Politics & Policy

Being Adult About Parenting

Pushing out the pushovers.

In her first book–It Takes a Parent–Betsy Hart takes on the parenting culture in America–one where parents, she says, are “pushovers.” Rather than a how-to book (there’s nothing about toilet training in it), Hart–mother of four–considers It Takes a Parent a “‘What’s the right attitude?’” book.

Hart recently talked parenting with NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez.

National Review Online: I’m sooo confused, Betsy. Does It Take a Village, a Family, or a Parent?!

Betsy Hart: The best-case scenario is a parent, a family, and a neighborhood. a) The parents to be the first responders, the best defense, the closest trusted authority; then b) An extended family to back up the parents (I remember my Aunt Betty would always correct me on my manners–even when mom and dad were standing right there) and c) a neighborhood with moms and dads who will not only threaten to call a child’s parents when the child misbehaves–they really will!

Very few children today have A,B, and C–and it shows.

NRO: What’s the most recent example of “pushover parenting” you’ve seen?

Hart: Um, let’s see, you mean outside of my own home? Too numerous to count. It certainly occurs every time you see a child yelling at, ignoring, or defying his parents–and the parents standing by cowed and helpless and intimidated by it all. Don’t we see scenes like that every day?

It’s not surprising kids would try to act that way. We all try “power grabs” as kids, and too often as adults. That’s been the case since the Garden of Eden. What’s changed is the parents’ response to the power grabs, and the fact that too many parents are tyrannized by their kids.

Today, too few moms and dads use “no” as a complete sentence.

NRO: Aren’t all parents pushovers to some degree? When/how did it become a problem?

Hart: Sure–we’re crazy about our kids. Every one of us gives into them, does something for them, or caters to them at some point when we know we probably shouldn’t. That’s hardly the end of the world. I’m just asking us parents to think about what’s the pattern and principle and expectation–and what’s the exception–in our homes.

It’s become more of a problem as we’ve come to idolize and idealize our kids over the last few generations. That’s thanks largely to the “parenting experts” who try to convince us, all evidence to the contrary, that children are born wise and selfless needing only parental cheerleading and encouragement, not a parent’s direction and authority.

NRO: How do we wind up with “joyless children”?

Hart: A dear friend told my husband Ben and me, before we had kids, to “decide early who will control your home–it will be you or your children–but it will surely be one or the other.” How right he was.

This doesn’t mean parents have to run a boot camp. Our homes should be havens of love, laughter, and mercy.

But we have too many “joyless children”–angry, snarly, disrespectful, roll-your-eyes-kids–because too many children control their homes and intimidate their parents, making everyone miserable. In these situations there may still be love–but forget laughter and mercy!

NRO: You made this up: A four-year-old choosing what school he will go to? How is that even possible?

Hart: I wish I’d made it up. That came straight to me from the principal at the school. This situation is possible because parents idolize their kids–thanks largely to the experts who work very hard to convince parents that their children are born with inherent wisdom and goodness.

NRO: How is parenting like an “elite military rescue team”?

Hart: Those team members don’t think to themselves, “I’ll only do this mission if I’m sure it will be successful.” Their calling is to do their job and put their lives on the line even when, especially when, they don’t know what the end result will be.

So too we need to persevere when it comes to our kids. We’re not guaranteed perfect little ones no matter what we do, so forget those silly promises on magazine covers like “stop tantrums in 60 seconds.” If only it were that easy! Our children’s hearts are flawed just like ours–so we need to persevere in doing the right thing in raising them even when they fail, even when we fail, in the moment. We need to focus on our calling to persevere with our kids over time–not just the results in our children’s behavior at the moment .

NRO: How important are manicures to motherhood?

Hart: They are the most important aspect of parenting.

NRO: You’re real open with the I-Betsy-Hart-am-Not-the-Perfect-Mom message. Shouldn’t you at least pretend?

Hart: Why bother? The truth tends to come out no matter what we do to hide it.

NRO: You’re recently divorced. Why do you talk about it in the book?

Hart: Like so many people, I never wanted to become a single parent. I was shocked–and devastated–when that decision was made for me by another. But the tragedy of my (impending) divorce occurred as I was writing this book, and it’s part of the fabric of who I am in talking about these matters.

First, in that I’d been writing for years about the sacredness of marriage, and none of that changed because my own marriage ended–in fact, I think my own experience just reinforces, to me at least, what I’d been saying for so long about the importance of marriage; and second, when the reality of being a single parent set in, it didn’t take me long to figure out that what my kids needed more than ever is what every child needs (besides love and affection)–a confident parent willing to guide his child. In one sense, nothing had changed because I was a single parent–I felt it important to communicate that in It Takes a Parent.

NRO: Judging from his son’s performance at his announcement as the president’s Supreme Court nominee, do you think John Roberts shares your views on privacy?

Hart: Hey–let’s ask him!

NRO: Can children be raised without religion?

Hart: Well, it depends what you mean by “raised.” In one sense yes, they can be raised to be ethical, caring people. We all know such folks who have no religious conviction. But I say in I Takes a Parent that my goal for my children is Heaven, not Harvard. (Let me be clear–there is no early indication that my kids are headed for the latter.) If Heaven is our goal, religion is not an option.

NRO: You want your kids to be ordinary? Doesn’t everyone want their kids to be outstanding?

Hart: I have a psychologist friend in New York City who tells me that all New York City parents think their child rates in the top 95 percent of. . . everything. You do the math, but it seems to me that doesn’t really leave the little one free to be who he is, free to be a child, and free to fail–does it? Some children do have outstanding intelligence, or talents. That’s great. But even those kids have some pretty ordinary aspects too–and in any event nothing qualifies anyone to be the center of the universe.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage the special talents of our child–I am encouraging moms and dads to ask themselves, “is it really okay with me if my child is “‘wonderfully ordinary’?” Sadly, I think the answer is less and less “yes.”

NRO: Criticize the child? Not only the behavior?

Hart: This is one of the basic tenants of the parenting experts. “Separate the behavior and the child.” Huh? We don’t do that when the child is showing virtuous or unselfish behavior–we’re thrilled at what this tells us about his character. But suddenly when he lies, or is unkind or selfish–that behavior showed up in the cereal box or something. Yes, a child can behave badly because of fatigue or ignorance but probably just as often it is simply this–a true reflection of his heart at the moment. And we have to see that heart for what it often really is–flawed just like ours – if we are going to help him overcome the selfish tendencies of his heart.

At its core, I think the “separate the behavior from the child” silliness robs us of the full dignity of our humanity.

NRO: You’re never going to want to be your teenager’s friend?

Hart: I’m really hoping they will want to be my friend. There’s a difference. Maybe that’s, It Takes a Parent II?

NRO: When should kids date?

Hart: “Kids” shouldn’t date. People should date when they are ready to start looking for a mate. Seriously.

NRO: Is Rick Santorum a Neanderthal for saying this? “Many women have told me, and surveys have shown, that they find it easier, more ‘professionally’ gratifying, and certainly more socially affirming, to work outside the home than to give up their careers to take care of their children.”

Hart: Rick Santorum is no Neanderthal. But I do think a lot of this has to do with where one lives in the country. I’m sensing a real shift. I can’t speak for the suburbs of New York, but I can tell you that I live in the Western suburbs of Chicago, and almost all the moms of young children in my neighborhood are home full or part time. What’s so fun is that time and again I have found out that this Mary Kay representative is a former high-powered patent attorney, for instance, or that mom hosting the kindergarden parents’ committee was a partner at a major accounting firm. I think women of my generation (um–fortyish) don’t feel that we’re letting down some mythical sisterhood just because we want to be the ones taking care of our kids while they are little.

I will also note that parent committees at schools take on a whole new level of professionalism–and aggressiveness! – when you are dealing with moms who are literally former CEOs.

NRO: Why does your family need a Willy Wonka intervention?

Hart: Most of my children are convinced that if the world doesn’t revolve around them–it should. It’s my job to work to correct that misapprehension for them.

NRO: Are any of your children Verucas?

Hart: Yes–but I prefer for her to remain anonymous at this time.

NRO: Have you and the kids seen the Johnny Depp version?

Hart: Yep–they hated it.

NRO: What’s the toughest question you’ve take from the brood about Katrina? How did you answer?

Hart: How could God allow this? I tell them this–God said, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things (Isaiah 45:7, NIV).

I talked to them about how we can’t see the “big picture”–God can. That doesn’t mean a disaster is a good thing, it’s a terrible thing–but it does mean that God is sovereign even over disasters like Katrina, and can bring good out of it.

NRO: Are the kids happy to be back at school?

Hart: No. But I am.

NRO: What’s the most important lesson your parents taught you growing up?

Hart: They loved me like crazy. But–gosh darn it–I wasn’t the center of the universe, even their universe, after all.


The Latest