Recently, I stumbled upon an article in The Atlantic called “Being an ‘Elephant Mom’ in the Time of the Tiger Mother.” Now, normally, the mere mention of any of these parenting labels make me cringe. Helicopter, attachment, free-range — are any of us really that narrow in our parenting? Even those who aim to fulfill some all-encompassing child-rearing philosophy end up straying off-course because, despite our best intentions, kids are so unpredictable. And there’s really no one-size-fits-all guide.
I’ve never really labeled my kind of parenting because I’m not entirely sure where it falls. I know what I value, and I know what I want to teach my young twins. I know what feels right, and what works. I stay close to them at the park, but I let them climb things without my help. I give positive reinforcement and rewards, but I also give them cooldowns. I acknowledge their feelings, but I also deny them things. We do crafts, and we watch a lot of TV. I cuddle and kiss and say, “I love you,” all the time, but I also yell and I say “no” a lot too. So, I don’t know — do I fall into any category that you can name?
Still, this “Elephant Mom” idea struck me, I think because it addresses questions that I have about the best way to raise young children. The author of the piece was raised in India, where young children are doted on, nurtured, and allowed to just be kids, without any adult expectations. Now the parent of a 4-year-old daughter, she’s carrying on the same cultural child-rearing traditions, with no judgments about the choices of others. They never sleep-trained their little girl. They’ll put her shoes on for her and spoon-feed her if she asks them to. And the author took the little girl out of a preschool where she wasn’t thriving, despite friends’ opinions that she should force the child to stick it out. She talks about how she thinks others believe she may be “too soft,” especially those who believe you must teach your young children grit and resilience.
But she asks the question: Is it too much to ask young kids to be perfectly, well-behaved, focused children? Shouldn’t little kids be allowed to just be kids?”
I’ll admit, I grapple with that. Of course, I recognize that my little guys are just that: little. They have no impulse control, no rational thought, and a lot of big feelings. They want to run wild and have treats 24/7 and go to bed late and watch TV all afternoon. Sure, sometimes I think it would be nice to take an anything-goes approach, but I know that their preschool-aged anarchy would just make me insane. Also, I have to think about the long game.
I’m the parent and they’re the children. It’s my job to show them how to navigate through this world, and I don’t think you can just put it all on hold until you think they’re old enough. You can’t just decide that, around 5, you’re going to un-teach the behaviors you’ve allowed for all this time.
Maybe it’s not important for a 3-year-old to say “please” and “thank you,” or to sit at the table at a restaurant, or to put away his toys, or to restrain from pulling everything off of the store shelves. Maybe a preschool kid doesn’t need to know how to put on his own shoes or sleep in his own bed or try to figure out a puzzle by himself. But all of these things are important for a 7-year-old to be able to do. What big kid is suddenly going to want to behave, when he’s spent the last several years being told he doesn’t have to? What big kid would want to be independent when he’s never been taught the value in it? What big kid is going to apply himself and put in some effort, when his parents have always stepped in to do everything for him?
Yes, I do believe that kids should be allowed to just be kids. I get that. But there’s a fine line between being encouraging and nurturing, and being too permissive. I think kids, even the young ones, need boundaries, not only because it makes them feel secure, but also because it makes them nicer human beings. Honestly, I’ve seen what happens to those kids who never hear no, who are never reprimanded for bad behavior, whose parents hop-to, who always get their way. Those kids become brats, plain and simple.
I don’t want to raise brats. While I totally appreciate where the “elephant moms” are coming from, I think young kids need to be taught about boundaries, rules, and consequences, even before they’re old enough to completely understand them.