Should kids come first? A deliberately controversial post.

My kids don’t come first. My FAMILY comes first. Kids who come first end up being entitled little pricks with helicopter parents who are PITA in the classroom and in life until they get beaten down when they’re finally away from their parents. Our family is a team with all members equally important (based on need and so on) and all members pulling their weight. My family has produced generations of strong successful responsible middle-class working women and men who are proud of their parents and siblings with this strategy.

You can try to guilt me into thinking I’m a terrible mother, but what I do worked for my mother and her mother and her mother before her and so on. I turned out perfect, as did my sister (as did my mom and aunts). My kid is turning out perfect. If I changed anything, then we might move away from that optimum. My kid is strong and independent and loved and ze’s not going to be the one who is helpless at college when it comes to taking care of hirself. Ze’ll be the one showing other kids how to do their laundry or grocery shop and so on, just like I was. There’s a satisfaction in being able to do things yourself.

You can try to make me feel guilty for being selfish instead of selfless.  You can quote Horatio Storer at me, that 19th century intellectual who worked tirelessly to ban abortion, among other things.  This ideal that the angelic innocent mother should sacrifice herself for her children (her sons, really… daughters are only important if they’re going to bear grandsons) is an upper-middle-class Victorian ideal made possible only on the backs of the starving working class of an industrializing society.  They’re the products of modern surplus.  And one that my family has never bought into– we were too tied to the land at that time, traveling across the Western US in covered wagons.  Pioneer women don’t have time to stand on pedestals or to raise Little Lord Fauntleroys.

And because we all had to pull our fair shares, whether to stay alive or just to make the work-life balance work for everyone, we perhaps grew up thinking that we should spoil our parents rather than the other way around.  We should do chores without being asked.  We should do our best to behave and entertain ourselves.  And it’s much more pleasant spending decades as a mom being treated a little bit like a princess by spouse and progeny after waiting on one’s own mother (though we call it “helping out” and “being thoughtful”), than it would be having to reverse that.  It’s nice having something to look forward to rather than something to dread.  (Guilt-free too!)

And that is definitely not to say that SAHP are, by definition, helicopter parents. They’re not. Most of them have lives outside their children. Most of them know how to discipline their children so they don’t try to brain other kids with tool-boxes. But folks who try to lecture me on being a bad person because I don’t have to work but I do anyway (or who were passive-aggressive at my mom growing up)– IRL at least, their kids tend to be spoiled brats incapable of polite relations with society.  That probably has nothing to do with their choice in work-status.  But the idea that they have to martyr themselves because the children come first and all mothers who aren’t martyrs are, by extension, miserable sinners… well, that’s not really healthy for anyone.  Especially not their daughters.  Or for their sons…

Bottom line:  Family first as a team.  Children first makes for a pretty depressing adulthood for the kids to look forward to and may result in a lack of  grandchildren.

What say you?  Kids first?  Family first?  Furbabies first?

50 Responses to “Should kids come first? A deliberately controversial post.”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    Family first is a good motto. I actually spend a lot of time with my mom (with or without the kids). She’s old, and I don’t know how much longer she’s going to be alive, and she’s had a pretty crappy life, so I want to make her last years good ones. I definitely don’t feel guilty that I spent time on things that are important to her (like fixing up her bathroom so she can more easily take a shower). I also prefer to do things for my son’s whole school vs just him. So, instead of having a rocking birthday party with an animal demo person, I’ll hire the animal person to do a show at the whole school. It’s because not everyone my son goes to school with gets to have those experiences, so why should I hoard them? Sure, we have one on one time that’s awesome too but that usually doesn’t involve money or organized sports.

    I always think if I turned out okay with less than ideal parenting, the most important part is the values bit and that they mainly learn by example.

  2. InBabyAttachMode Says:

    I agree with family first, and I honestly don’t think it’s that controversial. I think parents should take good care of themselves in order to be able to take good care of their children (like in an airplane where you have to put your O2 mask on first before you help you children). So to me family first means that we all make sure we’re doing well (as in try to stay rested, healthy, and happy (and to me being happy also means working)), which I think automatically means the kids will do well.

  3. Dr. Virago Says:

    “I turned out perfect.”

    There’s your controversy right there. LOLz. ;)

  4. Leah Says:

    I like your idea, especially with making sure kids are part of a group and not all “me! me!” One of my biggest pet peeves is when I meet a kid who is utterly incapable of being polite to grownups. One of my husband’s cousins (and several of mine, to be fair) is like that, and I really think she’s at the point where she should know better. My mom always emphasized getting to know family and socializing when people are over. I think that comes from a family-centric model rather than a kid-centric model.

    That said, one of my friends is quite kid-centric (tho does also emphasize the importance of family), and her kids are all joys. They’re still little, so it will be interesting to see them grow and develop.

  5. mom2boy Says:

    I don’t think it’s as controversial when it’s a general statement like “family first”. It’s judging specific parenting decisions and kids’ behaviors that may or may not be a result of those decisions that stir the controversy, imo. “Pro-life” isn’t a controversial stand. Not many people are pro-murder. It’s defining “life” that starts the fight. A parent who says I don’t care if my kid is well behaved is pretty fringe but there are a lot of different opinions on what a well behaved child looks like. And how to get one. Is it indulgent to make a separate meal for the kids at dinner? Or co-sleep until they are 10? Or getting the kid piano lessons instead of gym membership for mom bc the family can’t afford both? The choices are endless. And someone will always judge. And if your kid is the one banging some other kid with the tool-box, well, then whatever choices you did make, they must’ve been the wrong ones.
    It’s a bit controversial to say that parenting choices lead to great kids if you make the right ones. Siblings that all turn out great = great parents. Siblings that all turn out bad = bad parents. A sibling set that’s a mixed bag = well, hmmm….

  6. SP Says:

    Family first. Easy for me to say as I don’t have kids, but it seems so obvious to me.

    You sound like you grew up in Midwest :) Although, i tend to think that whenever I hear people with solid, hardworking-type values.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Heehee, yeah, it’s pretty obvious we’re Midwesterners. I trash-talked another midwestern state in class today and then qualified by saying that of course even though it’s State X, it’s still better than any state outside the midwest. (Them’s fighting words, my students responded.)

  7. Cloud Says:

    Yes, family first. And down with the closely related annoying thing- the celebrity stating that she is “first and foremost” a mother. That drives me insane. I am a lot of things, and what is foremost depends on what I’m doing at the time.

    The only hard thing is finding the way to balance all of the family members’ needs, particularly when one or more is very young. Now that Pumpkin is almost 5 (holy cow, how did THAT happen?) I have a fairly easy time telling her that she can’t have some parent-time intensive thing she wants if it doesn’t work for the parent (for instance, we are refusing to add yet another class to our schedule, even though she wants it). But I still go into Petunia (who is 2.5) and snuggle her back to sleep without question when she wakes up in the middle of the night.

    But I agree that kids who are allowed to be the center of a parent’s world, and whose wants trump their parents’ wants (and even needs) are less likely to turn out well. But I can see how that happens, when a lot of the cultural cues mothers get tell them to subsume all of themselves to their kids when they are very young. So let’s say you do that… then you have to figure out when to stop doing that, or that same culture laughs at you and calls you a helicopter parent.

    Which is why I now only read things about parenting in the NY Times or WSJ as anthropology. They aren’t talking about me. They are talking about some other tribe of mothers. When I assumed they were talking about me, those articles left me miserable.

    • bogart Says:

      You make a good point. I started to try to include in my comment a bit about how compromise (something everyone can do together) can mean no one is happy, or getting their needs/wants fully met and that I do think it’s hard, given time constraints, to find time both for everyone to get to do their *big* activity (or -ies) and to do stuff as a family. In my family this is probably exacerbated by the fact that as far as my husband and son are concerned, anything and everything is better if I am present, which is an odd thing to complain about (Oh no! They enjoy my company!) but does drive me more than a bit batty.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think this may connect back to the point of how it is easier to pick up a screaming baby and easier to ignore a screaming older child. The baby’s needs are incorporated into the parent’s.

  8. bogart Says:

    I think what you have here is a 2*2 matrix when you have presented it as 2 variables that are invariably positively correlated (or at least invariably not negatively correlated and sometimes positively correlated, so on average): kid-centrism and SAHPism. I don’t know that it will come out as a graphic in a comment, but let’s say the rows are SAH — Y/N and the columns are kid-centric Y/N.

    Personally I fear/find/puzzle over whether my being a WOHM makes me a more kid-centric parent when I am around my kid, and if so, whether that is a good or bad thing. Actually, yesterday having left work early, as I was driving to DS’s second ever soccer practice (which I didn’t need to get to, as DH manages that) I was debating whether this was an absurd thing to do … I mean, will I turn my kid into someone who thinks everything requires an audience? Obviously my being at one practice or not won’t make or break him, but I do worry that a downside of the modern surplus my family (e.g.) is part of, is that everyone comes to expect everything to be observed and no one learns how to enjoy stuff just for the doing, without it being witnessed (and photographed. Don’t even get me started!).

    In fact seeing the soccer practice was nice, not least because it gave me a chance to hang out and talk with DH and some other parents. But the thought process en route also prompted me to think about how when I take DS to games (those being mostly my responsibility, not DH’s), I can probably ease into asking one of the other parents to keep an eye on DS for X minutes while I … the main point of that being that I want to start to accustom DS to my not being on the sidelines all the time and to start to acquire the skills to cope independently and/or seek help from others.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Chances are your kid will be fine whether or not you go to the soccer practice! Kids are pretty resilient.

      • bogart Says:

        I know!

        Well, I’m inclined to think that 95% would be sub-optimal answers to this particular question. But within the 5-95% range I think there’s considerable wiggle room.

    • bogart Says:

      Hmmm. Comments appear to dislike greater than/less than symbols (I guess those looked like html tags). That should have read “…I’m inclined to think that less than 5% or greater than 95% …”

  9. mareserinitatis Says:

    This was the hardest part of homeschooling for me. I was staying home with my kid most of the time and also trying to go to school. Sometimes I was working PT as well. There were a lot of homeschool *moms* that would make me feel guilty for my decision because I was refusing to give *everything* to my kid. (Sorry…but someday that kid will not be living at home and I fully intend to have a satisfying career.) I honestly think they were jealous because they felt like that wasn’t an option available to them. Honestly, it was very stressful…but they certainly didn’t have to play a martyr.

    I also had friends who were jealous that I got to stay home so much while they were working. They didn’t seem to get that it would completely wreck my sanity to stay home full-time with young children. I love my children, but my attempts at stay-at-home motherhood resulted in me being very bored and depressed because of the severe lack of mental stimulation. I took to spending my evenings arguing evolution with the creationist homeschoolers I knew as entertainment. (And trust me, it’s not good entertainment after a couple weeks. It just gets frustrating.)

    So yes…it’s a team thing, and we all have to pitch in and may even have to give a little up to help the others around us. But that’s part of being a family, and our goal is to make sure that we can all do the things we want to (at least in the long run). We help each other get there because that’s what people do when they care about each other.

    Sorry about the novel. This got to be a very touchy topic for me for a long time.

  10. Perpetua Says:

    I do think there is an expectation, as @Cloud mentioned, in our culture to require mothers to subsume themselves into their children. This is the old argument against mothers working (ie, daycare = future serial killers or something), but it in fact *created* a cultural expectation for what motherhood is that didn’t exist before. That is, stay at home mothers in the 60s and 70s even were *homemakers* not SAHMs. They had expansive tasks including care of the household, management of the household budget and income (including bill paying in many cases), making food, sometimes making clothes/sewing projects/ gardening. They also spent time with their neighbor friends. Homemaking was not viewed as sitting around with your kids on the floor 24-7. I have a neighbor who is a SAHM. She recently told me that her husband had been encouraging her not to feel guilty for not getting the house clean or dinner made, that her priority was raising the kids. And I thought to myself, holy schpmoly, if I thought staying at home with my kids meant my eyes had to be laser-like focused on them 24-7 I would lose my everloving mind. So there has been an intensification of what mothering is supposed to include, at the same time a contraction in the understanding of what running a household is. (Think about all women throughout history who contributed to the household economy from within the house – they worked their a$$es off, and it wasn’t rolling a ball back and forth to a two year old.) Of course not all women (most probably) don’t conform to that cultural standard. But it’s out there. And we do all (WOH or not) spend more time with our kids than ever. I’m into spending time on my kids. But I’m also into my kids learning how to play on their own while I make dinner or spend a half an hour talking on the phone.

    Family-first is controversial because it flies in the face of contemporary cultural expectation, even if it resonates with many of us because it is common-sense.

    • oilandgarlic Says:

      Yes, great points, which I think most SAHM fail to remember. The 50s/60s idealized housewife managed a house. She was called a housewife, not a Stay-at-home-MOM. Even the word change signifies a major shift of focus. I don’t mind being a homemaker/housewife but the term stay-at-home mom really means 24/7 laser focus on kids. I know many women who stay home but hire maids (even if they can’t afford it) or wont’ learn to cook dinner because it’s more important to play wit hthe kids.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Of course, the expectation now is to have a spotless house on top of taking care of your kid all the time, which of course means cleaning while the child is asleep (because the kid shouldn’t help), which might be why our kids are supposed to be sleeping so much!

        Our next month’s deliberately controversial post is on housekeeping. :)

  11. Rebecca Weinberg (@sciliz) Says:

    Hmm. As long as everyone’s needs get met (including for affection and autonomy), I’m not sure it matters how you intend to prioritize wants. We don’t come with little happiness meters on our foreheads, so whether you try to be family-first or children-first, you will sometimes make an imperfect call. The key thing is that nobody is miserable over a sacrifice that won’t matter in five years. Being miserable isn’t required for ‘teaching character’ or to prioritize others.
    Personally, I figure my kid isn’t going to remember any specific time I spent on the blogs while he did his own thing. But if I never choose to spend time with him instead of staying on the computer, he’ll note that too. So that’s an example of what I think of when I try to balance things.

    I think my parents did a pretty good job- although I did exist in adult-space in some ways I later realized weren’t entirely normal. That might be a function of being a verbally precocious only child though. I don’t think my parents feel they were too child-focused, either. The only sacrifice I wish they’d made was to not smoke in the house or in the car while I was in it. They tried (particularly on the later one) when I was a teenager and made a huge fuss about it, but addictions tend to win.

  12. chacha1 Says:

    I think the priorities of a family ought to focus first on the needs of the adults, second on the security and health of the family unit, and only then on the desires of the children. That said, I also think people should have to pass a comprehensive exam in order to get a reproduction license. :-)

    My mom & dad both worked throughout my childhood. Mom was able to stop working (and she did *want* to stop) when I left high school. We lived in the (rural) area of their choosing (which certainly wouldn’t have been our choice), in the home of their choosing (which we only cared about because we had to share a room during our hating-each-other years), and our activities were of their choosing (which meant there were a lot of things we never got to do). Neither my sister nor I got a lot of “enrichment” activities because they either weren’t reasonably accessible, or were unknown in our community. We both have master’s degrees and happy marriages and clean police records … and we were both welcome in adult company at an early age.

    IMO American society in general is losing sight of the value of self-reliance, and “kids-first” parenting has a lot to do with it. Kids used to go out to work (in certain societies) at five, four, or even three years of age. When they assume kids have nothing but volition – i.e. no cognition, no rationality, and no learning ability – adults do EVERYONE a major disservice.

  13. Linda Says:

    I find it interesting that the posts about kids always seem to get the most comments.

    Everyone else has made good points on the subject. When I was growing up, it was not within a “children first” household by any means. I learned to care for myself pretty early due to some major dysfunction in one parent and the other parent’s inability to cope with it. Economically the 70s and early 80s were rough on lower middle class families, so we had to suck it up and deal with the fact that we weren’t getting the latest and greatest clothes, gadgets, etc. Like chacha1, though, I’ve turned out to be a fully functioning member of society with no police record, a masters degree, and a very good job. I dare say I’m an asset to my community and have great personal relationships with friends and neighbors, too. My sister also turned out pretty well and meets the same criteria the minus masters degree (but she does have a BA).

  14. Marcus Byrd Says:

    I think you put it well in saying that it is family first. Not myself first.

    I think that is where some tend to go wrong. I am more true to my wife than to my kids. My kids are going to leave me, and if they don’t I will be kicking them out. I am just trying to show them how to make it on their own before either one of those happen.

    My wife, she is not leaving me and I am not leaving her. Without us the family is broken. Mama and Daddy have to take care of themselves or doesn’t matter how much you love your kids they will have a broken life.

    Good post. This is tough because it has to be a balancing act.

  15. Bryan at Pinch that Penny! Says:

    My opinion in the past has been that once I had kids, my life needed to be all about those kids (as anything less would be unfair to them). That said, I have, of late, come over to more of your point of view that the real thing that needs to primary in a family is the whole family.

    Great post, and excellent distinction.

  16. ARC Says:

    I agree completely re: family first. In fact, I think it’s *easier* to fall into ‘kids first’ if you’re not careful, because they take so much freakin’ time and attention when they’re small. It’s so easy to forget to put time into your marriage, doing things as a couple without kids, etc. because you actively have to make time for it, and your spouse (usually) isn’t yelling at you for attention.

    I also think it is SUPER important for kids to understand/see that parents have their own interests and things they are passionate about and that we make time to pursue those. I’ve seen too many moms of adult kids who literally have no idea what to do once their kids are grown, and end up inserting themselves into their grown kids’ lives way more than is appropriate.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m thankful that my mother and my MIL both have fulfilling lives outside of the children. On the one hand, I hear how great it is to have grandma always ready and available for childcare, but on the other hand I hear what a pain it is to have grandma butting in all the time, especially when grandma is the MIL.

  17. Trish Says:

    In my extended family there is an example of a child who was raised by parents who ‘put her first’. This child is now a 24 yr old for whom I unfortunately cannot generate many fond feelings. I think that is a wonderful way to state your philosophy – family first.

  18. Debbie M Says:

    I think the kids-first thing makes sense where there’s just not enough for everyone. Like when there’s temporarily not enough food, of course you feed your kids first. Because otherwise they might never get another chance to grow the particular brain cells they’re working on right now or whatever. All of these other meanings are whacked.

    With these other meanings, I guess I vote for whoever’s neediest first. I’m talking about needs that are fulfillable. People who are sick or injured or something bad just happened. (Perpetual drama queens do not get to be perpetually first.) And I’d say sometimes that could be someone outside the family.

    Generally it does make sense to me for people to take care of themselves first because a) they are the experts on what they need* and b) that way everyone has someone looking out for them. After that it makes sens to focus on those to whom you are closest, but that may or may not be family.

    * Arguably less true for babies and other youngsters, but even then, the caretakers do respond to the crying of babies and requests of youngsters who at least know some of what they need. Of course none of us are perfect experts on what is best for us, but most of us are better experts than anyone else.

    But then sometimes you have to take care of the caretaker first or everything else falls apart. As we get reminded on every flight. And even if you’re giving the caretakers seconds, they do need at least a minimal amount of care.

    I think I’m blathering now.

  19. Dr. Dad, PhD Says:

    I’m crazy busy and crazy late in responding, but I totally agree that “family first is the way to go.

    On nice offshoot of this is that it also implies support for your spouse. Everyone has rough patches, and I think it’s important to have a support group, and to teach your children that they need to help be a part of the solution, rather than the problem. I’m just sayin’…

  20. Spanish Prof Says:

    I have nothing significant to add because I don’t have kids but…

    “This ideal that the angelic innocent mother should sacrifice herself for her children (her sons, really… daughters are only important if they’re going to bear grandsons) is an upper-middle-class Victorian ideal made possible only on the backs of the starving working class of an industrializing society. They’re the products of modern surplus”

    You are getting all Marxists on me!!! Who knew? Keep it up…

  21. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Thank you everyone for participating in this month’s deliberately controversial post.

    Also: feel free to continue the conversation!

  22. pfblogwatchdog Says:

    The argument in our house is who gets to stay at home with the lil’ pip squeeks. My offers to swap roles with my spouse have been met with laughter and threats that we would have to move to some third world-esque neighborhood. Unfortunately, my earning power is magnitudes greater than my spouse, and it is played as the ace of spades in the “who should go to work” debate that takes place in our bedroom at least once a month. But, does the fact that neither of us wants to work make us indolent and bad people? No. Just as people who want to work, for whatever reason, are not evil either. Sure, selfishness can take over at times, but examples can be cited for any situation (hello milk man or the husband in the 2 person knitting club with the trophy wife next door-I spent all that money on yarn and he still hasn’t finished my sweater!).

    If there was one prescribed list of check boxes that we could all go through to answer to the riddle of life, it would make this world extremely boring and not very interesting.

  23. Janette Says:

    I’ve seen full time homeschooling SAHM turn out amazingly varied children. I have seen full time corporate lawyers do the same.
    Helicopter parents, I think, have little to do with the amount of time they parent and more about the need of so many of this generation to only see “the one” instead of “the many”. They are “the one”, not the child.

    The next generation is going to be even stranger. Just wait. These are the kids being raised that self esteem is more important than achievement.

  24. Sunday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion « Clarissa's Blog Says:

    […] “My kids don’t come first. My FAMILY comes first. Kids who come first end up being entitled little ….” It gladdens my heart to read posts from such wonderful, intelligent, reasonable parents. If I do have children, I will print this out in huge letters and hang it on my wall. […]

  25. Z Says:

    I will say it again — stay at home parents are too much of a reponsibility to lay on the kids. Everyone needs something more than home, and having to take care of someone who doesn’t have that is rough when you’re a little thing.

  26. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Too many comments to read and I’m too tired but funny enough I had to take a catholic marriage class before getting married that one time. They taught us that the spouse comes first, children second and that children thrive under this because they feel secure and stable and that’s all children need. I’d like to stress it wasn’t the husband comes first but that each spouse put the other first.

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