No Shortcuts

JACK NELSON-PALLMEYER'S new book, Families Valued: Parenting and Politics for the Good of All Children, contains a breadth of social analysis, data, and stories to support its clever title, which is supplemented by this line: A father explores how the needs of children could change personal and social priorities.

The following excerpt is chosen from the material in the book that focuses on approaches to parenting, but we could just as easily have chosen an excerpt from chapters with titles such as "Men and Violence," "Where Personal and Social Responsibility Meet," or "Values, Debt, and the Environment."

For example, in "The Politics of Poverty," Nelson-Pallmeyer concludes:

What should be clear is that silence about moral behavior is feeding a mean politics which helps cover up an essential truth: In our society poverty is ugly, dysfunctional, and crippling, and it is rooted in class divisions and a corporate-dominated system which distorts political and economic life. The huge and widening gap in income, wealth, political power, opportunity, and privilege which separates a prospering minority from the vast majority of U.S. citizens is at the heart of the family and social crises gripping our nation."

And in "Market and Non-Market Values," Nelson-Pallmeyer begins:

Personalists [the author's term for those who place greater weight on personal responsibility than social forces in analyzing dysfunctional individual behaviors] say criminal behavior, absent fathers, teen-age mothers, and divorce are problems rooted in values. They are right. They are concerned about violence, sexual images, and other values communicated through TV, music, and movies, and these concerns are justified....They want to strengthen families. I concur.

I think many of the above named personal values are important to a broad range of people in our society, including many social progressives. Unfortunately, by not championing these and other important values, those of us who see social change as vital to helping children and families fuel interest in the religious right whose family values are sometimes skewed and whose political and social agenda is disastrous for children and society as a whole."

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer is the author of several books and a member of the Community of St. Martin's in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This important new book, published by Friendship Press in April, comes at a critical time in the national debate over profoundly spiritual matters. -The Editors

Whereas I would have trouble isolating a single event among so many to choose from, my wife, Sara, to this day can recall her worst experience as a parent as vividly as if it happened yesterday instead of many years ago. Hannah, then 2 years old, and Sara boarded a plane in Seattle when our usually pleasant daughter decided to throw the tantrum of all tantrums. Hannah bit, clawed, screamed, wrestled, and flailed for about 30 minutes in this closely confined space. Sara somehow kept her composure, something I may not have done, as anguished passengers looked on thinking no doubt that only an incompetent mother and an abused child could be involved in such an episode. I can only guess what they must have assumed about the father. To add to Sara's embarrassment, her boss was on the same flight.

It is through experiences such as these that parents learn to be tolerant of other parents and children and hope for understanding from others. Parenting is humbling and sometimes even humiliating. Therefore, it is with a bit of trepidation that I approach this chapter which looks at several symbols of good and poor parenting, including assumptions about the role of men in children's lives, and issues of seat belts, supermarkets, and bread. Each of these symbolic issues illustrates the importance of time. Children need our time. Routine. Qualitative. Lots of it. Unfortunately, when parents are pressed for time children are the losers.

My first concern is the widespread belief that men shouldn't be expected to spend much time with children. As a father, I try to participate fully in the raising of my daughters. Therefore, it bothers me when I'm with my kids at the supermarket or park and someone approaches me and says, "Baby sitting, huh?" Now, having someone smile and say, "Baby sitting, huh?" is not like being cursed and there is no offense intended. However, I hear it often and what bothers me is the underlying assumption behind the statement. Women parent. Men "baby sit." My response to "baby sitting, huh?" is usually simple and polite: "No," I say, with a smile, "I'm parenting."

This response may seem trivial or arrogant. However, important issues are at stake, as we saw in the previous chapter which described various perspectives on family values, why families and children are in trouble, and the relationship between troubled families and the broader social crisis in the United States. According to one school of thought, the breakdown of families and society is blamed on women, or, more specifically, on feminists.

Unfortunately, casting blame on women obscures or minimizes the degree to which men should be accountable to children: Men who sire babies but don't raise children; men who after a divorce abandon their kids, financially and emotionally; men who occasionally "baby sit" but rarely parent; men who model violence in the home, on the streets, and in the foreign policy citadels of the nation; men who control disproportionately the levers of political and economic power and whose decisions often put women and children and, ultimately, all of us at risk. When someone assumes I am baby sitting rather than parenting they reveal a widely accepted bias that runs deep within our society about the limited role of men in children's lives.

ANOTHER AREA OF CONCERN is seat belts, or more accurately, that so many children and adults in cars speeding down our roadways don't wear them. As in the previous example, there is more to my frustration than immediately meets the eye. Not wearing seat belts not only puts our children's health at risk, it is for me a mark of poor parenting that is rooted once again in the illusion that it is possible to parent well without devoting sufficient time to the numerous tasks which good parenting requires.

To understand how wearing seat belts became natural in my family rather than a source of conflict, it may be helpful to look at five different parental approaches to the problem of kids not wanting to wear seat belts. Each approach, or definition of the problem, leads to a logical solution and each solution has consequences, some predictable, some not.

Problem Definition 1: I want to get somewhere and my kids won't put their seat belts on.

Solution 1: Give in and get on with the trip.

Problem Definition 2: My kids don't want to wear seat belts and their whining, fussing, and screaming are driving me crazy.

Solution 2: Give in and they will stop whining.

Problem Definition 3: I need to get somewhere, the kids won't buckle-up, their whining is driving me crazy.

Solution 3: Bribe them. If they buckle-up and stop whining they get ice cream or candy as compensation.

Problem Definition 4: I need to get somewhere, the kids are whining, and I want them to wear seat belts.

Solution 4: Use intimidation or violence. Slap them around until they buckle-up.

Problem Definition 5: My children are whining, aren't wearing seat belts, and must do so. I want them to understand the importance of seat belts, to buckle-up, and to stop whining. I want them to do all these things without me resorting to physical coercion.

Solution 5: I tell my children the following:

"You must wear your seat belts because I love you and I want you to be safe. Not wearing your seat belts is also against the law but this is not nearly as important as the fact that it is my responsibility as a parent to keep you safe. I would feel terrible if you were hurt or killed in a car accident because I was a careless parent who gave in to your whining. When you're older you can choose for yourselves whether or not you and your children wear seat belts. For all of these reasons, the car won't move until we're all buckled in."

The advantages of the fifth approach are obvious. On the downside, explaining the importance of seat belts to children and refusing to start the car until all are wearing them has undoubtedly made a frustrated parent late. This time. However, both children and parents have learned valuable lessons. Parents are reminded that good parenting takes time and that children have the right to know why we ask them to do certain things. Children learn that parents respect them enough to talk through an issue even if it means being late. They also learn why it's important to wear seat belts (safety, the law, parental responsibility) and that parents require them to do so because they love them and want them to be safe.

NOT EVERYONE HAS a car so let me offer a similar example from the supermarket. I do most of the grocery shopping for our family. I often take one or more of our children with me when I shop. This means frequent visits to local supermarkets, places marked by a genuine absence of gentleness between parents and children. In fact, it is not unusual for me to see children screamed at or hit at the supermarket.

I can offer no scientific reason why supermarkets are generally unfriendly to children in the extreme. However, I offer the following observations, the threads of which are not unrelated to the previous discussion of seat belts.

First, parents are often in a hurry when we shop. If we are in a hurry ourselves, and surrounded by others in a similar state, then it adds to the overall anxiety of shopping. Children are affected by our moods, particularly our anxieties.

Second, children at the supermarket are surrounded, bombarded visually, and I would say overwhelmed by thousands of things on store shelves, including hundreds of items positioned intentionally by the check-out counter such as candy bars, gum, and other sweets. This adds to their anxiety and can easily trigger stress between parents and children.

Third, when a child whines and fusses, whether because she doesn't want to wear seat belts or because he wants the candy bar staring him in the face, the easiest way out is to give in. But the quick way out becomes a curse. This helps explain the inordinate number of temper tantrums thrown at supermarkets.

Fourth, anyone wanting a preliminary look into the power of advertising to distort children's lives can find a good deal of supporting data in supermarkets. In addition to problems of product recognition (I want X) there is the more general message of advertisers that we are incomplete without their product, miserable and worthless until our happiness is restored through consumption.

I am not the world's best parent. I lose my patience and my focus more often than I care to admit. However, in all my years of grocery shopping, including accompaniment by one, two, or three children, our experiences together have been remarkably pleasant. I think the reasons for this include the following:

First, when our children ask for this or that at the store we generally say no and explain why. The one exception to this rule is that after shopping at the food co-op, filling our jars with rice, beans, lentils, oats, flour, and other items, we reward ourselves with chocolate balls at the total cost of about 20 cents for the entire family.

Second, we try not to reward whining, whether in the supermarket, the car, at home, or anywhere else. Third, our children are more interested in books and creative play than in television. They have seen very few commercials and we have taught them that commercials rarely tell us much that is either truthful or helpful.

Finally, food is important to our family for a variety of reasons that go beyond our basic nutritional needs. Sara and I bake bread, garden, can, and cook with our children, which takes time that many parents unfortunately don't have. For us, however, it is time well-spent. This is particularly true when we see these endeavors as family activities that end up with a product rather than focus on the product itself.

Conflicts over seat belts and in grocery stores are reflections of problems in parenting. Taking time to make bread or can tomatoes with our children may seem insignificant, but it has profound implications for both children and society. Homemade bread with carefully mixed ingredients, kneaded with sticky hands, rising with yeast and laughter, filling our houses with sensuous aromas is a powerful symbol of parenting. To make good bread and to raise healthy children requires time, care, and the proper ingredients of love, nurture, and discipline.

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