Helping American parents requires caring about them as people, not as symptoms of a problem.
In her recent piece, “Parenting in an Age of Bad Samaritans,” Gracy Olmstead surveys the landscape of parenting and neighborliness in this country and outlines the disturbing trend of well-meaning citizens invoking the nanny state’s “official and indirect power” (Chesterton) to assist someone they deem in need of help. Rather than investing any time or personal involvement, people summon municipal and law-enforcement bodies to perform oversight historically kept within the purview of families or any decent person on the street. G.K. Chesterton questions the effectiveness of this trend, “Often and often the thing a whole nation can’t settle is just the thing a family could settle. Scores of young criminals have been fined and sent to jail then they ought to have been thrashed and sent to bed.”
Olmstead attributes this flight from stewardship of one’s neighbor to “the breakdown in modern American community [for] without a sense of communal closeness or responsibility, we act as bystanders rather than as stewards.” However, if the family cedes responsibility for its neighbor and their children by, in a sense, tattling on them to the state, will the state ever relinquish that responsibility? And do parents, by allowing more of the state into their homes, inadvertently render the home in its image? I have read that modern Americans undergo enough daily stress as would hospitalize people a little over a century ago. Have we more stamina and stability than our forebears, or are parents now saddled with the same expectations of bodily comfort, convenience, and entertainment as citizens have come to demand of the ever-growing state? In short, has the reach of the nanny state established some notion parents’ arms should reach just as far to protect their children from anything and everything?
Other entries in our conversation about parenting and bad Samaritans:
In the aforementioned article, Olmstead observes many citizens exhibit “a more passive, isolated attitude” toward others, and social media seems to reinforce this trend. Much has already been written on this phenomenon, but evidence suggests the “digital force-field” is making us lonely and removing our abilities to interact person-to-person and to resolve conflict. I no longer need to travel or speak to anyone to find new piece of Tinder, to order groceries, attend church, or to resolve a conflict. In such a situation, do I risk forgetting the thrill of First Introductions (and with them decorum), how to interact humanly with the soul sitting across the table, how to listen to discourse, and how to have an honest argument? As a result, am I losing occasions for courage and patience, as well as essential skills in human interaction?
As I daydream about how parenting could return more to the hands of local communities, I believe men and women must begin exemplifying what they desire to foster in their children or students and freely putting flesh on “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Citizens must be vigilant on behalf of the weak and solitary neighbor who might be walking along a highway or confined as a shut-in. Furthermore, I believe the pull of cultural influences that isolate people and leave them vulnerable should be fought, perhaps the work cubicle, artificial Internet personas (e.g. SIMS, Facebook), or obsession with particular websites or online games.
One wonderful thing (of many) about children is that they are ignorant of convention. Chesterton, a grown man who kept all the best parts of childhood, contends, “Living in an entangled civilization, we have come to think certain things wrong which are not wrong at all. We have come to think outbreak and exuberance, banging and barging, rotting and wrecking, wrong. In themselves they are not merely pardonable, they are unimpeachable.” Children can help people remember to keep commandments and break conventions.
Also, we must continue growing more human ourselves, learning and cultivating our talents and delights, making time for family and sleep and worship and preparing food, maintaining proximity to both death and the poetry of life in climbing trees and heat lightning and a Jersey cow’s smooth, sloping back. As parents continue developing their own minds, they are better equipped to prepare children for an increasingly strange world. As Montaigne observed, “Teaching must be the development of natural inclinations, for which purpose the tutor must watch his pupil and listen to him, not continually bawl words into his ears as if pouring water into a funnel. Good teaching will come from a mind well-made rather than well-filled.” In turn, parents may feed and guide their own children’s imaginations. (For more on this, I highly recommend Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, written much like Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.)
Lastly, I think it’s essential parents recognize the risks inherent to living to give them realistic expectations of what they can control in a child’s life. Ralph Moody (1898-1982), Colorado rancher, farmer, bust sculptor, and author, became the man of his family at age eleven, and by age fifteen was a seasoned ranch hand with several entrepreneurial outlets. George Washington became a land surveyor by age fourteen and traveled extensively alone on horseback. I would have loved to meet their mothers. Parenting, as all other worthwhile things, is risky and difficult. However, done in proximity to other families and by prepared parents, it can be one of the most marvelous adventures of this life and will equip young men and women to assist those in need.
Hannah Bryan hails from the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania and cherishes making soup, reading aloud with her clan, and chair caning.