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Parenting in a striving culture

The challenge

I have been honored to have my blog featured for some years now in the Santa Cruz Parent newsletter. Parmalee always links to such interesting information and asks such insightful questions. This week, she posed this one:

I listened to an Australian mother recount her adventures in learning how parents in different cultures raise children. Especially interesting was her visit to a Fiji Island where an elderly grandmother was raising 9 assorted child relatives while the parents were off working and sending money home. She sat inside her one room house watching tv while the children played outside, settling their squabbles themselves, never asking or expecting an adult to intervene. At night they shared a couple of mattresses. I figure that’s at least 4 or 5 to a mattress. Now you wouldn’t find that approach in Santa Cruz where we tend to hover, guide and structure a little more. Is there a message in here?

This is one I just can’t let go, as it touches on a subject near and dear to my heart: the effects of modern culture on our health, happiness, and success.

I hear it from all sides: People want to adopt another culture’s food, religion, or child-rearing because their own seems so inadequate.

We’re strivers

Multitasking mom

The modern striver mom—I attempted to find out where this image comes from so I could credit it, but apparently every mommy blog in the universe has used it without crediting it! Thanks to the artist, in any case.

Striving for a better life is one of the fundamental reasons for humans’ success. In always trying to find something better, humans have done wonderful things. We have created lives in places like the U.S. that are devoid of any of the fight for survival that traditionally was part of the human experience, and still is in many places in this world.

But contemporary Americans have this urge to think that amidst our success we’ve missed out on some fundamental key to health and happiness. I think this is a result of our need to strive for more. If our culture tells us to keep going for more, better, deeper, faster, stronger… how do we know when we’ve gotten there?

Where we are

And let’s admit this: We’ve gotten somewhere. If you time-traveled Ponce de Leon and showed him our lives, with our big, strong bodies, ability to thrive without hard physical labor, and knowledge of how to cure disease, isn’t it possible he’d think that we have, in fact, found some version of the fountain of youth?

A fair amount of sociological research is being done lately by examining trends on Google, so I’m going to start there. When I type “famous Fijians,” here’s what I get:

famous Fijians

I truly do value singing, great food, pithy sayings, and art (though I admit I have nothing to say about rugby). However, I will say this: Fijians may be happy, well-fed, and artistic, but they aren’t known for raising kids who go off to advance human society in terms of science, technology, or philosophy.

Which cultures are doing this? Largely the ones that are currently so dissatisfied with how they’re raising our children. Hm… So we’re dissatisfied with our parenting culture, yet our parenting culture is what created the people who invented this keyboard I’m typing on and the Internet we’re communicating through. Those ill-parented children invented the medicine that has kept me alive, when in a traditional society I would certainly have died by now of disease or in childbirth.

This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Fijian or any other more traditional culture, but it does mean that theirs is fundamentally different from ours. Our children eating their inadequate modern diet, speeding around in their fast-moving vehicles, and living their “meaningless” modern lives are the same ones who are:

  • curing cancer (which we wouldn’t worry so much about if we were dying at 25 in childbirth or at 50 of disease)
  • inventing agricultural technology (to feed the masses of humans we’re keeping alive with modern medicine)
  • inventing entertainment devices (which we now have time for due to other advances)

We live in a culture that promotes striving, and this has paid off. Striving cultures throughout human history have built an amazing body of knowledge and skill, from ancient scholars in Mali and Egypt to scientists, technologists, and academics in the modern developed world.

Why we’re dissatisfied

It’s hard to live in a striving culture. We have time to worry about things that someone trying to scare up her next meal can’t even begin to care about. I, for example, look in the mirror and worry about my wrinkles. I know this is silly—I know that in emotionally wiser societies, wrinkles are cherished as a sign that you are now ready to support the younger generation with your wisdom. But worry I do, because I live in a striving society and one of the things we’re striving for is beauty and continued youth.

But when I read about people wanting to pick and choose the positive things about traditional cultures and impose them on ours, I can’t help but think that they’re going about it all wrong.

What we want from those cultures is something that is sitting right in front of us, waiting for us to recognize it: We want our kids to be happy, grow up healthy with strong friendships and family bonds, and live meaningful lives. But we don’t have to deny the fundamental good aspects of our culture in order to achieve those goals.

From Fiji to California

Here’s what I take away from that Fijian grandmother: I am aware that helicopter parenting can be damaging to kids, and I try not to do it. But when I’m not paying direct attention to my kids, I’m not (usually) sitting in front of the TV with my feet up. My kids see me striving, they see me taking part in our Maker culture, they see me taking part in discussions with friends and family about what it means to be a citizen of our modern world and how to be a good parent within our context.

And when my kids aren’t hanging out outside (which is important!), they are also taking part in our striving culture, hopefully getting the best of it while learning to resist its negative influences.

Healthy parenting, in our culture, requires that we build on our successes, while at the same time try to improve how we’re parenting in order to do better.

It’s a tall order, but that’s life in a striving culture. If you’d rather your children grow up to be happy consumers, best you hope that some of the rest of us are raising our children to be strivers. Those are the people who are going to cure ebola, slow global warming, and yes, create new and better entertainment options for when we’re grandmas and we want to spend (some of) our time with our feet up!

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

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