Nothing sets my teeth on edge faster than Those Parents: the ones with whom conversation begins, middles and ends with a gushing recounting of how accomplished, considerate, focused, beautiful and talented their children are. “Suzie practices clarinet for six hours a day after homework, soccer, gymnastics and jujitsu practice and only takes breaks to volunteer at the retirement home, paint the house or take a practice LSAT exam because she thinks decoding analogies is fun. She also prepares her own raw, vegan, gluten-free foods.”
These marvelous accounts of their children’s prowess are only worsened by what often follows: “I never even have to remind her to clean her room, pack her lunch or call her grandfather on his birthday! It is unbelievable how lucky I am!” Truly.
My own experience with parenting makes me want to call foul. Or maybe I am just jealous. Don’t get me wrong: My kids are wonderful, smart, motivated and busy little people, but they certainly have not become such without an interventionist parenting policy that aims to connect my offspring’s activities and achievements with the values and goals that shape life in our family.
Left to their own devices, my kids would be no less wonderful, but they would be significantly less organized, accomplished and motivated. I know because I’ve tried the hands-off approach, and things don’t go well. Rooms turn into Dumpsters. The consumption of high-fructose corn syrup is eclipsed only by the crinkle of cellophane wrapping coming off the nastiest of junk foods. Clothing becomes a canvas featuring the last week’s food, art projects and nose wipings. Violins gather dust. Homework? What homework?
So I create rules, I nag, I enforce, I inspect, I insist. And in doing so, I hope to guide my children to achieve the big things they are capable of academically, professionally, athletically and relationally. But evidence suggests that around here, anyway, this will not happen with a laissez-faire strategy. It is a bona fide nanny state.
Extrapolating that experience out into the political and policy realm, I have a hard time swallowing the argument that the less government does to help shape and guide society’s movement toward actualizing its values and goals, the more likely it is that those goals will be achieved. It simply does not follow that less will naturally lead to more.
There are local examples: those who believe that less planning will lead to better land use and more vibrant local economies, or that an absence of specific prescriptions for addressing climate change will free us all up to craft our own approaches for reducing our carbon footprints. It exists at the state level: By not extending in-state tuition benefits to illegal immigrant children, we will somehow prompt federal immigration policy reform.
And it is rampant at the national level: repealing Obamacare will inspire the insurance and health-care marketplace to bring prices down and extend coverage to one and all. Slashing taxes and regulations will prompt the wealthiest individuals and companies to hire untold masses of unemployed Americans. Ceasing government investment in social programs, infrastructure, education, defense contracts – you name it – will somehow put the country on the path to prosperity.
None of these equations compute. There are, of course, limits to how heavy-handed an approach government – or parents – at any level should take to guiding the governed. I could do my kids’ homework and clean their rooms for them, but that would artificially inflate their grades and undermine their self-value by making them think they could not do these things themselves. But expecting them to succeed and be productive in a directionless vacuum is similarly disorienting. It creates a free-for-all that replaces value-based living with individualistic survivalism.
This “politics of no” and its resultant divisiveness is at what seems to me to be an all-time high. That is to some degree expected, given the traditional construct of election-year rhetoric. But to hear politicians – mostly Republicans – campaign on promises of what they will undo, dismantle and dump, while those already in office demonstrate this obstructionism with their votes, is disheartening and demoralizing, mostly because it is not working as they proclaim it will.
It would be great if we all performed at our maximum potential without any prompting, guidance or, at times, cajoling – and some people do.
More often, though, it takes investment from many sources to cultivate the potential that exists in each of us individually and all of us together. That means defining shared values and crafting policy that reflects those values. It means providing opportunities for achievement in meaningful way, not cynically characterizing efforts at cultivating that achievement as roadblocks. And it means celebrating each individual’s success as something that resulted not only from his or her hard work, but also from the support, guidance and sometimes a little yelling that came from the sidelines.
Children and citizens alike can and do choose how they will respond to that support, but not providing it sets everyone at a disadvantage; the odds that unencumbered motivation and achievement will result are slim.
Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.