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Leslie Morgan Steiner On Cultural Shifts In Washington Parenting

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Leslie Morgan Steiner, parenting author/blogger and native Washingtonian, says parenting has changed drastically since the days she scampered around the playground of Horace Mann Elementary School in Northwest D.C.
Rebecca Sheir
Leslie Morgan Steiner, parenting author/blogger and native Washingtonian, says parenting has changed drastically since the days she scampered around the playground of Horace Mann Elementary School in Northwest D.C.

Standing on the bustling playground at Horace Mann Elementary School in Northwest D.C.'s Wesley Heights, Leslie Morgan Steiner fondly recalls the many years she spent playing there as a young girl.

"One of the things I have to confess I remember most is all the boys I would chase on this playground," says the author of Crazy Love, Mommy Wars and the forthcoming Baby Chase. "I would chase the boys and try to kiss them. Phil, Chris Barker, Fletcher, Oakley, Patrick Waters... oh, they were endless!"

Steiner, who also used to helm the Washington Post's parenting blog, "On Balance," says she's considerably changed since her childhood, as has being a parent in Washington, D.C.

"The one striking thing is that when I was a kid there were not a lot of parents here on the playground," Steiner says. "And right now I would say the ratio of parents to kids is about 1 to 10.

"But when I was a kid, your parents never came to the playground," she says. "There was an afterschool sports guy who oversaw stuff, but you were free here. The parents weren't watching you; they weren't at the edge of the field with their smartphone, taking pictures of you."

Steiner says the move to more "helicopter parenting" accompanied the move to more modern modes and models of parenting.

"My mom was a stay-at-home mom," Steiner explains. "She was raising four kids, pretty much by herself. Our dad was not an involved dad. He was your typical "Sixties Dad": he went to work every day and we didn't see much of him.

"Starting in first grade we walked to school, we walked home for lunch, we walked back to school. All of our friends had this kind of freedom."

The size of families has changed as well, Steiner says. "Most families have two, or maybe three kids and the parents have the ability to keep a much closer eye on a smaller number of kids. Dads are much more involved and so they're doing a lot more. So I think that's really what explains the rise in helicopter parents in the space of just one generation."

Steiner says many people see letting one's kids go free as "bad parenting," but she insists that very freedom was "one of the most glorious parts of my childhood."

Granted, misfortune would occasionally accompany this independence.

"A few bad things happened," Steiner says, "very minor things like the time I lost $5 on this playground, and I couldn't find it and it was a fortune. I think I'm still going to look for it today; maybe it's around here somewhere!"

Changes in parenting

These problems, Steiner says, were minor compared with "what parents are terrified of today. They are so afraid of abductions and other things.

"I wasn't necessarily aware of it at the time, but I had a better childhood growing up in Washington D.C., than my own kids have today."

That's why Steiner says she tries to extend some freedom and independence to her own children, like granting them a "three-block freedom" around their Georgetown neighborhood. "And the first couple times they did it, I followed them," Steiner says. "A block behind them to make sure it was all fine."

Another shift in parenting Steiner has witnessed is the increasing number of educated women and mothers.

"The number of women with college degrees has more than doubled in the last 20 or 30 years," Steiner says. "And this means that more women work. But it also means that they approach parenting more as a job, or a career, where you are supposed to have accolades and it's more of an achievement."

Steiner's own mother had a teaching degree from Radcliffe. "She was uber-educated," Steiner says. "She was the only mom who was like that. And even though she gave us a lot of freedom, she also planned a lot of after-school activities for us and was very insistent that we achieve.

"I think that my mom was unusual 40 years ago, and now that's the norm: to have very educated moms, who have very, very high standards for their kids. At least in this part of Washington."

Parental involvement in schools is something else that's evolved in Washington through the years, Steiner says. After leaving Horace Mann, she attended the Maret School, and "I don't remember my parents ever being there except the day that I graduated. And now, as a parent myself, I am at my kids' school sometimes three or four times a day! More than my parents were there in a month or even a year."

The growing competitiveness in school is something else Steiner says has changed, especially in the past 20 years.

"It's so competitive here, and parents and their kids are so worried about doing well in school and getting in to, not just a college, but a very, very good college.

"When I was growing up we just really didn't think of it very much. My parents both went to Harvard, and so there was always this idea that if we were really good kids, and worthy of our parents, we would [go to Harvard], too. But I think that we were unusual, and I don't know why that has changed so much."

Changes in values

Steiner says the change has been occurring across the country, but especially in Washington, D.C.

"I wish it were still the way it was when I was growing up, where the teachers really were very interested in us being who we were, not fitting some mold of doctor, lawyer, business person. We had so much freedom to be more creative.

"I didn't know what a special time it was growing up. I just thought it was my childhood! But now I look back and it was priceless to grow up in a place where my parents were able to give us a lot of freedom, and I was able to live in this vibrant city with politicians and newspaper reporters coming out of my ears and to be exposed to that all the time!"

Steiner says her years helming "On Balance" taught her a lot about parenting — and parents — in the D.C. region. The people she wrote in, she says, were extremely educated and concerned about how to raise their children. But what surprised Steiner was how concerned they were about how other people raised their own kids.

"People who didn't have kids still had really strong opinions; they still cared about how we raise our kids. And I'm not sure if that's a Washington, D.C. phenomenon, but we really care very deeply about how other people raise their kids in a way that is wonderful, but can drive you really crazy."

It's something her mother never faced, Steiner says. Though she, herself, has come up against it quite a bit.

"When I was starting to let my kids have that little freedom to walk to the corner store or to the CVS, on more than one occasion other parents called me to report that my children were crossing the street by themselves. And they were calling to criticize me.

"My mom died two years ago, but back 10 years ago I would tell her the neighbors were doing this and she would just howl with laughter. The thought of, on Klingle Street where I grew up, another parent calling her to say 'Leslie is crossing the street by herself'... My mom would have been like, 'That's what I want her to do!'

"I think one thing I learned growing up in this corner of Washington, D.C., was that I could definitely handle the world. I could handle this teeny little part of it. And I'm grateful that my mom raised me that way, and also that D.C., was that kind of place, at that time."


[Music: "Sweet Child o'Mine" by Luna from Lunafied]

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