Sand in the Gears

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There’s no program for fixing rotten

April 30th, 2010 Posted in Fatherhood, The Art of Parenting

The thing you run into, when you are in the business of saving the world from itself, is that there is no lever marked: “PULL HERE TO SAVE WORLD.”

It fascinates me to see intelligent thinkers reason out top-down solutions to symptoms caused by a soul-sickness that will not be fixed with federal programs or presidential initiatives or nanny-state regulations. Writing on the Psychology Today blog, for example, Jim Taylor gets the symptoms, at least, exactly right: many social ills are caused by bad parenting.

Understand how uncomfortable this observation makes many parents. It makes us uncomfortable for two reasons: first, because we can all name cases where a child, despite what appears to be the valiant efforts of his parents, simply “goes wrong.” Second, because we all have a propensity, when things go wrong, to identify the many factors that make it not really our fault. The truth is, however, that rotten adults tend to be a product of rotten parents.

As is often the case in educated but secularized circles, however, Taylor is hamstrung when it comes time to ponder solutions. Criminalization of bad parenting? Regulations? Mandatory parenting classes? An Obama-led good parenting initiative? A national child-care system? (I love the reasoning behind the last one — people will become better parents by virtue of finding more affordable means of being away from their children.)

This is the thing: people parent poorly because they themselves had bad parents, and because they are shot through with selfishness, anger, and sloth. You don’t neglect your child because you didn’t have a mandatory 20-hour parenting class. You neglect your child because you are bound up in your own pleasures and problems. At best, the class can beat into you that a good parent reads a story to his child at bedtime. So you read your child a story at bedtime, but continue to fail at instilling in him self-respect, self-discipline, and spiritual understanding.

There is no checklist, in other words, for the human soul. This is why a civilized society is dependent on norms and values and faith about which educated elites are embarrassed to speak. Which leaves us with the laughable sight of experts grasping about for any solution except the ones which might have a chance, such as churches returning to the business of spiritual discipline, teachers and leaders speaking a language of virtue and duty, and all of us living more thoroughly in community and communion, which means coming alongside one another, encouraging, loving, and sometimes simply telling the person we care for: “You’re being a lousy parent and I want to help you fix that.”