'Perfect parents' can lapse into stereotype trap

Sunday, January 2, 2005

NEW YORK -- Many parents teach their children that stereotyping is bad. It fuels divisiveness, they'll say.

That might be true -- but so might the stereotypes.

In "The Perfect Parents Handbook" (St. Martin's Griffin), Jennifer Conklin pokes fun at all the people she sees at the playground. They all fall into one of nine categories: classic, hip, power, sporty, neotraditional, bohemian, Euro, martyr and paranoid.

"I've met all these types," says Conklin, who did her research over 13 years at the playground as she watched her three children, now 13, 9 and 7, grow up.

She adds: "I didn't have to make one thing up."

Conklin says she picks mostly on the upper-middle class, which has made a sport out of "perfect parenting."

(When it comes to poor or struggling families, Conklin says she sees nothing funny about parents juggling multiple jobs, trying to put food on the table.)

People tell her she's a "neotrad" parent, probably since she aspires to "do it all" but doesn't always have the means or the ways. Conklin, however, also says she can be a bit martyrish and a bit sporty, which is why she had a hard time understanding why her daughter didn't want to play field hockey.

Most of these parenting styles were cooked up by baby boomers who need to define and analyze every aspect of their lives, according to Conklin. The previous generation was too busy trying to keep up with the Joneses.

"When our parents were raising us, 'parenting' wasn't a verb," she says.

"Parenting is so much about ourselves now, and I'm asking myself, 'Are we parenting for each other rather than our kids?"'

She's not faulting modern parents, though. Mothers and fathers, whether they're neotrads sitting on the front porch of their charming-but-run-down home in Evanston, Ill., or power parents breezing in and out of their five-bedroom pad in Manhattan's Upper East Side, they're doing everything out of a basic love for their children.

Even slacker parents, who infiltrate every group, have the best intentions. "They're the ones who put nuts in the cookies," Conklin says with a laugh.

"Slackers can be in every group. They don't give time to competition but they do give time to their kids. ... If you're trying too hard, you're not enjoying parenting or your kids. Maybe slackers have the right idea. I'm happy to know the slacker moms that I do -- and their kids are great!"

The point of the handbook, Conklin explains, isn't to be cruel or critical; it's supposed to make parents laugh.

"However you are raising your children is what you think is the right way to raise your children. It's serious stuff, and you can't stop the madness, but you can take one moment to laugh at yourself and the others around you -- who are also taking themselves v-e-r-y seriously," she says.

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