Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Discomforts of Diverse Childrearing Styles

In my novel Grand River and Joy, two of the main characters--Harry and Curtis--discuss their differences regarding child rearing. A few readers commented on this (thank you Alesia, Deborah, Caryn), and I was very pleased that they did, as this was a thread that felt important to me. Of course, every novel has so many threads. Even if people notice them, they don't always get around to commenting. 
     At any rate, in the novel Harry is Jewish, and Curtis is black. (I know the photo above is of a mother and child, so it doesn't quite fit with Harry and Curtis and their parenting styles, but the photo has the feel that I wanted, so I'm going with it.) Harry views Curtis's parenting style as too strict, while Curtis views Harry's as too indulgent. Harry tells Curtis he should encourage his son more, be more loving. Curtis tells Harry that he should teach his daughters a little more civility. In my mind, differences in parenting style flow from socioeconomic and cultural differences, and this is supported by research in the field of child development--something I know because of my other life as an editor of numerous child development books. But it makes sense. Though not a wealthy man, Harry has far more resources than Curtis does, and can afford to be more indulgent. Curtis, the marginally employed father of a teen-aged son, knows there's little room for error, that his son Alvin has the deck stacked significantly against him. 
     I mention all this because the other night, we had friends over for dinner, and one of them mentioned this aspect of my book. Then she told a story. When her child was in first or second grade, she used to go into his class once a week to help with math stations. She and her son are white, and one day he came over to her to ask if he could do something. She said that they'd talk about it later or that it depended on whether he could finish doing something she had asked him to do. An African-American boy who was sitting nearby overheard, and said, "Why are white parents always negotiating with their kids?" Even at age 6 or 7, he noticed the difference. 
     When my friend finished telling this story, the rest of us in the room shouted in unison, "Because we're white." We'd each had a couple of drinks, so we were laughing, and "Because we're white" might not be the most precise research-based, clinically accurate answer available, but it seemed to do the job at that point. For those of you who don't know me well, I do want to point out that the laughter was in part laughter of embarrassment.


Etta Worthington said...

Religious differences might figure into child rearing differences. For example, I grew up in the household of a fundamentalist Christian preacher. We were not allowed to question our parents. But MORE importantly, we were not allowed to question God. If one was raised with a God that one could question, one could spar with--perhaps then too the parents could be questioned.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks for stopping by, Etta. That's a good point, and one I hadn't thought about. Did you want to question your parents sometimes? How did you hold yourself back? As a child, you likely erred from time to time. Children (and people in general) do that. Were your parents hard on you if you questioned them?

Etta said...

It was unacceptable to question them. As one did not question God. In fact I think I got mother and God confused when I was young.

Susan Messer said...

Ah. Interesting. But you have a different kind of relationship with your daughter--more open. And you also have a different view of God, I suppose, than your parents had. So change is possible. Whether for better or worse, I'm not sure I can say.