Friday, November 04, 2005

Is Saying No to Kids a Failure, or a Necessary Discipline?

The Los Angeles Times had a well-done story yesterday, “The Mommy Shift Begins When the Nanny Shift Ends,” by Anna Gorman. It compares the lives of two married mothers living in different parts of Los Angeles. The difference is that Stacey, an upper-middle class mother of four, hires Margoth, an immigrant from El Salvador with three of her own, to help care for Stacey’s children for most of the day. At six, Margoth can go home to her own kids, and begin her second shift of momming.

Stacey is hugely appreciative of Margoth – Stacey doesn’t like the term “nanny,” and refers to Margoth as a “co-parent.” Margoth is happy with her work, except that it takes her so much from her own children. Stacey does not have a job, but needs the help so she can cope, and so she can have some free time of her own.

This is a good and interesting story. I suspect that one of the reasons that it is a “most emailed” story on the Times’ list is for its implicit critique of inequality. I do not see it that way; Margoth and her husband, also an immigrant, are making it in America by hard work, in the time-tested manner of immigrants. In two generations, their descendents will be hiring help, too. Maybe even in one generation. I don’t think Stacey is selfish for hiring another mom to leave her children to care for Stacey’s, so Stacey can have a life outside the home. Stacey is creating a job, and bucking the trend of too-small families.

What interested me, instead, was this line: “Stacey says she reserves the word ‘no’ for big things. Margoth says she doesn't hesitate to tell her children no.”

Stacey and her husband provide everything for their children. They provide material things, have arranged for Stacey to be home with her children, and, at considerable expense compared to their income, have Margoth to “co-parent” for their kids. For Stacey’s family, being able to provide everything for their kids is one of the greatest measures of their success in life – perhaps the greatest. Stacey’s husband was not interviewed for the article, but I expect he would say that that is what he works so hard and long for. From that perspective, if Stacey ever has to say no to her children, it feels like a failure. Unless the kids actually want to do something dangerous, they should be free from constraint to realize their desires. That is what money is for.

To Margoth, though, children need discipline to learn how to control themselves and avoid temptation. Her children can recite the litany their mother tells them all the time: “Do your homework. Stay out of trouble. Keep away from gangs.” For Margoth, saying no to her children is a gift – the gift of the habit of discipline.

The top and bottom classes differ significantly in how the best parents – like Stacey and Margoth – raise their children. This was the same difference that Adrie Kusserow wrote about in American Individualisms. Part of this difference is due to the different dangers that kids in different classes face. Stacey’s kids are not likely to be tempted by gangs, which is one of the reasons that Margoth says that if she won the lottery, she would move her family to Stacey’s neighborhood. She would lose her network of friends and relatives, but she would also lose the many threats to her kids that poor neighborhoods have.

But different threats is only part of the reason that the classes discipline kids differently. Margoth’s kids need a deep self-discipline and a work ethic like their mother’s to rise in class and status. Stacey’s kids were born already in a comfortable class and status. They have the resources to do just about whatever they want. What Stacey wants for her kids is that they have the internal freedom to take advantage of their external, material freedom.

With each strength, though, comes a complementary weakness. If Margoth’s kids learn to be disciplined, hard-working, and self-sacrificing for their families, they run the risk of being stingy, judgmental, and hard-hearted toward others without the same discipline. If Stacey’s kids learn to be free, risk-taking, and self-asserting, they run the risk of being undisciplined, self-destructive, and arrogant.

Here, though, I think the parallel ends. The bad things that Margoth’s kids might learn from hearing “no” regularly are far outweighed by the good that can come to them and to society from learning discipline and work. The bad things that Stacey’s kids risk from never being told “no,” on the other hand, are very bad indeed, for themselves and for society. Disciplined working class kids build the nation; undisciplined owning class kids tear the nation down.

Just say “no.”


S.C. said...

I had an interesting experience in the school system growing up. I spent K-8 in a very free, encouraging environment at a school which, quite literally, had no walls between classrooms. I often attribute my creativity to my schooling there.

For high school, I chose a catholic high school, and that's where the real discipline kicked in. I really believe that, for me, this was the best of both worlds, learning how to reconcile discipline with "thinking outside of the box."

I mention this because I see a connection with the different styles of parenting you discuss. I've often wondered if the *true* value of a two-parent household is that, ideally, children receive both freedom and discipline in a fairly non-confusing way.

Good Cop / Bad Cop, as it were.

Just a thought...

Gruntled said...

I agree. Diana Baumrind gave us a useful typology a generation ago looking at parents who are demanding, responsive, neither, or both. The last, authoritative, is the best. It is so much easier to do if two parents, though backing one another up, can divide the roles a bit.

Anonymous said...

i agree with this piece as well. my parents are the margoths, not necessarily from a financial standpoint, but from a simple "no" standpoint. i did not always get what i wanted growing up, whether it was an expensive toy or unnecessary new clothes or being able to stay out late on a weeknight in high school.

and i appreciate it to no end.

i enjoy working for the things i have. i am glad my parents taught me that i had to respect boundaries, and had to pay my dues to get into the adult world of choices. i feel much more independent than most of my peers, though i am sometimes annoyed at the people i see around me who are still completely reliant on parents (and parents' credit cards), showered with gifts and material things constantly. i think parents who see such importance in money see "providing for" their children as one of the best ways to express their love for the children, which is obviously dangerous.

has it somehow become a sign of status to give children everything and allow them to do anything, without teaching the "no"s? it's as if telling a child "no" is equated to the inability to provide, when in fact it provides the best kind of love for children-- the ability to make it on their own, and be thankful for what they have.

Gruntled said...

There is another reason that rich, educated parents don't want to say no to their children: the parents want to be equal to their children, not in power over them. Many people learn from their college education an egalitarianism so rigid that it even undermines parents' belief that their children need them to act like parents. This is part of what struck Adrie Kusserow about the difference between the working class and highly schooled upper-middle class parents that she studied and worked for. The English aristocratic class, which many American rich people try to emulate, avoid being authoritative with their children by hiring nannies, and then sending their children to boarding school at eight. This displaces the burden of discipline on to others. In my opinion, this is hyperegalitarianism is a foolish practice, and parents who avoid being authorities to their children abrogate their deepest duty.