Future Tense

How Not to Optimize Parenthood

A man and two children wearing kaleidoscope glasses eat at a table.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Brigid Schulte, the director of New America’s Better Life Lab and author of Overwhelmed, responds to Joey Siara’s “The Last of the Goggled Barskys.”

Most parents are well-intentioned. We try to do the right thing, hoping to spare our children at least a measure of the pain or heartache we muddled through, to smooth the rough edges of life and give them every advantage to make it in an uncertain and often cruel world.

That’s at least the hope. In practice, no one really knows how to do that. So, particularly in America, where “winning” and the self-improvement dictate to “beat yesterday” are akin to sacred commandments, we have always turned to the experts for help. What does the science say? What are the neighbors doing? What book or podcast or shiny gadget will instantly make my child’s life easier? More joyful? Miraculous? And, perhaps most importantly, better than your kid’s?

We American parents never seem to learn. The results are rarely what we intend. And sometimes come at a great cost.

That’s the perilous terrain Joey Siara explores in “The Last of the Goggled Barksys,” his short story about a family navigating daily life in a future without wars or conflict, a future where human perfectibility seems within reach largely because everyone goes through life with high-tech Goggles firmly fixed to their faces. The Goggles filter the range of decisions one can make in order to optimize personal satisfaction, giving the user a prediction, on a scale of 1-10, of how well a certain decision will turn out, from the most mundane of things (selecting what to have for breakfast) to the potentially life changing (whether to ask someone on a date).

While the Goggles are for everyone, they are particularly useful in optimizing childhood.
The Barksy children, thanks to Goggle programming, not only learned to crawl, walk, read, and play the violin enviably early; they also speak Mandarin and Spanish and have mastered three programming languages. And they’re 7 and 11 years old. “Plus, Goggles are always improving and updating,” their mother gushes. “Imagine how brilliant our grandchildren will be.”

This American drive for achievement, optimal productivity and peak human experience is familiar, relentless, exhausting. Yet, despite these well-intentioned efforts, children—and adults—in America are decidedly unhappier, more anxious and live sicker, shorter lives compared to the children and adults in many other countries. And though there is certainly abundant material wealth, it is controlled by few. The United States doesn’t even make the top 20 countries for social mobility. And, let’s face it, it’s the fear that our children will wind up on the wrong side of this social-inequality equation that drives so much of the quest for optimizing their childhoods captured in Siara’s story.

Sharon Hays, a sociologist who wrote the classic The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, describes modern American parenting as “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive and financially expensive.” Today, the latest iteration of American parenting in the overwrought middle and upper middle classes has been derisively dubbed “helicopter parenting” for the constant hovering, “overinvolved parenting” for lining up endless enriching lessons, camps and tutors, command and control “overbearing parenting” that winds up stunting emotional growth, and “snow plough parenting” for those who body block all obstacles, perceived and real, in their child’s path to success. Sociologist Annette Lareau calls it “concerted cultivation,” as if every child were a precious, fragile hot house flower in need of constant care and attention. Add technology to the mix—particularly the screen time now so necessary and ubiquitous in the global pandemic—and intensive parenting is nothing if not a class signifier of social status.

Parents with lesser means practice what Lareau calls “natural growth” parenting, giving children more room to roam, explore, make mistakes, and learn. In another era we might have simply called it “parenting.” These parents don’t have the means to pay for expensive lessons and camps. And while they may have more time than hyperbusy middle class families, it’s often unpredictable and disorganized through no fault of their own: At big box retail stores, restaurants and other hourly retail and service companies,  workers are often at the mercy of algorithms designed to minimize labor costs, which spit out weekly chaotic schedules on a few days’ notice.

On top of that, the pandemic has laid bare the stark digital divide that ensures that the children of well-heeled families like the Barksys have high-speed, seamless streaming connection, while the rest struggle to find a cheap hotspot in order to log on to their third grade class on Zoom. Siara makes no mention in his future world whether the coveted Goggles are widely available, or wildly expensive status markers and another signifier of the growing gulf between haves and have-nots in America.

The parenting imperative of American Exceptionalism—relying on experts in order to be exceptional parents raising exceptional children—has a long history. Granville Stanley Hall, the founder of child psychology, famously wrote in 1899 “We need less sentimentality and more spanking.” He dismissed fairy tales and the wonder of childhood as “all that rot” that “must go.” Luther Emmett Holt, one of the founders of pediatrics, counseled against too much playing with babies. Screaming, he said, was the way babies exercised. Around the time of the First World War, experts warned against parents who were too emotional, saying they shouldn’t “smother” children and instead adhere to strict rules and schedules.

That impersonal era was followed by a more permissive trend in the 1930s, only to boomerang back in the 1940s with a best-selling book, A Generation of Vipers, that warned too much mother love would infantilize children. Experts of the 1950s extolled self-sacrificing and indulgent mothers like those seen on TV. Then came the era of “benign neglect” in the 1960s—when I was growing up—when kids were let loose and told to come home when the streetlights turned on. (And sometimes we didn’t.)

Dr. Spock told parents to trust their own instincts. But instead, we’ve had decades of new fads, new theories, and new experts: attachment parenting, freerange parenting, tiger mothering, dolphin parenting, wolf fathering. And we’re all obsessed with not just keeping up with the Joneses, but beating them. “I just always feel there’s somebody doing it better,” one parent lamented to me as I was reporting my book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

That’s so much of what Siara’s story contends with: what to choose when we are confronted with an array of competing experts. How can we know which course is the “best”? How do we choose the “right” path? We all know, at heart, that there is no one right way to do anything in life. But that uncertainty is deeply discomfiting. And, just as we seek to give our children an easier go at childhood, it is also so much easier for us parents to rely on experts to tell us what to do, or, as the Barksys, to cede responsibility for the hard and often fraught work of raising complicated human beings to the dictates of personalized algorithms and “choice architecture” generated by Goggles.

That choice architecture, behavioral science has shown, can work wonders to help us predictably irrational human beings make decisions in the moment that will lead to better outcomes in the future—like putting fruits and vegetables instead of brownies at eye-level in the refrigerator, or opting everyone into a company 401(k) plan rather than handing out complicated material that usually gets shoved into a drawer and forgotten and waiting for people to sign up. (The latter approach has increased 401(k) savings by about $30 billion in recent years and netted behavioral economist Richard Thaler a Nobel Prize.)

But unlike choosing a diet or retirement savings plan, there is no simple construction that can guide parents to raise children who will learn, grow, love, experience loss and grief, fail, pick themselves up and start over, again and again and again and, one hopes, ultimately live meaningful lives.

That’s a lesson the Barksys—or more specifically, their preteen son, Hayden—learn the hard way. Worried that their optimized children have become boring, that they no longer feel life as deeply as they once did in their younger, messier pre-Goggle days, the Barksy parents introduce chaos into the system. Their fear feels very much of the present moment, as scores of researchers worry over how parents’ constant use of personal devices is disrupting their children’s growth, and how screen time and a life enmeshed in TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and other virtual realities are beginning to inhibit children’s ability to do the things that make us most human: feel, empathize and read the emotions of other humans.

It is perhaps fitting then, that at the end of the story, the Barksy family, save one, has removed their optimizing Goggles. Raw and shaken, aware, finally, that they are and can only ever be adrift in a messy and uncertain world, they instinctively do what children need most in order to grow and what humans need most in order to survive. They find their way back to each other.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.