Don’t Give Up on Parents

As a culture, we invest a lot in our kids.  Our calendars, our finances, and especially our charitable efforts are determined by the needs of our youth.  And, to an extent, this is as it should be.  But this article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic frames the question perceptively.  When we are speaking about trying to end cycles of poverty and create policy and programs that break that cycle – should we compensate for bad parents or work to improve parents?

The article is quick to point out that the former is the preferred method of social charity and assistance.  In part, this is because “Families, after all, are considered the most private institution there is.”  But I also believe there is a deeply ingrained belief (often rightly so) that there is more hope in altering the life trajectory of a child than of an adult.   A child is not receiving food from their parents?  School lunches will do the trick.  A student does not have academic support at home?  Start a tutoring program.  Therefore, many religious and government programs are built to assist children who are forgotten or neglected by parents too addicted, stressed, overworked, under-educated, or poor to offer the most basic gift of parenting:  TIME.  In other words, we try to compensate for ineffectual parents.

This line of thinking reasons that it is more efficient and effective to create programs, give funding to, and invest energy directly in the children.  But the most provocative claim of this article directly challenges this long held practice.  Are the more heart-warming programs designed only for children really more efficient?  The article begs us to ask:  what about the parents? 

The increased push to improve parents rests on two points that are hard to refute.  The first is a simple claim that we love to ignore: parents are still the number one factor in a child’s life.   Despite all sorts of data pointing to changing family demographics and the increasing difficulty in defining what the so-called “average” American family looks like, there remains the intransient fact that families are the basis of society.  No matter how much influential power can be found in mentors, peers, education systems, government, and media, families of origin still reign supreme.  Birth, values, trust, language, worldview, and most of the foundational pieces that form identity and social behavior still happen and will happen within the family. 

This is not such an obvious point as it may seem.  For whenever programs are created and funded that work solely to help the child rise above her circumstances, without working to transform those circumstances, we inherently circumvent the power of the parents to shape the child’s life.  Now this undoubtedly can bring about hopeful and wonderful results.  But circumventing a family’s influence on their child’s future does not erase that influence.  The family is still, and will be, the primary determining factor in a child’s future.  The article, therefore, invites us to wonder what we could be doing to help parents and not just children.  And not just parents as individuals, but as citizens who inhabit particular societal structures that have adverse and positive effects on their parenting.  As Christians and people of extraordinary hope who have often voiced support of the family structure, we should be the last people who give up on the idea that anyone can be transformed.    And as Christians who have a deep understanding of public justice and its potential for blessing our neighbors we cannot ignore the systemic issues that determine parenting.

The second point is that there is good reason to believe that there are policies and programs that can help parents be “better”.  Better parenting is characterized here by giving more time and resources to our children.  The research shows that the statistical pattern is simple. Parents give more time and resources when they have more time and resources to give.  This, again, may seem like an obvious point.  Yet it means that we should broaden our thinking as to what avenues of public policy might nurture the flourishing of committed parents.  The social research indicates that economic well-being is chief among the structural factors that create the space for better parenting.  This means that a healthier economy will, in general, lead to more involved, educated parents. 

I would go even further than economics.  All sorts of policies and programs can be used to strengthen (or endanger) American families and to tackle the root problems of parenting.  Think of all the things that affect how parents are able to care for their children: minimum wage laws, schools of choice, loan availability to minorities, public transportation, immigration policy.  I’m not a policy maker or analyst.  But I know that how to fund, legislate, and discuss each of these issues will have an immeasurable impact on parenting. 

Of course, it is never quite this simple.  And we would never want to forget about personal responsibility in parenting.  We cannot (perhaps should not) make someone implement new discipline strategies with their children.  We cannot make parents turn off the TV to give their children quality attention.  But this article effectively reveals a deeper issue.  We should make parents and parenting a consideration in our broader policy-making.  We can take a robust look at how each one of our political decisions shapes the environment within which our parents raise children.  We cannot make someone love their kid better.  But we can, and should, seek public policy that nurtures a cultural ethos in which parenting is simply easier. 

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.