I do not have children. Since that is the case I have often been “reminded” that my views on child rearing are for some reason invalid. Apparently dropping progeny imparts you with magic child rearing powers, in much the same way eating and shitting impart you with magic nutritionist knowledge. I understand that I have never gone through the trials of having to spend every day making sure a life I created survives and, in the cases of decent parents, have the tools required to continue to do so after I am gone. I would never minimize the difficulties of parenting. That said, I do believe not having children allows me to take a step back and look at these issues critically and without bias.
The latest public example I feel the need to comment on is that of 18 yo Rachel Canning. Ms. Canning left home after her parents separated, and after many arguments with both of them. Frankly there seems to be selfishness, arrogance, and as a result blame, enough to go around. Rachel is not some horribly abused victim, nor is she a demon seed. Some may argue that it was selfish of her to sue her parents for her private school tuition, and I certainly agree that it was a poor way to handle it. It should be noted, however, that attending private school was likely not her choice alone, but rather something her parents wanted for her, so why wouldn’t they continue to pay for it? The situation is much more complex than we want to admit, but then that is very often the case.
What is less complex are some of the statements made by the Cannings and the attitudes they betray, attitudes far too commonly held by far too many parents. The above linked article paraphrased them this way: “retired Lincoln Park police Chief Sean Canning and his wife, Elizabeth, said their daughter voluntarily left home because she didn’t want to abide by reasonable household rules, such as being respectful, keeping a curfew, doing a few chores and ending a relationship with a boyfriend her parents say is a bad influence.”
No sane person would have any problems with the middle two provisions. The Cannings were still legally responsible for their daughter, which means they had a right to restrict her movement. Also, a family is a community, and in a community everyone has responsibilities, so requiring chores is not only not a big deal, but her refusal to do so speaks ill of her character (assuming the chores were not particularly onerous, like cleaning up her father’s man cave every week after his buddies came over, but I digress.)
Where I diverge from a disturbingly large majority of parents are on those bookend issues, in particular the first one. Everyone should treat others with respect, but respect is a two-way street and is not necessarily what people think it is. It may be that Rachel was indeed outright rude. It could be she mocked every statement or decision by her parents, including those that did not affect her at all. Somehow I doubt it.
I doubt it because too often I see respect for parents translated to “deference.” To a degree, and certainly through a child’s early development this is necessary to make sure they are listening, learning, and kept from harm’s way. After a certain point this habit becomes about the parents’ egos and not about what is necessary or proper for their offspring. As your teens grow they deserve the right to create the relationship with you that they want, or at least have a hand in determining it.
Not every parent that falls into this trap is a willingly selfish jerk. Many parents do it because that deference was given for so long and it is what they are used to. Changing the nature of our relationships is difficult and there are bound to be hurt feelings. Still too much of our narrative about parenting continues to be bound in terms of a child’s owing respect to their parents simply for the gift of being. A gift, it should be noted, they never asked for. You decided to take on the task that we are all to happy to complain is thankless.
This is about more than just your feelings, and how you and your kid will get along, by the way. This behavior will determine how they react in any power deficit situation. It causes us to internalize a need for hierarchy that allows management, politicians, bureaucrats and others to infantalize those “below” them, rather than treat their employees and clients as equals with different responsibilities in their interactions. It determines how your kid will view themselves and others in these relationships, regardless of which “side” of them they are on. Treating your kid like your subject and requiring them to treat you as a sovereign, even as they are able to spread their wings and begin entering the world on their own, is actively making the world a worse place. You may not be doing so deliberately, which is good news, it means you can choose to stop, for the sake of a healthier society, and the sake of a more loving exchange between you and your kids, I hope you do.