OurValues/OurKids: Parenting isn’t easy; consider Dr. Mead’s insights

Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History 1968

Debates about parenting—including our discussion this week on OurValues.org—are products of the diversity of values in modern society.

We confront conflicting role models, incompatible expert advice, contradictory research studies, and even vast differences in our personal experiences as a child versus a parent. Generations seem to be civilizations apart.

In contrast, traditional societies are stable and culturally homogeneous. There is only one “model” of parenting, whatever that may be. If the model changes, things become more difficult.

Consider the insights from a classic in anthropology—Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” (1928). Wondering why adolescence was such a troubling time for Americans, she traveled to the south Pacific to observe a traditional community. Coming of age for adolescent Samoan women wasn’t a difficult transition, she said, because this was a culture free from conflicting values.

Mead contrasted this with the maelstrom of values American youth confront. To make her point, Mead described what a hypothetical household looked like to an American adolescent:

“… a girl’s father may be a Presbyterian, an imperialist, a vegetarian, a teetotaller, with a strong literary preference for Edmund Burke, a believer in the open shop and a high tariff, who believes that women’s place is in the home, that young girls should wear corsets, not roll their stockings, not smoke, nor go riding with young men in the evening.

“But her mother’s father may be a Low Episcopalian, a believer in high living, a strong advocate of States’ Rights and the Monroe Doctrine, who reads Rabelais, likes to go to musical shows and horse races …

“Her aunt is an agnostic, an ardent advocate of women’s rights, an internationalist who rests all her hopes on Esperanto, is devoted to Bernard Shaw, and spends her spare time in campaigns of anti-vivisection.”

Mead continued her description of this eclectic household, noting that external influences were parts of the mix: “Add to it the groups represented, defended, advocated by her friends, her teachers, and the books which she reads by accident, and the list of possible enthusiasms, of suggested allegiances, incompatible with one another, becomes appalling.”

The challenges of parenting (and of growing up) are daunting—yet we muddle through.

What challenges have you faced and how did you handle them?

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