Board of Contributors: Seeking shelter from our cultural storm
When I was 10 our family got caught in a hailstorm during a backpacking trip in Yosemite. Wet and miserable, I crouched next to a boulder while my dad stood over, fumbling with his poncho. "Stay down," he yelled in the wind. "I'm your shelter."
Parents sheltering their kids. It's our Pledge of Allegiance to our children, a universal instinct in our deepest core. Every one of us is comforted by the memory of a parent giving us protection.
Yet how do parents today shelter our kids from the more Category 4 cultural storm raging at our doors? How do we provide shelter when it's raining mass commercialism, Britney Spears's values on marriage and motherhood, TV images of Baghdad atrocities and MySpace right under our roof?
I asked some of these questions to Mary Pipher, psychologist, anthropologist and best-selling author of "The Shelter of Each Other, Rebuilding Our Families," and "Reviving Ophelia." Pipher will be the keynote speaker at the March 17 Mother's Symposium in Palo Alto.
Pipher first spoke in Palo Alto in 1996 to a spill-over crowd of 1,000 people eager to hear her ideas related to Reviving Ophelia and the plight of adolescent girls. She later explored her interest in families, and brings a salient message to parents under siege (visit www.pamf.org/mothers for information).
One of her missions is to help families think intentionally about how they will gate-keep information to protect their children -- and themselves -- in a culture increasingly dominated by competition, celebrity-worship and information overload.
"I feel particularly for mothers," Pipher says. "They take on the emotional, social and developmental needs of their kids at such a deep level. But they're working against the tribe. They are steeling their kids against the broader culture, saying, 'Don't believe the things you hear.'"
Written before 9/11, Columbine, and the continual erosion of the middle class, "The Shelter of Each Other," is a prescient look at realities we are now facing.
Pipher cites lack of time for families to connect in meaningful ways. This has been replaced by structured activities geared toward childhood advancement, competition for brand-name colleges, jobs and ways of life. She is particularly concerned about "lookism," her term for the Paris Hilton type of over-sexualized culture. Add to this terrorism and a country at war and you have a recipe for an extremely anxious, fear-based society.
Pipher notes that unlike Europe, America's political and economic cultures do little to shelter families, either. Part-time, flexible work schedules, longer family leaves and affordable child care could go a long way.
"Things women need that they don't get," says Pipher.
Our families are bearing the brunt.
"Parents have never worked harder," Pipher said in our conversation. "But they worry that their kids will have a less secure, more difficult life than they had."
One way to calm down? Get outside and meet your neighbors, Pipher suggests. Let your children experience safety around their home.
In my little South Palo Alto neighborhood we regularly interact with many families on our street. The 84-year-old lady next door is a bridge to another era. Her six grown kids once shared a bedroom and got to "run outside" to their heart's content.
Kids running outside, porch bells ringing for dinner -- those days seem long over. Cell phones are the new dinner bell, marketed to parents around the culture of fear, Pipher says.
"Cell phones are sold as a way to keep your kids safe 24/7," says Pipher. "But in fact, kids need time when they're not in touch. They need time away to think things through and solve problems without mom or dad a call away."
Pipher asks parents to be intentional about their decision-making regarding any type of connective technology. How will it affect your child's maturation, social development, ties with family?
With earthy, homespun narratives and piercing observations, Pipher's shares anecdotes and stories from a range of clients. In Shelter, she recalls a family torn apart by long work hours, teenage peer pressure and general angst.
It could be a story right out of Palo Alto, where the skyrocketing cost of living takes its toll. But Pipher admonishes parents to think hard about the type of work hours they're willing to log and what it can mean to a family's time together.
Ambitious parents with several Ph.D.'s don't necessarily shelter their children any better than a less educated family, reminds Pipher.
The college-entrance frenzy is an example: "Ivy League has become a joke," says Pipher. "It's about brand-name recognition and marketing. It has nothing to do with thinking college through. It isn't a result of that kind of discussion."
She says parents should stop the nonsense early and talk to their kids by 8th grade. She role-plays what parents might say: "I know all your friends want to go to Harvard, but let's talk about the financial impact on our family if you go there, how much mom and dad would have to work and be away from home, how much pressure you will be under, what it will do to your friendships, your time to just read a book for fun."
And what about all those parenting-advice books, devoured by well-educated moms? That's another example of a fear-based culture, Pipher says. Is there a way to fight back?
"You're the governor of your own system," she reminds mothers. "Make your own decisions about what makes sense."
Pipher's overriding message is that families are not to blame, that it's the culture at large is driving us apart. One mom told Pipher: "I can't possibly talk to my daughter as much as the culture does."
Pipher says the antidote is that parents and communities need to step up and help each other. We need to be the gatekeepers of the information that reaches our kids. We need to create support groups, parent-education programs, church groups, neighborhood associations, extended-family relationships and accepting, supportive friendships. That is where we'll find our shelter.
Some of this is already happening in Palo Alto, and elsewhere around the country. But the collective umbrella, or wind-blown poncho, we hold over our kids works better with many hands.
Are yours extended?
Lucy Rector Filppu is a member of the Weekly's Board of Contributors. She writes about parenting and other topics, leads journaling workshops and is an editor at Bonus.com, a children's Web site. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband and two children, ages 6 and 4.