Planned Obsolescence

A billion years ago (actually 24) I worked as a ghost-writer for a psychiatrist whose specialties were 1) working with women with serious psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia, bipolar depression, etc.) who were the mothers of infants, and 2) infant depression (you will be unsurprised to know that they are frequently linked). About the time my older daughter was six months old, I quit–having my nose that deep into psychiatric dysfunction in infancy meant that every time my daughter hiccuped I was afraid she might be going into a decline. But during that time I learned a lot about psychiatric theories of infancy. Paul (the doctor in question) had a theory that one of the things adaptive (that is, healthy) parents do for their children is to “preview” upcoming developmental markers. For example, a father holds his infant up on her feet for a moment, letting her feel the weight on her feet and see the perspective that will be hers when she learns to walk.

At the time, with a six-month-old in the house, I wasn’t sure that this held water, although I did a local news segment where I was the mother demonstrating previewing for the rapt interviewer. But after all these years, and two kids, I’m a believer.  And the really big thing that I think parents preview for their kids is parental obsolescence. Because if you do it right, what you’re training your child to do is do without you.

When we were living in New York City and my daughter was seven I let her go to the corner store to buy milk by herself, for the first time. Before you call Child Protective Services–we had rehearsed this; when we went to the store together I would give her the money and let her carry out the transaction. We drilled on street crossing. And that day (unbeknownst to her) I shadowed her to make sure she was crossing the street safely, and that no one scooped up the morsel of adorableness that was her. Four years later, when she decided she was able to meet a friend and take the subway to school on her own, I did the same thing, watching to make sure that she was paying attention and had her wits about her.

A few years later we moved to San Francisco and her younger sister started wanting to walk to school on her own; I went through the whole routine all over again. By the time she started middle school she was confident about her ability to navigate the bus trip to her school (and back again).

All this previewing and letting out of the tether is not without its anxiety for the parent. Every time one of my girls tasted a new sort of freedom–overnights, going to the movies with friends, driving, getting home on her own after a party–I really wasn’t off duty until I knew that she was safely home. Because I may be letting out that rope, but I’m still at the other end.

Of course there are aspects of previewing that are neither so anecdote-worthy or appealing to the kid.  Keeping track of a bank account? Maybe not so interested in learning about that, Mom. Until she is.  My older daughter went into a panic at 15 because she didn’t know how to rent an apartment. A few years later we followed after her, giving her a nudge here and there, and muttering cues, but there to help but not muscling in to take care of it all. I’m thinking about this a lot because my younger daughter will be heading off to college in three months. Unless a piano falls on her head. Our job, the last eighteen years, has been to gradually let her see a vision of a world where she’s doing it all herself–while being near enough to help if it’s necessary.

It’s an interesting balancing act. I don’t anticipate to ever be completely off the hook, parenting-wise, not while there are telephones and email and ichat and whatever other avenues of communication may yet appear. I actually don’t want to be completely obsolete.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Planned Obsolescence — 4 Comments

  1. I’m sure your daughters don’t want you to become obsolete, either. You put your finger on why the recent loss of my father (and the earlier loss of my mother) has made me feel bereft: there is no tether there anymore. Of course, the tether had actually been going the other way for years, but acknowledging that doesn’t seem to change the emotions. I’ve no longer got a parent to turn to in a crisis — or in a moment of joy — and I don’t like it one bit.

  2. As a non-parent person who trains dogs and horses, I can only think…yes? This is what we do with layering and proofing, and wouldn’t expect it to work any other way. It makes me quite interested to see how humans would do with a teaching program that was specifically set up to model (successful) animal training…


    • I am very sorry to report that it is instinctive to do that. Rewards and praise work great on children, up to a certain age. Then suddenly they are aware of what you’re doing…

  3. There’s a lot more to training than consistency and tangible praise/reward–there’s a whole spectrum of P through R, and different techniques to introduce new concepts, each of which has individuals that react better to it while others remain baffled and need a different approach. There’s also a vast difference between behavioral work and criteria training. In fact, there’s a giant nonverbal tool box that most people aren’t even marginally aware of, and it includes breathing, subtle positioning, and rewards of space. And applying those things with a purpose/plan is much different than…well, not.

    Besides, I’m not convinced that every parent thinks through the matter with much purpose at all, or there would be no point to this very cool blog in the first place. Though I definitely enjoyed imagining Mad shadowing her kids along the way!

    Now I’m wondering what I could learn about dog training by siphoning a teacher brain. I’m thinking, for instance, about the way a teacher acquaintance of mine, with her first dog, has such a natural grasp of certain elements that other people never do sort out when it comes to training. I bet she’s a good teacher…