What do we owe our children?
Don’t think that such a philosophic personal question has no bearing on the public issues. It’s clear that our nation cannot continue on the present course. The power structure has shifted to the corporation and the wealthy few, who have successfully manipulated the political system to support economic and monetary policies that sacrifice the great majority to their own benefit. We’ve failed to pay attention to our society and have succumbed to a consumerist mentality that has literally turned Aesop’s Grasshopper and the Ant on its head. Our late generation boomers have done such a poor job of savings that they’re unable to retire in the classical sense and are unwilling to give up positions to the younger generation, who themselves are overladen with debt in their quest for the middle class. As I’ve said before, we have to renegotiate the social contracts amongst ourselves…but where to start?
The only way to truly start the conversation is in the home. What do I, as a father, owe my children? It isn’t an odd question because how we raise our children is crucial to their ability to cope with the changes that the country will have to endure in the coming decades.
It’s been a long, hard four decades for American fathers. We’ve been gone from a significant number of our children’s lives and frankly, it shows. The rise of the divorce rate led to children being often given to the sole custody of the mothers with the father being marginalized. The court system held to old beliefs that the children were best left to the care of the mothers, who were better parents by dint of simply being mothers; to be fair, the father before the 1970s usually did have little experience with the kids and would have been completely at sea, at least for the beginning. But the presumption held that fathers were automatically worse parents by dint of simply being fathers. The perversities of the old welfare system, in which women received additional government stipends to support more children, led to the growth of inner-city populations in which the presence of a father became the rare exception and not the rule. These two roads led to the almost complete marginalization of the American father, a punch-line in any number of popular situation comedies such as Married With Children, The Simpsons and Family Guy. There were certainly other shows, such as Cosby, but the damage was done as it’s easier to tear down than to build up.
But long struggles by fathers through the years are turning the tides. Court systems no longer automatically rule on behalf of the mother and I personally know of situations in which the fathers are suing for full custody of the kids, having patiently documented and worked to show that they were decent parents. There is organized recognition by fatherless men that they themselves suffered for lack of a father and wanting to assure that it doesn’t occur with their own children. The media is now portraying men – in commercials and on television – as equally capable parents, albeit with a different perspective than traditional motherhood. Jimmy Fallon’s sitcom, Guys With Kids, is a prime example of men – each in a different marital status – making their children a primary focus in their lives and making fatherhood work.
As we reconsider our mutual obligations, what do we – fathers – owe our children?
- More than anything else, we owe them our time. The economy is changing as we watch; while the unemployment rate is down, the jobs that are being created are mostly part-time and without benefits so that longer hours and more jobs are required in order to keep the family income afloat. Families will find, even as they cut and adjust their spending, that they’re going to be working longer hours. Both parents will be stretched and fathers will have to step up to greater levels in sharing the household and childcare duties. But childcare is more than simply cleaning and feeding; childcare involves reading to and playing with them, overseeing studies and monitoring their friendships and play. This means that there’s simply going to be less time available for fathers to spend on themselves, something that our forebear fathers were loathe to do without. This is a return to the first principle of fatherhood, that your life is truly no longer your own.
- We owe them our conversation. The stereotype of Dad behind the morning newspaper is old and frankly, I’m not sure if it’s even operative anymore. But Dad has to have a vibrant and engaged voice in the daily conversation with the kids. This is especially important as we’ve realized that the kids are now spending more than 6 hours each day nestled in an electronic cocoon, without benefit of a parent who can help bring order and context to all of the imagery that’s presented to them. The children are literally bombarded with imagery and sound and it often comes in rapid waves. One of our jobs is to enforce some discipline on the electronics and then talk with them about what’s happening around them to bring context to their world.
- We owe them a respect for their mother, even if we’re divorced. Children love both of their parents and desperately want to know that even if they’re not together, they can pull together for them. They neither deserve nor want to be caught in the middle of squabbling parents and we’ve witnessed the angst and distress of kids who are caught amidst dueling parents. I was driving with Youngest last week and the conversation turned to several of his friends, all of whom have parents separated or divorced; he remarked that if we broke up, he hoped that we would behave like one particular friend whose parents were civil and actively worked to maintain a decent relationship for the boy’s benefit. It was frankly startling. So even if you think that she’s a screaming banshee and she sees you as the devil incarnate, you’re going to have to find a way if at all possible to keep an even keel. In other words, if there’s nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.
- We owe them our support. This is more than just time because supporting them means that we’re also going to have to leave our comfort zones and learn about what they enjoy as they experience new things. I’m a case in point as I’ve had to learn how to keep the basketball and baseball score books and scoreboard, and am learning the basics of the garage band on the fly; I have no experience in any of these things but if it’s reasonable, respectable and enjoyable, then they should be supported as they explore their interests.
- We owe them our adulthood. There’s been a tendency in the past several decades for parents to want to be friends instead of parents, people who have to say no, maintain discipline and administer punishment and trust me, it can be contentious and unpleasant. The kids have to understand that there is a hierarchy and that someone is able to make decisions devoid of the angst and drama that frequently accompanies the teen years. Likewise, someone has to take the long-term view and that’s something about which most teens are simply incapable due to the inexperience and the still turbulent hormones that drive much teen decision-making.
- We don’t owe them guilt for not being able to give them what they want. As incomes decline and families rejigger to meet their needs, parents simply won’t be able to provide all of the accessories that are peddled and that might have been afforded in the past. Kids can learn to do without and it’s frankly important that they do so, that they learn to differentiate between need and want; it’s a distinction that’s actively blurred by the corporations that peddle their wares. Consider this however: if you don’t give them the latest version of iPod or the Xbox but instead make a concerted effort to spend more time with them and interacting with them, you’ll instead be giving them the paternal involvement that you yourself might never have had.
It’s possible that if you think about it, you’ll have your own criteria of what you owe your children. The point however, is to actively think and define what you should do. That’s at least half of the fight and a good headstart for the kids. Then the trick will be to honor them to the best of ability.