometimes because it was fashionable, sometimes (always) because children are just so much work. The history of parenting is, in large part, a history of trying to get out of it.

It turns out there are very good reasons for this. It’s how we evolved. To repeat evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers’s famous argument, the genes that got passed on were the ones that demanded more than parents can provide. We overcome this inequality by making other people do as much of the work as possible. From the perspective of species survival, the best strategy for a parent is the same as the one for a bad employee: do as little as you can get away with. Look busy, and let someone else do the real work.

The practice of dumping the kids on someone else is called alloparenting, and it’s as old as people are. My own perceptions of caveman parenting are based mostly on The Flintstones, from which I conclude that prehistoric parents were well-meaning but a little irresponsible, letting their children do things like juggle boulders and play with saber-toothed house cats, not to mention smoking in front of them. But people who study the Stone Age for a living confirm that early humans were actually pretty good parents who kept their kids and themselves alive by outsourcing as much child-rearing as they could. Evolutionary biologist and all-around genius person Sarah Blaffer Hrdy suggests that it’s what allowed us to become people in the first place: “Without alloparents, there never would have been a human species.”

Although alloparenting is common in many animals (flamingos, bottlenose dolphins, bison, killer whales, bees, and pronghorn antelopes all form what are essentially daycare centers), it’s not seen much in other primates, most of whom are far more likely to eat a neighbor’s infant than babysit him. Once our hominin ancestors began sharing the parenting duties with one another, they could retain enough resources to evolve the big brains and complex social relationships that let them leapfrog over other primates to become Homo sapiens. And once humans became humans, they continued thinking up ways to avoid being around their children.

One of the oldest methods is the same as the one I use on broken vacuum cleaners and soiled recliners, which is to surreptitiously unload them on someone else’s street in the middle of the night, then pretend I don’t know anything about it. With furniture this is called illegal dumping, but with children it’s known as exposing, and by classical times, it was routine. In ancient Rome an estimated 20 to 40 percent of all infants were exposed, suggesting that a majority of families exposed at least one child. Romans actually expressed surprise when a woman did not expose any of her children, and were baffled that some other cultures didn’t engage in the practice at all. When Plutarch famously wrote, “mothers ought to bring up and nurse their own children,” he meant some of them. Because you’d have to be crazy to keep them all.

Infant abandonment was common in both reality and myth, and was such a frequent part of city founders’ origin stories that historian James Boswell calls them “founding foundlings.” Famous exposed heroes include Oedipus, Poseidon, Paris, Jupiter, Jupiter’s twin sons, Cybele, Ion (founder of the Ionians), Cyrus (founder of the Persian empire), and Remus and Romulus (founders of Rome). Seeing how well these guys turned out, it’s not surprising that abandoning parents expressed no shame. Exposing your children was perfectly legal (as was selling them or, for that matter, killing them). Plato and Aristotle both recommended disposing of babies who showed any sign of defect, as did the Greek physician Soranus, who titled a chapter of his first-century childbirth and parenting book “How to Recognize the Newborn That Is Worth Rearing.”

Children were deemed not worth it for any number of reasons: because their parents were too poor to feed them or too rich to imperil the estate; because the child’s paternity was questioned, or because it was female; or even because the parents wanted to register a political statement, as Romans reportedly did on a number of occasions, as when Caligula died or Nero murdered his mother. That time, a baby was exposed with a sign reading “i will not raise you, lest you cut your mother’s throat.” Girls faced grimmer odds. Hilarion’s letter to his wife circa 1 bce expresses the typical sentiment: “If it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it.”

Generally, the rich wanted nothing to do with the infants they abandoned—who might lay claim to an inheritance—but the poor would take pains to see them again. As for the middle class, they sometimes exposed a child if they couldn’t afford a good enough school, giving them up, as Plutarch writes, “so as not to see them corrupted by a mediocre education that would leave them unfit for rank and quality.” Imagine the awkward reunion should they meet again: “Sorry we abandoned you on a dung heap, but we knew we’d never be able to pay for Stanford, and isn’t being eaten by wild dogs preferable to a state school?”

Excerpt from ACT NATURAL by Jennifer Traig. Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Traig. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

New York Times: “Raising Kids Isn’t Easy. Parenting Advice Often Makes It Harder.” — “Americans supposedly have little patience for expertise these days — except, it seems, when it comes to parenting experts, who continue to churn out guides as quickly as their audience can consume them. This appetite for counsel inevitably reflects deeper, often unspoken middle-class aspirations and anxieties; as the psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips once observed, the appeal of such books goes beyond the immediate need to deal with a sullen teenager or a sleepless newborn. ‘Our obsession with child development and with so-called parenting skills,’ he wrote, ‘has become a code for our forlorn attempt to find a sanity for ourselves.’

“Jennifer Traig apparently agrees. In ‘Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting,’ she takes solace in how useless, contradictory and downright harmful so much advice has historically been. ‘The things we take for granted as normal and natural strike parents in other parts of the world as absurd and dangerous,’ she writes, in this brisk survey of child-rearing tips through the ages.

“As the parent of two children and the author of previous books about obsessive-compulsive disorder and hypochondria, Traig wanted to examine how ‘developed-world, middle-class Westerners’ learned to follow a script that is so culturally specific. She ended her research feeling not just informed but relieved: ‘People have done crazy, crazy things to their children throughout history, and the species continued all the same.’ ”

Hilary McQuilkin produced this hour for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.