Does Mother Still Know Best?

5 years ago

It almost a week later and I am still reading last Sunday’s thick stack of newspapers, sifting through the seemingly endless ways in which the 10th anniversary of September 11 was commemorated, quantified, qualified and honored in print. The New York Times in particular took special pains to compile a comprehensive analysis of all the ways in which the world has changed since, and because of, the attacks on America.

Yet amid all the sadness and retrospect I was intrigued by an unusually timed piece in the Magazine that explored popular culture’s changing perception of parenthood, specifically through the medium of television. The article, laboriously titled “Adorable, Bewildered Parents Learning Big Life Lessons From Bawling Tots”, was written by Heather Havrilesky and in it she notes the evolution of the American TV Family dynamic, from the idealistic kind in “Leave it to Beaver” and “Growing Pains” to the current genre she says is riddled with "parents who fumble and whine plaintively and require coaching and reassurance from their peers in order to weather the snares and toils of child-rearing.” In short, parents who unlike June and Ward Cleaver (or even Al Bundy, for that matter) question their parenting abilities and sensibilities at every turn instead of trusting that they indeed know best.

Havrilesky questions why a generation of parenting-obsessed Americans (i.e. everyone who currently has a child under the age of 30) is so much more self-conscious about their parenting choices than their own parents were, if only on television. After all, if you compared the neurotic Claire Dunphy from “Modern Family” to her loving-but-firm predecessor Clair Huxtable, there is no question as to who is more confident in her choices for her family or who commands more respect from her children.

After reading her essay I began to wonder if Ms. Havrilesky’s theory translated into the real world? Are modern-day Moms and Dads like the buffoons portrayed on TV, held hostage by kids who are often the ones who are parting words of wisdom, instead of the other way around? Are we indeed less sure of our capabilities than our own parents were?

I began to think back to my own childhood. My father, who occupied a very traditional role in my household, was not the type of man that got on the floor and played with his kids, like my husband and so many current-day Dads do, but he also commanded a type of fear-based respect that is absent in my house. Just this morning, while Jim was getting breakfast ready for JP (a ritual that never happened while I was growing up) JP called him Dude. It was a harmless attempt at being cute but it irked Jim, probably because like me he can’t imagine ever addressing his own father in a term usually reserved for a buddy.

Even my mother, who stayed at home with four kids aged 5 and under until we were well into our middle-school years, didn’t seem concerned with half the things I obsess over in my role as Mom. Sun block, for instance. Or car seats. She would send us out to play with the neighborhood children for hours on end and if we dared come inside for anything other than a bathroom break or quick drink, we’d be shuttled right back to the street until the dinner bell rang. When I think about it now, it was probably the only time my mother got anything done, absent four restless bodies and eight less feet to clean up after.

I wouldn’t dare let JP leave our house unattended despite living in a neighborhood similar to the one I grew up in, with minimal street traffic, responsible neighbors and lots of kids playing about. But I am also aware that modern conveniences that didn’t exist when I was growing up make my task list more bearable. (That and three less children to care for than my Mom). Back then there wasn’t 24/7 education-themed television, the kind I’m hesitant to admit has babysat my son for more hours than I can count. And despite having a husband that works late and travels a lot, I can always tap out for an hour when Jim is home, unlike my mother who relied on my Dad for a paycheck, fixing things around the house and little else in the way of parenting.It was a different time and men like my Dad just didn’t worry about how his kids were doing. He assumed my Mom had it under control.

So did my childhood make me a more conscientious parent, one with more tools at her disposal to make better informed decisions for her own child? I think I can comfortably say yes. But has it made me a better parent than my own Mom and Dad and their generation of similarly minded caretakers, the ones who never confused their role as a parent with that of a friend? Who never “helicoptered” over us but instead sent us outside to play, taste independence and figure out how to resolve conflict on our own? I wonder.

Because while I want JP to be properly protected from all things that can potentially hurt him, including UV rays and a texting teen driving on the same roads we do, I also want him to have the tools to protect himself. And sometimes I wonder if I am robbing him of that by staying too close, holding the reigns too tight? Will he know, like I did when I was his age, that Mom and Dad are always there for him? Except when they aren’t?

I don’t know the answer but I suspect that by the time JP is a parent our standards of care will be just as reviled as our parents’ were. Until then, I’ll be standing on the street while he rides his bike, never letting him out of my sight.

Ellen Askin Bailey is a freelance writer, mother of a Kindergartner and avid television viewer whose all time favorite TV Mom is Mama from “Mamas Family.” She writes for

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