Failing to Parent
by Jerome F. Winzig
Every day child care workers, youth leaders, and teachers see the human consequences of parents who fail to parent. Neighborhoods live with the results when children do what they please because the adults in their family are oblivious to parental responsibility. Yet we seldom think of the pervasive failure to parent as a serious social problem we need to address, even though we have seen the age of child murderers drop from 14 to 12 to six. Six!
Some parents fail to parent is by not holding their children accountable for their actions. Examples are all around us. A child care worker takes away playground privileges from a boy because of continuous misconduct on the playground. The next day, with the boy standing by, the mother tells the child care worker that the punishment was too harsh and demands that the worker apologize to her son.
In some cases, parents seem to feel they are powerless to affect their children's behavior. They refuse to say "no" when our popular culture says "yes." So parents give their 14-year-old children condoms because "they're going to do it anyhow." In a town south of here, a mother lets her teenage daughter's boyfriend sleep with her in her house, even though the man is in his mid-twenties, has been in prison, and doesn't have a job.
Other parents go further, becoming enablers of their children's misconduct. Some children are caught shoplifting candy from a convenience store and the shopkeeper tells the children to leave. A short time later, the children's mother shows up at the store and punches the shopkeeper in the face. In another neighborhood, teenage boys are involved in fights, thefts, and drug dealing, but when neighbors complain, the boys' mother accuses the neighbors of being racists.
Sometimes, the failure to parent extends into a second generation. The children who were caught shoplifting and the teenage boys who are dealing drugs each live in homes owned by their grandmothers. It seems these grandmothers have replaced right and wrong with anything goes in their own homes.
This misguided course of action, even when it is motivated by love, does not have lovely results. Last summer, an 18-year-old man was shot and seriously injured at one grandmother's home. Last week, a 12-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in the town south of here by her teenage sister's live-in adult boyfriend. Today, the conduct of the teenage boys who run roughshod over their grandmother's house and neighborhood worsens, and they seem headed for prison.
In other families, parental failure centers on neglect. Careers and vicious disputes with ex-spouses become more important than children, who become pawns or are ignored. Due to miscommunication, a divorced parent fails to pick up a child at day care. When the child's other parent arrives at the day care center, the teachers and children are subjected to an obscene angry tirade against the ex-spouse.
The roommate of a child's mother beats the child's older brother so severely that he is sent to prison and the younger child is emotionally traumatized by the event. When the man is released from prison, the mother casually tells her child at day care how nice it is that the man who assaulted her son is coming to visit them and encourages him to forward to his visit.
Most of us have personal and anecdotal evidence to indicate something terrible has happened to our collective sense of parenthood in the last several decades. Since World War II, we have gone through a profound cultural shift. Many families have lost their moral compass. Membership in churches, synagogues, and mosques has declined. The belief that there are universal principles of good and evil that transcend all of us is viewed as quaint or outdated.
The period since World War II has brought us prosperity and technological advances on an unprecedented scale, even though we now take most of it for granted. But the easy availability of cell phones, pagers, CD players, video games, mass entertainment, and the Internet, combined with ready access to money, means that children are subjected to many more non-parental influences than ever before.
At the same time, government has taken on roles that traditionally were the responsibility of parents. School lunch and breakfast programs feed many children. Without moral guidance, many children translate the technical information presented in sex education classes into a kind of moral relativism that takes the place of family values. Early childhood and family education programs are expected to prepare young children for school and teach adults how to parent.
Admittedly, many of these programs were begun to correct serious societal problems. But if problems get worse when the government tries to ameliorate them, it is time to ask whether the solution is making problems worse by avoiding the root cause: the failure to parent.
Can we fix this problem? Yes. It is possible for us to return to a belief in God and an understanding that we are all children of God. Short of that, we can rekindle a sense of moral law and the notion that there are values more important than immediate gratification. We can turn off the television sets, video games, and cell phones, and spend time with our children. We can rediscover that parenthood is a lifelong calling that requires our time, our talents, and our commitment -- in large doses. We can realize there are no shortcuts and no easy answers.
We can also ask tough questions about the role of governments and schools in family life. Instead of more foster care and programs that bend over backwards to reunite abused children with dysfunctional parents, perhaps we need to terminate the rights of parents who refuse to parent and place their children for immediate adoption. Instead of school breakfast and lunch programs, perhaps we should instead help poor people feed their children themselves by reducing the regressive Social Security tax, which is used to subsidize general government spending. Instead of well-meaning programs that try to meet every societal need, perhaps schools need to focus intensely on academic skills so all children receive the education they need to compete in a global economy.
Will we change? I don't know. It's certainly easier to sleep in on Sunday morning and less demanding to let children fend for themselves. It's more fun -- in the short term -- to put careers and social lives ahead of parenting. But how many of us really want to live in the world we are creating? Do we want to see preschoolers committing murder? Is that what we want for our children? If not, then we must change.