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Revolt of the snack mom

Snack.

Just one little word, but it was enough to jolt me up at 4 a.m. and send me racing to the kitchen in a cold sweat. I had forgotten -- how could I have forgotten? -- that I had volunteered to bring snack food for 30 children to my daughter’s preschool at 8:30 a.m. And not just any snack food. It had to consist of fruit and/or vegetable plus protein and/or complex carbohydrate and be prepared in individual, child-sized servings.

Frantic, I searched the cupboards. Pasta, cereal -- who was I kidding?

Bad parent.

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It’s a feeling I suspect most parents -- particularly mothers -- get a lot these days.

Having kids is the simplest biological imperative there is. But, somehow, we let “having kids” get turned into “parenting,” which is more or less a full-time job, with logistical challenges that would bring a CEO to his knees.

Modern parenting is wildly labor-intensive from Day 1. Modern babies, we’re told, won’t even sleep unless their parents camp out on the floor and stagger up blearily to provide reassurance every few hours. Then there’s the infant feeding mantra “breast is best,” which requires someone-who-just-happens-to-be-female to be physically attached either to a baby or to a milk-pumping machine every couple of hours for, oh . . . a year or so per child. Hey, no problem! It’s not like you wanted to get any work done, right, ladies?

From there, we move smoothly (or not) to infant swim classes and play groups (miss those crucial early skills-building opportunities and your child may never catch up). Then there’s preschool and the making of complex snacks and lunches. Next, there’s soccer and ballet and tutoring and the endless chauffeuring of children to activities, a process that pretty much eliminates parental free time on the weekends, in addition to eliminating children’s time for free, unstructured play.

But this doesn’t matter because modern parenting also mandates nonstop paranoia, which means that a good parent must never, ever permit children to play freely and without adult supervision anyway. Leave children alone and they might drown in a half-full bucket of water, find and eat a poisonous plant, get hit by a car or wander off with the neighborhood pedophile. So you have to drive them to school and accompany them to the playground, and . . . and . . . and. ...

All this, of course, is insane.

We know it too. Just ask any of the exhausted parents hovering limply around their third soccer game of the weekend.

Intensive parenting is a relatively recent American invention, and the evidence suggests that it’s not one of our better contributions to humanity. That mad swirl of activities? You get burned-out kids incapable of entertaining themselves. That homework you and your first-grader struggle through? It has zero educational benefit. That superhuman effort you make to protect your kids from every conceivable danger? It’s not necessarily helpful if it means they never learn how to evaluate dangers for themselves. Someday, our kids will have to function without us.

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And, um, how about us grown-ups?

It’s not a coincidence that the emergence of the modern ideology of intensive parenting directly tracks the large-scale entry of women -- especially mothers -- into the workplace. In 1975, 39% of women with children under 6 worked. By 2000, 65.3% of them did.

Decades ago, when most mothers didn’t work outside the home, there was far less cultural anxiety about child development, safety and “parenting skills.” Stay-at-home moms of the 1960s cheerfully sent the kids outside for hours of unsupervised neighborhood play while they did housework (or maybe just had a stiff drink). Only when large numbers of mothers did the unthinkable -- found paid work -- did Americans suddenly “discover” that truly effective “parenting” requires at least one adult to be focused 24/7 on the children and their “needs.” Surprise!

Of course, it’s virtually impossible for parents to hold down two full-time paying jobs and also manage the full-time job of modern intensive parenting. Something has to give -- and much of the time, it’s still the woman’s free time, or even her career, that goes. Since 2000, more women with young children have begun to give up on the workplace, reversing the 20th century’s trend. By 2004, the percentage of women with children under 6 who worked was down to 62.2%.

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What to do? In the long run, the workplace needs to be more flexible to accommodate parents -- both women and men -- who value the making of families as well as the making of money. But that will take decades.

In the short run, we can all do our bit to restore sanity -- to change “parenting” back into “having kids.” Intensive parenting? Resist it! It’s not so hard. Cut the soccer. Tell the kids to go out to play for a little while. And, of course . . . just say no to snack.

--

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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