As you have probably guessed from my blog silence this weekend, I have been heavily engaged in various family activities, many of which seemed to involve soccer balls or (this weekend) footballs. I haven’t had lots of time to think about current events (which must, in any event, take a back seat to the Superbowl), but I have had a lot of time to think about parenting. These thoughts have let me to the conclusion that, at least in my household, our parenting styles reflect quite precisely our political beliefs.
With some glaring exceptions (most notably second hand smoke which bugs me so much I’m willing to allow the government to prohibit smoking in public places), I’m fairly libertarian. I believe in individualism, without tight government oversight. I trust that people, armed with adequate information, will make appropriate decisions regarding their own well-being. If they choose not to make appropriate decisions, I believe that they should be responsible for the consequences. I think our government should be there in the case of unforeseen disasters, that it has a responsibility to protect the nation from national security and epidemic health dangers, and that a humane nation must always care for those who cannot care for themselves (such as the mentally or physically disabled). Mostly, though, I believe that citizens thrive when left alone.
It turns out that, as the parent of pre-adolescent children, I bring precisely the same attitude towards parenting. I make sure that my children are very clear on the big rules and the big moral issues. Some of the rules tell them what they must do (go to school) and some tell them what they may not do (drink, drugs, sex, violence, etc.). The morality is predicated on both the Golden Rule (“Do unto others…”) and the Hillel Rule (“Do not do unto others…”). I hold them responsible for handling many of their own affairs.
Here are a few examples of how this parenting works: I will remind the kids to do their homework, but I will not force them to do it. Their homework is not my problem; it’s theirs. If they fail to do it, they have to deal with the teacher. Both of my kids do their homework.
I do not dictate what my children should wear. I have some moral parameters (she may not wear slut clothes; he may not wear gang clothes), but otherwise I’ll simply give them information, whether that’s about the expected temperature or the type of event we’re attending). They may make their own choices. If they’re too hot or too cold, or under-dressed or over-dressed, next time they will probably take more seriously the information I gave them.
I do not tell my kids what they should do with their friends. I may say they cannot watch TV or play computer games, and they know that they’re not allowed to engage in criminal, cruel or dangerous acts, but otherwise they’re supposed to find their own amusement. Their ability to have fun with their peers is not my responsibility.
I understand that this laissez-faire attitude won’t work under all circumstances, just as it won’t for a government vis a vis all of its citizens, at all times. When my children were little, they needed me to have a much heavier parenting hand. When they’re sick, they need my care. When they’re in danger, they need my protection. When they violate rules that don’t come with an automatic “natural consequence,” I may have to step in and provide that consequence.
But always, always, I endeavor to give my children as much freedom as they can possibly handle. I also try, at all times, to communicate as clearly as possible with them. Because I don’t bury them in a flurry of prohibitions and directives, it’s pretty easy for me to be clear about the things that matter. They know what I expect, and they can easily make choices to abide with my expectations — or to ignore them and face the consequences.
My husband is a very bright man who suspects that most people process information poorly and don’t make good decisions. He believes that certain races and cultures (cultures = Sarah Palin hicks) simply can’t function without an educated hand guiding them — preferably a hand educated at a reputable East Coast institution. He is a firm believer that government exists to provide as many services and rights (even if those rights are conflicting) as possible. Government should provide education to everyone (legal or illegal), health care to everyone (legal or illegal), and housing to everyone (again, legal or illegal). He believes firmly in anthropogenic climate change and wants the government, by hook or by crook, through incentives or punitive measures, to change our economy and way of life to protect against imminent immolation. He is a relativist, who believes that there are few absolute rights and wrongs, and that America fought her last good war between 1939 and 1945. He is, in other words, a modern liberal.
What’s interesting is how closely my husband’s parenting style mirrors his belief that government, acting for its citizen’s own benefit, must constantly micromanage their lives. While I will inform my children that it’s cold outside, he will tell them what they must wear. While I will remind them that they have to do their homework before bedtime, he will sit them down with threats of reprisals. While I will tell them to get away from their computer games, he will try to plan out their activities. He is very directive and protective. He tends not to give the children information or a big picture idea behind his rules and directives. Instead, he just says “Do this” or “Do not do that.” He and the kids run into trouble sometimes when they interpret something contrary to his meaning.
Here are two examples of the way in which children and adults miscommunicate, although neither is from my own home. The first concerns the mother who says “Don’t let me see you hit your sister.” A grown-up understands this to be a prohibition against hitting. A child, however, may quite logically read it as a prohibition against hitting his sister within Mom’s line of sight. Likewise, a parent who tells a child to “get your backpack out of the front hall” may be surprised when the child merely moves it to the living room. Children are literalists and it can make for some huge communication problems, especially with a directive parent.
My husband approaches parenting with tremendous love for the children, just as my laissez faire approach is a loving one. That is, he does not perceive himself to be a bully, nor do I believe myself to be neglectful. Each of us thinks that our approach is the best way to shape our little ones into happy and productive adults.
The kids, to their credit, are shaping up nicely. They do well in school, have normal social lives and good friends, stay out of trouble, and dress appropriately. It’s impossible to tell whether the freedom I grant them or the direction he gives them is responsible for their current well-being. Perhaps it’s an amalgam of the two — which is also a good metaphor for a healthy government being one that balances between anarchy and totalitarianism. There are circumstances where the laissez-faire approach is neglectful to the point of cruelty; and other circumstances in which a heavy hand is stifling to the point of dysfunction and despair.
(I’ll keep you posted on all this as my children approach their teen years. My husband and I may find ourselves doing some fancy footwork to adapt our parenting styles to those changing circumstances.)