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Meditation of a Middle-Aged, (Upper) Middle-Class, White, Liberal, Protestant Parent

by Joanna Bowen Gillespie

Dr. Gillespie is associate professor of sociology at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey. . This article appeared in the Christian Century August 15-22, 1979, p. 792. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Recently on late-night television news, some vivid footage showed a college campus protest against current legislative attempts to reinstate the draft. The New York Times contends that today’s students are apathetic about such issues, but apathy wasn’t what I saw.

The students were screaming “Hell, no, we won’t go” at Representative Pete McCloskey, effectively preventing themselves from hearing what he had to say. He had come to the campus at Berkeley, California, to defend his version of a national-service bill. It would require 17-year-old men and women to choose one of four options: active military duty for two years, with educational benefits; six months of active duty followed by extended reserve obligations; one year of civilian service in a Peace Corps-type domestic project; or placement in a draft lottery for a period of six years.

McCloskey had been an early opponent of the Vietnam war, and therefore something of a hero on liberal campuses in the ‘60s, but few in his Berkeley audience seemed aware of that history. In a televised interview after he left the platform in defeat, McCloskey said he had hoped these young Americans would support his proposal (by far the most lenient and reasonable of the draft bills introduced up to now) because it would make our military-defense system more equitable and representative; the present all-volunteer army is made up of more than 40 per cent minority youth. One might think that our white, upper-middle-class, nothing-but-the-best youngsters would respond positively to such concepts as “fairness” and “egalitarianism” --  but apparently the best lesson we parents taught them was how to say No.

As I watched, I was struck with dismay that these healthy and beautiful young people felt they owed nothing to anybody or anything. One of their placards read, reasonably enough, “Draft the Politicians -- Not Us.” But their faces showed resistance to authority, not love of peace; they were screaming No in the same way they fight deadlines for term papers or rules against pot-smoking -- to protect what they perceive as their autonomy. The speaker they cheered at that rally preached the gospel of privilege: no one can make you do anything you don’t want to do. It is your right to decide whether or not you will register; your choice is what counts; there is no such thing as obligation.

Even as part of me agreed with him, I blanched. We good liberal parents have brought up a generation whose members think of themselves as outside or beyond the social fabric. They have never had to worry about anyone other than themselves, and Voilą! they don’t.

I

Child-rearing is always a blend of the parents’ world view and that of the surrounding society. Along with what we didn’t give this egocentric cohort of emerging adults, there was the influence of the postwar world into which we bore them. It confirmed for these blessed children of affluent, intelligent parents that very little was expected of them -- no physical rites-of-passage, very few limitations on their self-expression, no hunger, no poverty. We produced children who had the luxury of saying what they would or would not do -- from choice of college to choice of blue jeans. They had very little experience of belonging to something bigger than themselves; they did not learn the meaning of “esprit de corps” or camaraderie. The Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts may have been the last creedal experience many of them had.

Some of us are quite proud of our children’s independence we have worked so hard for it. We announce that our 19-year-old son has “taken his life into his own hands” (though we may still subsidize him) or that our 20-year old daughter is now “living on her own.” In some cultures this attitude would be perceived as gross neglect or apathy. An Asian diplomat confronted some fellow parents of children enrolled in a private “progressive” nursery school (where children were encouraged to “fulfill their own potential”) with the accusation: “You Americans don’t care what happens to your children.” He spoke from a culture in which caring meant controlling, directing, making decisions for children of far older than nursery-school age. His listeners were horrified at such a medieval view of parenting. They also felt somewhat aggrieved, since caring, in our culture, has come to be equated with getting out of the child’s way. It seemed more important to us to be passionate about our children rather than toward them; the prescribed stance was one of genteel noninvolvement.

What we neglected to give our young was a counterbalance to the emphasis on personal freedom and self-determination which they got from both us and the culture. We didn’t talk much about giving anything back to the world that made them. Of course, it is hard to learn real responsibility when the most important job a child has is carrying out the garbage or cleaning his or her room. Suburbia may also have fostered the absorption of the monetary value-standard; the question most frequently asked by thousands of wide-eyed schoolchildren visiting the traveling King Tut exhibit was not anything about that fabulous era, or what those people believed as they prepared for afterlife, but rather, “How much does it cost?”

What could motivate a suburban adolescent to do volunteer work, when the understanding of the importance of work is based on how much one is paid for it? The best way to “sell” one’s teenager on being a hospital volunteer or helping in a summer camp for the retarded is self-interest: “It will look good on your college application; it will teach you something you can use later on” If the young manage to catch a glimpse of selflessness in the process, fine; but we didn’t direct them to value that part of the experience, nor did we expect that they would think of it in terms of “service” to others.

We “prepared” our children, as parents always do, for a world we wanted, We told ourselves that buying the best children’s records and books, providing ballet, guitar or painting lessons, purchasing bicycles and ice skates, paying for summer camp and birthday parties would somehow convey to our children how much we loved them. We hoped they would catch on to the idea of parental authority -- ours -- without its being too uncomfortably visible.

We didn’t want to “make an issue” of manners, even of minimal standards for human interaction. “Polite” became a useless word; an unsolicited gift from Great-Aunt Alice could be ignored. We had hated writing thank-you notes, so we let our children slide, effectively teaching them that their pleasure, their receiving, was all that mattered; they didn’t have to take into account the feelings of the giver or participate in the basic human ritual of reciprocity if they didn’t want to.

Current social history and psychology call narcissism the primary characteristic of this age (see Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and Shirley Sugerman’s Sin and Madness: Studies in Narcissism). The “me generation” child can’t direct much interest or energy outside his or her individual boundaries. A psychiatrist describing a troubled 20-year-old recently said, in the vernacular:

“This kid is hooked. He’s addicted to doing what he wants to. Today’s kids are addicts to doing their own thing; they can’t seem to make that step to adulthood where they would find the ultimate legitimation of being able to do something for somebody else.”

I discovered this lack of community when I taught in a fine small suburban liberal-arts college; my otherwise delightful, intelligent students were almost illiterate in group experience. They had participated little in any organization which might have demanded loyalty or submission of one’s own agenda for the achievement of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. An amazing number of them had never been part of an orchestra or a band, a chorus or a theater group, a political campaign or even student government. A few had had some competitive team-sports background; even fewer had had a vital church youth-group experience. Mostly their earlier lives had consisted of school, a few family rituals (Christmas, Easter and birthdays), and television.

II

Of course, none of this parental disappointment is really new to America. It was clear from the first generation of white settlers that family authority -- in the traditional patriarchal European sense -- was in trouble. Bernard Bailyn and other historians of New England point out that as early as 1648 the Puritans had to pass stringent laws to help keep their children in line. Obviously children born here were at home in the wilderness in a way their parents could never be. That fact, plus the possibility of striking out for new territory when things got tight, and a religious attitude which emphasized the individual self in relationship with God, made it pretty hard for a father to maintain control over his children. Within several colonial generations, we were a youth-oriented culture; the child literally became “father,” or guide, to the “man” -- his elder. One interpretation of our War of Independence casts it in terms of an adolescent rebellion against Father/King and Mother England.

So the Puritans too found their children going their own way; even Cotton Mather bemoans “how little pleasure have I had in my children.” The Puritans had to swallow some of their dreams in order to keep in touch with their young. They too had to see their children come up with their own version of religion, as that first youth movement, the Great Awakening of the 1730s, swept the young into revivalism.

A century later, frontier parents -- those sturdy Protestant adventurers and land developers -- carried with them their secret for success: method, system, organization. New worlds were being conquered not just geographically but in science and technology as well. No wonder the stories in the Sunday school “libraries” of early midwestern villages were full of a sense of indomitable progress and hope.

A typical story is that of a family moving from established Massachusetts in 1819 to the wilds of northern Ohio. Mother is pictured as pious and dutiful, an angel on a domestic hearth that is still being hacked from the forest. Father, in his zeal to finish the cabin before winter, fells a log on the Sabbath and -- therefore -- breaks his leg. In that world God was present, direct and inexorable; his messages to parents were everywhere: from flour spilled on the floor (that child needs more discipline) to the tragic death of an infant (confirmation that God had better things in store for them, in another world).

Along with this awesome domestic Presence, always divinely intervening, there was exuberance; a sense of power suffused the life of even the poorest and most powerless Christian. One knew beyond doubting that life was significant, that hideous circumstance -- a broken leg miles from help -- could be transcended through faith in Jesus and fierce moral purpose. Those parents had a method, a discipline for preparing their young for the world; they thought they knew how to transmit a system of meanings which would arm their children for a wonderful Christian American Protestant future.

III

This century’s parents have lost that confidence in the future. We no longer trust our household gods -- cleanliness, order, Dr. Spock, nutrition, routine, comfort -- nor do we have any real belief in a divine immanence in our lives. Did we ever talk much with our children about loving our country, much less about loving God? Was offering thanks for the petunias in the window box or for a full refrigerator an automatic part of our household litany? Did we ever think the overflowing heart of the 23rd Psalm could be experienced in Pittsburgh as well as in rural Israel? We were afraid to speak of religious things or to make biblical references, lest we sound moralistic or preachy.

Today when an irate grandmother demands, “Why don’t you just make them do it?” she is reflecting a nostalgic view of child-rearing. In our lifetime, the expectation that a child will conform to a pre-existing norm has continued to erode in the direction of more individual latitude. We have learned to change external factors rather than to change the child.

A recently retired executive of an eastern corporation recalls that, as a youth, he was bounced out of three different preparatory schools; he simply couldn’t cut the mustard, as his autocratic old father had always said. No hint in that parental dictum that there might be anything wrong with the school. No such institution-questioning took place; it was simply taken for granted that the child would have to measure up. Such clarity was unthinkable for us.

With our lost sense of order and of a world in which God is involved in one’s daily life, we lack that vigor and optimism which used to be called “strength of conviction.” We are fearful of impinging too much on our children’s lives, and they respond with both anger and hunger. Their anger is the No they scream at interference in their individual paths -- military service, deadlines, legal or conventional restraints, not getting into medical school. This anger is expressed in tantrums -- vandalism of college buildings -- or in depression. Their hunger is often a Yes to the kind of idealism and structured community represented in Jonestown or by the Moonies. Or it is a Yes to a variety of psychologically intense experiences such as drug-euphoria, disco dancing or religious fundamentalism.

IV

Quite aside from the antidraft component of the student protest which I viewed on television, my parent-heart wanted to see some sense of belonging to the world, of caring or conviction. We don’t want our children to be good Nazis obeying without question; we want them to hate war more than we did, somehow to face up to the overwhelming forces in this period of history. But we’d like them to understand the electrifying challenge our generation heard in John Kennedy’s inaugural: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. Did we ever express to them how that charge catapulted our better natures right into the enthusiasm of the ‘60s? Well, no, maybe we didn’t talk much about it, what with the hippies and all that,

Of course the jury isn’t in yet on this “rising seed,” as the Puritans would have called them; we won’t be able to add it all up until we see what values they pass along to their young. But we elders may well have to face the millennium on our knees, because we surely didn’t teach our kids how to get down on theirs. “It is not possible to make good men and good women without an element of transcendence and grace,” wrote Malcolm Muggeridge -- British scholar, journalist and Christian. He was speaking to teachers about education, but his observation applies also to parenting -- to parents who know they have an ideal for the concept of the “good” and a relation with a gracious God. Many of us middle-aged genteel Christians know we settled for considerably less.


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