Accommodating Parents and Their Anxious Kids (or, What I Really Want For Dinner Is Not To Make a Decision)

This is what’s for breakfast, that’s what you’re wearing, and here’s how we’re getting to […]

David Zahl / 2.12.19

This is what’s for breakfast, that’s what you’re wearing, and here’s how we’re getting to school. Nothing about the next hour is up for grabs, boys. Get to it!

…I wish that’s how the morning routine in our house went. Alas, like a lot of modern parents, my reflex is to give my kids options rather than directives: waffles or eggs? jeans or sweats? bus or walk? It sounds nice, I suppose, but each kid has a different preference and all of a sudden you’re stuck in intense negotiations before the coffee has finished brewing. When each move becomes a collaboration, everyone’s winded before taking a single step outside. Not an ideal start to the day.

Why my generation is so much more prone to parental equivocating than that of our own moms and dads, I’m not sure. Maybe we have a higher view of our young-un’s discernment. Maybe we’re less tolerant of negativity, or at least, more focused on minimizing dissension for efficiency’s sake. Could be that we grew up in a more child-centric world and have unconsciously confused serving our children with being their servant. Perhaps we’re just less sure of ourselves.

Whatever the case, Giles Fraser’s latest column for UnHerd, the sensationally titled “Our Modern Parenting Is Making Monsters,” hit uncomfortably close to the bone. Placing the burden of choice on our kids so incessantly, he theorizes, may be contributing to their anxiety:

Why are our kids so unhappy? Various answers have been touted. The use of social media is an obvious one. So, too, is the collapse of community life. Both of these are important.

But I also suspect that the way we have come to treat children as mini-consumers, little choice-centres, also has something to do with it as well. For nowhere is this choice-inducing anxiety more toxic than in childhood. It used to be that childhood operated under instruction. For the child, life was a series of givens. And this functioned as a sort of emotional security. But now that we are inducting our children into this culture of choice at an ever earlier age, we deprive them of the necessary scaffolding of care, love and support.

It’s a big claim, I know. But it is worth reminding ourselves of an important aspect of our culture of choice: that it absolves people of a responsibility of care towards others. To put it another way, our culture of choice contains this message: I am not responsible for you because you are responsible for you…

To make children constantly choose is to abdicate one’s responsibility for being a parent. To put it bluntly and provocatively: respecting the decision-making autonomy of a child is tantamount to a refusal of love.

The reductio ad absurdum of this overblown culture of choice is the case of a man who is currently taking his parents to court because he didn’t choose to be born. Yes, its true. A businessman from Mumbai, Raphael Samuel, 27, is suing his parents because he didn’t ask to be born. Apparently, by conceiving him without his consent, they were infringing his ‘right’ to choose.

I know his is hardly a serious case, but it does highlight this nonsense of thinking that we can generate ourselves though a succession of our own choices. No, we begin life as if we are already “thrown” into a place and time, with parents and grandparents, within a particular language and culture. Our circumstances precede who we are.

Earlier in the piece, Fraser notes that anxious children may be the byproduct of what happens when we see life as “a never ending succession of choices, a constant work-in-progress of self-definition. We are the authors of our own identity. Mini gods of self-creation.”

For adults, most of these choices are consumption-related, a la the old Fight Club conundrum of which couch-and-end-table set-up really captures my essence as a human being. But for kids with little-to-no spending power and absurdly quick-shifting preferences, the endless options can’t help but encumber. Such catering, in other words, is stressful for the one being catered to. (“What I really want for dinner is to not have to make another decision!” someone told me recently).

It’s not just decision-making itself that’s tiring, though, but the ever-creeping sense that the options before us aren’t entirely neutral, i.e. that one is better than the other. Eggs are healthier than waffles, but waffles are quicker. Most kids can sense what their parent wants them to choose (and ultimately, who the parent wants them to be), even when the stakes are inconsequential. As my own kids get older, I watch them scan our faces for clues as to how they should respond to questions about meals and activities. They want to give the right answer.

Maybe that’s what Fraser means when he writes that, “respecting the decision-making autonomy of a child is tantamount to a refusal of love.” When we inundate our kids with options, we’re injecting jolts of unnecessary conditionality into the relationship, shifting a little bit of the burden of righteousness (self-justification) onto their tiny shoulders. In that sense, perhaps there’s something more controlling going on than if we simply chose for them: because when I ask my boys if they want PBnJ or Ham n Cheese for lunch, I’m not just trying to please them, I’m also looking to avoid a meltdown, i.e., make my own life easier. Every once in a blue moon, it works.

Fraser’s column reminded me of something Esther Perel said in her New Yorker interview a couple months ago. She tied the growing loneliness in our culture to that same burden of choice, one which increases according to waning (shared) religiosity. The weight of Seculosity you might say:

Rules have been replaced by choices. But at the same time we have massive uncertainty and massive self-doubt. Every second book about relationships these days is about belonging and loneliness. So I think that’s the big thing that is changing: what used to be defined by rules and duty and obligation now has to take place in conversation. And so everything is a freakin’ negotiation! You negotiate with your partner about what matters, where you want to live, if you want to have children, how many children do you want to have, if this is the right time to have children. It’s an absolute existential smorgasbord. But at the same time it’s very difficult to have to define everything ourselves.

“Difficult” is one way to put it. “Maddening” is another. I mean, what more could we ask of one another or ourselves than to construct both a coherent self and a broader value system out of a gazillion little choices (AKA thin air)?! While exciting/appealing in theory, in practice a world (or house!) full of “mini-gods of self-creation” would get pretty lonesome and pretty acrimonious, pretty fast. Which is to say, exhausting with a capital-E. Fraser expresses the core reticence with childlike clarity: “I don’t want to be endlessly responsible for me. I want someone else to shoulder the burden on my behalf.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for dictatorial parenting or spiritless children (as if!). But someone to shoulder the burden of self? To tell us, perhaps, that we are more than the sum of our choices–the good and the bad, the easy and the anxious? Indeed, that we are heirs to a promise that it’s not our responsibility to fulfill? I don’t know about you, but to this parent of small children, it sounds like something worth suing for.