Do as I Do: The End of Ironic Parenting

(September 22nd, 2008)

The following was published in the Murfreesboro Pulse.

A friend of mine just had her first child, and it’s got me to thinking about the values we bestow upon our youngest minds.

For instance, one of the first lessons we teach our kids is to share, often in response to their learning that annoying little word – mine.  By instilling the virtue of sharing, we try our best to break them from the bad habit of claiming everything they can get their hands on as their own.

That is, until they’re old enough to understand the overriding lesson of competition.  From which point, not only is mine OK again, it becomes the guiding principle.

Forget the wisdom and compassion in sharing.  In the real world, it’s “every man for himself” (never mind the patriarchy), “dog eat dog” (never mind our humanity), and “life isn’t fair” (and our institutions shouldn’t be either).  From economics to politics, even within our social ties, competition is the rule while sharing is merely an option.

All of which leads me to think that maybe it’s time we rework some of the outdated clichés being passed off as valuable lessons to our best and brightest.  In a country where citizenship is measured by consumption, phrases like “waste not, want not” are corny at best.

And don’t get me wrong.  I’m a sucker for sentiment the same as anyone.  But eventually you have to see Aesop for what he was worth – just a bunch of fables.  Seriously, how do you expect your child to become President of the United States when they’re hearing silly things like “always say you’re sorry” and “never tell a lie”?

I’m not saying that we have to rob them of all their innocence.  I’m just suggesting we be a little more realistic and add a disclaimer here or there.  If our real goal is to prepare them for the future, wouldn’t it be better to say, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game – except for when it comes to politics and profits”?  Or how about, “Talk out your problems and never resort to violence – unless you have the power of the state behind you and your opponents are easily crushed”?  Or maybe the simplicity of, “Do unto others as you can get away with.”

Sure, we all want our children to grow up with strong ideals.  But if the world they are getting thrown into isn’t even close to ideal, then why lie to them?  Let’s be honest.  There isn’t a parent out there that really believes any of this garbage.

If they did, they’d be out there working to change the world.  They’d be reassessing their institutions based on whether they meet our most basic sense of morality.  They’d be reconstructing a society worth leaving to our children.

This of course is not happening.  Such a task would require replacing cynicism with hope.  It would require a vision beyond the “real world” that we’ve surrendered to.

It would also require unity.  And you know what they say about unity.

“If everyone was building a bridge, would you?”