It Takes a Village

I kicked off this year with a simple resolution. I’m not much of one for resolutions, but sometimes it’s fun to come up with something — generally, of course, focused on self-improvement. In this case, I stole the idea from someone else; I don’t even remember who, or if it was even someone I know personally. I suppose that’s irrelevant to reflect on now, nearing the end of the seventh month of the year. The resolution I made was this: that I wouldn’t take to social media and comment on articles I hadn’t actually read. It seems simple enough, but in the knee-jerk world of Twitter, we’re often tempted to lash out at headlines or synopses that may not tell the whole story. Putting an end to that accomplished two things; first, I’m able to critique things in a more reasoned manner, and second, I’m not getting mired in comments on articles that I dislike the concept of so much that I can’t even read them.

Fast-forward to today, when I read an opinion piece from the New York Times by Nebraska GOP Senator Ben Sasse. In his piece, Sasse does something that’s neither unique nor particularly interesting by dissecting, from his point of view, the way that parents are failing their children in the modern world and falling short in terms of providing them the requisite life skills and experience to succeed in the “real world” — which, it seems, refers to any part of our lives that occur after we’ve moved out of our childhood homes to go and forge our own journey. He asserts several things throughout the article that I disagree with — some so vehemently that I’m scarce able to wrap my head around his presuppositions.

I’ve already taken my feelings on this to Twitter in a long-winded thread (starting here), but I felt like it requires a bit more examining, which brings me here. You see, I don’t think it’s actually possible for anyone to “parent” their child too much; I don’t think that I agree with the ridiculous notions that Sasse seems to rely on as gospel truth with regards to what it means to be a parent, or how we, as parents, are supposed to approach our relationship with our child and their growth into adulthood. I said there’s several things within his article that I disagree with, and I’m going to do my best here to deconstruct the nature of my disagreements and attempt a reasoned response to the approach that Sasse — and, likely, more parents than I’d care to admit — seems to believe is universal.

First, let’s take a small clip from Sasse’s own words:

We’re parenting too much, too long. Our efforts to protect our kids from hurt feelings, tedious chores, money worries and the like are well intentioned. But many of us, perhaps especially middle-class parents, are unwittingly enabling many of our kids to not grow up.

In just this tiny little slice, I find so much contentious nonsense that I struggle to see how this is even a point. The notion that “protecting our kids from hurt feelings” is a parent’s job is not only ridiculous, it’s directly harmful. It’s harmful to new or questioning parents that are looking for answers about how to best raise their children, it’s harmful to the children being raised by anyone that would subscribe to this tripe, and it’s harmful to our entire society. The idea that a Republican senator, no less, is pushing this narrative — that we need to coddle our children and defend them from reality — is laughably insipid. How, exactly, does Sasse believe these “delicate snowflakes” that his party is so against come to be? Does he honestly believe that keeping our children from having their feelings hurt or knowing about “money troubles” is doing anything but establishing the exact sensitive mindset that the GOP fears?

My kids have had their feelings hurt. We try to comfort them, but we don’t “protect” them from this. I think back to a conversation I had with my oldest son about some bullying he’d experienced — not outright violence, not even severe targeted emotional harassment, but the cold-shoulder, mild-teasing sort that just wears away at a child’s confidence. When he told me he was going through this, I didn’t tell him not to feel hurt by it — that’s the worst possible response. I didn’t tell him we could make it stop, either, because we can’t. I told him that I’d experienced it too, that during my school-age days I faced a lot of similar ridicule and social stigma. I told him it sucked, and that it hurt me a lot, and that I cried about it regularly from when I was very young to when I was exiting high school.

Did I want my kid’s feelings to be hurt? Hell no. Was there anything I could actually do to stop it from happening? Nope. So I did the only thing I could think of: I talked to my son about what he was feeling. I talked to him about times I’d felt the same and how I’d managed to get through it, despite years of feeling pretty miserable. I didn’t tell him that what he felt was wrong, and I didn’t create an expectation that his feelings would stop, or that we could truly soothe them. Instead, we discussed the reality of it — that sometimes, our feelings are hurt by other people, and that we can’t control that. We can only control what we choose to do once we’ve been hurt, and we discussed some alternatives that had worked out okay for me when I was the target in my own childhood.

Moving on, let’s look at another critical idea that Sasse holds to in his diatribe: the value of “hard work” as the only way to understand reality. He frames this, mostly, through his own lens as a Nebraskan; that’s a fair bias, I think, because the rural nature of his own youth and the jobs available to his children are certainly more agrarian than, say, those I’ll find here in Northern California. Sasse actually brushes up against a certain self-awareness of this bias in his writing before taking another leap backwards, seen here:

Not everyone lives in a big cattle state, and younger kids require more parental supervision. I also don’t romanticize agrarian life — there’s too much manure around for it to be truly idyllic — but meaningful work for kids is less about any particular task than the habits the hours teach. The effort involved and the struggles, once overcome, become the scar tissue of future character.

Look around your neighborhood and see what ways your kids could serve their community. Even in this digital age, lawns need to be mowed and lemonade stands can break even.

The idea that labor must be physical to be worthwhile, or that it must build “scar tissue” in order to form a functioning adult, falls short of his own assertion. If it’s about the habits more than the work itself, then it stands to reason that even “softer” work can achieve the same effect. Yes, I have my kids do some chores around the house — there’s not much we need done that small hands can help with, but even my five-year-old has learned the ins and outs of scrubbing a toilet. This isn’t about “scarring” them into becoming grown people, but about instructing them in things that they’ll need to learn how to do. I’ve had the kids help with laundry, dishes, cleaning out the cats’ litter boxes — all things that are unpleasant parts of our lives, and which demonstrate that we all have to do things we’re not terribly fond of.

I guess it boils down to the fundamental role that we, as parents, have. Is it our job to “let kids be kids”, or to teach our kids to be prepared for the world at large? Do we define our duty as a role of guardianship, or of guidance? Sasse seems to feel — and pretty strongly so — that the “life lessons” part of childhood is meant to come from outside sources. He discusses sending his own child, at age 14, to work on a farm, and his own time spent doing similar things as a kid. When you pair this with his assertion that parents are meant to protect their children from the harsher parts of reality (hurt feelings, financial woes, et al.) seems to indicate a deeper division between his view of parenting and mine; it’s the same mindset that places the entire onus of a child’s education on their teachers with no accountability for failing to support that education at home. It is, again, a toxic and harmful mindset that allows Sasse and his ilk to blame any shortcomings that his children may display squarely on the shoulders of other people who “didn’t do their job”.

That’s not to say I don’t think teachers are meant to provide a solid education. Far from it. However, I think it’s remarkably important to note that there’s no single solution, there is no entity or institution who can take sole responsibility for a child’s ability to transition from “school life” to “real life” — as if such a distinction truly needs to be made anyway. Rather, my assertion is one that we’ve all heard: it takes a village to raise a child. This was never meant to state that parents have no part in that raising, but rather that we must play an active role in every part of it. School provides a certain kind of education, while chores provide another, and open discussion about everything from finances to sports to sexuality provides yet another. The idea that adolescents need outside voices in order to grow isn’t wrong — but to suggest that those outside voices are the ones who must be held responsible for it is not only bad parenting, it’s an irresponsible way to live your own life. It’s a disservice to your child, and to everyone that they interact with in their life.

 Now, let’s be honest — I’m no saint, nor am I some perfect paragon of parenting skills. I fuck up. I make mistakes and I say things I instantly regret. I sometimes react emotionally rather than rationally. We’re all human, we’re all flawed, and that’s okay. However, I do believe that when we choose to become parents — for those of us who were lucky enough to make that decision as a conscious choice — we accept a huge responsibility. We’re here to help shape the minds of young humans, and we shouldn’t only be thinking about what shape it is we’re helping them achieve, but how we’re helping them achieve it. Is there value in hard work? There can be, absolutely, but I don’t think it’s value that can’t be found anywhere else, nor that “hard work” is solely defined by physically-laborious tasks. Our bodies are only a portion of who we are, and probably not even a remarkably important piece compared to the rest of what defines us.

 I don’t think that any of us, parents or otherwise, has all of the answers — not about how to raise children, nor about anything else in this vast and complex world. I try to do my best, and I think that (by and large) most of us do. Not knowing how to flawlessly do everything that we do isn’t bad; it’s a fundamental part of the human experience. That’s why I feel it’s important to work together and collaborate rather than engage in finger-pointing about how someone else isn’t holding up their part of some imagined bargain. I’ll continue raising my kids this way, and Sasse will raise his another way. From a material standpoint, his will likely have more success in most metrics by which capitalist society measures it; I’d like to think, though, that there’s rather a lot more to life than achieving wealth or social status, and that my kids will grow to be compassionate people who lead fulfilling lives.

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