Saturday, May 19, 2012

Irresponsible parenting

These days, when the discussion turns to families and children, a term commonly heard is “responsible parenting”. The precise meaning of this phrase depends upon context, but almost always it is interpreted in terms of prudent use of resources – most commonly economic resources, but sometimes resources of time and personal energy of the parents. Though this goal of responsible parenting is universally lauded as good, it is interesting to notice that the almost inevitable conclusion of any discussion is that the path of responsible parenting means fewer children – sometimes as few as possible.

This is a predictable consequence of viewing humans as merely economic entities, expending effort to address scarcity and juggling supply and demand. This is one reason you see so many studies published that “prove” how expensive it is to raise a child*. These studies, combined with the testimony of legions of “experts” on how psychologically damaging it is to deprive a child of adequate parental attention or material goods, send a clear message: to have more children than you can “afford” to raise is irresponsible – and who wants to be an irresponsible parent?

There are many levels where one could engage the weaknesses of this attitude, but I'd rather let the record speak for itself. By this economic understanding of childrearing, Ellen and I could be a case study in irresponsible parenting. We got married long before we had a steady source of adequate income – in fact, between my first and second years of college. Our first baby came between my second and third years of college, at which point Ellen withdrew permanently from the workforce to attend to the vital task of raising children (not that she'd been earning much as a part-time substitute teacher.) By the time I graduated from college we had two children. My entry-level salary enabled us to buy an older home in a “working-class” neighborhood which we reconverted from a rental unit. We had two more children in the following four years.

Five years after receiving my degree, I took a step of what some would consider economic insanity: I left my corporate job to become self-employed. There went a predictable income, benefits, and anything like a career path – I was now totally dependent upon the Lord to provide for my family. But this also meant that I was no longer gone for 13+ hours a day, and was able to be around to help raise the children. The irregularity of my income made us very shy of debt, so we stayed in our old house, maintaining and remodeling rather than following the property trade-up path that was supposedly the path to wealth. We drove older cars, vacations were drives to Pennsylvania to stay with relatives rather than trips to Disney World, none of our children knew what it was like to have a cell phone, and all of them understood that there was no college fund awaiting them when they graduated high school. They had to drive old Buicks and Dodges while their high school friends were given new Mustangs for 16th birthday presents, and had to share rooms in a small old house while friends had suites of their own in opulent waterfront houses. Their friends had the privilege of considering which college their parents would send them to while my children could only consider which schools offered them sufficient scholarships and financial aid. It certainly looked like their friends were the beneficiaries of responsible parenting while my kids were not.

Now our children are all grown and gone into adult life, and it's instructive to see how they live, and view their lives. They are the true authorities, these victims of our irresponsible parenting, for they were the ones who suffered the economic and psychological deprivations of such scarcity. And you know what? When they speak of their upbringing and family life, they don't discuss what they never got. What they talk of is the richness of growing up in a household full of love, and the tremendous gift they are to each other. The complaints about another vacation in Pennsylvania (and there were a few, especially when friends were headed to Florida) have been eclipsed by fond memories of green hills and rappelling lessons from their uncle. As adults, they're each others best friends, supports, and confidants. They routinely thank us for the gift of each other. They're all well-balanced, loving, and generous. All who wished to go to college got through, and those that yet have to are serving in the armed forces, partly for the education benefits.

There was another interesting dynamic, even when my children were suffering through their deprived childhoods. Those friends of theirs – the ones with the cars and the big bedrooms in the waterfront homes – often ended up at our house.  That's right: our old, cramped house in the working class neighborhood was a favorite destination.  We had “the best food”, and plenty of fun, and our doors were always open. Friends were always welcome, cooking projects were encouraged, and “hanging out” was the order of the day. I remember one time one of my daughter's friends was seated at the kitchen table while the cheery bustle of our home whirled around him. He looked up with an expression of wonder and said, “There's so much love here!”

That was our goal. Though by the standards of the world our parenting was hopelessly irresponsible, by the grace of God we were able to fill our home with love. Our children didn't have the economic benefits of many of their peers, but they learned how to love God, each other, and everyone they met.

If that's irresponsible parenting, I'll take it.

* Most of which are demonstrably false. I know this because I know how many children I've raised across the years and precisely how much I've earned over that period. The simple mathematics proves that children can be raised for far less than the experts contend.