Friday, May 17, 2013

The wisdom of peer parents

It was just a passing comment, somewhat transparently intended to remind the assembled journalists and the listening public of the president's humanity, but I loved him for it. Though ostensibly in the Rose Garden during yesterday's press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan to talk about Syria and other international issues, the comment that stayed with me was when President Obama said to the Turkish Prime Minister, As always, among the topics where I appreciate your advice is close to our hearts, and that’s how to raise our daughters well. You're a little ahead of me in terms of their ages.

I already have great admiration for President Obama, but this made me like him even more: a parent who recognizes that your best resource as a parent is other parents.

I've been looking to other parents for guidance and mentorship ever since Tim was two weeks old and I joined a new baby group. The oldest babies in that group were about four months old, and yet I still looked to their mothers as founts of wisdom and experience. They lay their babies on quilts on the floor during our group gatherings. They knew how to breastfeed without removing any clothing. They could change a diaper without looking. They could even leave the room for a moment to use the bathroom themselves without taking their babies along, entrusting them instead to the other mothers in the group. Just two weeks in, I thought these skills were magical, and over the course of the next three months, I practiced everything I saw them doing.

And that was only the beginning. Shortly after Tim turned two, we joined a playgroup in which a lot of the mothers had older kids. Already thinking about what lay ahead, I pumped them for information: What kindergarten teachers? What afterschool activities? Soccer or t-ball? Walk to school or take the bus?
When Tim started kindergarten, I met even more parents with older kids. Now that my two children are 10 and 14, it amuses me to think that a mother with a third grader once seemed to me like the height of experience, but clearly these women knew something I didn't: they had their children in organized school routines, packing lunches, doing homework. And I wanted to know everything they knew.

I still do it even now. Tim will go off to high school next year; I've spent the past several months asking questions of parents with kids in high school. For almost every phase my children approach, I draw on the wisdom of more experienced parents. What's the right length of time for Tim's first trip to sleepaway camp? Should I urge him to go to school dances? Should I let Holly drop out of the school band? Is the cross-country team good exercise, or too competitive?

One year when Holly was still in preschool, I held the volunteer position of town playgroup coordinator. I was surprised when a mother called and said she wanted to start a playgroup but only include kids with no older siblings. I suppose she sought the support and empathy of other first-time parents, but I wanted to tell her she was depriving herself of vital learning opportunities.  I wanted to tell her that practically everything worthwhile that I know about parenting, I learned from more experienced parents.

So I appreciate the fact that the president gets this too. I realize his comment was meant to win over his audience; I don't suppose he and the Turkish prime minister really had time to discuss whether 13-year-olds should be allowed Facebook accounts or what was the right age to stop imposing bedtimes on weekends. But it's the thought that counts, and I only hope the mother who once said she wanted only first-borns in her playgroup learned at some point along the way how much she would miss out on by not exposing herself to other parents who were a few steps ahead.

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