On Parenthood

The first half of our life is ruined by our parents and the second half by our children — Clarence Darrow

Rather than threadjack Mr. Rowe’s recent post with my various pontifications on the subject, I thought I’d start another thread. Here, in a nutshell, are my views on parenting:

If your children don’t grow up bearing at least a few resentments against you, you probably haven’t done a very good job as a parent. Children come into this world not only incapable of fending for themselves but also utterly uncivilized. It is the parent’s primary job to correct both these deficiencies. In fact, broadly construed, those are the only two jobs responsible parents must strive to accomplish; that is, developing their children into civilized, independent adults.

I oppose corporal punishment, not because I think spanking a child is per se child abuse, but because I’ve found it isn’t necessary. However, if you take physical punishment off the table, the only disciplinary alternatives remaining are deprivation of some sort (e.g., a “time out” for young children or being grounded for older children) and scolding. The intensity of the latter can range from calmly rebuking the child’s actions, attitude, etc. to shouting angrily.

Is that last per se emotionally abusive? I don’t think so, but the devil is in the details. I’ve tried very hard as a parent never to act or react in anger to my children while they were very young, say, below 10 years old. By the time they’re in their ‘tweens, however, they are or should be confident enough in their selves and their environment (“no, I’m not a complete screw-up; no, Mom and Dad aren’t actually going to harm me or abandon me or, most importantly, stop loving me”) that showing more genuine emotion in those cases where one would show such emotion to another adult is also part of the parenting process.

How that plays out with each child differs precisely because every child, like every adult, is different. One of the dumbest things a parent can say is “I treat my children all the same.” Of course, one’s children are to be cherished equally, but I have a daughter who is mildly retarded and struggles to learn math and reading and an older son who graduated valedictorian of his high school class with enough AP credits to waive his entire freshman year in college. Does anyone really believe these two very different people should be treated exactly the same? “To each according to need, from each according to ability” is a rotten way to run a society but it’s a pretty good way to run a family. Families are not markets and life is not a business.

The smartest advice I ever got on the topic of parenting came from a man with four children by his first marriage, step-fathering two more in a second marriage and, in his sixties, raising a granddaughter from early childhood on. What he told me was that every parent will err either in being somewhat too lenient or somewhat too strict. There is no perfect middle ground, so as long as you don’t go way overboard in one direction or the other, you might as well err in the direction that you’re more comfortable with.

The greatest object lesson I ever got in parenting was at a lawn party. My wife and I had only recently had our first child, for whom we painstakingly child-proofed our home, purchased and used every infant safety gadget on the market and who we generally went around handling as though he was a Faberge egg filled with nitroglycerin. Friends of ours already had three children, the youngest being a boy somewhere around five years old. We were all standing out in the backyard drinking beer and chatting with each other when the boy in question came running toward his mother at top speed, tripped at the last possible moment and smacked his head sharply on the ground by his mother’s feet. “Oh, he’s okay,” she concluded after a glance in his direction, sipped her beer and turned back to the conversation. Parents with more than one child know what first time parents do not: kids are much tougher than they look.

I’ll make one last point for now. The parent / child relationship is entirely asymmetrical. What I mean is that you can never understand what it is like to be a parent merely from having been a child. I don’t say that as a backhanded way of invalidating the opinions of non-parents on the topic of raising children; I merely note it as an experiential fact.

These, anyway, are in broad brush strokes my personal and perhaps even idiosyncratic views on parenthood. They seem to be working out reasonably well in practice, so far, though I’m sure a better man could do a better job of fathering in all sorts of ways. Then, again, not only is life not a business, it’s not a competition, either.

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This entry was posted in Family and Children, Is our children learning?, Won't Somebody Think of the Children!. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On Parenthood

  1. Jon Rowe says:

    DA,

    Love the Darrow quote.

  2. AMW says:

    I oppose corporal punishment, not because I think spanking a child is per se child abuse, but because I’ve found it isn’t necessary.

    I’ve found it depends on the child. We’ve used corporal punishment on three of our kids (the fourth is too young). But there’s no doubt that some have required less than others. My third child requires almost no physical discipline whatsoever. A stern word is typically enough to make her straighten up and fly right.

    I’ll make one last point for now. The parent / child relationship is entirely asymmetrical. What I mean is that you can never understand what it is like to be a parent merely from having been a child.

    I like to say that to be a parent is to be half a tyrant and half a slave.

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