In the run-up to Mother's Day, we have been predictably inundated with stories of women who give up everything to make things easier for their children. There's Clueless actor Alicia Silverstone, who chews her child's food and spits it into his mouth, as though he's a baby bird. Then there was the woman who was on the cover of Time, shown breast-feeding a child who looks old enough to chew barbequed ribs. Most of the rest of the stories are less provocative, extolling women who gave up such selfish pursuits as a career and adult personal life to cater to her children.
Me, I called my mother on Mother's Day and thanked her for not being quite so easy on me. Or more to the point, I thanked her for doing her job as a parent.
Listen at the park or mall, and you'll hear parents tell their children they are "special," that they are prettier, smarter and just better than other children. My mother's common refrain to us kids when we were growing up was, "The world does not revolve around you." Kids nowadays are told, "If you can dream it, you can do it." My mother told me that no matter what I did in life, there was always going to be someone who was better at it than I was. Young adults now often assume they will move back in with their parents after college. My mother made it clear to me throughout my childhood that she expected I would be living on my own after I graduated—not living alone in a fancy apartment my parents paid for, but in a group house where we argued over who drank who's milk, and who was slacking off on taking out the garbage.
Perhaps my mother's comments sound, in retrospect, a little harsh to some. But she was doing what may be the hardest part of parenting: preparing me for the real world.
Now, some of the standards my parents had are a little unrealistic today. I was able to put myself through college through low-interest loans, financial aid, a small scholarship, and part-time work. That's just not possible today, with the 3 percent interest loans no longer available, college tuition through the roof, and a dismal job market for graduates. And it's understandable that parents would have a natural inclination to make things easier for their children.
Mothers in particular are rewarded for this sort of hyper-parenting. Father's Day honors men who go out and earn a living for their families. Mothers are celebrated for sacrifice, sublimating every personal and professional ambition they have to give to their children. In return, the mothers are taken to brunch once a year.
But parents are doing no favors to young people by not letting them grow up, or by not pushing them to grow up. Silverstone might remember that while mother birds masticate their babies' foods before placing it in their mouths, the adult birds eventually push the babies out of the nest. This is not only best for the offspring, it's better for the rest of us. Immature young adults do not prosper in the workplace. At a recent job recruitment event, I spied a young woman (in flip-flops) standing idly while her mother tried to negotiate with a potential employer (I doubt she got a call-back). And many of us have observed young adults who are so unused to criticism, they cry or fall apart when demands are made on them at work.
When I called my mother to thank her for parenting, she said, "I knew one of the most important things was to teach you kids how to fail." And all of us, at some point, have endured failures or disappointments, but we pulled ourselves together and made things work another way. Being a little tough on kids sometimes is itself a sacrifice. It's easier and more fun to be a cheerleader than to be a developing kid's reality check. But that's what it means to be a good parent. And I thank my mom for that.