Figuring out kids


I write on politics. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees from esteemed universities and eight years of teaching experience at reasonably-good-to-excellent colleges. So I have a leg up on the subject.

I have children. But I have no training in that subject. Yet understanding children, understanding how to get them from squirming little peanuts to grown human beings who are at least as good as me at being human, is more important-at least for me-than understanding politics.

At one time you could fall back on the wisdom of the surrounding culture and perhaps not go far wrong. But today everyone else is at least as confused as you are. To complicate things further, both kids and culture keep changing as well.

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Take something as simple as how much time to spend with your kids. How much of your attention should you give them? My father's generation didn't have the same concern for "building a relationship" and "bonding." My dad took my brother and me to a couple of Toronto Maple Leafs games one year when someone gave him tickets. Sure, we did things together: family camping vacations, shopping jaunts, and everything involved in sharing the same home. But my dad never attended any of my baseball games, cross-country meets, or wrestling tournaments. It never occurred to me that he should. Was he at the Christmas concert to see me sing with a hundred other kids or play bass clarinet with the school band? I don't recall. Quite frankly, I have never thought of that question until now.

Perhaps it was just my father's British reserve. But a friend of mine who grew up in Washington state had a similar experience with his dad. When my friend was 55 he heard that his dad (who lived up the street from him at the time) was going on a fishing trip with his buddies, so he asked if he could come along. His father responded, "Why on earth would you want to do that?" My friend said, "So we can build our relationship. . . . You know . . . bond!" His father just laughed and went off to fish. Now, for my dad it would have been golf, and he would have welcomed me cheerfully. But the point is clear enough. This emphasis on quality time and bonding is new. Is it necessary? Is it even good? Are boys becoming better men because of it? Are we who are men messed up for want of it?

In response to parenting that is reduced to largely functional oversight, later generations have perhaps overcompensated in the direction of smothering attention and emotional sensitivity. Essayist Joseph Epstein calls it "Kindergarchy." Parents these days attend every concert, every play, every game, and every public display of little Timmy or little Jenny. Heaven forbid that anything goes unaffirmed by both parents. Miss something, and you are a "bad parent."

But we have gone from leaving kids to their own world to doting and fawning. As a consequence, children don't actually feel the confidence-bracing affirmation of paternal approval. What they learn is that they are the center of the world, wonderful in all they do. Then they get a D from Professor Innes on their first paper, and their world is rocked. WORLDmag.com columnist Amy Henry, citing several studies, wonders if "[m]aybe we ought to do our kids a favor and be worse parents"

Of course, there has to be time and place for wisdom-transfer moments between a father and his children that we see in Deuteronomy 6. But the Deuteronomy 6 father did not trail his kids throughout their childhoods. If anything, they trailed him.

Children also need their father's approval. Our heavenly Father bolsters us with unbreakable and oft-repeated promises and with assurances of his sustaining presence. He will greet the faithful at their journey's end with "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:20-23). We were created to be satisfied in our heavenly Father's approval and communion. Yes, fathers in particular are important to children's development.

But some distance is good. It stokes longing in the souls of the young. It's unwise to flatter and sate them. Forgetting this, fathers in particular have gone from unapproachable to irrelevant. How about adopting the stance of an important and busy guy (which you are, dads), an object of admiration whose sincere expressions of love at reasonable intervals lift your children upward and drive them onward to at least comparable levels of achievement.

And they all lived happily ever after.


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