Ten Parenting Lessons I Learned from Franz Kafka

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


January 26, 2014

Ten Parenting Lessons I Learned from Franz Kafka

Here’s an adage which I think is true: every theory of parenting is implicitly a theory of society. It follows that even if you aren’t a parent now, nor ever intend to be one, if you’re interested in society and culture, you ought to be interested in the topic because the problems that we parents face (or believe we face) is a pretty good gauge for what’s happening in society in general.

Hanna Rosin writes about mindful parenting, a new parenting trend inspired by Buddhist meditation that is supposed to make parents calmer, more present, grounded and in the moment, less reactive, stressed and distracted and so on. She asks whether this is just another impossible standard for parents to live up to—thus the title of the article: “Crap I forgot to be mindful again.”

Carla Naumburg, who writes a mindful parenting blog for PsychCentral, vehemently disagrees with Rosin’s take, but in trying to explain what it’s really all about, ends up confirming it! She describes two mini case studies for mindful parenting from her own experience, and both are variants of the same problem: her kids did something, and she almost freaked out and yelled at them, but thanks to mindfulness, she was able to keep her emotions in check and handle the situation differently, with more compassion and understanding, etc.

It should be obvious that Naumburg is essentially talking about how mindfulness is a tool that stops her from doing all these “bad parent” behaviors and helps her become the “good parent” that she wants to be, so for her, it’s a kind of internal monitoring or self-surveillance technique to keep the bad parent at bay. In an interview on the SlateRadio podcast Mom and Dad Are Fighting, makes a revealing comment in response to the interviewer who essentially repeats Rosin’s point:

Just because something’s hard doesn’t mean we should say, ‘Ugh, I’m too tired, I don’t want another thing on my list, screw it, I’m not going to do it.’ If that were the case, I would just stop exercising, stop trying to eat healthy, all these things, and just say, ‘It’s too hard I’m not going to do it.’

The implication is that mindfulness is a discipline, and questioning whether our standards are too high is simply laziness. This really doesn’t lend much credence to Naumburg’s claim that Rosin simply doesn’t understand what mindfulness is all about.

As anyone who has tried to meditate will tell you, it’s incredibly difficult, and can even be painful. Advocates of mindful parenting ask us to “just be in the moment,” as if it is that simple. The reality is that being “in the moment” creates more problems that it solves. In Naumburg’s scenarios, when her children misbehave, her gut reaction is to respond to strongly, with anger. The practice of mindfulness asks her to simply notice this emotion, observe it dispassionately, allowing it to well up inside her and then fall, without investing in it. After that has passed, she might then notice the anger is really covering up another emotion, perhaps a feeling of fear that her children’s behavior means she is a bad mother. Behind the fear, she might find feelings of isolation, or resentment against her husband or her family, or sadness, despair. She might find that her anger is triggered in these situations because her child’s behavior evokes a half-buried memory of a situation where she felt unfairly treated.

It’s easy to say “just stay present.” Actually doing it can be like opening a Pandora’s box of negativity, and like the Greek myth, the last thing out of the box is often something positive, but one would be wise to open it cautiously. Mindfulness is usually sold as a cure-all with no side effects, an all purpose stress reliever that will improve psychological health and well-being. The reality that things can get worse before they get better doesn’t make it into the advertising.

Another reality that often goes unmentioned is that unless you are meditating for an hour each day, your chances of achieving a genuinely mindful state of mind are slim to none. And what busy, stressed-out parent has time for that? Mindful parenting bloggers are aware of this problem, so they advise simpler measures, like spending less time on your laptop and phone, going for a 3 minute walk in the morning and remembering to take deep breaths.

These bloggers promise parents big changes in their lives and then proposing interventions that are simply inadequate. They often draw on psychology studies that show the efficacy of programs like Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction to show how effective it can be, but these are fairly rigorous programs that expect participants to meditate daily for 8 weeks at minimum before they can expect to see any real changes.

Mindful parenting bloggers propose what they believe are simpler measures, like remembering to stay present when you get angry with your child. But the fact is that beginning meditators often have difficulty staying present for more than 10 seconds at a time, and that’s in ideal conditions of sitting comfortably in a quiet, darkened room with their eyes closed just paying attention to their breathing. The supposedly simple ways of that parents can integrate mindfulness in their daily lives are actually some of the most challenging situations imaginable.

These bloggers really are setting up parents to fail, expecting them to be able to radically alter their mental functioning in extremely trying circumstances but failing to mention (or maybe they’re not aware) that this isn’t reasonable without months and years of daily practice. Instead, parents are supposed to maintain a state of mindfulness through sheer mental effort, so it’s no wonder that Hanna Rosin finds this all a bit perverse. Isn’t meditation supposed to be a stress reliever?

It certainly doesn’t sound that way. Mindful parenting authors treat it more like a technique of strenuously monitoring your thoughts and behaviors so that you can restrain the bad ones while downplaying the need to actually practice meditation. This understanding sounds suspiciously close to cognitive behavioral therapy, an approach to psychotherapy which has tried to incorporate mindfulness. For most meditation teachers, the focus is on regular practice, and mindfulness in daily life is something that emerges out of that spontaneously.

Stress is a big problem for parents today, especially for working mothers who have to be responsive to their employer’s expectations while still feeling primary responsibility for maintaining their homes and being good mothers to their children, a definition that has changed over time. The importance of parental involvement in schools has steadily grown since the 1960s as one of the key factors that influence children’s educational outcomes, and the standards for emotional availability has also increased. In the first half of the 20th century, parenting was dominated by a harsh behaviorism that prescribed rigid feeding and sleeping schedules and taught that children learn independence when parents ignore their emotional needs. Some experts even warned of the dangers of excessive “mother love” and advised parents to avoid hugging and kissing their children.

These ideas fell out of fashion with Dr. Spock’s bestselling book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care first published in 1946 which proposed an idea that was radical for its time: that parents to show love to their children. The Spock tradition of parenting, influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, hasn’t completely supplanted the earlier behaviorist approaches. The disagreement shows up in today’s debates about sleep training: when infants wake up at night, should parents allow them to “cry it out” until they fall back to sleep, or should they rock them back to sleep or perhaps even let them co-sleep in the parental bed?

Parenting practices vary and the debate continues to rage, but the advocates of the latter approach tend to have the moral high ground owing from the fact that they begin from a moral premise that’s widely held today, that emotionally responsive parenting is best.

For many parents, the demands of the earlier behaviorist models are still in effect even though they acknowledge the moral importance of close emotional connections emphasized by the Spock tradition. What happened to parents over the last 50 years resembles what happened to women: women gained access to the world of work and career and the expectations for success without being relieved of the duties (or relinquishing the pleasures) of family and home life. The demands of your job just got added on to your other responsibilities instead of replacing them.

Parents feel similar pressure to adhere to the earlier behaviorist injunctions in addition to newer moral demands for emotional closeness with their children, which undoubtably contributes to the stress that many commentators like Hanna Rosin worry about and who normally think about the problem as one of more and higher standards.

This is only part of the problem. For women, it is at least possible in principle (although probably very difficult) to do it all. But parents face a curious condition of feeling pressure to live up to standards which are logically incompatible with each other. One cannot be both a Freudian and a behaviorist at the same time because one excludes the other, and yet parents nonetheless feel obliged to live up to both sets of standards.

Parents grapple with not just two different ways of dealing with infant sleep problems, but many incompatible moral claims that bear on every choice you face, believing that all must be satisfied and feeling judged for the inevitable failure.

This phenomenon is behind the plea to “end the mommy wars,” a campaign on parenting blogs to fight against this excess of impossible standards and calling for judgment-free motherhood. One community created a photo series of pairs of mothers holding up cards indicating a parenting choice while showing a friendly and non-judgmental attitude towards the other who has made an opposing choice.

The explicit message of this series is the following:

You make the choices best for you, I’ll make the choices best for me, and while our choices will often times differ, let’s choose to love one another instead of critique. Can you imagine how beautiful the world would be if we all adopted this compassionate attitude?

It sounds nice, but what if we read the photos from the perspective of a soon-to-be parent for whom every photo is an as-yet-unresolved choice? Natural home birth or c-section? Extended breastfeeding or formula? Go back to work or stay at home? Religious or secular upbringing? Co-sleeping or sleeping alone? Cry-it-out or not? Organic food or fast food? Disposable or cloth diapers? Public school or home school? Limited or unlimited TV?

There are a proliferation of choices to be made. What’s more, there is no clear method for adjudicating among their various underlying moral claims. The End the Mommy Wars campaign tries to adopt a kind of multicultural approach to the problem, welcoming the diversity of parenting approaches and giving everyone its stamp of approval, but this solution undermines itself.

When framed as personal decisions, it follows that our different parenting choices are not generated from substantial pre-existing identities or communities—if they were, the problem of feeling judged wouldn’t exist at all. I may have a very different parenting philosophy compared with, say, a traditional Muslim household, but I don’t feel guilty about that. If someone were to ask me why I don’t follow a particular Muslim parenting practice, the answer would simply be that I’m not a Muslim.

Likewise, I may strongly disagree with certain Muslim parenting practices, but it would actually be quite hard for me to convince a Muslim parent that they are wrong because I wouldn’t know where to begin. Our fundamental commitments are so far apart, it would be very difficult to find a common principle on which to ground a critique.

It makes sense to cope with incommensurable differences by adopting a philosophy of live and let live. The Mommy Wars cannot be resolved this way because as we’ve seen, the world that parents exist in today is not something akin to families of various religious faiths trying to coexist together. To extend the religious analogy, it is more like a pluralistic society of many parenting religions—attachment parenting, behaviorism, neoprimitivism, free range parenting, mindful parenting, concerted cultivation, and so on—which make incompatible claims but nonetheless one recognizes a duty to be a member in good standing of all of them.

This is effectively what we are left with when people tell parents things like “There’s really no one right way,” which tries to introduce some freedom and flexibility, but has a perverse outcome of producing the opposite of the intended effect. The phrase “all ways of parenting are good” has a strange double meaning. The first says that a given parenting philosophy is valid for the family that chooses it, and not necessarily for anyone else. But there’s a second hidden meaning that emerges in the practice of that principle, which is the implacable pressure that one must adhere to all parenting philosophies because they are all good.

So the End the Mommy Wars campaign misdiagnoses the problem. It sees the problem as too much judgment, when in fact the problem is not enough: the inability of parents to make judgments about what philosophy they believe is true, and to reject all others that they believe are false. When it comes to parenting philosophies, this well-meaning ecumenism misses what it aims at, for everyone to be able to pursue their version of the truth. Instead, it creates madness and suffocates parents under a regime of unrelenting demands they can’t possibly meet.