The New York Times recently reviewed Marin psychologist Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well, describing the book as:
… a cri de coeur from a clinician on the front lines of the battle between our better natures — parents’ deep and true love and concern for their kids — and our culture’s worst competitive and materialistic influences, all of which she sees played out, day after day, in her private psychology practice in affluent Marin County, Calif. Levine works with teenagers who are depleted, angry and sad as they compete for admission to a handful of big-name colleges, and with parents who can’t steady or guide them, so lost are they in the pursuit of goals that have drained their lives of pleasure, contentment and connection. “Our current version of success is a failure,” she writes. It’s a damning, and altogether accurate, clinical diagnosis.
I found myself wondering who Levine defines as the “we” whose “current version of success is a failure.” And for that matter, whom Times reviewer Judith Warner means when she writes about “our culture’s worst competitive and materialistic influences.” Warner initially positions Levine’s experience and observations in the affluent, and mostly white, highly educated environs and culture of Marin County, concluding, “Levine is correct to say that, as parents and as a society, we’ve reached a tipping point, in which the long-dawning awareness that there’s something not quite right about our parenting is strengthening into a real desire for change.”
“As a society” implies, in my mind, a collective larger than Marin. Something perhaps even national. My, how “we” have grown.
As important as Levine’s conclusions seem to be, I worry that overgeneralizing whose issue this is may dilute parents’ agency to do something about it. If “perfectionistic, high-performance parenting” is just the ways things are right now, the all-consuming zeitgeist of the early 21st century, then it seems that much more impossible to challenge and change, as opposed to if it is one cultural choice among others that parents can look to as a means to teach their children well.
And, of course, parenting is inherently cultural. As biologically-driven as it is, it is also forged by cultural values and beliefs. (For more, I recommend Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, which explores class culture as a powerful factor in determining parenting style.) The fact of the matter is, not every parent’s “current version of success is a failure.” And I’m not just talking about a parent here, and a parent there, although, yes, in Marin County there seems to be a high density of what Levine is writing about. There are whole other “we”s–other groups and cultures of parents–who aren’t fixated on “shap[ing] and accelerat[ing their children] into Harvard material.”
But it’s hard to see anyone else after over-inflating our “we.” It’s hard to see “we” are just one group of human beings, when “we” have claimed the borderless first person plural for ourselves. Soon “we” think “we” are everyone.
But “we,” no matter how many of us “we” think there are, aren’t all-inclusive. In fact, “we” are usually far more local and limited than “we” imagine. That, I believe is a good thing. Because it means that we can learn from others, who are right here among “us.” This critical shift from monoculturalism to multiculturalism begins when we stop projecting our ways on all of society, the nation and the world, and notice the myriad ways other “we”s do things–which ultimately allows us to redefine who “we” are and how we do.