A FEW THOUGHTS ON THE QUALIFICATIONS FOR PARENTHOOD
© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense
Being that I am 56 years of age, I am often asked whether I have ever been married and have a family. My response often surprises people, but it really is the truth. At some point between my late teens and early twenties, I had this vague notion of having a family with six or seven children. I formulated that notion due to the fact that both of my parents came from families of ten kids. I observed the close knit nature of their relationships, and all of the fun and craziness that took place during family reunions.
To further contribute to my desire to have a large family, I observed my high school girlfriend’s large family, and the manner in which the older kids worked to support and raise the younger ones. At an early age, I admired the values of team work and cooperation, and generally believed that the interests of the group or unit always outweighed the interests of the individual. To this day, that is a fundamental principle underlying many of my decisions.
However, at some point, I came to the realization that there were several prerequisites to having a family, no matter the size, including dating, finding the appropriate spouse, and then actually following through with marriage. At this point, folks usually laugh and inquire as to why these were stumbling blocks. Often times, they suggest that I was unwilling to “commit,” whatever that means. Quite frankly, it is far more complex than that, since I’ve been fully committed to lots of teams, units, causes, and issues in my life – just not to one individual.
In my early thirties, I still thought that it was theoretically possible that I might one day have a family, albeit with a smaller number of children. However, my whole approach to life began to fundamentally change once I began to travel to foreign countries. My whole sense of values, good and bad, right and wrong, rich and poor, began to take on more complexity. I became less rigid in my thinking, and perhaps far too curious about, and tolerant, of virtually everything. I often told my friends that my entire worldview appeared to change roughly every two years based on my new travels and experiences.
By my early forties, I was beginning to recognize the more “pragmatic “ aspects of having a family and all that it involves, particularly from a professional and career perspective. Additionally, more and more of my single friends were deserting the ranks. There was another development that ultimately led me to conclude that I would never be “qualified” to be a parent, and consequently I decided to avoid that venture. By this time, I had seen children at all levels of society in many countries, in virtually every imaginable condition, and I became confused as to the “proper” way to raise a child.
What plays over and over in my mind is the picture and sound of kids under the age of ten, working the streets of Rio de Janeiro in the wee hours of the morning, selling chewing gum, or offering to shine your shoes, for a few cruzados. In one sense, you were stunned by the youth of these kids, and the fact that their parents, assuming that they had parents, allowed them to be out, unescorted, at that hour of the night. On the other hand, they were always savvy, sharp, enterprising, witty, spunky, and far wiser than their ages would suggest.
I then began to question, which situation was better for the kid. It also reminded me of the dilemma which my Mother often posed. Having grown up on a farm in rural Alabama during the Depression, she saw lots of poor families living in shotgun houses. However, after visiting many of her family members and friends who lived in the tenements and projects of Chicago and Detroit, she often wondered which version of poverty was preferable.
At some point I began to intellectualize the issue. This was aided by the fact that some close friends of mine, who were not particularly religious, explained how they planned to provide religious or spiritual guidance for their newborn daughter, despite their uncertainties about the whole faith issue. Using their model, I initially thought that I could provide my kids with some conceptual construct, outline the various competing factors for them to take into consideration, and assist them through the thought and decision process, utilizing something vaguely akin to the Socratic Method used in some academic settings.
However, I very quickly disabused myself of that notion. Parents have to establish clear parameters and define limits. There has to be, at varying points in time, and to varying degrees, specific amounts of black and white, and a continuum of grey. But it’s all a crap shoot, involving doing your best (perhaps with a little assistance from child psychologists, books, spiritual advisors, and close family members and friends), and we all know that there is no specific “how to” manual.
In my last article, I raised some issues about the qualifications necessary for one to run for elected office, particularly focusing on the highest office in the land, the presidency. With Mother’s Day approaching, I knew that I was going to hear a familiar statement. Hillary Clinton did not disappoint me. After her daughter Chelsea introduced her on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, Senator Clinton mentioned that one of her supporters had noted that being a Mother is the most difficult job on earth. She followed by noting that since she had done such a good job performing her parental responsibilities, handling the second most difficult job in the world would be a breeze.
We all recognize this type of statement for what it really is; however, it got me a thinking. We’ve spent the last year and a half examining, testing, questioning, scrutinizing, and just about every other “…ing” in connection with these candidates - why don’t we conduct a similar examination of potential parents before they are “permitted” to have children? Should society have some criteria? Should the criteria take the form of requirements or recommendations? Should parents have to participate in parenting courses before they screw it up?
When you stop to think about it, at least with respect to the presidency, he or she has all sorts of advisors and staff members. Additionally, the President has two other branches of government to keep him or her in check. His or her actions are relatively transparent and constantly subject to public scrutiny. We even have an impeachment mechanism for dealing with serious breaches of trust and inappropriate conduct, not to mention the court of public opinion and the media.
But the influence or impact that a President has on the citizenry is filtered, moderated, vicarious, derivative, and relatively indirect at best. Additionally, we have an opportunity every four years to reconsider our choice. On the other hand, parents have a direct, significant, immediate impact on human lives right from the day one. Most of their conduct is in private. We can all recall points in time where various government regimes have tried to control the number of children born, or their sex, or impose other restrictions. However, from a practical perspective, the parents rule, and in the event that their rule is not in the best interests of the child, it takes quite a bit of time for society to recognize it, and then to deal with it. Furthermore, society generally only deals with the most egregious cases, not the subtle ones. So why should we subject presidential candidates to more intense scrutiny than we do for those seeking to be parents?
I’ve also thought about this parental responsibility thing from another perspective, that being the legal one. For years, I have questioned the appropriateness of allowing individuals to sue business employers for various forms of discrimination, or perceived discrimination, in the workplace. You mean to tell me that a sexist or racist person all of a sudden becomes that way once they become employed by the company? And you mean to tell me that business entities, the legal fictions that they are, have the capabilities and sophistication to prevent that type of conduct once their adult employees join the workforce? What about holding the parents responsible financially? And the churches? And the grade schools? No, you say. Too impractical. But what about fairness, or comparative fault or responsibility?
Quite frankly, we all know that it is a game and a fiction inartfully crafted to serve some societal purpose, that we just don’t seem capable of addressing, or have the political will to address, in some more direct and relevant manner. My concern is that, as a general rule, games and fictions don’t serve us well very long. Their functionality lasts for brief spurts, and then we have to pervert the construct to continue to make it work. Not only is this approach not particularly efficient or effective, it engenders disrespect, by our citizens, for the system.
Getting back to presidential candidates, perhaps we should have a presidential academy which all those individuals interested in becoming president should be required to attend. By establishing such an institution, we could ensure that all of our candidates are properly trained for the job, so that we can avoid engaging in this free-for-all during which they are dissected and demonized. Perhaps that will also make us have more respect for our elected officials.
But that’s only the second most difficult job in the universe. But what should we do about the most difficult? We’re intelligent beings. We ought to be able to come up with some approaches, and not just continue conducting business as usual. We constantly try to improve in virtually every area of technology and human endeavor. Can’t we improve on this election process, and the development of parents? Or do we just leave it up to the individual prospective candidates and parents to make the call themselves, and decide that they aren’t qualified before entering the arena? I honestly don’t know. Do you?
© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense
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