'Fat robin' photo (c) 2009, Alan Cleaver - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a variety of newspapers. Here’s this week’s Reality Check!

All week we’ve been watching an extremely obese baby robin who lives outside our dining room window. He’s out of the nest, but he doesn’t fly much. He just hops around, tweeting as loudly as could be, calling for his parents to bring him something juicy.

For the first day or two the dad complied, but then he grew tired of all the digging and abandoned the mom and their child to the far side of the lawn. But the mom persisted, digging up worms by the dozens and bringing them to her hungry child. That little baby, though, was never satiated. And before our eyes, he became the most enormous robin I had ever seen, while his mother wasted away.

My family has been on a bit of an Abba kick lately, so my children named the robin Fernando. And now they’re singing to him: “Can you hear your mom, Fernando? She is telling you to shut your trap, cause she is coming soon….” Here’s another: “Can’t you get your own worm, Fernando? Or do you think someone else should always do the work for you….”

This robin may have been kicked out of the nest, but the mom refused to leave him to fend for himself. And this bird grew so enormous, we started wondering if the laws of gravity would kick in and he wouldn’t be able to fly. Once he managed to hop to the top of the fence, and then promptly fell off into our neighbour’s backyard. The next day we caught him attempting to fly again, except this time he aimed straight into our windows. Again and again. Fernando is definitely missing a bit in the brain department.

Robins need to do two things: they need to fly, and they need to dig for worms. Fernando can’t do either, but he doesn’t need to, because Mama is always there to bail him out.

Perhaps humans and robins have more in common than we think. Many of us want to make our children happy, and so when they tweet, we get to our feet. But what kind of life is that, for either of us? If we’re always giving to our children, we’re going to exhaust ourselves, spend all our resources, and raise children who still expect us to do their laundry when they’re 27.

Parenting has changed so much in the last fifty years that I don’t even know if we realize what it is to spoil a child anymore. Today, good parents don’t punish; instead, they encourage children to share their feelings and find their own identity. And this child-centred parenting model has meant that we may know more than our great-grandparents did about how to keep a baby safe and healthy, but we know far less than they did about how to prepare that child for independence. We may know how to stimulate a baby, but do we know how to say “no”? Do we know how to teach a four-year-old to put her toys away? Do we even know we should? Chores are so old-fashioned; X-boxes are so today.

Summer’s just around the corner, and it’s tempting to want to make the season as fun for kids as possible. They’ve worked hard all winter, and now you want them to celebrate. But before you spend your life chauffeuring them to the beach, buying hundreds of popsicles, and filling up your credit card bill with the latest backyard pool toys, ask yourself, “has my little robin learned to care for himself at all this summer? Has he learned to listen, put his toys away, and clean a toilet?” And if he hasn’t, then maybe you need a new summer plan.

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