The XX Factor

Why the Child-Free Should Quit Criticizing Parents

Don’t overthink parenting, says Frank Bruni helpfully, or you could ruin your child’s life.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

One of my frequently broken writing resolutions is to stop responding to obvious troll bait. But New York Times columnist Frank Bruni goaded me into pushing back to his piece, “A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn.” He hits all the frequent criticisms lobbed at today’s yuppie parenting class: We’re too permissive; too obsessed with being loved; we lard on praise and never discipline; and finally, we think way too much about this parenting thing. You see, in his day, there were no iPhones, and parents didn’t need a million parenting blogs to tell them what to do, and everyone turned out just fine.

First, let’s dispense with the fact that the child-free Bruni spends 75 percent of his allotted column space telling parents they’re doing everything wrong and it’s ruining children, and turns around and spends the last quarter of his column completely contradicting himself. He tells parents what they do doesn’t matter anyway, because kids are going to turn out who they were meant to be whether you let them watch TV or not, whether you yell at them or overpraise.

But beyond that, let me answer his question about why parents today behave “as if ushering kids into adulthood were some newfangled sorcery dependent on a slew of child-rearing books and a bevy of child-rearing blogs.” It’s because there are more outlets than ever before for people to tell us that every misstep is messing up our children, and if we don’t do everything perfectly they’re going to end up jobless meth heads with technology surgically attached to their palms.

You only need to look back at Bruni’s own publication—the New York Times—from a week before his column ran to see the kinds of pressures today’s parents are dealing with. It’s an article called “Your Phone vs. Your Heart,” which tells moms and dads that if they use their smartphones too much, their kids won’t be able to emotionally connect with others. To wit:

New parents may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions—like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child—leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.

See, exhausted new mom? If you selfishly send just a single text message while breast-feeding (of course, breast-feeding) your baby, you are damaging little Cletus more than bad genes ever could. But as Times reader Mary Phillips notes in a letter to the editor, breast-feeding moms are taught to not maintain eye contact because it’s distracting for a child. “I become frustrated when [my son’s] future ability to connect with others is called into question because I text someone during a feeding session instead of staring at a wall in a dark room for 30 minutes straight.”

When moms and dads are getting the message that staring at a wall in the dark is the only way to save your kid from damage, of course they’re going to be a little neurotic and confused about how to do right by their children. Frank Bruni probably knows all this. But expressing this kind of empathy doesn’t get you on the Times most emailed list.