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Childhood choices: a poll

GC took me out for dinner at what I think must be Ottawa’s best-kept secret as far as restaurants go: The Buzz, on Bank Street near Gilmour. We had mussels, steak, sweet potato fries, lightly steamed veggies, creme caramel and cappuccino. Everything was scrumptious. I love that place. (Bonus: If you go on a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, you can bring your own bottle of wine, and they’ll just charge you a $5 corking fee.)

I didn’t get my hair cut yesterday. After announcing my intention to do so, I decided to read back over your comments on the post where I asked for hair advice: Hair Today, Hair Tomorrow. I just wanted to refresh my memory so I’d know what to ask the hairdresser to do. As I read through the comments, I remembered that I’d wanted to try Meghan Dailey, Hairdresser to the Blogosphere. If there’s one thing you can say about Ottawa bloggers, it’s that they all have good hair. Every last one of ’em. I can’t think of a single exception. So I canceled my appointment at Hairmosa and scheduled one next week with Meghan at Le Spa.

I ended up staying home all afternoon and reading The Glass Castle. It’s a memoir by Jeannette Walls, who grew up in a family with wildly unconventional parents who moved constantly to avoid creditors, didn’t believe in rules, and let their four kids run free and learn from their own mistakes (even to the point of spending months in the burn unit after catching fire while cooking hotdogs, unsupervised, at the age of three). On the flip side of that tarnished penny, the parents loved them fiercely, taught them physics, astronomy, literature, art and marksmanship, and encouraged them to be self-sufficient, adventurous, creative and free.

It got me thinking about parenting styles. Supposing you had to go through childhood again, but with a different family, and you were offered your choice of two extremes at either end of the continuum. Would you choose outrageously unconventional, utterly irresponsible, nomadic, adventurous, creative, dysfunctional, dumpster-diving, death-defying parents that lurch from one crisis to the next? Or would you prefer rigidly conservative, ultra-responsible, middle-income, unchanging, unthinking, unimaginative, authoritarian, bland parents that never take any chances or have any problems?

(If you’re reading this from inside a feed reader or email, please click on over to to vote.)

23 comments to Childhood choices: a poll

  • Re your poll: I’d rather start with structure and move toward freedom than the other way around.

    I’m getting ready to make a hair change, too, leaning toward a wavy perm on top and short on the sides. I’m anxious to see your results!

  • sassy

    1. Thanks for the tip about the Buzz.

    2. I read the Glass Castle a few years ago and really enjoyed it.

  • Now that I know in what kind of “adulthood” the rigid conservative childhood ends… I will choice the other one. Just to see what happens.

  • reb

    I would chose the unconventional if I had to stick with an extreme but I think some structure is needed at first so a child has a base to plan their own path from.

    I encouraged my children to participate in household decisions so they could learn the process. i find all 3 of them are quite good at giving their opinion and rationale on a decision now whether I want their opinions or not lol

  • I can’t vote because the question left out the most important part: do the parents think of their kids as people separate from themselves?

    Walls’ parents were neglectful, abusive and self-absorbed. People can have wildly different attitudes to life: but if they actually see their kids other than as appendages, then it all works out.

    If parents see kids as some extension of themselves, then resilient kids may take something positive out of their childhood, discipline from the anal parents, adventure from the laissez-faire ones. But either way there is a lot to overcome, not because of the parental style, but because of their selfishenss.

  • My parents separated when I was very little and I was raised by my dad, who is more like the second option. My mother is a bit more like the first option. When I was a kid I often wished I had been raised by her. As an adult now, I think that I was better off in my dad’s house.

    If I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t change anything. I don’t think I would have been able to handle the chaos of a more dramatic, creative upbringing. I was enough of a mess with the structured family I had. I would have liked to be in a more affectionate family though.

  • I chose the first option, simply because I prefer creativity and adventure over responsibility and lack of imagination any day.

    I was lucky though, I had a nice middle-ground of a mum. I definitely had rules (“fart” was a bad word in our house), but she also let me absolutely distroy her living room for weeks at a time with my various art projects and scientific undertakings. We didn’t travel (because of money), but she has certainly encouraged me to do so in my adult life.

    I don’t think I would change anything either… It wasn’t always a perfect scenario (I wasn’t allowed to have any battery operated toys because I was supposed to imagine that my toys did those things – like crawl, or talk, or whatever) but looking back now, I think that this is what made me the imaginitive adult that I am today. And I will likely raise my own children the same way.

  • XUP

    I don’t believe any child would choose to spend months in a burn unit or eat from a dumpster or grow up in total chaos for the sake of getting creative, adventurous parents. If these are my only two choices, I would have no hesitation whatsoever in choosing the ultra-responsible parents.

  • Julia

    I had the conservative upbringing with the responsible parents and I have to agree that structure is nice and maybe even important. That said, I would have wanted them to show more interest in my future path and more willingness to direct me to certain classes or activities that I might not have thunk of for myself. I think what we long for as kids is for our parents to take a genuine interest in who we are as individuals. So it doesn’t matter whether the parent is a hippy or not, as long as she pays attention to the kid.

  • Abby, I’m trying to picture a wavy perm on top and short on sides…can you point me to a picture of someone whose got that?

    Sassy, I’m enjoying it too. I’m about halfway through it now. Which way did you vote?

    Guillermo, the other one definitely sounds more interesting, doesn’t it?

    Reb, I know something in between the two extremes would be better than either extreme. Both extremes are pretty
    awful – but I’m curious to know which one is least awful to people.

    Lilian, I agree with you that a healthier childhood is to be had by children whose parents understand them to be separate human beings rather than extensions of themselves, but I’m not sure why that would be the most critical variable in the equation presented. (If I were to say that both of the hypothetical extremes presented saw their kids as separate human beings, which extreme would you choose?)

    Reyl, maybe one of the advantages of a two-parent family is that (theoretically at least) they can balance out any tendencies towards the extremes. Plus, with two parents, things that one is lacking might be made up for by the other. Affection’s a good example. Kids who don’t have it, crave it.

    Meagan, that’s a sure sign of a happy childhood, when you say you’d like to raise your child the same way you were raised. Your mum would be very happy to hear that.

    XUP, it’s not kids deciding though, it’s adults thinking about which of two extremes is least unappealing. Personally I’d choose the chaotic childhood, because if I survived it, it would no doubt result in a much more interesting life. Also, I’d be afraid of turning out like the rigidly conservative unthinking parents if I spent my entire childhood living with them. (But obviously, given a real choice, I’d choose parents very different from either of the hypothetical parents described.)

  • Julia, were your parents as extreme as the ones I described? Or were they just middle of the road conservative? As for directing…I think kids get plenty of that from school and from life in general, especially these days, and many crave freedom and unstructured, unscheduled time to themselves. (Even sadder, though, is that some kids are so unaccustomed to that kind of thing, that they don’t know what to do when presented with it – time to themselves makes them anxious.)

  • Julia

    Mine were middle of the road for sure. They were also quite thoughtful in how they raised their 3 kids as individuals. I don’t remember the incident but they tell me I wanted to run away from home when I was about 7 but I announced that I was going, so they sat me down and talked me out of it using logic. Apparently, logic appealed to me even then. And I think I had quite a lot of time to myself – I must have, because I read voraciously.

    The thing is, I thought I would have liked to have done stuff like Girl Guides but the parents discouraged joining because we moved so much. But you can’t go back. Maybe I would have hated it! Who knows.

  • sassy

    Zoom – I voted for the unconvential. We only go round once, why not get the most out of it.

  • Convivialiddell

    As much as I complain about my parents and their parenting style, I think that part of me, especially the rebellious, spontaneous part of me, comes from them. At least the going against them. Sure there was a lot of heartache and pain, but I think they kept me from running too wild while I was in high school… which isn’t a bad thing.

  • I’ve been looking for a picture of a wavy perm on top and short sides, but no luck so far. My stylist and I will have to imagine it into being!

  • felonius bunk

    these polls are always much more fun when they’re all lighthearted and hypothetical-like!

  • I voted for the unstructured wild parents.

    I think that kids raised in that kind of an environment have an easier time seeking out the structured individuals they need at various points than those being raised in the ULTRA conservative households – which in my experience are so restrictive that the kids don’t have the freedom to look outside their birth family until they get away from it in adulthood.

    I also think that authoritarian families often use extreme forms of coercion to get the behaviour they want from their kids and overcoming that, to think for yourself is a very painful experience for a lot of people. They often turn away from EVERYTHING their parents rammed into them, regardless of the value they might place on it themselves.

    One of my best friends had a wildly loving single mom who was THAT extremely unorthodox (dumpster diving and singing on the streets of foreign cities for change to buy food). It meant when my friend wanted to go study classical violin at 15 her mom was just fine with her taking her “northern resident” scholarship and living 3 provinces away taking classes at a university, boarding in a stranger’s house and taking an alternate high school program, then at 17 moving to Germany for a few years to study more and apprentice with a luthier. As a mom herself she’s found that middle balance. She’s happym her kids are happy, her mom is still wonderfully flaky and a really kick ass granny that you’d NEVER ask to babysit if the passports were anywhere in the house :-)

  • Oma

    My childhood swung between the extremes of rigid Church of England boarding school from 1949-51 to a complete absence of parenting (and therefore absolute licence) from 1951-1956. Prior to 1949 I lived in a laissez-faire middle of the road foster family with relaxed rules. I was happiest in the foster home, detested the boarding school, and felt absolutely lost without any real parenting.

    I chose the ultra conservative extreme, even though I hated living under that kind of regime, because restriction seems now to be preferable to atomization … and all kids eventually break free and grow up.

  • Nat

    I love Meghan (as a hairdresser but mostly also as a friend.) She’s amazing.

    I think kids need limits, I really do. I live across the street from mayhem household. Peeing on trees, no diapers and all that… not my thing. And the kids, well, no discipline just makes these kids scary, to the point where they were hitting one boy with a hockey stick and chasing mine with one. I had to go scary mom on him. Fuck I had that…

  • Nat

    should be hate not had. (Oh… and I took the stick away. His mom, not so happy with me.)

  • reb

    I got both extremes as a kid and I definitely felt safer when my custodial parent (first mother then father ) was NOT actively parenting me as it usually involved physical discipline for whatever caused them to notice I was in existence.

    I am proud to say that despite my many mistakes as a single parent I have 3 amazing children who are quite capable of making decisions for themselves. I also have been commended for how well , helpful and gracious my children are. ( One son even used to ask dogs may I please pet you ) so perhaps I did a few things right as I learned parenting from scratch instead of from modelling.

    On a final gloat for now my ‘special needs’ daughter coordinated the food/hospitality area of my event today and did an amazing job. I think she learned to organize cause her mom sucks at it.

  • I can’t understand what is wrong with being diaper free or peeing on trees. I consider both to be integral parts of potty learning around here!

    Seriously, I’m wondering what the “and all that” is?

    I’m not a big fan of competitive sports so I get the “no hitting people with hockey sticks” thing. :-)

  • It sounds like the family of surfers who kept their kids out of school and travelled around the world searching for the perfect wave all together in one large van. They’re adults now and some of them loved it and others hated the lack of security.

    Wild and crazy can be exhilarating for kids if there is security mixed in there, too.