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The parent problem 

I grew up down the street from a terrible human being. That's the only way I know to put it. Let's call him Mike. When we were 8 years old, Mike ran up behind me and smacked me across the back of the head with a sawed-off broomstick for no reason. When we were 10, I watched him hold a 7-year-old girl's head under water until we had to stop him. At 12, he stole my bike, took it apart, and sold the parts.

The story doesn't end any better. Mike remained violent and thieving into adulthood, until his family disowned him and he wound up in prison.

Right before my daughter was born, I couldn't stop thinking about this guy. He haunted me. Mike came from a home with two loving parents and compassionate siblings. He wanted for nothing. When he got into trouble early on, his family was there to discipline but support him. And yet Mike turned out to be a total shit. His depravity, seemingly, couldn't be helped.

I'm reminded of an article by David Dobbs in The Atlantic a year ago called "The Science of Success." It establishes a distinction between "dandelion children" and "orchid children," saying that some of us have genes that provide us the ability to take root and survive anywhere while others make us fragile and fickle, yet with the potential to thrive spectacularly with the right care. In other words, "... children who suffer most from bad environments also profit the most from good ones."

The problem, of course, comes in determining what the "right care" is. After all, nature is only part (Half? More? Less? Who knows really?) of the equation. This month's Atlantic cover article is called "How the Cult of Self-Esteem Is Ruining our Kids." The basic gist is that our parents have raised (and we risk raising) a generation of unhappy adults because we were all coddled and never given boundaries as children. In other words, our "helicopter parents" hovered over us to such a degree, endorsed and encouraged all we did (no matter how lame or failing it may've been), and protected us from pain and unhappiness so much as children, that they deprived us of happiness as adults.

As a parent, your first response is, "So we should go back to neglect? Not protect them from harm? Call them 'failures' when they founder? ...That's easy, but isn't that what made our parents the way they are in the first place?" Of course that's not what the article is prescribing. As a matter of fact, the author is smart enough to know that she can't be any more prescriptive than to say, "Set more limits. Let your children experience and process their pain. Prepare your kids to leave you everyday."

I think about that kid Mike and I wonder what toxic combination of nature/nurture dealt him his fate. I admit that I don't really know what went on within the walls of that house. I also have no idea if he suffered from some sort of risk allele that made him particularly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

But my daughter strikes me as being uncommonly sensitive, which leaves me, as it does any parent, in abject fear that I might push her too hard or not enough, encourage her too much or too little or make her grow up too fast or never at all.

The cliche about science is that it generally provides just enough information to leave us more bewildered than when we started. I usually challenge this position, but in this case I have to agree.

To paraphrase Dobbs, have my little girl's genes bestowed her sturdy ground or a slippery foundation? Am I providing her a springboard for success or a trap door?

I have no idea. And it keeps me up at night.

So, we're left going by feeling. It feels right when I give my daughter boundaries; it doesn't when I let her run rampant. It feels right when I hug her after she falls; it doesn't when I swoop in and try to prevent her from ever hurting. It feels right when I praise her for something she draws; it doesn't when I try to urge her into a hobby to make up for my failures. For now, at least, maybe that feeling is enough. Maybe it doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.

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