Sunday, November 09, 2014

What is "liberal" parenting?

Miss Self-Important brings our attention to an egregious example of parental overshare, but of the variant where the parent’s the one who comes across as looking ridiculous. It's a piece about so-called liberal parenting, although I'm having trouble sorting out what that is, seeing as today's coastal elite liberal types are supposedly helicopter parents, while the let-the-kids-be sorts are the throwbacks. Liberal parenting has been in the news, what with the National Review accusing Lena Dunham’s parents of child abuse through excessive liberalism. But let’s turn instead to some historical examples of liberal parenting. Not 17th century pamphlet. 20th-century sitcom:

Two examples come to mind immediately. The first – in the order of coming to mind, not chronologically – is 1990s Britcom “Absolutely Fabulous.” Has there ever been a more liberal parent than Edina Monsoon? But she ends up with a daughter like Saffy. Saffy’s not politically conservative – if anything, she’s a better leftist than Edina, calling out her mother’s various rich-hippie hypocrisies – but she’s super-serious, sensible, buttoned-up. It’s precisely because Edina’s useless in that area that Saffy figured out, at a young age, how to deal with all that's practical. A typical Saffy move will be explaining to Edina, whose alimony's being cut off, how to buy milk at a supermarket. (Edina would have otherwise had it delivered from an upscale department store, which is apparently a thing that can be done in England.)

Next up is the more subtle pairing of Phyllis and Bess on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Phyllis’s thing is that she’s a liberal-and-liberated woman. She has a Master’s degree and myriad artistic and philanthropic involvements. She’s also a housewife, on a show that centers around a woman with a high-powered career. When Phyllis, Rhoda, and Mary are together, Phyllis’s progressive credentials are a kind of running joke. Because it’s the 1970s, Phyllis is into a kind of liberal parenting that seems very… 1970s. She has Bess call her “Phyllis,” and has a deeply-researched parenting philosophy, complete with many books she in one early episode heaves at Mary, who’s babysitting.

Bess's upbringing is in some respects really jarring today. When the time comes for a birds-and-bees discussion, poor Bess comes to Mary and explains that while Phyllis had told her about sex, she didn’t say anything about love. This is a problem because Bess’s boyfriend (she and – presumably – the off-screen boyfriend are 10 or 11 at the time) says he loves her, and she’s afraid that saying she loves him back will mean she has to sleep with him. Mary, who’s the mix of horrified and amused that the audience is meant to be (and might have been in the 1970s; I had trouble getting past horrified.)

There’s also the great episode where Rhoda’s mother - under the influence of Phyllis - suddenly tries out liberal parenting… on a 30ish Rhoda. She decides she's going to be Rhoda's "friend," and announces she's not wearing a bra. Rhoda is aghast.

In any case, Bess, like Saffy, has a good head on her shoulders. She’s not uptight like Saffy (she laughs at Rhoda’s jokes, and plays poker with Mr. Grant), but is several notches more reasonable than Phyllis. The Phyllis-Bess dynamic is a less farcical version of the Edina-Saffy one, but is overall the same idea. The major difference is that Phyllis's liberal parenting is of the hyperinvolved variety. Phyllis has time on her hands, and turns Bess into a project (see the episode where she decides that Bess should write a book, and sits down to write it herself). Edina, meanwhile, is off being a libertine and leaves Saffy to her own devices.

But I'm left wondering: What’s the relationship between liberal parenting and liberal politics? It seems at best a really limited one. Here, we might turn to a different (and far inferior) sitcom, “Family Ties,” where the ex-hippie parents have to contend with their Reagan-loving kid, played by Michael J. Fox (not to mention the mall-and-boy-crazy Mallory). The parents – and perhaps it’s key that in this case, there are two of them (Phyllis is married to the eternally offscreen Lars) – do impose rules. The Michael J. Fox character’s conservatism is a rebellion against his parents’ politics, but not their parenting.

But more to the point, as Heather Havrilesky, Emily Matchar, and others keep pointing out, the new supermom fixation on feeding kids home-farmed everything isn't really one way or the other, politically. Those who embrace it tend to see themselves as being on the left (anti-corporate, etc.), but are also rejecting the basic tenets of what it means to be a feminist, namely the need for a woman to be able to support herself financially, and to have an identity that isn't just relational. "Liberal" parenting today is neither a) permissive, nor b) feminist. And sitcoms have turned my brain into too much mush to sort that paradox out.


Britta said...

My grandmother was a socialist and far to the left of most Americans on social issues, and she parented like a cross between Nietzsche and the Tiger Mom.

My parents parented politically and morally, mainly that as leftist Christians and strict deontologists, they taught us that we weren't any more special than anyone else, and that our race and class backgrounds didn't make us inherently more deserving than any other child. They backed this up, both through extensive good works helping out disadvantaged kids and by making sure we were exposed to the rough and tumble world of working class childhood. I had play dates in kindergarten in the worst neighborhoods in my city, where I roamed around with packs of older kids, and played in lots of parking lots of low rent apartments. My parents had the attitude that "if it's acceptable for any kid, then it's acceptable for you." Lots of people seem to feel that blonde girls in particular are delicate flowers that could be abducted at any moment, and I remember people being horrified that they'd let their kids play unsupervised in bad areas of town, but they were like, "if it's so unsafe, then no one should play there, but if you're ok with black kids, or immigrant kids playing there, why not white middle class blonde girls?"

Moebius Stripper said...

Oy. I'm cringing on behalf of the liberal mom, who's drawing conclusions among liberal politics, permissive parenting, and kids testing boundaries, on the basis of...a sample of herself? On the flip side of Britta's grandmother is my brother, an Orthodox rabbi who's as socially and politically conservative as such types generally are. But he's a loving dad who's very attentive to his children's emotional needs, yet not a permissive one - he has plenty of firm rules (including a few antiquated ones, like 'no hats at the dinner table'). He doesn't spank, but does send the toddlers for time-outs when they misbehave.

Guess what? The 3- and 4-year-olds still try to see what they can get away with. Because that's what kids do, regardless of who their parents voted for.

Moebius Stripper said...

argh. *drawing _connections_ among.