Alan Levinovitz is a professor of religion and science at James Madison University and the married dad of a 6-year-old who cuts her own tomatoes. I spoke to Alan about his parenting style, and the way parents — religious or secular — can gain faith in themselves, their kids, and the world. You can follow Alan on Twitter at @AlanLevinovitz.
On Fostering Independence
Lenore: You posted an adorable picture on Twitter of your daughter slicing tomatoes (above). Why?
Alan: I wanted to make an unfamiliar image less shocking.
Lenore: The image of a little girl using a sharp knife?
Alan: Yes. I wanted to encourage people not to see this as a taboo.
Lenore: What was the response?
Alan: Generally positive, but some people responded immediately and reflexively by saying, “I hope someone is supervising!” So there was an immediate sense of danger, along with a call for a more responsible parenting style. The implication being that this is a situation that seems, on the face of it, to be irresponsible.
Lenore: But it wasn’t! You simply believed in your kid.
Alan: I should add that those tomatoes — she bought them herself at Whole Foods. I made her a list and I said, “I’m going to be at the front of Whole Foods. You take this list, go find everything, and if you can’t, ask an employee.” So she did, and she was so excited.
Lenore: And did she find everything?
Alan: She found some of the things immediately. Then she went over to the meat section, and she couldn’t find the bone-in chicken thighs, so she asked an employee, and the first thing the employee said was, “Where are your parents?” To which she said, “It’s okay. My dad’s in the front. He knows I’m doing this.” And the employees were just ecstatic.
Lenore: Wait. How do you know all this?
Alan: Because it turns out I wasn’t in the front, I was sort of spying on her from afar. In the end, she wanted to tell me about this grand adventure.
On Religion, Science, and Parenting
Lenore: Clearly, it can be tough to let go and trust our kids in the world. Why is that? Is there a religious angle to this?
Alan: In an increasingly secular culture, where we no longer look to clergy for guidance on how to eat, for example, or how to develop our children’s mental capacities, we invest our treatment of children with this profound, almost religious significance. In a sense, you become God.
Lenore: It’s hard enough, just being the parent! Now we’re supposed to be able to control everything that happens to to our kids? And so if anything goes wrong, it’s all our fault? Not God’s great plan?
Alan: Yes. But since we aren’t God, there will always be mistakes. One of the good things about religion is that many religions locate perfection in the next life, not in this. So the idea that perfection can’t be found here allows us to be more comfortable with the inevitable imperfections of this life.
Lenore: But if we’re secular, or even quasi-secular, we’re stuck thinking that we have to be perfect?
Alan: That’s why parents feel so much hangs on what are otherwise inconsequential decisions. If you do something wrong, something “bad” will happen, so you have to avoid that thing at all costs.
Lenore: Who decides what is “bad” or “wrong” if we’re not consulting religious authorities anymore? Science?
Alan: We are trying to invest our secular institutions like science and medicine with the ability to dictate what we ought to do in a transcendentally perfect way. You don’t turn to the church and say,”How does God tell us to treat our children?” Instead, now we’re asking neurologists to tell us what music to play to our children in the womb, or we’re turning to studies to decide our parenting style.
What happens when we transfer the authority of religion to these secular institutions is that the results of a study become gospel. That means every time a new study comes out, you feel compelled to follow it with an almost religious zeal because that is now the source of our divine commandments.
Science is wonderful, but we can’t allow it to become God, because it fails to capture what makes a life worth living. We need to be able to occupy a space in which uncertainty and mystery and an absence of perfection are not terrifying. And we need to be able to forgive ourselves and the world for that absence of perfection.
On Embracing Imperfection
Lenore: Are there any rituals for making ourselves more accepting of the fact we can’t be perfect, and our kids can never be entirely safe?
Alan: One thing that is helpful for me is to recognize that an individual instance of imperfection doesn’t define your child or your parenting. So, for example, every once in a while, I just let my kid have ice cream for lunch — or breakfast. Something is liberating about allowing my child to violate what I know to be the right eating pattern, because it shows me that eating and parenting aren’t about slavish adherence to rules at all times. You can violate general rules without horrific consequences.
Another thing that’s helpful to me is that I’ve been evangelizing. If you’re tired of feeling held to the standards of a religion — or a parenting style — that you don’t believe, then you need to speak out against that religion and find other like-minded people so you can form an alternative community.
Lenore: That’s our philosophy at Let Grow. We are against the religion of expecting parents to constantly supervise, help, intervene, and prevent all discomfort.
Alan: I am never going to have the strength to do this on my own. So I find other parents and I say to them, when their kids are over at our place, “Look, I think that it’s strange that every time our children argue, we have to intervene so that their lives are free from conflict. How about we go upstairs and have faith that if something horrible happens, they will contact us?” If you bring other people in, it gives you strength.
Lenore: “Non-helicoptering” becomes less taboo.
Alan: It becomes a shared practice about which you don’t need to be ashamed.
On Taking the Blame Out of Parenting
Lenore: What else makes it easier to loosen up as a parent, and not feel so fearful and guilty?
Alan: We need to be able to take in the idea that bad things are sometimes nobody’s fault. Two different parents make two different decisions. For one parent, it goes well, for the other, it doesn’t. We need to understand that for the parent who had it not go well, it doesn’t need to be their fault, and it’s not necessarily because they didn’t make the same choice as the other parent.
Lenore: Try to understand that bad things can happen to good people? Even good parents?
Alan: There are religious rituals in which imperfection is emphasized. So is the fact that sometimes you put in the effort and it doesn’t pay off.
Lenore: What are some examples?
Alan: Buddhism has this great ritual in which you make an elaborate piece of art — a mandala — and after it’s finished, you destroy it. I sometimes do this myself: make a perfect cup of French press coffee and pour it down the drain.
On the Wabi-Sabi Parenting Style
Lenore: Any other rituals you suggest for parents?
Alan: Wabi-sabi. The philosophy comes from Japan: Instead of striving for perfection, we should build things with imperfections in them to remind us that the world is imperfect and transient. So, for instance, upon moving into a house, you might chip your paint as a ritual affirmation of the fact that these things are going to happen anyway.
Wabi-sabi is very important with kids because there’s this constant tending to their perfection, especially concerning safety, perfect health, perfect development, perfect friends. And what wabi-sabi reminds us is that that’s just ludicrous. Better, instead, to embrace certain imperfections and learn to love flawed objects as they are. With our children, that’s a challenging thing to do, because we feel guilty. “Why aren’t you doing EVERYTHING for your child?”
Lenore: What are some examples of a wabi-sabi parenting style?
Alan: Think of something that scares you a little bit, because it is imperfect, and then force yourself to do it. Imagine a night where your kid comes home, and you say, “Tonight, you can skip your homework.” It’s about you as a parent realizing that a night when the kid misses homework isn’t a big deal. Your child is not going to turn into a delinquent and drop out of school.
Or here’s a good one: It’s okay if it’s picture day and one year you send them to school with a bad haircut or slovenly t-shirt. Imagine for a moment a yearbook in which every photo is perfect, versus a book in which one of the kids has a funny haircut. To me, it’s obvious which one is better.
Often it’s the mistake, the imperfection, that ends up being the great story. It’s the part of the trip you tell over and over again. “Our vacation went just as planned” — that’s boring. It’s Stepford. No one wants to live in Stepford, and yet we’re constantly trying to build that town. Instead, come up with something you always want to be perfect about your kid, and allow yourself to build a flaw into it.