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Dear experts, Please stop helping

May 6, 2010

Hey, as long as his hands were at the 10 and 2

Parenting, I’ve come to realize, is a lot like driving. You have to pay attention to the little granular stuff–like how much TV they watch and what they eat and all that–but the most important thing is the bigger picture: No matter what the details are, you’re trying to raise healthy, happy, kind people, and any route to that goal is pretty much justifiable, even if it involves the occasional Twinkie. And when you drive, it matters if you put your turn signal on at the right time and that you leave enough room between you and the car in front of you, but you have to stay focused above all on your bigger goal: not hitting anything large, and not killing anyone. And if parenting is like driving, then modern parents are like my grandmother, who first got her license at 65.

To say my grandmother was a menace to the good people of Southbury, CT is a grave insult to everyday menaces, like suicide bombers and structurally unsound bridges. It didn’t help that she was driving a 1978 Thunderbird, a prime example of American car companies confusing size with quality. But really, the car made little difference. Whenever she settled in behind the wheel of that monster, she would repeat her basic mantra: “10 and 2,” she’d say, and put her hands on the wheel. Then she’d say, “Rear zone,” and check the rearview. “Parking brake,” and she’d release the brake. There was a constant narration, and a palpable atmosphere of tension and dread. Talking in the car was not allowed when my grandmother–eyes peeking over the vast dashboard, fists gripping the wheel in white-knuckled desperation–was steering that beast along the winding roads of Southbury, her every turn threatening pedestrians, pets, shrubbery and signage equally. The silence was meant to minimize distractions, but in truth we couldn’t have talked if we’d wanted to. We were too busy saying our prayers.

I assume my grandmother never reached enough of a comfort level to stop hearing the voice of her driving instructor in her head, and it’s like that with a lot of modern parents. Except instead of some driving instructor, it’s parenting experts. And instead of the voice being in our heads, it’s everywhere–newspapers, Web sites, parenting groups, TV, radio and books. Like this, from the New York Times:

Toddlers who watch a lot of television were more likely to experience a range of problems by the fourth grade, including lower grades, poorer health and more problems with school bullies, a new study reports.

Oh, so too much TV is bad? No kidding. But wait, there’s more:

For those children, each hour of extra TV exposure in early childhood was associated with a range of issues by the fourth grade, according to the report published in the May issue of The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

So, wait: Now you can trace each individual hour of extra TV to specific problems? So when my son reaches 4th grade and develops, say, a twitchy eyelid, I can think back to that day six years prior when I had the flu and let him watch Ruff Ruffman, even though he’d already reached his allotted two hours? Awesome.

And this is the problem. I’m all for scientific studies that will give us greater insight into children, how they work, what’s good for them and what’s bad for them. But it’s scientific studies that explain how we’ve been inadvertently inflicting brain damage on them (because an expert told us it was okay); how letting them watch movies that a shadowy group of censors decided should have an R-rating has led to their teen drinking problem; how Facebook is making your kid a shut-in; how you should keep your kids away from video games, even though they might make them smarter (and the Cub Scouts are promoting them)–well, you begin to realize that spending too much time worrying over every little detail will soon have you rolled over in a ditch with your engine on fire (metaphorically speaking). So as much as I love to criticize modern parents for their epic overattentiveness, is it really any wonder?

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