It’s a zoo out there in the par­ent­ing jun­gle

Times Colonist - - Front Page - MONIQUE KEIRAN

Since when did par­ent­ing mean be­com­ing a zoo an­i­mal? References to zoos and young fam­i­lies in the same breath are com­mon enough. Fam­i­lies with young chil­dren visit zoos, pet­ting farms, aquar­i­ums and na­ture cen­tres more than most other folks.

Trips to zoos can take on as­pects of wildlife wran­gling. First, lunches, jack­ets, hats, shoes, sun­screen, di­a­pers and so on must be gath­ered. Then fam­ily mem­bers must be as­sem­bled. Af­ter that, load­ing ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing safely into the mini­van and mak­ing it as far as the zoo en­trance is enough to make any­one or­ga­niz­ing the ex­pe­di­tion feel a bit like a zookeeper.

Then there are the an­i­mals that fam­i­lies with young chil­dren some­times ac­quire: dogs, cats, birds, fish, ham­sters, ger­bils, ant colonies, lizards, taran­tu­las, ponies, garter snakes, tur­tles, bull­frogs, back­yard chick­ens and such.

Now, how­ever, even par­ent­ing styles have as­sumed zoo-re­lated references. If you’re au­thor­i­tar­ian, you’re a tiger par­ent. If you’re per­mis­sive, you’re a jel­ly­fish par­ent. If you are firm but flex­i­ble, you’re a dol­phin par­ent.

But the references have more to do with our so­cial and cul­tural as­sump­tions than with the ac­tual an­i­mals.

Amer­i­can lawyer Amy Chua brought the ex­pres­sion “tiger mom” into com­mon use with her 2011 book Bat­tle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which de­scribes her ef­forts to raise her kids ac­cord­ing to strict, tra­di­tional “Asian” par­ent­ing meth­ods. Many read­ers saw the book as ad­vo­cat­ing for a strict, con­trol­ling, eth­ni­cally de­fined ap­proach to par­ent­ing — one that uses psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional ma­nip­u­la­tion such as public sham­ing to con­trol and di­rect chil­dren.

The term, how­ever, doesn’t re­flect real tiger par­ents’ and cubs’ lives. Although tiger cubs, born with their eyes closed, are de­pen­dent on their mother for the first few months of their lives, as they ma­ture, the re­la­tion­ship dy­namic shifts to­ward their lit­ter mates.

The tiger mother con­tin­ues to feed and pro­tect her young for about six months af­ter birth, but the lit­ter’s most dom­i­nant cub takes over lead­er­ship of the sib­lings, dic­tat­ing when they should sleep, play and eat. This cub dom­i­nates sib­lings un­til the cubs leave their mother and be­come wholly in­de­pen­dent.

Jel­ly­fish par­ents ac­quire that de­scrip­tion be­cause they seem to lack back­bone. They don’t es­tab­lish or en­force rules for their kids, they set low or no ex­pec­ta­tions for per­for­mance and they don’t en­force con­se­quences.

But the term “jel­ly­fish” par­ent is mis­lead­ing on sev­eral ac­counts. For one, jel­lies are not fish. Bi­ol­o­gists stopped call­ing them fish years ago, and to avoid per­pet­u­at­ing the con­fu­sion, ev­ery­one else should, too. Also, jel­lies don’t par­ent. Their in­volve­ment with off­spring ends once they re­lease their own eggs and sperm into the water. If we ap­plied our hu­man val­ues, we’d call this aban­don­ment be­fore birth. And even when jel­lies re­pro­duce through cloning, parental in­flu­ence ends once the clone sep­a­rates it­self from the par­ent jelly.

As for the term “dol­phin par­ent­ing,” it too ex­poses our own bi­ases and cul­tural views of dol­phins. We view the an­i­mals as play­ful, so­cia­ble, in­tel­li­gent an­i­mals — there­fore, good and wor­thy.

Ask a real dol­phin par­ent how she raises her young, and (if she could talk) she’d say it takes a pod to raise a dol­phin calf. Like whales, dol­phins raise their young in a group. Other fe­male dol­phins in the pod might help a mother take care of her calf dur­ing its first years. Calves stay close to their moth­ers un­til they’re about six years old. It watches and learns from her ex­am­ple as she hunts, in­ter­acts with others and the en­vi­ron­ment, and nav­i­gates the ocean. It’s par­ent­ing by ex­am­ple, plain and sim­ple, and by com­mu­nity.

In keep­ing with the theme, here are a few other an­i­mal names to ar­bi­trar­ily pin to par­ent­ing styles: • Mon­key par­ents mon­key around with their kids and teach­ing them to fling crap at strangers they don’t like. • Par­rot par­ents teach kids by rote in­struc­tion, not ex­am­ple. • Le­mur par­ents blindly fol­low what other par­ents do, without ques­tion­ing. • Ea­gle par­ents raise other fam­i­lies’ stray kids — and red­tailed-hawk chicks — as their own. • Spi­der par­ents eat their young for break­fast.

If you’re go­ing to bring the zoo into the home, at least try to get the bi­ol­ogy right.

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