‘Meet the Parents’ Today (self-righteous, incompetent, vengeful)
And yet apparently possessed of ‘rights’. But the very being of a parent – that one has children – is not itself a right but rather a privilege. Not all those who desire children can have them, many lose children whom they wished to keep, and children themselves will eventually judge their parents, and some of those will vanish from the latter’s ken for whatever perceived injustice they had endured. Even so, if we do not speak of simply having children as a right, which we cannot, perhaps there is some other meaning to the desperate and disparate call to arms that self-styled parents’ groups have of late sounded? For they gird themselves against all other social institutions and even the family, of which they are generally and inordinately so proud, is seen as no longer the family anymore. For some it is the schools, for some the State, for fewer a church, this one or that, for others the ministries of child welfare, and for some it is other parents, judged lapsed and prolapsed in their moral obligations. But whatever or whomever may be the villain in the parental imagination, the lash of this lens is never turned toward themselves.
So, I will do it for them. At once it is sage to recall that over 95% of child abuse occurs in the home, committed by persons well-known to the victim. The litany of largesse is not of specific interest, only the social fact itself. Almost all the remainder is perpetrated by coaches, teachers, trainers, and other adults who have some intimate contact and power over the child. Sports coaches are now belatedly living the infamy they deserve, at least some of them, as well as a few ‘Christian’ educators, but the vast majority of villains escape yet. The privacy of the household remains a bulwark against both investigation and prosecution, an oversize mute shoved down the very throat of any youthful horn, a bastion of iniquity that euphemizes discipline while it euthanizes childhood. In short, parents might well be by definition abusive, even if the very best of them practice only some silent symbolic force and never bellow, shame their child with ne’er a finger laid upon, or ignore their child entirely in the name of ‘progressive’ parenting. Neo-fascists and neo-communists alike, parents straight across the political spectrum upshift their pressing incompetence into a distressing defence of ‘parenthood’ in the abstract, bereft of any detailed accounting of exactly what they do or have done in the day-to-day travails of helping children attain young adulthood.
So let us then ‘imagine’. Parents abuse officials of organized sports, they oust teachers and coaches from school programs, they get themselves elected to school boards and promptly ban books and other media, they rail against laws that protect children – for they well know against whom these laws are directed – and they seek at every turn to justify to their bad conscience, if they maintain one at all, that in doing so, they are good parents, yes they are. Parents dictate to teens long after any need of direct dependence has passed. They place limits of time, space, association, and activity upon youth, often contrary to the legal code. They crow about their ‘experience’, their ‘life wisdom’, and how ‘they used to be a teenager’ and now they know so much better. They enroll their children in summer camps after the legal age at which young people may stay by themselves, they choose at every turn the truncated lists from which only then such youth may choose, and they threaten their own children when, perhaps rarely enough, the young person demands a rationale, a reason, a right which indeed is their shared human birthright. Summarily, in the concise words of one of England’s poet laureates, ‘they fuck you up, your parents do’.
High time to return the favour, in my opinion. For there seems to exist no publicly purveyed position of parenting that has anything to do with the child’s best interests. On the one side we witness with dismay a seething barbarism which believes in a vapid Victorian domesticity – adult women are victims of this outlook as well, though many appear to revel in it nonetheless; there are as many Juliettes out there as Justines perhaps – and more than this, far more, this side attempts to either convert or enslave the rest of us to its dreary druthers. On the other we find a patent and oblivious neglect of the most basic understanding that children do need our guidance and our skills, whatever little wisdom we might indeed possess in a world that is no longer quite our own, and of the utmost, the idea that being an adult means taking responsibility for things even when it isn’t your fault. For every fascism the controlling possessive parent exerts, there is a corresponding anti-fascism which, in its perverse sense of ‘freedom’, teaches children to think only of themselves and to be only whatever it is they fashionably imagine they are. On the one side there is a fetish for physical abuse, on the other, a reliance upon that emotional. The playground battle that exists between these two versions of parenting is not only cliché it truly is juvenile, far more so than almost anything an actual child gets up to or believes in. And these are the role models we wish to present to our children!
Is it any wonder that social institutions other than the family have stepped in to do, well, something or other. Psychotherapy as an industry has heard the clarion call, education as a pedagogy, government as a morality; the counselor, the teacher, the politician – most of whom as well parents, we may presume – all proffering their vested interests to the by now numb and cynical youth whose future, along with our own, is ever in grave doubt due to the wider geopolitical actions of juvenile adulthood. ‘Your family made you suicidal? Here, let me fix that.’ ‘Your family can’t teach you everything you need to know, but we can.’ ‘I’ll pander to parents since they vote and you don’t, sweetheart, but you can still trust me.’ In every direction the young person looks today, she observes reality but sees evil. Where, she might ask, is the one place I can go where there are people who will love me, accept me for who I want to be, provide for me a livable future without unreasoned fear and unjustified death? Where is the place in my human heart that I was told the family occupied?
I am rightly ashamed, as a philosopher and an ethicist, to respond with ‘I don’t know’. It cannot be an easy thing to be told, when still a teenager, that one is basically on one’s own. That is the reality, and though value-neutral in the objective sense, one as a person still has to live in it; endure the evil, savor the good when present, suffer the sorrow and enjoin the joy. The wisest thing I can say to youth today is the same thing that was said to them 2.5 millennia ago; the unexamined life is not worth living. Insofar as our world objectively promotes self-examination at every turn, all is not lost. As for myself and my wife, who are not parents, we have the somber solace of knowing that, in not being so, we remain in excellent company.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over twenty years.