Frankenstein: A Cautionary Tale for Parents and Teachers

| September 13, 2010

When I was little, my mom often bought me a small toy when we went to the grocery store.  But I soon learned to associate going to the store with getting something I wanted, and during one tragic visit when I was about two years old, I fell in love with a plastic blow-up Easter bunny.  Mom refused to buy it for me, and I channeled my sense of loss into screams of anguish. She had to do something, and while her heart lurched in her chest, she spanked me for the first time and sternly told me to sit down in the shopping cart and behave myself.  In turn, I slapped her across the face.  Stunned, mom accepted her role as Dr. Frankenstein in this scenario, and she knew her only choice was to subdue the monster.  There were no more grocery-store treats for a very, very long time, but then again, I didn’t demand them, either.

Although I was too young to remember this story on my own, I am familiar with the narrative now because my mom loved to tell it when I was older.  I know that in the moment, my defiance and presumption pained her because she felt responsible for my bad behavior.  But long after the shock of my precociousness faded, her burden of guilt was a mere footnote, and mom focused on the humor in the situation.

I recalled this story about my mom when I read Jennifer Senior’s recent feature in New York Magazine.  Senior points to many studies that document the unhappiness of today’s parents.  She explains:

Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines. Perhaps the most oft-cited datum comes from a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist, who surveyed 909 working Texas women and found that child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities. (Among the endeavors they preferred: preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.) This result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction. The economist Andrew Oswald, who’s compared tens of thousands of Britons with children to those without, is at least inclined to view his data in a more positive light: “The broad message is not that children make you less happy; it’s just that children don’t make you more happy.” That is, he tells me, unless you have more than one. “Then the studies show a more negative impact.”

Senior lists some reasons for parents’ dissatisfaction.  She says, for instance, that parents face an abundance of choices in childrearing, and that their later-in-life parenthood leaves them missing their days of independence and spontaneity.  In other words, their mind is drawn to what they are missing rather than remaining rooted in the long-term rewards of parenthood.  In addition, they count and measure the achievements of childhood: number of private lessons, number of hours of “quality time,” number of words learned, etc. Nothing is ever enough.  If we draw from education to describe this, we might say it’s a deficit model of parenting, meaning that parents torment themselves about what they don’t do for their children or what they personally have lost in accepting this new role.

Before I say more, I have to come clean.  I do not have any children, although I plan to someday.  But as a teacher, I understand the psychological stance involved with deficit thinking.  When teachers (or parents, for that matter) only see what students don’t have, they blind themselves to the richness of the moment, the potential for learning and the possibility for creativity and ingenuity that all children possess.  Many capable, compassionate teachers become trapped in deficit thinking.  They become stuck in the steep, uphill climb of their journeys to perfect test scores, forgetting to savor the triumphs or moments of learning along the way.  Eventually, the well is drained, and the sense of hollowness turns them away from their ideals and ingenuity.  Ironically, sometimes worrying too much about the quantifiable outcomes leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dr. Frankenstein shows us just how powerful our nightmares can be in shaping the futures of the ones we love most. If parenting and teaching are only seen through the veil of deficit, how can we ever hope to push children beyond today’s shared anxieties and sense of impending doom?

If mom hung on to my lamentable behavior instead of pushing past it, she might have encouraged me toward a life of successful shoplifting.  But she believed that our parent-child relationship was rich enough to prevent me from an outcome like that.  As a teacher, I hope to hold on to a richness of possibility in my students’ lives while fostering a sense of fullness in the moments we share.