Which Came First: Technology or Helicopter Parenting, a Guest Post by Jennifer Cowart

Jen Cowart Bio picture 1Jennifer Cowart is a 40-something wife and mother of three daughters. A former elementary educator, she is a freelance journalist, photographer and blogger. She is the winner of three New England Newspaper and Press Association Awards and a Rhode Island Press Association Award. She was a member of the 2014 Listen To Your Mother cast in Providence, RI. In 2012 she, along with her daughter, was the Rhode Island winner of the White House Kids’ State Dinner/Healthy Lunchtime Challenge contest. Her work can be found at www.cranstononline.com and www.thewholebagofchips.com .

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As a new parent, and through the years that have followed, I have found myself feeling cautious about earning a reputation for being a certain type of parent. Maybe it’s just me, and maybe not everyone worries much about being stereotyped, but when you read parenting magazines and blogs, it seems that there is a name and a stigma for every parenting choice and style.

There are people who breastfeed or don’t, people who work or don’t, people who co-sleep or don’t, people who practice attachment parenting (is un-attachment parenting a “thing?”) people who are ‘free-range’ parents, and people who are deemed helicopter parents. I even recently read a criticism of parenting where the writer deemed parenting a “new religion,” and not in a good way. That was a new one for me.

As parents, if we don’t walk a perfect line of balance, we’re either too laid back or too conservative, too nice and wishy-washy, or too strict and mean. You could go crazy reading about them and choosing your stance on each type, but I think ultimately every parent must make choices as to what works for them, their kids, their beliefs, and just go with it.

I’m a particular fan of the saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” and although it makes me smile when I hear it, I really do believe it. You make choices, you live with those choices, and if you’re not happy, or they’re not going the way you imagined, then you adjust and make changes as you see fit. We all have our own monkeys and circuses to worry about, we don’t need to worry about what everyone else is doing. I can worry about trying not to screw up my own kids with my parenting practices, but I can’t worry about whether others will be sending their own kids to therapy down the line with theirs.

That said, I sometimes lose sleep over the helicopter parenting thing. That’s the one I worry about the most. Why? I don’t know, but I do.

Search and rescueLately,I’ve been considering the whole helicopter parenting stigma. I’ve begun to wonder if it’s something that’s been created by the amazing technology we now have, or whether it’s a parenting style that forces technology to keep up with parents’ needs.

So, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

From baby monitors that allow parents to watch their babies sleep, to preschool webcams that allow you to see your children in their classes, to college “Hi Mom!” cams that let you to watch a live web cam of particular spots on college campuses – just in case your child walks by – we can see or be connected to our children anywhere, anytime, by technology, no matter how old they are.

When I think about these advances in technology, I wonder:

Would I have wanted to have that kind of baby monitor for peace of mind? Probably.

Would it have had the potential to make me crazy, watching for anything to happen to my baby through the night? Very possibly.

Would I have wanted to spend my precious 2.5 hours of preschool time sitting at home with my coffee, glued to my computer screen, watching my kids playing at school? Probably not.

Will I be glued to the college webcam screen, hoping for a glimpse of my 18-year-old walking on the quad? I kind of hope not.

Are we able to, or even encouraged to, keep such tabs on our kids beyond our empty nests because of technology? Or, is technology answering what they see as being our needs as over-protective parents?

Which is it?

Monitor, Keyboard, and MouseWe attended a middle school Back to School Night last year, and a similar high school open house this year where we were shown how to access the online parent portal to view our child’s records (absences, grades),  but also to log on and view their assignments – upcoming tests, quizzes, essays, projects. We were strongly encouraged to log on daily to stay abreast of their work and keep on top of that work.

Is it me, or is technology fostering too much helicopter parenting? Is that technology pushing us to do more than we should for our kids? Last year, I was shocked to be so strongly encouraged to check the website daily, and I remember thinking, “Isn’t that the student’s job? I have a job. This isn’t it.” By their second year of middle school, I just assumed we’d put this sort of responsibility on the students – not the parents – and most definitely so by their first year of high school.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Maybe I’m not?

I never logged onto that parent portal during middle school. I actually lost my login information. Twice.

But here’s the thing: I knew when my child was absent, because she was here with me and I was taking care of her. That’s my job as her mother. I knew her grades, because she logged on to the student portal herself constantly to check and share them with me. And if she didn’t, I asked her how things were going and had a conversation. I got a progress report mid-quarter and a report card at the end of the quarter from the school, and saw the grades she’d earned.

Herself.

When she stayed on top of the work.

Herself.

That’s her job as a student.

This technology, some may say, allows us to support them along their educational paths. I could agree, but I wonder, does this technology allow us to override the conversation part of it? Are we able to parent and support our kids better from the screen than in person?

I don’t know the answer. I haven’t decided what I think about all this, but it’s definitely got me wondering.

I love technology; it allows me to work remotely and do a job I love, and stay in touch with people I love, but it also may not give our kids the tools to be responsible for themselves. It might also foster the problems colleges experience with parents unable to cut the apron springs. It might cause parents to get used to being over-connected.

I don’t know.

Do you?

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Customer Disservice 2: Playing God

A few years ago, I wrote a piece called Customer Disservice, talking about everyday annoyances like phone customer service reps hanging up on you, or transferring you to nowhere, leaving you to have to call back, frustrated, multiple times. I also discussed customer service employees texting, chatting, or otherwise engaged when dealing with customers, and wondered when (or if) it would all change.

Little did I know, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Three years later, I realize the problems consumers face are much larger, and much more potentially harmful, than they’ve ever been. In fact, I’d now give my left arm for a customer service person to be simply texting or chatting.

The first issue that sits on my chest like a lead weight is the auto industry. Safety recalls, refusal to issue recalls on equipment that can hurt or even kill you, and too-little-too-late apologies and corrective action taken after several people have died, have left a bad taste in my mouth.

Some companies get called on the carpet very publicly, being brought before Congress and dragged all over the national news. Other companies issue silent recalls, or ‘service bulletins’, that are taken care of swiftly and with little ado inside the walls of a dealership service department. In most cases, the consumer has no idea there’s anything wrong with his car. Why? Because it saves the automaker face and money.

Now, I have to admit, I had high standards before I had kids. I voted with my feet. If I felt a company wasn’t up to par servicewise, I would simply leave and find another place. After I had kids, though, I became every company’s worst nightmare. The slightest whiff of danger sent me into Mama Bear mode, and it still does. Granted, it doesn’t make me the most popular kid on the block, but if that’s what had to happen to keep my family safe, that’s the way it has to be.

One would imagine this strategy would work. You’d go in, explain that you need something, that you brought appropriate currency for an exchange, and it would become so. You’d get that thing.

No dice.

And last night, I caught a 20/20 (I always seem to catch these things) where employees from a large, well-known coffee chain admitted that they basically make their own decisions with regards to what they serve to customers.

English: Caffe Latte

English: Caffe Latte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Overtired and cranky? You might just get decaf. Not a great tipper? How’s about an ‘F U’ written in your steamed milk instead of a heart?

Since when did customer service personnel attain the right to play God with consumers? You walk in, with your own hard-earned money, seeking an exchange for a particular product, and it’s essentially up to the person who waits on you whether or not you receive it. Or up to the mechanic who determines whether or not you ‘know anything about cars’.

I’m not just talking about big coffee chain or auto mechanic here. I’m talking about restaurants (ever hear of the old spitting-in-the-food trick, or the host/hostess telling you there are no tables when there are?), major retailers (uh oh, another security breach!), and fast food places (how many times have you driven away with something you didn’t order, or missing something you did?).

And what will people tell you? “That’s life.” and “You can’t trust anyone.” and “Well, what did you expect?”

So, is that it? Is that life? A consumer who reasonably expects to walk into a place of business and receive their chosen product, is simply not guaranteed that product? That it is up to whoever’s working that day, and their mood, to decide whether/how much you deserve it?

What ever happened to accountability? Do these people have supervisors? And do those supervisors have supervisors? When I worked in customer service, many moons ago (do I sound old yet?), we were secret shopped, we were rated based on our level of customer service, and we sure as hell were not permitted to independently determine how we would treat each individual customer.

I had many a woman pick up drapes, only to find that two were backordered, and they’d been waiting for them for months. Sometimes I got flack, sometimes they expressed their displeasure, sometimes they cancelled their entire orders. But did I go in the back and blow my nose, or wipe my ass, on the available curtains as an act of revenge? I did not. And I would not.

Today, we’ve found insects, rodents, fingers, and bodily fluids in fast food. Hidden cameras reveal employees doing unspeakable things with your food, your cars, and your merchandise, overcharging/falsifying invoices for the very thrill of it, and this is what we’ve come to expect. And it’s sad.

I’d say my customer satisfaction rate, overall, is about 60%. That means that almost half of my customer service transactions are negative. And they can cajole and bribe you into as many customer service surveys as they can jam on a receipt, but have you seen things change for the better? They’ve only gotten worse.

Oftentimes, we do find something better. We will find a store, or restaurant, or auto shop that will treat us well, but how much time, money, and aggravation must we spend to get there?

And why does no one care? I really thought things were getting bad when associates were inattentive. Now, however, it’s a completely different ballgame. You must smile, flatter, tip, not ask for too much, and basically wait and hope you will get what you paid for. You’re on constant alert of being screwed, and you waste way too much time trying, in vain, to obtain the items your family needs.

My daughter quotes an episode of Peppa Pig all the time, where Peppa was pretending to be a princess. She says, “You must bow when you speak to me.” I feel like that’s where the service industry’s got us. On our knees.

The unemployment rate is still high in this country. Why aren’t appropriate people being brought into these positions? Are those people never held accountable for their behavior? Have consumers simply given up?

I don’t know any of these answers, but knew things needed to change three years ago. They really need to change now.

A Word About Vaccines

You may agree with me, or you may respectfully disagree, and, quite honestly, I’m fine with either.

Just a few days ago, I turned to my husband during one of those ‘outbreak of previously extinct illness’ reports on the news and said, very matter-of-factly, “It kind of blows my mind that those who oppose vaccines for their children, received them as children, and turned out just fine.”

Sure, that’s oversimplification, and not incorporating all the facts, and ignoring the outliers. I realize that. But, good or bad, that statement is the basis of my discussion.

When I began graduate school (again, take this how you will), I interned at Planned Parenthood, counseling patients with respect to procedures. Now, before you get your motor running, this is not a discussion of abortion or reproductive rights, either. That, as you will see, is clearly a secondary issue.

Almost twelve years after my internship, I managed only to remember the patient who received a vaccination prior to a vacation, learned she was pregnant, then decided to terminate her pregnancy based on having received that vaccination. She came in well prepared. I’m not sure what she was expecting, because our job was to counsel patients through the process, not into or out of it, but with her she hauled a pile of neatly-stapled internet research to substantiate her decision, research about autism that, after a certain number of years, was found to be false.

That woman stuck with me, because, in my head and heart, I knew vaccines didn’t cause autism. I knew that a disorder of the most recent generations could not possibly be caused by the same medicines that have been given to decades of perfectly typical human beings.

But, as a counselor – or budding counselor, as it were – it was my job to be supportive and non-judgmental while guiding her through her experience. I continued to think of that woman over the years. Would she have had a child without health issues or autism? I don’t know. Was her action even necessary?

I knew back then (around 2002), that we, as a culture, would begin taking issue with the very concept of vaccination. We’d become complacent that the diseases being prevented were permanently eradicated in the developed world, and we were exposing our children needlessly to substances to which they never needed to be exposed. We questioned the side effects, and provided armchair causation for other diseases or illnesses. We protected ourselves with the iron shield of internet research.

And guess what happened?

Mumps virus, negative stained TEM 8758 lores

Mumps virus, negative stained TEM 8758 lores (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These “dead” diseases began creeping back. Measles, mumps, pertussis – highly contagious diseases, the complications of which almost always listed death, started taking hold around the country, and around the world.

And that made me think. Why, when something is not broken in this country, must we always attempt to fix it?

Vaccines were developed to keep children from needlessly dying, to inhibit the presence of sometimes debilitating diseases. Vaccines were a gift from science to us, a gift of life where life was once precarious. If that's not reason enough to vaccinate our children, I don't know what is.

I also find the controversy surrounding the HPV vaccine a bit questionable.The issue of safety, providing our children prevention from the human papillomavirus, which, in some cases, becomes cervical or throat cancer, has become a moral issue, and, for all intents and purposes, it is not. Most people will engage in sexual activity during their lifetime. A vaccine is not an admission ticket to the adult playground, yet parents are holding their children back from receiving the HPV vaccine based its classification as a sexually transmitted disease.

We get our children flu shots, don’t we? Does it matter how the flu is spread? We don’t want our families sick and suffering.

I will end my discussion here, because I was lucky enough to catch this week’s NOVA on PBS, Vaccines – Calling the Shots, and I think they definitely provided a perspective worth hearing. I hope you will watch if you haven’t. If you’re one who harbors doubts about the utility or effectiveness of vaccines, I can nearly guarantee this episode will help alleviate them.

After all, it’s science. And you can’t argue with science.

Does This Loincloth Make Me Look Fat?

A few nights ago, my husband and I were watching Antiques Roadshow (stay with me), looking at giant, hulking pieces of turn-of-the-century furniture, an old box the owner thought was a wine storage box, but turned out to be a sugar cabinet (complete with lock), and pieces of jewelry for which I’d give choice parts of my anatomy.

While we were watching, I absently scrolled through social media, as I sometimes do, and somehow the world of ‘Oops! An entire sleeve of crackers just fell into my mouth!’ and ‘And if you turn the piece over…’ violently collided, and I had a significant revelation: Women, one hundred years ago, probably weren’t overly focused on the size of their asses. 

 

 

 

Lathe operator machining parts for transport p...

Lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, USA (1942). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Women, in factories, during World War II, probably weren't sitting around the break room, going, "Should I have that donut? No, I shouldn't. But I really want that donut. Do you think it would be okay if I had that donut? That donut is giving me the googly eye." And you know why? Because they were busy outfitting their sons and husbands with clothing and ammunition. They were working their gnarly fingers to the bone. They were trying to stay alive.

And then I thought back further, to colonial times. Would they have been scolded for taking two scoops of succotash? NO! Because they cooked it with their own two hands, on a rickety pothook, over an open flame. They could not have possibly been vain, all scurvied up and covered in fifty layers of wool. Plus, they were too busy focusing on the real problem: witches.
A still photo of a Winston advertisement featu...

Looks like Wilma smoked! To stay thin, perhaps? A still photo of a Winston advertisement featuring Fred and Wilma Flintstone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then I thought even further back, to caveman times, and at no point do I recall seeing a cave drawing of a group of caveladies, drinking SkinnyGirl margaritas. And why wouldn’t that cavewoman want a little meat on her bones, what with all the bears, men with clubs, and babies hanging off their shoulders all the time? If I needed to run, I’d want a little momentum behind me. That’s physics, people.

It wasn’t until (and you can chew this irony over in your heads) the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement, in the ’60’s, that women really started becoming obsessed with their figures. Fashion, fashion magazines, and modeling became big business, and women started looking at themselves far more critically than they ever had.

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia became most prevalent in the early seventies. The same women who fought for the right to work, the right to be seen as equal to men, were the ones essentially picking apart their own identities.

Women now have much more time (Thanks, Hot Pockets!) than when they more actively contributed to the machine, when their contributions were (dare I say) more meaningful than bringing Pinterest-inspired cookie bars to the bake sale.

They didn’t have time for self-indulgence, as they were too busy caring for themselves and others, ensuring their community’s survival. Their minds and bodies were active. They had neither the occasion nor the desire to stop long enough to compare themselves to their neighbors.

When women relax today (and it’s not from chopping wood, skinning animals, or plowing fields), the indulgence is a spa day, a pedicure, or a new pair of shoes – all things that somehow affect their outer appearances.

Women constantly receive the message, and here’s the kicker, give the message, that they’re not good enough. Every time a woman puts herself down for eating a cookie, or ‘falling off the wagon’, or buying a box of Fiber One Bars, you know, ‘to stay full’, she reinforces the message that I am not okay the way I am.

It’s an endless loop. I am insecure, therefore I will buy/eat/try something to help me feel less insecure. The companies, who feed off that insecurity, will create another item, which I will utilize when next I feel insecure. I invite you to step out of that loop. When a trail of crumbs leading to the Fountain of Youth, Beauty, Fitness, and Eternal Happiness, is dropped in front of you, you need not follow them.

There are many who depend on this pattern of thinking to survive. They are sharks, waiting patiently to taste a few drops of your blood. If you cease to bleed, the sharks will move on. If you stop throwing the I-feel-terrible-about-myself. I-need-something-to-help-me-feel-younger-or-prettier-or-thinner message out to the universe, the universe will eventually get it. Your peers will get it. Your daughters will get it.

Our foremothers seemed pretty busy sewing American flags, creating the foundation of this country, and holding down the fort. Perhaps the fort’s pretty well secured now, and through the miracles of invention and modern technology, we do have more freedom of mind and body than we’ve ever had.

All I ask is that we stop wasting it, stop publicly broadcasting innocuous-sounding messages that translate as guilt and shame. Stop putting ourselves down. Stop thinking ‘fat’, ‘old’, and ‘ugly’. And stop grasping for interventions to fight them.

At the end of the day, no one’s going to look down at your casket and say, “Wow, she really stayed beautiful, young, and thin until the very day she died! Kudos, abnormally attractive corpse!” They’re going to say, “She was a great mother and friend. The world lost a great person.”

Keep working on being that person.

Drinking the Kool-Aid: What Jonestown, the FLDS, and Michael Brown’s Death All Have in Common

I watched a 20/20, or a Dateline, or one of those shows last week. It was a repeat, about Warren Jeffs, and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and it’s haunted me all week.

Temple of the FLDS in El Dorado, Texas

Temple of the FLDS in El Dorado, Texas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Basically, this religious sect, if I understand it correctly, is a less-forgiving, more rigid model of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as Mormons. They believe in plural marriage, living exclusively amongst others who believe the same,educating their own, staying far away from the world at large, etc…

Long story short, the original leader of this church, Rulan Jeffs, passed away, and the position was quickly assumed by his son, Warren, who assured his followers he was a conduit of God.

Trouble was, he was a criminal and a rapist, sentenced to twenty-plus years for aggravated sexual assault on a minor, i.e., he had convinced his followers that girls as young as twelve they needed to feel the power of God exclusively through his penis, on a ceremonial bed, surrounded by onlookers. The man himself said, “If the world knew what I was doing, they’d hang me from the highest tree.”

The image of that bed stuck with me all week, and what I imagined were the terrified faces of his victims. The thought that an entire community of people were complicit with his devious plot, without question, and still follow this man’s word from prison, really shakes me.

And it also opened up a wider issue, the issue of drinking the Kool-Aid, a reference to the Jonestown massacre, in 1978, where hundreds of people died by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at the behest of their leader, Jim Jones.

Wikipedia, not surprisingly, defines drinking the Kool-Aid as “a figure of speech commonly used in the United States that refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination. It could also refer to knowingly going along with a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure.”

I’m always a just a little bit nervous when I witness a crowd forming. See, in crowds, especially sheltered ones, things can go very wrong. Very literal madmen can take reckless and harmful control over entire groups of people, human rights are violated, and people are destroyed. It’s not a good scene.

The kicker for me is that the children born into these groups, or – let’s call them what they are – cults, never have a chance. They believe what they are told, and they become part of the machine, unless they have a flash of insight (and are able to act on it) along the way. And even then, they’re threatened with being shunned, rejected, or otherwise ostracized until their beliefs become more congruent to the group’s. This is how groups like this, beliefs like this, survive.

Humans are social creatures who want to be accepted within their group. Trouble is, sometimes that group acts without regard to the interest or safety of its members, or becomes taken by temporary passion, and people get hurt, even die. Sometimes group dynamics prove dangerous – think the Boston baseball riots of 2004 or the L.A. riots in 1992.

I’d like to say people are mainly interested in the betterment of themselves and society, however history (and the news) has proven otherwise. Some humans are power-hungry, cold, calculating, and dangerously narcissistic, and would go so far as rape young girls in front of a crowd, in the name of God, to satisfy their desires.

And the worst offenses often occur in a vacuum, behind a cloak of secrecy – there must be some complicity for these injustices to occur, whether its voluntary or not.

Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri have roots in complicity as well – two unarmed black teens essentially killed due to someone else’s beliefs. I cannot speak to Brown’s guilt or innocence regarding the reason(s) for his apprehension – I simply don’t have enough information – but the pervading thought that young African-American men are dangerous, in and of itself, is one of the subtle ways America stays complicit.

There’s only a stone’s throw between the murder of a young girl’s spirit at the hands of her megalomaniacal leader and the killing of a teen guided by the invisible hand of our beliefs. But we don’t always see it that way. Today, I challenge you to do so. Also, I urge you to be mindful of the fact that there is danger in both sides – being the person(s) about whom riots begin, and those doing the rioting.

So, looking forward, for yourself and others – Be curious, be open, be skeptical, and be independent in your analyses. Never, ever drink the Kool-Aid. It just might save a life.

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