PROLOGUE FAMILY MATTERS The Coauthors Reflect
We might not have it all together, but together we have it all.
The first section of this prologue was written before Tracy Hogg lost her painful and courageous battle against cancer. She was forty-four. Although she didn’t live to see the publication of The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems, published in January 2005, she spent several months planning and talking about “the family book,” as this project was then called.
Sherman Oaks, California, August 2004.
Doctors tell me that my cancer is back. A book about family now seems more important than ever. I don’t know what I’d do without my family. Family is the one thing we can count on. Or at least, that’s how it should be. Lucky for me, that’s how it is. My family and others who feel like family are helping me cope. Family matters.
I’m a baby whisperer, not a family therapist. I don’t have a degree in psychology. But I’ve been let into many people’s homes. They welcome me into their lives. I sleep in their guest rooms or nurseries. I eat at their dinner tables. I join them on shopping trips to the local market. I’m invited to happy occasions, such as a baby naming, a baptism, or a bris (the Jewish celebration of circumcision, which is not so much fun for the little boy, I’m afraid). I’m also on hand when things go haywire: The flummoxed new mum snaps at her husband for buying the wrong kind of cottage cheese or
blows up at her own mum for “just trying to help” by tidying up the linen closet.
I’ve heard and seen it all. And although I stand up for the baby, I’ve always warned new parents that it’s not just about the baby. Once an adult or a couple brings a child into the world, they become a family. In my earlier books, I talked about my “whole family” approach—making your baby or toddler a part of your family, not King Baby. Children shouldn’t become the parents’ only focus, nor should they run the household. When decisions are made—whether it’s to give little Johnny singing lessons or move him to another school—the whole family should be taken into consideration.
And yet parents often don’t think about the whole family. Instead, they become overfocused on the children and on their role in shaping them. When the baby or toddler doesn’t meet a particular challenge or difficulty, they think it’s their “fault.” And then the guilt sets in. They fret about what they did or didn’t do or what they should have done. Trust me, luv, guilt doesn’t do anyone any good. It only keeps you from being a good problem solver. You’re so busy feeling rotten about yourself that you tend to miss what’s right in front of you. Guilt also makes life more stressful, and heaven knows, parents today don’t need more stress.
And here’s the most important news flash, Mum and Dad: You alone do not control how your child “turns out.” Of course, parenting matters. Why else would I have taken the time to write three books about it? But we also have to connect the dots. Parenting isn’t the only reason Johnny bops Carlos on the head with a truck or Clarissa starts wearing lipstick in fifth grade or sweet fourteen-year-old Adam suddenly turns “mardy,” as we say in Duncaster. How they act also has to do with their personalities and their friends and everything else happening in their lives.
This book is about connecting the dots. I don’t think of it as a parenting book, although it will, I’m sure, be read mostly by parents. If your family is young,I
all the better. That’s when the most important groundwork is laid—and when most parents are more likely to open themselves to new ideas. But if you’re farther along the road, not to worry. It’s never
too late—and it’s always a good idea—to shift your focus to the whole family.
What do I hope you’ll get from this book? At the very least, you’ll start to see the whole along with its parts. I hope you’ll begin to pay attention to the daily minute-by-minute little stuff that you might otherwise overlook—conversations, nods, and gestures. In those everyday moments, you’ll find clues about your family and about who each of you is. These bits of information will help you make better choices and deal with whatever your family has to face. I also hope that the whole-family lens will help you let go of the guilt.
I promise you, though, that the goal is not to have a “perfect” family—heavens, no! It’s to have a family that supports you and yours and whatever circumstances you have to handle. Some days, you’ll feel brilliant (that’s Yorkshire for “great”). Other days, you’ll wonder if you’ve done anything right!
Even if you do everything I suggest (and face it, luv, you won’t), life will be unpleasant or difficult at times. Hard things and bad things happen to all families—even to good families—things that take us by surprise and knock our knickers off. But as my Nan always told me, it’s not what happens to you in life that matters, it’s what you do with it. If you have family whose members are there for one another, it makes the going a bit easier.
As you read through these pages, please this keep in mind:
Any group consisting of parents and children living together in a household qualifies as “a family.”
Whether you’re a biological parent, a stepparent, a single parent, a foster parent, a grandparent living with your adult child, or an aunt raising your brother’s children, know that when I say “the parents,” I mean you. I consider you and your children “a family,” no matter what. Same-sex couples with children are families. Second marriages create various flavors of blended families. Even when parents don’t live together, they are still a family—a “family apart,” the term Melinda coined for co-parenting households after divorce.
Yes, I’ve seen it all. I’ve been at Thanksgiving dinners with exes and steps and half-sibs at the same table—and God bless them for being able to pull it off! I’ve also been in homes where three generations lived under
one roof—parents, children, and grandparents. In fact, I myself grew up in what might be considered an “untraditional” arrangement. I was raised by my Nan and Granddad. My mother, Hazel, also grew up with her grandparents. And when I began to work in the U.S., she took care of my girls. It all seemed “normal” to us. None of us is quite sure where our “immediate” family ends and the “extended” clan begins. But there’s always a lot of love to go around. Aunts, uncles, cousins—everyone gets into the act. And that makes all of us stronger.
This is the fourth book of the baby-whispering series and, in some ways, our most important. For babies and toddlers, family is the whole world. And as children grow up and begin to see what the world has to offer, having a strong family makes them strong, so they can handle life. That goes for the adults, too. We all need someone in our corner. That’s why this book can’t be just about the children. It has to be about the whole family.
Northampton, Massachusetts, January 2013.
I was Tracy’s left brain. This was evident from the first time we met in 1999. I had flown out to California from the East Coast, so she could meet and judge “the writer.” I was auditioning her, too, and skeptical about the hype. Her Hollywood clients raved, but I’d interviewed tons of parenting experts before. How different—and how much better—could she be?
The moment I arrived, I found out. Straight from the airport, she whisked me to a house in the Valley, where we were greeted by a desperate mother and her wailing three-week-old son.
“Give me him, luv,” she said. Within moments, Tracy had calmed the baby and comforted the mother, who was also crying. I tagged along on other consults over the next ten days and, in between visits, listened to her phone conversations with mothers. In our work sessions, I asked tons of questions. “How did you come up with that?” or “Why do you think this works?” It was a challenge to take notes, because Tracy knew so much and rarely stayed on topic. In the midst of explaining breast-feeding, she’d veer off into a discussion of sleep.
The babies thrived. The mothers adored her—and why not? Here was a real-life Mary Poppins who could swoop down on a family and, somehow,
leave them changed. She was sweet and supportive, funny and warm. People opened up to her—and rightfully so. She was a great listener and an even better problem solver. When she spoke of “my babies,” it wasn’t just because she took care of those children. It was because she had developed a relationship with them and their families.
On our ninth day together, I sat across from her in her office, taking notes and doodling, as I tend to do when listening. As she rattled on about the importance of establishing a structured routine (“You see, luv, babies are like us. They start their day by eating . . .”), I absently scribbled a big E in the margin. She went on (“The problem is, parents sometimes try to put them to sleep then, when they should be encouraging an activity, even if it’s just a look out the window . . .”). I drew a big A next to the E (“. . . and then they can put them down to sleep”), followed by an S, and bingo! The EASY method was born. (The Y was tagged on later, to stand for something every new mother needs: time for You.)
And so it began. In work sessions over the next six years, on the phone and via email, as well as in person, I extracted a life’s worth of experience and knowledge from Tracy and shaped it with my own thinking. It was the best kind of collaboration, one in which both parties realize that there is no book without each other.
Tracy and I were passionate about the idea of extending her philosophy into the realm of family, the bigger unit of which babies and toddlers are a part. It was a natural place to go, especially at a time when so many parents seemed overfocused on their children. After years of taking the child’s perspective, Tracy knew it was time to shine a light on the family.
More than our first three projects, which were harvested almost exclusively from her experience, this one also tapped into my writing and research. Between us, we had hundreds of stories. She had lived with families; I had interviewed countless parents and spent almost my entire career focusing on relationships. We told each other our own family stories and knew each other’s family. Tracy helped my daughter through the birth of her first son. I spent time with her daughters, Sara and Sophie, and had conversations with her mother, sister, and brother and, best of all, her beloved Nan, who is ninety-five at this writing and still going strong, the family’s own Queen Mum.
Tracy’s and my roots and issues were quite different, but we knew, from both personal and professional experience, that family, though complicated, is where it all begins and ends. Back in 2004, our intention was
to go beyond babies and children, to apply the principles of baby whispering to this larger entity and to arm readers with simple, practical, and sometimes counterintuitive advice that would support and strengthen the whole family. A decade later, the idea is more important than ever.
“Family whispering,” as I now think of it, is fundamentally about tuning in and staying connected, just as baby whispering was. But here we shine light on everyone, not just the baby. The first half of this book will help you “see” differently, to focus on the whole family. The second half will help you apply this new perspective—“family-think”—to everyday challenges and whatever unexpected changes your family has to face.
To help you figure out what’s right for your family, we’ve peppered this book with lots of questions. Tracy was all about asking the right questions. The ones in these pages are designed to help you see what your particular family is made of, how it functions, its strengths and weaknesses, and what you can do to make it a place of safety and support for all its members.
Keep a Family Notebook
Whenever Tracy visited a new family, whether she was there to establish a routine or solve a problem, she always urged parents to write down their observations. It isn’t just a matter of helping you keep track. It’s about increasing your awareness of patterns. To get the most out of this book, we suggest that you keep a “Family Notebook” in which you:
• Answer questions posed throughout the book.
• Record observations and “aha” moments that occur as a result of tuning in to your family.
• Set goals and reminders about trying something different or making a slight change of course.
The act of writing sets your intention and makes it more likely that you’ll move in a new direction, as opposed to staying “stuck.”
You’ll get more out of this book if you take the time to keep a “Family Notebook” in which you actually write down your answers to the various questions. Whenever you see the symbol —“for your notebook”—reach for a paper notebook or an electronic tablet on which you can save your answers and later print them out. We’ve also provided a “Notes” page at the end of each chapter. Use it to jot down ideas, too. The act of writing will heighten your awareness, which will make it easier to troubleshoot and, if necessary, change course.
Another benefit of keeping a notebook is that you create a unique document about your family—a little insight here, some information there—which becomes a living record of your family’s growth and change and eventually ends up showing you something new about yourselves. If you have a partner, answer the questions together, or go solo and compare notes later.
The ideas in these pages are drawn from recent social-science research
and, perhaps more important, from “the trenches,” Tracy’s favorite source of wisdom. Notably, some of our interviewees were already familiar with baby whispering. We talked to parents on the online forum that survived Tracy’s original website and also to former clients, parents of babies and toddlers Tracy once cared for. These veterans of family life, many of whom have children who are now approaching adolescence, shared how Tracy’s ideas and strategies served their families as their children grew up, how they bettered their lives and their relationships. Even when parents didn’t embrace all of Tracy’s techniques, they all applauded her “whole family” approach, because it honored everyone’s needs.
For example, one of Tracy’s former clients, Viola Grant,II
a Hollywood producer Tracy worked for when her first son was born, recalled that Tracy’s advice about family was a huge relief after a severe scolding from her pediatrician. “I had an open house a few days after Simon’s birth, and the doctor heard about it from one of my friends who was also his patient. He told me, ‘You should be in bed, bonding with your baby.’
“By the time I met Tracy for the first time a few days later, I was flipping out. I told her I was struggling with his advice. I didn’t want my baby to get sick, but I’m a very social person, and I didn’t want to change my life. Staying in bed wasn’t me. I was excited for people to come see my first child. Tracy said to me, ‘Don’t worry, luv. This baby will adjust to the life you lead. If this is how your house runs, your baby will be fine. You can go to restaurants, and your baby will be fine. If you feel good and your home feels good to him, he’ll be happy.’ And she was right. My kids are now ten and thirteen, and they can hold their own with adults. They have been raised to be an integral part of the family—not the stars of the family but members of it.”
Invariably, talks like these included discussion about how much of an impact Tracy had made in her too-short life and how much we all missed her. Certainly, I will forever have her unique Yorkshire burr in my head. Every day, I rely on her commonsense ideas in my own life and have passed them on to my daughter, who now has three sons. However,
without Tracy at my side, it no longer feels right for me to write as Tracy. In the past, I managed to capture her “voice” on paper, in part by using her favorite British expressions, like “mum” and “codswallop,” and by peppering the pages with her trademark sense of humor. Now the journalistic “we” seems more appropriate.
Be assured, though: Everything in these pages is built on the foundation of baby whispering, principles that go beyond babies and toddlers, and for which we will always have Tracy Hogg to thank.
—Melinda Blau I
. By “young,” I mean your family’s age—the time you’ve been together as a group—not how old you or your children are. They don’t necessarily go together. Some stepfamilies, for example, are very young, and yet they have kids who are much older and parents who’ve been ‘round the block. II
. This and most names are pseudonyms, but the stories are true. In some cases, details have been changed. A few anecdotes have been cobbled together from multiple interviews, but all have been inspired by real-life circumstances. Also, we assume that our readers are women and men who might have sons, daughters, or both. To avoid awkward constructions such as “he or she” or “his or her” whenever we use a generic example, we alternate, “he” and “she” throughout as nongender-specific pronouns.
ONE SHIFT YOUR FOCUS From Parent-Think to Family-Think
A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold.
When her first child was born fifteen years ago, Sara Green, now forty-nine, intuitively knew that having a baby meant more than simply becoming a parent. “I was super aware, from the moment Katy was born, that Mike, Katy, and I were a family,” she recalls. “It was a completely new relationship. And I knew I wanted to protect it.”
For the first several days, Sara turned everyone away. She wanted to put the rest of the clan on hold, so that she and Mike could begin to define their family. Soon enough, she knew, they would interact with their parents and siblings and various members of their extended family, not to mention doctors, teachers, coaches, fellow parents, clergy, and numerous others who would influence the three of them. But she didn’t want anyone’s comments or advice just yet.
“That caused some problems with our relatives. They didn’t understand why we would even want to do that.” Sara stood her ground, and it paid off. “There were three of us, and we had to figure out where everyone fit in and what everyone needed. That way, when people started coming and asking what they could do, I could tell them.”
To her credit, Sara had all the instincts of a baby whisperer. (If you’re a new reader, or want a quick refresher, see the sidebar here
.) That is, Sara was respectful, took the time to tune in to Katy’s needs. She never referred to Katy as “the baby.” Rather, she talked about “Katy” the person and viewed this newest member of the family as a unique individual. Sara didn’t rush in to “fix” Katy when she was crying. Instead, she took a breath,
slowed down, and gave herself a moment to pay attention. Within a short time, Sara began to recognize what Katy’s cries meant. And when she didn’t, she learned from her mistakes and moved on. As all baby whisperers do, Sara soon got better at reading Katy’s signals, better at understanding who her baby daughter was.
The Baby Whisperer’s Top Ten
If you’re not familiar with baby whispering, here are the key principles on which it is built. They are equally applicable to “family whispering.”
1. Be respectful.
2. Be patient.
3. Be conscious—pay attention.
4. Accept and embrace the child you have.
5. Let everyone in the family matter.
6. Slow down.
7. Listen and observe.
8. Allow for mistakes, and learn from them.
9. Have a sense of humor.
10. Don’t chase perfection—there’s no “right” way.
This fascinating little person whom Sara and Mike would get to know even better in the months and years to come was the focus of everyone’s attention at first. But even as she was busy tending to her baby’s needs and learning how to be a mother, Sara also knew that Katy couldn’t—shouldn’t—occupy center stage forever. A bigger and more complex question was, how would Katy fit into the drama of Sara and Mike’s life as a couple? How would they shift the focus in a way that allowed all three of them to be productive participants in what would surely be an ongoing family venture?
That challenge is the subject of this chapter.
How to Think Like a Family Whisperer
As Tracy would say, let’s get at this straightaway. In our earlier books, we wrote, “Baby whispering means tuning in, observing, listening, and understanding from the child’s perspective.” Now we’re widening the lens, asking you to look at the bigger picture. Take out child in that sentence, and replace it with whole family, and here’s what you get:
Family whispering means tuning in, observing, listening, and understanding from the whole family’s perspective.
What, exactly, does that mean? We’ve already written three parenting books to help you tune in to your child. This is a book that also draws on the principles of baby whispering but to help you tune in to your family. It asks you to shift your perspective from “parent-think” to “family-think” and to remember one of the key “secrets” of family whispering:
The whole family matters, not just the child(ren).
Family-think doesn’t necessarily contradict parent-think. It is another perspective, a more expansive one that encourages you to be family-focused instead of child-focused and to view yourself and your family as a unit. It’s a way of bettering your “familying” skills, so that you can pull together with your partner and children to create a safe place where kids and grown-ups feel as if they matter. You—the parents—are still in charge, and of course, you continue to care for your kids and guide them. But everyone is considered, and everyone—to the best of his or her age and ability—pitches in to make the family work.
What does family-think look like in action? Sara Green, whom you met at the beginning of this chapter, instinctively knew how to apply it when her baby was born. Although she was instantly smitten by that sweet creature in her arms and was attentive to every gurgle and coo (parent-think), she also knew that everyone’s welfare mattered, not just the new baby’s (family-think). Three years later, when Sara gave birth to a second child, Ben, she was aware that the whole family would shift again, this time to accommodate him. As the years flew by, Sara and Mike tuned in to each of their children and knew their respective strengths and vulnerabilities as individuals (parent-think), but they were also able to see milestones and unexpected changes through the whole-family prism. Each time something happened to one of them—Sara went back to work, Katy entered her tweens, Ben had trouble with a best friend, Mike lost his job—they were mindful that one person’s change affected all of them (family-think).
Or let’s go back in time with a family that started growing in the early 1980s. Nancy Sargent and Stephen Klein, both doctors specializing in community health, are living on an Indian reservation near a small town in the Southwest. Their children, Ellie and David, are roughly four and two, and Nancy is pregnant with twins. For the past several years, the parents have shared childcare and a job at the local clinic, a decision they made with everyone’s needs in mind (family-think). Since med school, Nancy and Stephen have known that they valued family above all. Both wanted to be involved in their children’s life. They also wanted to be part of a community and to travel. They believed in exposing children to different cultures, which factored into their decision to take the job and live on the reservation.
When the twins, Seth and Rachel, arrive, they ask various members
of their extended families to fly out from the East Coast and pitch in (family-think). “We had lots of family support,” Nancy will later recall. “But then everyone left. Even with one of us always at home, I knew we had to find a baby-sitter.”
In our third book, we introduced the idea of “PC Parenting,” having patience and consciousness. The same principles apply to familying. Adults need to slow down and to cultivate mindfulness; children need to be shown how. Don’t despair; most of us need help in this department. But we also get better with practice.
Patience. Having a family means drama every day. Issues don’t necessarily resolve quickly or predictably. You need to hang on for the long haul. Patience helps us get through the day and stay calm during a rough transition or an unexpected change. It reminds us that at times, any one of us might forget, falter, or fail.
Consciousness. Applying your full awareness to whatever you do allows you to understand how you and others see the world and to know what makes each of you comfortable in it. Consciousness—mindfulness—is about seeing the bigger whole and using that sensitivity to think ahead, plan, and analyze afterward. It is being alert to “learnable” moments, not just teaching moments.
The need is everyone’s problem, not just Nancy’s (family-think). To solve it, she enlists Ellie, telling her oldest child that they need to hang a sign in the post office. Would Ellie help make one? The “flier” Ellie creates is a crayoned drawing of six little heads, the Sargent-Kleins through her eyes. At the bottom, Nancy adds a row of tear-off fringes with their phone number. A family-think want ad!
And it works. They find a wonderful Native American woman who stays with them until they move back East—another decision made by weighing their collective needs (family-think). Although they love living on the reservation—a unique community of Anglos and Native Americans—Nancy and Stephen want the children to go to better schools (parent-think). In addition, their own parents are getting older, and it feels important to live closer by, both to support them and for the children to know their grandparents (family-think). They purposely choose a town with a strong sense of community, where they can join a house of worship and find other families with similar values of activism and good work (family-think).
Why Shifting Focus Is Tricky
Make no mistake, we know it’s not easy to apply family-think to your daily comings and goings. In conversations about this book, we had to keep reminding people that our questions were about the family, not their child or the way they parented. And if we were to be completely honest, it was even tricky for us. Every now and then, in our own conversations, we slipped into parent-think, too. Why is it so hard?
• We’re used to thinking of ourselves as individuals.
• We’ve become overly child-centered.
• We ask little of our children.
Below, we take a closer look at these three issues and explain why we need to shift to family-think.
We’re used to thinking of ourselves as individuals. Especially in the U.S., our long-standing tradition of individualism teaches us that if we set goals, we can complete them. When things are hard, we are supposed to “pull up those boot straps.” We can do anything if we set our individual mind to a task. We tend to apply that philosophy to everything we take on, including child-rearing. We believe that we can affect another person—child or adult—solely by what we say and do. And who can blame us? Shelves full of how-to books promise to put us “in control,” as if it’s just a matter of getting it “right” or applying the “best” program. As if there was a best way. As if the future lay totally in our own hands. Life, and certainly families, don’t work that way.
Why we need to shift to family-think: In every social exchange, we influence one another. No one acts alone.
We do not act on our partners or children. We affect them, and they also affect us. Every day, we interact with one another and, sometimes, collide. Each conversation is a two-way street, a “co-creation” that changes both parties. For example, when your son comes home from school complaining about a kid in his class, it triggers a reaction in you. It may remind you of your own childhood. It may be disappointing; you want him to be able to stand up for himself. You might scoop him up in your arms and comfort him. Or you might say, “Oh, come on, Billy. That’s just what boys your age do.” Either way, how you act and react will influence what he says and does next. In each of these everyday exchanges, the two of you are co-creating a relationship, an entity that is formed by what you each put into it. It is a unique product “of” the two of you.
If we think of our family merely as a group of individuals, we miss an essential truth: A family is a collection of relationships that—ideally—prepare us for life and help us grow. We may think we’re acting as solo players, but in reality, everything we do is a joint project, a “co-action.” Each person in your family brings out something different in you, and vice versa.
From the day we’re born, all of our thoughts, opinions, and behaviors are shaped in our interactions with others. Because we are so accustomed to seeing ourselves as “bounded beings,” whose bodies and minds are separate from other bounded beings, it’s hard to embrace the idea that even our consciousness is co-created in relationships.
In families, this give-and-take shapes us and determines our everyday existence. Countless conversations, exchanges in and outside the family, affect what goes on between you and your partner (if you have one), between you and your child, and, if you have more than one child, between siblings. Every one of these conversations is a joint venture, not something you make happen on your own. To think that we alone can control an outcome limits our understanding and our ability to connect. Worse still, it makes us feel alone.
We’ve become overly child-centered.. When Tracy emigrated from England in the late 1990s, she sensed that children were in charge. When a mother told her she was “following the baby” instead of establishing a structured routine, Tracy would exclaim, “But he’s a baby, darlin’! You need to be teaching him.” And the hovering . . . oh, the hovering! One mother told Tracy that she didn’t intend to put her baby down for the first three months (“just like they do in Bali”), to which Tracy replied, “But luv, we’re not in friggin’ Bali.”
As those babies grew into toddlers, their parents seemed desperate to shield them from sadness, mistakes, or failure. Mothers in Tracy’s Mommy and Me groups would sit behind their toddlers during a rousing rendition of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” It didn’t matter whether the children were actually singing—most don’t at that age—or just sitting there motionless; every one of those mothers would applaud and shout, “Good job!”
What we dubbed the “Happiness Epidemic” a decade ago has morphed into full-blown overparenting. At one end of the child-focused parenting continuum are solicitous helicopter moms, and at the other are so-called tiger moms. They seem different, but with either extreme, the spotlight is on kids, not family. As a result, we are living in what one New York Times reporter called “the most chafingly child-focused era in modern history.”
To be fair, parents’ anxiety about children’s safety, fragile egos, and success has been fueled, in part, by the flood of merchandise and programs that promise to improve and protect children. Other parents unwittingly act as pitchmen (“You’re not going to enroll Caroline in Madame
Fowler’s ballet class this summer?”). Journalist Nancy Gibbs, writing about a “backlash” to “intensive parenting,” described the “insanity” in a 2009 Time cover story:
We bought macrobiotic cupcakes and hypoallergenic socks, hired tutors to correct a 5–year-old’s “pencil-holding deficiency,” hooked up broadband connections in the treehouse but took down the swing set after the second skinned knee. We hovered over every school, playground and practice field—“helicopter parents,” teachers christened us, a phenomenon that spread to parents of all ages, races and religions. . . . We became so obsessed with our kids’ success that parenting turned into a form of product development.
Granted, extreme child-centeredness is most prevalent in middle- and upper-class homes where parents have the disposable income to provide lessons, sports experiences, family trips, and tutoring. However, in our interviews, we found that low-income parents also feel the pressure. “I feel bad because I can’t give them the things their friends have,” one mother told us, referring to expensive sneakers and electronic gadgets. A few weeks before Christmas, she put up her car as collateral for a loan. The holiday gifts made her eight children momentarily happy, but the family would suffer when the loan company later threatened to repossess her car.
When children occupy your entire field of vision and monopolize your time and energy, it’s almost impossible to sustain a family perspective. The adults are exhausted, as journalist Judith Warner documents in her book Perfect Madness. The women she interviewed were victims of “a new set of life-draining pressures.” The couple relationship suffers. The kids think that the world revolves around them and at the same time feel inordinate pressure to perform. Siblings fight over “things.” Worst of all, the family—like a child left in an orphanage—begins to wither.
No, not in every home, but in many. Some parents—certainly many of Tracy’s clients—have “right-sized” their children’s place and see them as part of the bigger whole. Others sense that something’s off, but they’re so caught up in the frenzy they don’t realize where the road is taking them.
“I feel sorry for my American friends and relatives,” says Greg Perl-man, who relocated to Europe a few years ago with his wife, Amy, and their daughter, Sadie, now eleven. “When I come home to visit, I see the constant escalation of what kids get, how much the parents go all out for
birthday parties, what kinds of toys are considered necessities, and their endless safety concerns. Some of them don’t realize how the pressure is ramping up, but we notice a huge difference since we left. It’s almost like an arms race.”
Why we need to shift to family-think: Kids need a sense of family more than they need the spotlight.
After decades of jumping onto the self-esteem bandwagon, educators and psychologists have concluded that looking out for number one doesn’t make for healthy relationships or a good life. Being part of a loving family does. Of course, parents must care for and guide children; the adults should be in charge, protecting and monitoring, always striving to know their children and to keep them safe. But that’s not the same as positioning your children at the center of the universe. Quite the contrary. If we’re constantly micromanaging children’s every movement—tending, helping, hovering, suggesting, scheduling, reminding, interacting, demanding, not to mention praising them for sitting still—how can they learn to be part of a bigger something? If we don’t give them real roles in the family, how and when do they learn the skills they need to become independent? How can they learn to share and cooperate?
If you want your children to become competent and confident adults, don’t just parent them. “Family” them, too. They need to feel as if they matter not merely as individuals but as “stakeholders,” participants who have a vested interest in the success of a bigger entity. Being a member of a family and contributing to the common good are basic training for life. It teaches children and adults to see themselves as connected beings who have something valuable to give.
Oh, and by the way, it’s critical to teach your kids these skills now, not when they’re packing for college . . . which brings us to a third reason family-focused strategies are hard for so many parents today.
Food for Thought: The Failure of Self-Esteem
“The self-esteem movement in particular, and the feel-good ethic in general, had the untoward consequence of producing low self-esteem on a massive scale,” writes psychologist Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness. “By cushioning feeling bad, it has made it harder for our children to feel good and to experience flow. By circumventing feelings of failure, it made it more difficult for our children to feel mastery. By blunting warranted sadness and anxiety, it created children at high risk for unwarranted depression. By encouraging cheap success, it produced a generation of very expensive failures.”
We ask little of our children. Often, we don’t realize that they can help
in meaningful ways. It wasn’t always this way. For centuries, children were seen as workers, contributors to the family. They were regarded as little adults, miniature and perhaps less mature but nonetheless capable. The more children a family had, the greater the family’s productivity and income.
Children once worked long hours on farms, at street jobs, in factories. When interviewed in 1929, a mother explained why she gave her children factory work at home. “Everybody does it,” she said. “Other people’s children help—why not ours?” Asked why her children left school early to work, another mother was “perplexed” at anyone questioning what she perceived as an “absolutely natural proceeding,” adding, “He’s of an age to work, why shouldn’t he?”
Then childhood got a makeover. In the course of fifty years, children went from “useful to useless,” as one sociologist put it, from contributing to the family to being “economically worthless” and, eventually, “emotionally priceless.” Parents were making more money, families became smaller, and mass marketing was coming into its own. By the 1930s, most children younger than fourteen were in school. Parents—mothers, really—took over many jobs children had once been expected to do. “Chores” were still assigned to them, not to help Mom but to build character. A 1934 article in Parents magazine warned readers to “take care not to overburden the child with responsibility . . . lest the weight of it should crush him instead of develop a greater strength.”
Sadly, children today have become more “priceless,” more exalted. And there’s little talk about character. Some parents fight the tide, making children actually earn privileges, but in many homes, a free ride is as “absolutely natural” as child labor was a century ago. In an ongoing study of middle-class families with working parents, researchers report that the largest share of children’s time after school and before bed—40 percent—is spent in leisure activities compared with 25 percent of fathers’ time and less than 20 percent of mothers’ time. The rest of the evening is devoted (in this order) to communication, homework, and personal care, such as bathing and dressing. Chores, the researchers conclude, are “not on children’s radar screens.” Ironically, many women complain that men don’t do a fair share at home. But it doesn’t occur to them to ask their children to contribute.
Why we need to shift to family-think: Everyone in the family plays a role in making sure that the family has what it needs to thrive.
The family is the building block of humanity. In order to strengthen society and to make the world a kinder, gentler place, all of us—children and adults—need to put time and energy into making our families work. The family is a “laboratory” for life and good citizenship. It’s where you learn to be part of something, and to become someone on whom others can rely. Adults model these critical skills, and, with guidance, kids develop them as the result of good “familying.” Working hard, giving to others, and hanging in—living through frustration and failure—build character. As we explain in chapter 3, you show up, and that makes you grow up.
If you’re not convinced that we need to take the focus off kids and shine a spotlight on the family, consider what researchers found when they questioned young adults who reported being “overindulged” as kids. They were given too many material things (such as clothes and toys) and too little in the way of chores and rules, and they had parents who were “overloving” and provided them with “too much entertainment.” In essence, they were denied the opportunity to develop a sense of responsibility. Nearly a third of these pampered kids were “deficient in interpersonal skills” as young adults. Smaller but still significant numbers had problems with overeating and overspending. And when they became parents they were more likely to overindulge themselves and their children.
The prognosis is not much better for adults who do it all while the children do nothing. The mothers in Judith Warner’s book were tired, anxious, and guilty, and “it didn’t seem to dawn on anyone that there could be another way.”
But there is another way: Focus on the family. Think of it as a co-op, an enterprise in which everyone respects, acknowledges, and gives to one another. Everyone has a stake in how the family operates, everyone matters, everyone makes choices, and everyone pitches in. Shifting the focus away from kids makes them want to contribute, because they know that they’re needed, and they know that they, too, have a stake in making the family better, stronger, and more solid. In turn, this benefits them as individuals, increasing their confidence and competence.
By being family-focused, you will still be amazed by your kids, just not blinded by them.
Practicing Family-Think at Home
It’s not easy to sustain family-think. For one thing, we’re all swimming in child-centered waters. Equally important, family life is complex, a perpetual juggling of everyone’s time and energy. Life is often so hectic, and there’s so much pressure on adults and children, that it’s hard to concentrate on anything further than the next appointment, the pickup schedule, and what’s for dinner tonight, not to mention keeping your focus on the whole family. We can’t promise that the road will be straight or smooth. But we can help you take the first step, which is to see differently.
Start by describing your family as a whole. What adjectives or short phrases came to mind? Here are some of the answers we’ve heard in response to “What’s your family like?”
A mother in New York (married, one son): “Adventuresome, open, caring. Involved. Talkative, quirky, dedicated, different.”
A father in Chicago (divorced, son and daughter): “Splintered; I don’t get to see the kids that often. Complicated, loving, distant, strivers, lots of emphasis on being successful.”
A mother in California (single, one daughter): “Loving, hectic, athletic. We are like a fortress against the world.”
A partnered lesbian from Massachusetts, recalling her family of origin (six siblings): “Dysfunctional, blue-collar Irish, crowded, competitive, totally dominated by my father, angry.”
A father in Florida (married, two boys): “Tight-knit. The kids are best friends who hang out and take good care of each other. We’re sensitive to one another. Have fun together—not manufactured fun.”
These are only sketchy portraits. They don’t tell us all that much about the particular individuals in each family, their relationships, or what they have to deal with (their context)—factors we look at in the next chapter. Still, rattling off a string of adjectives is a good way to start thinking about your family as a unit.
Being objective about your own family can be daunting. But the first Family Notebook exercise here
, “What’s Your Family Like?” will help you focus on what’s important (your values), what you like to do as a family (venues), and your challenges (vulnerabilities).
Admittedly, it gets a bit tricky to answer in terms of your whole family. For example, let’s say everyone plays a sport, and you all engage in a lot of sports talk. You go to games, watch sports on TV, and go on sports
outings as a family. Maybe Mom or Dad coaches. It would make sense, then, to list sports as a venue. Perhaps sportsmanship would also be included among your family’s values. On the other hand, you could be a family that shows up at a Little League game week after week to support the one child who loves baseball and made the team. In that case, one of your family’s values is to support one another’s interests, but you might not think of the ballfield as a family venue. There’s no wrong way to do this exercise. Whatever you write, you’ll come out with a clearer idea of how you operate as a family.
If possible, have fun with this exercise by involving your partner, if you have one, and your children. Get the ball rolling by sharing your own observations out loud to other members of the family, in a lighthearted way. “Ever notice how we never get out of the house on time?” or “I realize that we start preparing for Halloween way before anyone else.” Then ask, “What do you think that says about us as a family?” Jot down what everyone says, and don’t be surprised if each of you comes to a different conclusion.
If you have trouble coming to a consensus, don’t worry. In chapter 2, we help you look at the “Three Factors”—elements that combine and interact to make your family what it is.
What’s Your Family Like?
Once or twice a day for the next week, look at your own family objectively and notice its complexity and contours. Try to view your life together as you would a group of strangers, and describe what you see. Write down at least ten adjectives or phrases that capture what your family is like by zeroing in on your values (what you believe in), venues (favorite activities and places), and vulnerabilities (your challenges as a family).
For each category, we’ve given you some open-ended sentences in bold and suggestions [in brackets] just to get you started. Don’t limit yourself; use words and phrases that fit your gang:
• Values. What’s your family ethic? What do you stand for?
“In our family it’s important to . . .” [have a spiritual life? be a leader? compete? do good deeds? make money? be thrifty? look good? eat well? follow rules? live off the land?]
• Venues. What activities do you like to do as a family? What kinds of places make you happy and hold the best memories? Where do you go to recharge?
“Our family loves to . . .” [be outdoors? play sports? go to movies? travel? go to the beach? play instruments? participate in community service? build things? read? travel? hang out at home together? volunteer? cook meals together?]
• Vulnerabilities. What is your family’s Achilles’ heel?
“A weakness of our family is that . . .” [one person controls what everyone else does? it’s every man for himself? we don’t see enough of each other? we never talk about how we feel? we smother each other? we fight? we tolerate abusive behavior? we have few friends or relatives nearby? we have trouble making decisions? we are rigid? we overschedule ourselves?]
Notes on Family-Think