This article was first published as Parenting In Our Time on Technorati.
For more than forty years I’ve taught literature, history, consciousness, and writing as a senior teacher and administrator in major American and Asian universities, and in progressive preschools and schools. In part because of the subjects I teach, in part because of the ways in which we work together, students of all ages often confide in me with uncommon intimacy and trust.
I’ve learned far more than I’ve taught. In particular I’ve learned that for all human beings nothing in life is more important than our experience of parenting. How we’re parented determines almost everything about how we envision and respond to ourselves, other people, life, and the universe: how we exist, how we seek, and what we accomplish.
Despite the infinite importance of parenting no nation on earth provides parents with meaningful advice about or training in what children need, how children develop, and how we best can fulfill our immense opportunities and responsibilities in guiding, guarding, and gracing our children’s lives. Nor do faith traditions, schools, or workplaces assume this vital work.
Isn’t this odd? We require substantive preparation, qualification, and licensure before anyone can drive a car, pilot an airplane, operate a motorboat, practice a profession, serve as a tradesperson – almost every complex vocation in which a polity conceives we have important mutual interests. In every jurisdiction on earth, though, anyone can become a parent. We can raise our children, shape their minds, gentle or devastate their souls in almost any manner we choose.
Surely none of us would want the state or any other institution to exercise authority over parenting. Yet there exists a vast void in this, our lives’ most vital office. Few of us can feel confident that we possess authentic knowledge about how our children develop, what our children most need, and how we best can give our loved ones the devotion, guidance, and freedoms they require. Few of us feel that we have any access to suitable teaching, discussion, or sheer feedback about our all-important calling.
Voids are hateful to nature. Vacuums tend to fill opportunely with one or another substance. This is especially true for children. Children have but one work in life. They learn. Learning is all that children do. They do it fulltime, and they do it with genius. They observe. They glean. From the foundation of their own experience, they employ their intellect. They interpret. They judge. They learn.
Children prefer to learn from their parents. But in every culture there exist many engaged and powerful competitors: especially, in our time, the electronic media and our children’s peer groups.
For better and for worse, our children learn. They want and perforce will learn primarily from us. However our parenting will be challenged by immensely empowered alternative forces: schools, friends, play environments, and, above all others, the contemporary pop milieus that form our children’s affective civilization.
Our children will flourish if we parent them wisely and well. But we need to be there. (We’ll talk at a later time about what being there really means.)
If we’re not there our children will seek and find alternative providers. They’ll absorb other influences from substitute influencers.
These influencers abound. Many are commercial in their motivation, exceptionally skillful in their pursuits, readily available, and by any estimation terribly pernicious.
Doubtless we all can agree that how we parent is of utmost importance to our children. We surely can agree that we who presently are parents should make our parenting the center of our emotion, thought, and action. Trained or untrained, ready or not ready, we must commit to our parenting all the love, knowledge, and time we can provide.
Many among us are not yet parents, but soon will be. Those of us who contemplate forming adult relationships, entering into permanent communion, and preparing to birth new children need to know that parenting is a monumental undertaking like no other in its joyfulness, consequence, and demands.
We know this. We know it beyond doubt. But among the saddest of truths is the fact that, in our time, in all our societies, an ever-growing number of pressures make it ever more difficult for parents to form and remain in unions that are permanently partnered.
And it is becoming ever more difficult for parents, partnered or single, to command time. We work ever harder, in workplaces ever more consumptive of hours, energy, and spirit.
And for any number of reasons many of us – most of us, now – decide to move ever further from our extended families. Many of us live in communities in which we have few roots. Many of us live in locales that are not communities at all. We may be the only family members with whom our children enjoy persisting contact and connection.
These elements of contemporary existence combine in ways that are mutually reinforcing and potentially very dangerous for our children. However good our intentions, many of us commit less and less time to our children. The time we give them may be heavily compromised by the frustrations and exhaustions we encounter in our working lives, the anxieties imposed upon us by the world’s protracted economic crisis, the confusions and fears that devolve upon us during this epoch fraught with deep, swift, and incomprehensible changes.
These stresses often are exacerbated by the strains that may arise in our adult relationships: and the suffering that afflicts us if our parenting partner goes away.
Not to mention the perplexities and guilt we may feel when we’re navigating and transacting with one another, as so many of us now do, across multiple cultures.
Despite our best intentions we may yield to these burdens. We may invite our televisions or computers or iPhones to become our children’s primary companions and supplemental caregivers. We may let go of our appropriate and necessary supervision of our schools. We may let lapse our passion for our children, our heartfelt soul life with them, our elemental and absolutely necessary expressions of love and care.
As we noted earlier, our children will not accept void. They need to be loved, guided, and parented. If we can’t be there for them they will do, in my experience, three things.
1. They will decide we do not truly love them.
2. They will conclude they do not deserve to be truly loved.
3. They will look for, discover, and become profoundly influenced by other persons or presences who will parent them in our place.
Our new technology provides a wonderful platform for concerned people of all ages and backgrounds to consider important issues in our lives and converse about effective solutions. No other issue can be of more importance than how we birth new lives, shelter new souls, shepherd new minds, gentle and assist new beings.
No one has all the solutions to all the problems we’ve raised here. No single vision or view can meet every family’s needs, wishes, or situations. Certainly, though, frank discussion is vital and feasible.
With our new technology’s help I want to mount a sustained conversation about several interrelated, incomparably important issues:
— Children’s true nature
— What children truly need
— How we best can parent to help our children achieve happiness and success
Posts on these crucial subjects will follow at regular intervals.