Growing up, my parents helped me with my homework. My dad would quiz me on my spelling words, and if I misspelled too many, he sometimes threw the book at me. Hard. (Even on a Tuesday night. “But dad,” I’d tell him. “I have another two days to learn this stuff!”) He’d also check my math, and after showing me how to correct my mistakes, assigned extra problems for me to do. Even my mom, a less intense taskmaster, made me re-write sloppy work.
They instilled a work ethic that I hold to this day. If you’re going to do something, do it right. If you sense a personal weakness, practice and apply yourself until you achieve mastery. And never ever ask Dad to quiz you on anything.
As parents, we are our children’s primary role model for behavior. So it always seems important to examine yourself, asking: Am I being the best person I can possibly be?
Not always, no. While writing this, I picked a crusty booger from my nose, despite admonishing my son never to do the same. On the plus side, after great consideration, I did not flick it to the floor. Instead, I wiped it on the lip of my empty coffee cup. Now that’s maturity.
In an article in this week’s New York Magazine (“Is Ethical Parenting Possible?“), Lisa Miller tackles the question of ethical parenting. Or, I should say, she proposes that there is no question, really — parents are inherently unethical people. She writes, “Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral.” And, “Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all.”
Goodness gracious! This is grim stuff.
Miller argues that though ethics would have us treat every person the same, parents favor their children, and will go to extremes — in this competitive day and age, extreme extremes — to make sure their kids succeed. In March, Miller authored the New York Magazine cover story on “The Retro Wife”, about how some young feminist women have decided to stop worrying about “having it all” and have instead happily reclaimed the mantle of homemaker. Like that story, this ethics piece seems in part designed to rankle liberal do-gooders, especially upper class ones, who are largely Miller’s focus. People who claim to embrace egalitarianism, and then spend over $20,000 on private SAT prep coaches. Parents who:
“In the interest of giving kids ‘a leg up,’ … will do almost anything: They’ll call friends on the board; they’ll pull strings to procure internships; they’ll invite the coach over for dinner; they’ll claim strong adherence to a religion or an ethnic identity that is, in fact, weak; they’ll fake recommendation letters; they’ll neutralize their child’s competition for a spot on the hockey team by whispering something about someone’s alcohol use; and they’ll administer the occasional misbegotten tablet of Adderall.”
Ah, but some of these things are not like the others. Calling friends and having people over for dinner to forge alliances seems part of how the world works. As a boy in Catholic school I recognized that some kids were selected for more privileges than others these were the kids whose parents volunteered at the school, or dropped fat envelopes in the church collection basket each Sunday. They were also the kids who volunteered time themselves, as altar boys and in choir. So why shouldn’t they be selected over a kid like me, who contributed little to the church coffers or the school community outside of my attendance?
Spreading rumors about other kids and administering Adderall to assist a kid in studying, on the other hand, I can not condone. Nor do I know any parents who would. That’s the problem with Miller’s piece. Just as she was accused of twisting the quotes in her Retro Housewife article, so here she plays fast and loose with her data or lack thereof. I’m not sure who exactly she’s talking about in these examples, and I’m not sure that these examples prove that parents as a whole are ethically bankrupt.
And yet Miller seems to be arguing that we’re in an ethical crisis in this country because of bad parenting, pointing to a study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics that shows over 50% of high schoolers saying that they would lie to get ahead. And yet visiting the Josephson website reveals an article about how there’s a drop in American teens lying, cheating, and stealing. (Though, bias alert, the Institute points to schools adopting their character curriculum as a factor in this decrease.) The fact is, our pre-frontal cortex the area of our brains responsible for decision making doesn’t complete its development till our mid 20′s. Teenagers are biologically more predisposed toward irrational, risky, and potentially amoral behavior, and always have been, no matter if they’re the scions of Al Capone or Mother Theresa.
It is true that being a parent requires holding yourself to a rigorous ethical standard, and that most parents, my nose-picking self included, don’t reach the bar all the time. In all areas of life, it’s hard being a moral individual churches thrive on the fact that people need a bit of forgiveness in their life, and a pure father figure to admire. However, like most parents, even the Judeo-Christian God acts cruelly at times — in Genesis, asking Abraham to slaughter his son Isaac and then, at the last minute, saying, “Psyche! I was just testing you!” And even Jesus lost his temper and destroyed the money changers’ tables in the temple.
Just like if I were to have thrown a book at my little brother, say, my dad would’ve been livid, no matter how many words my brother spelled wrong. “But you throw the spelling book at me!” I would’ve cried. And do you know what my dad would’ve said? What parents all over, for time out of mind, have told their kids. “Do as I say, and not as I do.”
I would’ve gotten that, as kids do. I believe that most parents try to do the best they can to help their kids, though they sometimes make bad decisions despite these good intentions. Hey — what can you do? We’re all fallible human beings, and so were our parents, and their parents before them.
Miller might be giving her tale of woe a contemporary, upper class Manhattan spin, but there’s nothing new here. Parents are as uneven in their ethics — prone to corruption, favoritism, and hypocrisy — as humans have been since the dawn of time.
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