My April calendar reminds me that my oldest child celebrates her birthday this month. Which in turn reminds me of the mysteries and puzzlements of child-rearing. Which in its turn reminds me, once again, why I am a cultural conservative.
Some of that is obvious. It’s true: if having a teenage daughter doesn’t make you a conservative, nothing will. A sexist statement? Not really. You simply recall the self-absorbed carelessness of yourself as a young man. Young women were better socialized, which made them at once more self-possessed and more vulnerable. Most reasonable people shudder, in retrospect, at their adolescence. All those potential disasters so narrowly avoided. Little wonder that those same people, looking back, substitute for their juvenile demands for more freedom an adult suspicion that their parents should have been more strict. But that is only the beginning. At the heart of conservatism is a sense of human limits, an understanding that life is fragile and uncertain and that we are fools to suppose that we are in control of our destinies. Child-rearing makes evident, more than most enterprises, the futility of thinking we can shape life to our desires.
There’s an odd contradiction at work here. On the one hand, parents exercise enormous influence on their children. We made them: they are bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. We provided, if in complex and unpredictable ways, their genetic makeup. The physical, intellectual, and temperamental qualities that will together shape and direct their lives were determined, however unknowingly, by us.
More than that. In the critical early years of their lives, children experience reality pretty much as their parents create it for them. We are their world. We provide—by what we say and, even more, by what we do—their foundational ideas, beliefs, and sense of what life is all about. Psychologists differ as to how determinative early experience is in shaping life outcomes, but none deny that it is very important indeed. As the twig is bent. . .
Yet, for all that, our sense of control is illusory. In the end, our children baffle us. They develop in ways we did not intend and, at least some of the time, would not have preferred. We may have provided the basic stuff of their being, but the final contours of their DNA—and of their lives—are quite beyond us. Whatever the influence of nurture, nature more often than not has its way. I recall in my own case how my wife and I looked on in wonder as, from earliest infancy, our three children displayed distinctive qualities of temperament—quite different from each other—that we could not possibly have shaped and that have persisted throughout their lives. (They are all now in their twenties.) As the old saying has it, they were simply born that way.
And whatever parents’ importance to their children’s early development, that influence is quickly enough countered—and often overridden—by other shapers of the self: schools, books, friends, even, God help us all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and MTV. To share a house with a teenager is to rediscover, just after you had gotten used to it with your spouse, the meaning of otherness. As my friend Gil Meilaender has noted in another context, any lingering illusion of your influence on their lives is removed by the all-purpose teenage response to proffered parental wisdom, “Right, Dad.”
All this, I concede, is exaggerated. However mysterious our children may at times seem to us, we were not, we are not, without influence on their lives. Even if we know we cannot direct them precisely in the way they should go, we have the responsibility to act as if we could and to strive to make whatever influence we do have a beneficial one. We have, if nothing else, the same primary responsibility as the physician: at least do no harm. (Though of course, even if only in ways of which we are not aware, harm will be done. Philip Larkin’s jaundiced lines are not without point: “They f— you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”)
So we do the best we can, knowing all the while that the outcome is only marginally in our hands. We know that partially from memory of our own relationship with our parents: we’re sure they made a difference, but few of us would place on them the major part of the blame (or credit) for how we turned out. (There also lurks in most children a lingering sense of profound difference from parents and siblings. How did I get into this weird family?) We know it as well from observation of families around us. It is at least occasionally the case that bad children happen to good parents. And, more happily, the converse.
There are benefits in recognizing the limits of parents’ responsibility for their children’s lives. For all our society’s necessary concern with how badly we are managing the business of “moral formation,” we should not suppose that that is a simple or guaranteed process. There’s no foolproof manual for raising good kids. You do what you can—and say your prayers. It takes more than a village to raise a child. It takes the grace of God.
There are consolations in this sense of limits as well. You can even, if you’re perverse enough, play it as a no-lose situation. I used to announce regularly to our children that their mother and I had supplied them with good genes and the rest was up to them. We would take full credit for their successes; their failures were entirely their responsibility.
That was not meant seriously, of course, but there is, it turns out, a serious point behind it. It is morally necessary that, whatever the actual case, parents assume significant responsibility for the shape of their children’s lives. It is morally destructive for children to operate on that same assumption—especially in the negative. There is something infinitely sad in the spectacle of putative grown-ups who can’t stop picking endlessly at the wounds of childhood and who choose to adopt Mommie Dearest as the story of their lives. Such people will never, in the most elementary sense, get a life. And even if Larkin is right, there’s really nothing else to do with our lives but get on with them.
James Nuechterlein is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. His writings have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including American Scholar, Review of Politics, South Atlantic Quarterly, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, National Review, and the New Criterion.