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One of the things that child-rearing has taught H. and myself is that parenting is the new mystical Belief System in Many Flavors. Like the old belief systems still causing wars around the planet, Parenting Choices (PC) are not really suitable dinner conversation.

Those whose children are older don’t fight with each other about these issues, but put a wild-eyed First-Time Parent at the table, all hopped up on hormones, sleep deprivation and a bookshelf of contradictory advice and you’re guaranteed a sectarian conflict. The first-timers can’t keep their matches away from the conversational gasoline.

Best case scenario with a First Time Parent at the table is you’re going to lose half an hour to a food fight among the adults. That is, a fight about food–when to give solids, how long to breastfeed, using formula, which formula, blah, blah, blah. And what to an outsider might appear to be just an animated conversation is actually high-stakes moral combat. Reputations are going to be ruined. Friendships destroyed. “You gave him solids starting when?”

And food is just the beginning. Committed parents have beliefs with Great and Unshakeable Moral Authority about sleeping, diapering, speaking, playing, music, other caregivers, potty training, and early learning. Have a little boy? Wait ’til somebody wants to talk about circumcision over an otherwise charming lunch. (Think I’m making this up? I was that guy.)

Seriously. The big parenting cohort that a parent or couple begins with, say a local moms’ group, birth class, or the like–the choices of the first year or so whittle that huge bunch into a congeries of warring cliques based on compatibility of belief systems: Moms with Formula and Cloth Diapers but No Solid Foods; Dads who Co-Sleep and De-frost Breast-milk, etc.

Later, truces will be declared based on choices about day care and pre-schools, but certain parents will remember your Belief System for Infants years later even while sitting on the same pre-school boards: “I remember him from the parents’ group: they gave little Sophie turkey at six months!” “She thought they’d let Hector decide whether to get circumcised when he was a teenager!”

Einstein had parents, therefore?
Occasionally, you have pre-existing friends who have children at about the same time as you. This is somewhat different. With your birth class and mom’s group, it’s okay to throw people socially overboard for making One Wrong Choice. There are plenty more brand-new acquaintances where they came from.

But with your existing friends you have to ride out their Incredibly Bad Parenting without comment. And they have to do the same with your lousy choices.  You wouldn’t rush into your friend’s house of worship and start howling “Idolater!” or “It’s just a wafer!”

But being parents, and having little time for anything except perhaps a guilty hour with Top Chef, and if you are incredibly selfish, an occasional visit to the gym, you have nothing else to talk about anyway. You are driven, absolutely compelled to discuss all the Forbidden Topics and Mysteries of your particular Parenting Religion, even with your friends with whom you have Irreconcilable Differences.

This leads inevitably to recriminations between couples and late-night anxieties, while one’s own Nearly Perfect Child naps on your vomit-stained shoulder.

Take our friends, the parents of A., who fortunately for us would probably more or less belong to our parenting clique anyway. (Thereby averting much strain on a twenty-year friendship.) But since our child is a couple of months older, we are always trying not to say, “oh, wait until [amazing next phase]” or “you absolutely must try [mandatory new belief system to which all Right Thinking Parents subscribe].”

But because we believe in using our child as a developmental-activities crash test dummy, we are always fooling around with “early learning” toys and programs.

You may not have heard of this particular one–it’s more popular in Europe–but we confessed to our friends that we’d ordered a copy of one of the more experimental early introductions to hyper-competition, YOUR CHILD CAN PLAY CHESS AT SIX MONTHS! (or something like that).

Our feelings were mixed, but if our Uniquely Gifted Child wanted to master the intricacies of opening with the queen’s pawn, we wanted to support him in that ambition.

So we shared this particular decision with our mostly parenting-compatible Friends of Many Decades, sparking anxiety and the following email:

Year 1
Emile finishes Remembrance of Things Past
A. can’t stop eating dirt

Year 10
Emile accepted early admission to Yale
A. continues toilet training

Year 20
Emile retires from a successful career as software inventor
A. pokes a dead animal with a sharp stick
reprinted with the permission of Friends of Many Decades

This of course triggered our own mixed feelings about the possible trauma of even one experimental exposure to YOUR CHILD CAN PLAY CHESS AT SIX MONTHS, and Chagrined Spouse sent the following response:

Year 1
A. plants a vegetable garden
Emile screams “you are poopy” to checkout boy

Year 10
A. wins architecture prize for green design house on back of property
Emile smokes weed and plays guitar behind convenience store across from school

Year 20
A. is elected mayor of home town, wins “best place to live”
Emile playing in garage band in parents garage

I’m sure this seems like small beans to those of you who actually have teenagers. (Hint: if you do have teens at home, absolutely do NOT read the twin Bay area memoirs by the Sheffs, father and son, about the son’s methamphetamine addiction, no matter how many times you pass the books at Starbucks or hear about them on NPR.)

I hear parenting is a lifelong journey–like recovery–in which you get over the idea that the choices of parents Absolutely Determine a child’s Prospects for Future Happiness and Success.

I’m definitely going to work on relaxing about parenting later today. When I have a minute.

First I have to go talk to Emile, who’s just pushed his king’s bishop to queen’s knight six.

In our next installment: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagoyevich survives impeachment by quoting Tennyson, thereby confirming all of the conclusions of the MLA/Teagle report, “Reading Books Certified as Literary Masterpieces by College Presidents and State Legislators Has Both Scientific and Magical Benefits Superior to Reading Absolutely Anything Else.” In other news, Eliot Spitzer issues a statement apologizing for not quoting Henry James more often during his governorship.



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