Politics & Policy

Teach Your Children Well

Madonna and me.

Am I a good parent? I find myself wondering this a lot recently. In part this is because of a minor child-behavior crisis we’re going through with one of our kids; in part it’s the result of some news stories I’ve been reading.

Exhibit A: Madonna. The Material Girl has been giving forth with her opinions about parenting. She is strict, especially where the media are concerned. “TV is poison. No one even talks about it around here. We have televisions, but they’re not hooked up to anything but movies. We don’t have magazines or newspapers in the house, either.” Nor is messiness tolerated chez Madonna: “If you leave your clothes on the floor, they’re gone when you come home… Lourdes has to earn all her clothes back…” Reading this makes me cringe: not with pity for the Ritchie kids, who will most likely come out of it all right (see below), but at my own slovenly incompetence at parenting. I could never consistently enforce that kind of discipline. My kids know that with a tremble of the lip, a winning smile, or an especially diligent piano practice, they can turn all my disciplinary intentions to mush. (The same thing seems to be true of Mr. Ritchie, actually. It’s the Moms who are the bad cops here.)

Exhibit B: The parents of Uniondale, N.Y. This middle-middle-class Long Island suburb has a Roman Catholic high school whose principal has canceled this year’s senior prom on grounds of excess. Says he: “Twenty years ago, seniors went to the beach after the prom and then to someone’s house for breakfast. From that, it’s turned into a weekend-long orgy…” He blames the parents, who are apparently willing to bankroll $1,000 formal-wear outfits, limos, after-prom house rentals and booze cruises, and the like. Wow. We didn’t even have proms in England back when. School ended, everyone went home. That was it. The whole prom thing seems as weird to me as some New Guinea mating ritual. My first real impression of a school prom was the one in Carrie–probably not the best impression to have. Anyway, these parents ought to be ashamed of themselves. What are they thinking of? Probably something like: “If I don’t do this for Kyle/Ashley, I won’t be his/her pal any more.”

Exhibit C: Mrs. Duggar. That’s the Arkansas lady who just recently presented her husband with their 16th child. A normal person’s reaction, on hearing about this, would be: “God bless them! But how on earth do they manage financially?” The United States is running a bit short of normal people, though, and filling up with types like SF Gate columnist Mark Morford, who wondered aloud:

Why does this sort of bizarre hyperbreeding only seem to afflict antiseptic megareligious families from the Midwest? In other words–assuming Michelle and Jim Bob and their brood of cookie-cutter Christian kidbots will never be allowed near a decent pair of designer jeans or a tolerable haircut from a recent decade, and assuming that they will all be tragically encoded with the values of the homophobic asexual Christian right–where are the forces that shall help neutralize their effect on culture? Where is the counterbalance to offset the damage?

(Doesn’t that word “asexual” seem a bit out of place in this context? Whatever.) What you are hearing there is the squeal of fear that comes from a liberal who notices a thing he’d much rather not notice: that the only truly philoprogenitive groups in the world are religious minorities–fundamentalist Christians, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, devout Muslims. Whatever you think about atheism intellectually or spiritually, it’s a Darwinian bust… whatever you think about Darwin.

Perhaps no aspect of human life has changed so much in the transition to post-industrial society as childhood. Duggar-sized families, nowadays so sensational, were common until quite recently. My own mother was number eleven of thirteen, and one family in the street I grew up in, in 1950s England, had twelve.

The scheduled, supervised, regimented lives our kids lead is also a new thing in the world. Up to a generation ago, kids just ran wild. As a child, I spent entire days in the woods with my friends, falling into ponds and out of trees. The only interest displayed by adults was: “Make sure you’re home for supper!” I sometimes wonder how my own kids will grow up with any notion of liberty, hardly having experienced it, as we did.

One shouldn’t dwell in nostalgia, I suppose. At least truly awful childhoods are scarcer than they were. Here is the start of Henry Morton Stanley’s entry in the 1911 Britannica. Stanley was born in June of 1840.

…his father, who died in 1843, was the son of a small farmer… [Stanley was then] brought up first by his maternal grandfather, and after his death was boarded out by his mother’s brothers at half a crown a week. In 1847 he was taken to the St. Asaph Union workhouse [think Oliver Twist], where he was noted for his activity and intelligence. The schoolmaster at the workhouse, James Francis (who eventually died in a madhouse), was a tyrant of the Squeers type, and in May 1856, [Stanley], after giving Francis a thrashing, ran away from school. He sought out his paternal grandfather–a well-to-do farmer–who refused to help him. A cousin, however, who was master of a national school… took him in as a pupil teacher. But within a year he was sent to Liverpool, where he lived with an uncle who was in straitened circumstances…

It’s grueling to read. By the end of the paragraph you’re pretty much ready to cut your throat. Yet Stanley, after many adventures–he fought in the American Civil War, on both sides–survived and prospered. What lives they had! How tough they were! And this was not so long ago; Stanley’s lifespan overlapped with my own father’s.

The resilience of kids, or at least of some kids, in the face of neglect, abandonment, and hardship, is a remarkable thing, and makes you wonder whether parenting really matters at all. Stanley’s case is not unusual. These Huckleberry Finn types, who survive dreadful childhoods to become useful and well-adjusted citizens, are quite common–Psychology Today did a cover story on the topic back in the 1970s. At that time, Freudianism was still the main template for popular thinking about child-raising. American parents were terrified that a wrong word or action might implant some dreadful neurosis in their child’s personality, and blamed their own parents for all their life problems.

With the passing of Freudianism,** the pendulum began to swing the other way, reaching its furthest extent with Judith Rich Harris’s controversial 1999 book The Nurture Assumption, which argued (I am simplifying, though not by much) that parenting style has little to do with the formation of adult personalities, the main factors being (a) genetics, and (b) childhood and adolescent peer groups. A psychologist friend of mine, much taken with Ms. Harris’s theory, started referring to “the 96 percent rule.” That is, two percent of what we do with our kids is beneficial to them, two percent is harmful, and the other 96 percent doesn’t make a darn bit of difference. So much for Proverbs 22.vi.

Perhaps these minimalists are right. I have a British accent; my wife has a Chinese accent; our kids speak pure American English. If we couldn’t even influence their speech, what chance do we have with their behavior? One must do one’s best, though–at least leave them with a few useful memories and precepts. Zuo ma zuo niu, sigh the Chinese: “We are horses and oxen [for our children].” It’s instinctual, I suppose, and we must do our best. I wonder, though, how many nannies Madonna has to help her out?


** Freudianism’s death can, I think, be formally dated at 1988, when Chestnut Lodge Hospital, in Maryland, settled a suit by former patient Dr. Rafael Osheroff. Dr. Osheroff, suffering from depression, had undergone seven months of psychoanalysis at the hospital, his condition worsening all the time. Transferring to another facility that used antidepressant drug treatments, Dr. Osheroff got better at once. He sued, and settled.


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