How Not To F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad (and Why You Should Relax About Parenting)
Author and journalist Stephen Marche explores the challenges of modern childrearing.
June 4, 2018
From whether yelling is the new spanking to how screentime is turning your child into a terror, it seems parenting advice is lurking around every corner these days. For his new Audible Original, How Not to F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad,author and journalist Stephen Marche logged thousands of miles of travel and many, many hours of research to challenge conventional wisdom around modern childrearing. What he found is truly enlightening, and often counterintuitive. He sat down with Audible editor Courtney Reimer to discuss what it's like to be a parent today -- and why it's high time we got a handbook for how to be a good father.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Courtney Reimer: Let's talk a little bit about how this came to be, and how you as a parent, what you brought to this, and why you wanted to do it.
Stephen Marche: I felt there wasn't a huge amount of room out there for men specifically to talk about being fathers. Almost all the parenting books are for mothers, and of course the mothering books are like, "You're going to fuck up your children. You should be terribly worried about this." And I really hated those books. I remember having this moment where my wife exclusively breastfed our first child, and it was a huge struggle, and it was like a war to get it to happen. And then you drop your kids off the first day of kindergarten, and you're like: can you really tell the kids who are breastfed from the ones who aren't? Not really. You can tell the kids who are loved from the kids who aren't loved. That you can tell. All these things that we invest so much in: how much do they really matter? Because the other thing is, there's no A/B testing in all of these theories. It's not like they take one group of kids and do this, and then do a double-blind test. We're all just people trying to figure out how to deal with other people. I wanted a chance to look at what actually mattered in being a father, what actually mattered about being a parent, rather than "Let's Have a Panic of the Day."
CR: I'm going to kind of go through each of the topics in How Not To F* Up Your Kids Too Bad. Like helicopter parenting. I noticed one of the comments the producer on this made was, "There are fewer car crashes and kids getting hit by cars now, and is it because we've become helicopter parents?" What is your perspective on that?
SM: We're in the safest time ever to be a kid. All kinds of violence against children has been in sharp decline for decades. It's not just car things. It's violence, it's being beaten up at school, it's emotional. All that stuff is in radical decline, including accidental deaths, so literally from the 1930s to now there's been a tenfold decrease in child mortality. Huge. Just an amazing achievement. But at the same time, we're just completely panicky about it. We're panicking about our children all the time, and this anxiety, it's not consequence-free. It leads to emotional traumas.
Where I'm from, in Canada, 50% of high school students recently announced that they have anxiety disorders. Anxiety is this huge problem among our children, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we're so worried about them all the time. You know, it's funny. We deal with pot, and we deal with fear, and we deal with risk, and basically the expert opinion is: don't really worry about much except cars. Smoking pot: there are risks, and there are problems, and there are certain terrible things that can happen with edibles and so on, and there are serious things to worry about. What you should really worry about is combining this with a car and your kid, because that's when things get out of control. That's when people die, and that's when people get injured. So, worry about the cars.
CR: One of the things that you said stood out to me, which is, "I would rather give my son a car than a phone."
SM: Phones are a very specific set of worries. The research on phones is very new. We really don't know a lot about what they're doing to all of us, never mind our children. And, you know, I fully get the anxiety about phones. I have those same anxieties. I don't really worry about what my kid will receive through the phone so much as I worry about what he'll do with the phone, and all the things that he could do with the phone because it is the new locus of power in our lives. It is how we move through the world. I mean, I'm here in the Audible offices visiting. Negotiating New York City with a phone is maybe a thousand times easier than it was without a phone.
But talking to the experts, there are certain things to worry about. What you really should worry about is how you use your phone, particularly around your kids. Because when you're on your phone all the time, your kids feel abandoned, and you're also teaching them that the phone matters more than they do, and that the phone matters more than anything else in the world. That's a horrible lesson.
So, maybe don't worry about your kids and the phone. Worry about you and your phone.
CR: It goes back to the age-old "Do as I say, not as I do," kind of thing.
SM: Your kids learn by example, right? Modeling. That's the technical term for it. You model behavior for your children, and that's what they learn from. That's why yelling doesn't work.
CR: I listened to the yelling episode right after I had had a pretty epic yelling match with my kids, and I thought, "Oh, shit. I've just spanked them."
CR: So, has that [study about yelling being akin to spanking] been overstated?
SM: I don't feel in a position to judge people, and I certainly wouldn't judge people for yelling at their kids. We have all been there. Forgive yourself. But, I think one of the things you realize about yelling when you look at it really rationally is: it doesn't work. You want your kid to hang up his coat when he comes home from school every day. He doesn't, you get mad, you yell at him, but the coat doesn't get hung up the next day. It's not like, oh, suddenly I got angry, the child processed my anger, changed his behavior, and then we lived in a healthier household. That's not how this works. Actually what happens is, your kid just heard that yelling and screaming was a way to communicate feelings, processed that as a modeled behavior that he or she could take on, and then completely forgot about hanging up the coat. So, there are techniques for getting out of that.
I think particularly for men where anger can often be a problem, learning how to calm yourself, learning how to plan for misbehavior rather than reacting can be very liberating.
And again, it's one of these things about changing your own feelings rather than trying to change your child. And there are techniques. That [chapter in How Not to F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad] on yelling really is, like, here's a toolbox for: "You don't have to yell at your kid. Here's what you can do instead that will be much more effective."
CR: And I know as a parent, even though I'm not a dad, I have to say, a lot of this is relevant to me as a mother.
SM: Right. Yeah, that's true. It's focused on fatherhood, but I think a lot of this does apply [to parenthood in general].
CR: So, I just wanted to say "Hey, ladies, you can listen to it, too." But what I wondered is, I know the expert you spoke to said something like: address it after the fact because [yelling] probably will happen, and apologize. Do you buy that? Do you think that once you've done it the damage is done, or do you think there's value in actually showing your kid you recognize you did something you shouldn't have?
SM: I think of course you should apologize to your kid. Because what you're saying there is that you're a person. First of all, you're saying, "I made a mistake," and it's okay to acknowledge that mistake. That's important modeling behavior right there: teaching them that human beings make mistakes, and you don't throw yourself out because you've made a mistake. That's really important. I don't think showing vulnerability is ever a mistake. I really believe that.
CR: I think the other buzzword you hear all the time is: phones are damaging your children, yelling is damaging them but screens are the real force for evil today.
CR: So, you talked about a toolkit for yelling. Do you feel like there's a toolkit for screens?
SM: We talked to the guy who does the big amount of research on it. The problem is, the advice, it's so counterintuitive, but it's so interesting because you think about how much screen time you should make kids have. This is the question. And then you beat yourself up, and then it's like, "Oh, that parent's a better parent than I am because they only let their kids have screen time on the weekend, like the Obamas." And we're all in this little competitive fury to be the best parent. Well, when you talk to the Media Matters people who study the effects of screens on children, they're like, "Well, there's not really a lot of evidence about screen time usage and childhood development."
Where there is a lot of evidence: if your child isn't doing certain things, that can harm their development. So, if screen time is impinging on reading, if screen time is impinging on physical play, if screen time is impinging on social activities and socialization, then you have a problem. But the way we look at this is skewed. What you should actually ask yourself is: "Is my child doing everything in their day that they need to develop as a reasonable human being?" Are they talking to people, are they reading, are they playing, are they being physical, are they exercising, and if they are, then whether they have an hour of screen time, or a half hour, or an hour and a half really doesn't matter. It really doesn't make any difference. What matters is, what are they doing?
CR: Yeah. One of the techniques I've employed, if I can pretend to be the expert here for a minute, is almost like those swaps that sometimes people do on diets. Like, "I exercised for an hour, so now I've bought myself a dessert."
CR: And so, my husband and I will be like, "Well, they ran around for six hours today, so let's put them in front of the TV for an hour."
SM: Exactly. That's right. To me it's always the traveling case. You're going to end up traveling with your kids. Are you really not going to give them an iPad?
CR: Let's talk about racism in children's books and other topics that have become outmoded. For example, I found a book that's called The Belly Book. I found it at my mother-in-law's. And it's all about: "Don't be fat. Fat is the worst thing you can be." So, I found myself in the moment having to read around this stuff.
SM: Well, you shouldn't. I think we all have this moment where we're like, "Wow, the stuff we remember from our childhood is really, really racist, and it's not stuff that you know is racist, like Little Black Sambo, or Huckleberry Finnor things like that. It's like, oh, my parents read to me The Five Chinese Fishermen. It's a deeply, deeply racist book. So how do you deal with this? What's the correct way to deal with this?
The natural reaction is cut it. That was certainly my reaction. Or try to find diverse books. Certainly there are tons of them out there in this environment. But, we had a really interesting conversation with the woman who's now the president of the National Society for the Teachers of English, who's an African-American woman who did her PhD on reception of Huckleberry Finn, so a real expert on this question, and she had the opposite tactic which is: by cutting this stuff, you're essentially presenting a world to your children where racism doesn't exist, it doesn't need to be confronted, in fact, you're just pushing it to the side. But by reading it, by telling them about it, by explaining it to them, by having a conversation with them about it, then you're showing them this is a part of the world, this is a very real thing, and this is something that we all have to deal with. I really found that quite moving.
You have this instinct to protect your children, but you shouldn't protect them from the world as it is.
If you're reading books to your children, you're educating them. Well, educate them even if it's really super-uncomfortable for you. You should do that.
CR: You're saying this to me, and I'm thinking: I read these books to my kids, it's 8:30, they should have been in bed an hour ago, and I'm thinking, "Great. Now I have to explain racism to them."
SM: Yeah. At 8:30. Well, you know, you could mention it, and then you could talk about it at breakfast the next morning, maybe. I totally get that, though. One of the things about [How Not To F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad] is, I really think we are making a very strong effort not to judge anyone. That's part of what's terrible about contemporary parenthood is that it's become this kind of intramural competitive league sport, and that's not what it's like. It's not good for the children, it's not good for us, and it doesn't make any sense, and for it to be this status-y kind of thing is really... We all know we're all messed up anyway, right? It's not like this is news to anyone.
And we all know that parenting is really an imperfect process, so why not just take that as the presumption, work from that as the beginning, rather than: "Here's how to be perfect."
CR: You mentioned the competitive parenting thing, and last night I was walking with my kids down the street, and I wasn't holding their hand, and I knew neighborhood parents were driving by going, "Shit. She's not looking after her kid," and this spoke to the free-range parenting thing. Where do you fall on that, or in researching this, where have you ended up?
SM: I would just say that what we're worried about is not what we should worry about, right? We're worried about stranger danger, we're worried about our kids being taken by strangers off the street. When my son walked home one day when he was sick from school - that's four blocks in Toronto, in arguably the safest neighborhood in the world - he was stopped by three neighbors who were all worried about where he was.
Stranger danger is like being hit by lightning. It's rarer than being hit by lightning, it's a negligible anxiety. It is a fear of something. It's fear of the boogieman.
Driving cars, however, is something to be worried about.
But, you know, just to give an example, we do talk to the guy from Vancouver who used to send his five children on the subway from his apartment to their school but was stopped by the government because he was considered to be abandoning his children. Now, it's much more dangerous, objectively, statistically, for him to drive them around in a car than for them to go on the bus, but that doesn't matter because the actual question is not, what's safest for the kids? The actual question is, what can we blame people for?
Like the case of this African-American woman in North Carolina who was working a job and had her kids playing in the local park. You start to see the effects of this [attitude towards free-range parenting]. There are political consequences to this. There are serious consequences for how we divide people up into fit parents and unfit parents with real legal repercussions, and that's why Utah has actually passed a free-range parenting law. It had to do that for exactly these cases because we operate under this societal anxiety where it's all about "the safety of the children," but actually it's more about what we can blame people for and how we want to blame parents for what we consider unacceptable behavior, and those are separate things. They're very separate things.
CR: So, obviously this is kind of meta because [How Not to F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad] is about parenting, and we're talking about how we should be easier on people, and yet there are lessons provided here. And this is kind of my circuitous way of getting to the porn thing.
CR: And one thing I was really struck by was the, "let them figure it out on their own" approach.
SM: Yes. Close the door. That was the advice.
CR: Which ...
SM: So hard to do.
CR: So, that was from one of the people you talked to. Do you agree with that advice?
SM: I'm just trying to present the best advice. I don't follow some of this advice myself. I'm just as messed up as the next parent, and struggling just as much as the next person. There's a lot of anxiety about what porn is doing to young men. When you talk to the leading experts on this stuff, people who've done the research, people who've strapped the sensors to people's bodies, they're like, "Well, we don't really see any difference." And based on sexual assault rates and things like this, there's almost no evidence of any change whatsoever brought on by porn.
So, how do you talk to your kids about this? We did talk to this amazing dad, former porn star, quit pornography in 1984 when his wife said, "Well, I think one of us should be alive for the children, don't you?" and he was just an amazing guy, and he said, "The most important thing you can do for your children is close the door." And I think that's very interesting advice, you know?
CR: At what age do you close the door?
SM: I actually think that's a broader problem that we face with adventure parenting and free-range parenting: contemporary parents being told not to do something is almost unbearable to them. If you tell us, here's a 27-step program that you can get your kid into X school and that'll get them into Harvard 15 years later, that we can do. Give us some program. But actually being told, step back, let things happen on their own, I certainly find it a lot harder. And the adventure playground we went to on Governors Island, the problem is not the kids - this is where kids play with saws, and hammers, and build things -and they don't have any supervision. There's no supervisors at all.
CR: And there's nails everywhere.
SM: There's nails everywhere, and it looks dangerous. It looks like Mad Max. The problem they have is not the kids. The problem they have is getting the parents not to watch because the whole point of this is the parents are not overseeing it, so then, the beautiful thing is that the parents all go to a nearby hill where they can then watch the playground from a height without being involved. That's as far as they can go.
But they've all brought their kids to this place to leave them alone. It's not like they brought them here not knowing what it was. They brought them here to leave them, but even those parents find it so hard to do.
CR: One of the consistent themes here is: let them figure it out, don't stress out, and don't over-parent. Would you let your kids listen to this [How Not To F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad]?
SM: Oh, yeah. I don't think I would mind that at all. They're in a lot of it.
CR: Even the porn parts?
SM: Sure. I wouldn't have a problem with that. I'm very open about all those sorts of things. My kid has a phone. He probably is exposed to more things than I could conceivably imagine at his age. You can bubble-wrap childhood, but you can't really bubble-wrap adulthood, and especially now where it's coming at us. My son is growing up around Donald Trump. What is he going to learn from this that he hasn't learned from the President?
CR: So, I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old, and you talk about modeling the behavior with phones, and I'm clearly on mine all the time around them, and I think they're starting to notice it.
SM: They're not starting. They feed on it. They feed it.
CR: They do. And so, I thought the age that kids get their phones is, like, 14, but your son has friends who are 10 that have them?
SM: When he got a phone at 12, he was the last of his friends to get a phone.
SM: My producer just got a phone for his kid at seven. I, personally, think that's crazy, but some of the rationale for getting a kid a phone when you're 12 was pretty interesting. Unlike screen time where there's been a lot of research on this, and people have been working on this for 50, 60 years, advanced government studies, huge amounts of money. The phones, it's so new, we don't really know what the consequences of all this stuff is, and also, what is a phone, right? What parts of it? Is social media, is that what we're talking about, or are we talking about interactivity? It's so much more complicated than a lot of the other topics we're talking about.
But the advice that I ended up following was that, basically, if you give your kid a phone at 12, you have a period where you can control and shape their phone behavior. If you give it to them when they're 16, it's just theirs.
CR: They're more impressionable younger, which is a good and a bad thing, right?
SM: Well, you have some time. I can look at my son's phone any time I want, right? I can see everything that he's doing on it, I can give him rules around the phone that he will either break or obey, and so he knows that there are rules around the phone. So, that was the rationale that I used, but it's super-complicated. It's genuinely maybe the most complicated issue in [How Not to F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad] because a lot of the time there's really solid research. There is really solid research on pornography, there is really solid research on pot. It's not enormous, but it's really solid. With phones, it's so hard to know what you're talking about.
CR: And I imagine it just requires more work on the part of the parent to make sure they don't have just garbage apps on their phone.
SM: And the consequences of these things are so hard to fathom. Like, I did give my kid a phone, and he's on Instagram, which is the purpose of having a phone if you're 12, right? That's how they communicate.
CR: Oh, really.
SM: Email is like some antique. It's like telegraphs, basically, or telegrams at this point. They DM each other and visually talk to each other. And sometimes they livestream in groups on Instagram, and then the etiquette around Instagram, which is a whole separate other thing, it is really complicated. Now, just to give an example of what the consequences of this are: this winter we went to Belize with the family. Great family vacation. He took photos, he posted them on Instagram, and then his friends liked it, and I was like, well, not all of his friends have enough money to go on family trips to Belize. Like, are we creating this kind of, like, class thing within his school class? Are we creating this status objectification quite accidentally? But he wasn't posting it to show off or anything like that. But on the other hand, who knows how people would react to these things. It's so complicated, right? It's just so infinitely complicated.
CR: And maybe I misheard, but earlier I think you said something about bullying happening less, but I feel like what you keep hearing is that phones and all of this social media makes it easier for kids to bully each other.
SM: Bullying on tech is very real, it's a very real phenomenon, but, do you remember what school was like for us? I went to a British boarding school for a year, and I had to fight physically every day of that year.
CR: Oh, my God.
SM: Right? It's not like bullying was invented when the phone came out. You know, the British invented bullying a long time ago and got really, really good it. And I think we have this kind of nostalgia that we forget this stuff. And it's like everything bad happened with technology. Well no, actually, there was a lot of terrible stuff before then, too.
CR: If you had a crystal ball, and you were looking in the future, how do you think we would judge our parenting now?
SM: It always looks ridiculous in hindsight, like every fad always looks ridiculous in hindsight.
Just the same way that our clothes will look ridiculous in hindsight and our haircuts will look ridiculous in hindsight, I think we'll wonder why the hell we were so anxious and why this became such a status-obsessed activity.
But then again, that's part of the trend of general life, where social media contributes to that, too. A lot of things contribute to it. I think we will see it as -- we already do see it, in a way - as ridiculous, right? We described helicopter parenting. Well, that is how most people parent now, this incredibly constricted - most people in the middle class, I should say - highly attentive, highly detailed way that is kind of oppressive. And yeah, I think we already know that what we're doing is kind of silly.
CR: And yet, hopefully, things like this and maybe some of the other parenting books, etc. out there are a step towards putting a microscope on ourselves and realizing that. And maybe being better.
SM: Maybe. It's so hard to step back, though. It's this spiral of socialization where you actually have to be willing to be judged by other people as a bad parent, and that's hard. That's really hard. It takes a particular kind of mindset to be able to do that.
CR: So is [How Not To F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad] for bad parents or good parents?
SM: There are no good parents. There are only bad parents. The premise of the [How Not To F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad] is, everyone is a fuck-up as a parent, right? And if you're not, you're just not paying attention, right? And so that's a given. We're all vulnerable. That is kind of the beautiful thing that you share with other parents when you are a parent. You know how vulnerable you are, and anyway, my judgementalness of others, if that's the word I'm looking for, just went down so much when I became a parent because we're all just out there trying to do our best in situations we don't really understand. I think we're all in that boat. We're all in that same boat.