Lisa writes: Would you lie for your kid? Cheat? Steal? My guess is that for most of us there is a point where we would do each of these things. There are conditions, like famine and war, where we would leave our morals behind and act on our protective instincts to assure our children’s survival. But in real life, the one where we get up and go to work and the kids go to school, most parents, I believe, hold onto their moral compasses acting neither as bad people nor bad parents.
Saturday morning I was on Fox and Friends with guest Jennifer Breheny Wallace, discussing the recent New York Magazine article, “Is Ethical Parenting Possible?” In Lisa Miller’s article she asserts that, “Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral. Worse, the moral weakness of parents is always on display, for children bear witness to their incessant ethical hairsplitting.”
Here I have to disagree. Parenting is not a war, in fact it is the very opposite. In parenting there is no enemy. We may feel pressure, but we are not being attacked. There are no short burst of firepower, but rather a sustained multi decade long process of nurturing a helpless infant into a self-sufficient adult. There are high points and low points but there is certainly no moment when we can claim certain victory and walk away.
Miller goes on to posit that our love for our kids and our burning desire for their success allows us to throw out our ethical bearings and focus solely on our child’s push forward. This desire can turn us into bad people and then bad parents. To quote Miller, “Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all.”
As a parent, I certainly do not feel towards others as I do towards my own kids, but that does not mean that I do not believe that society’s rules apply to my kids. And further, and perhaps more important, that it is my job to teach them that the rules do apply to them. I may feel that they are the best three people on Earth, but it is my job to show them the difference between the way that I feel about them and the fact that, in the eyes of the world, they are just like anybody else. I disagree that we cannot behave, as Miller suggests, like society’s rules apply to our kids. We are not bad people or bad parents it is just that sometimes, as the fallible people that we are, we choose to act otherwise.
The example Miller gives of parents putting their own children before others are familiar ones, redshirting in kindergarten, failing to clear the lice out of a child’s hair or doing their homework for them. While some bad parenting may have a sinister motive, most parenting fails come from the fact that our resources of time, money and attention are limited and, in our frustration, we do not always behave as we know we should.
I think as parents, we can tell the difference between what we should do and what we actually do and, more often than not, we do act as though society’s rule apply to all. One examples Miller cites are parents who coach in order to put their kids in a great playing spot. Most parents coach because they love kids and sports. They coach because recreational sports only exist through a legion of volunteer parents who should be thanked for giving their time every weekend. I have seen parents advantage their kids on sports teams, but I far more often, I have seen parents who played fair or even bent over backwards to slightly disadvantage their kid so that there could be no doubts of favoritism. Those who bend the rules to benefit their kids, I would suggest are a tiny minority and I suspect if we looked deeper into their lives we might find that bending rules is not just something they do for their kids.
Today is never about today in parenting. Everyday we weigh the future against the present. For most of the time, good parenting, which entails a focus on the future wins out. It is always easier to do our kids homework. Every night, right up until they hit courses like calculus and biology, our evenings would go more smoothly if we just took out their backpacks did their work, put their names at the top and slide it right back into their folders. We don’t do that because we are focused on the long-term, the adult we are trying to raise. We need to go easy on ourselves when we get it wrong, and the present overwhelms the future. The lessons we teach are learned over months, years and decades, not on any one night.
My kids sometimes ask me to read papers they have written for school and to check for errors. A simple matter, but one rife with unsteady grounds. When I find the errors, misspellings, words missing and the like, I always feel torn. Do I point out their errors, or simply say that there are errors and they must find them? If I tell them what the errors are, certainly they have an advantage and, if I tell them the right answer, a huge advantage. What about when I realize that with some editing, the paper can be vastly improved? Am I a bad person or a bad parent if I tell them? On college admissions sites all over the country applicants are advised to share their admissions essays with parents and teachers to look for feedback and editing. This advice is given so that the high schooler can present their best work, but when does this type of adult help bleed over into unethical behavior? It can seem so clear until real life gets in the way.
We exist to allow our children to survive. Ensuring that they thrive is coded into every strand of our DNA. Yet our moral compasses, the beliefs that civilize us and that we spend our lives trying to pass on, are learned over the course of our own childhoods and I do not believe that in becoming a parent we discard the people we have become.