Fault Lines

Blaming gives me great comfort.

If Mickey Owen hadn't dropped the third strike in the fourth game of the 1941 World Series...

If I had bought AOL in 1992...

If I had sold AOL in 2000...

If Lee Harvey Oswald hadn't shot JFK in 1963...

And those Hatfields and McCoys. Don't even get me started about whose fault that was and what would have been different.

Would the Dodgers gone on to beat the Yankees rather than having to wait until 1955? Would I be a wealthy man? Would the US have avoided the conflict in South East Asia? Would our country be stronger and happier?

It makes me happy to think of all these positive outcomes. It gives me a sense of righteous indignation when I hear about what the Republicans (or Democrats) have done (or haven't done.) "If only our elected officials had the good sense to buy (or not buy), pass (or repeal) a law, address (or leave alone) this issue."

Parents get blamed as well for the poor behavior and poor performance of their children. And sometimes this paradigm makes perfect sense: a child who is up late at night may be tired and do poorly the next day in school; a child who beaten will invariably learn violence; abused children almost never grow up to be healthy.

But sometimes the blame is harder to assign. "Refrigerator moms" were blamed for their children's withdrawn behavior in the 1950s. "Because you aren't warm and loving," they were told, "your children are autistic." Although there is still controversy about the causes of spectrum disorders, unloving parents is no longer a theory with any traction at all.

And what works with some children doesn't work with every child. "We did everything the teachers, the counselors, the psychologists and the psychiatrists told us. We set up behavioral contracts; we rewarded and punished; we read every book on parenting."

"We're simple people; we don't drink or sleep around. We were loving, not abusive. We went to every soccer game, did what we thought was best. But our son hates us, hasn't spoken to us in years; we don't even know where he is."

"We have three other children, none of whom was ever a problem. The other three all went to college, lead happy and productive lives. But with our younger son, nothing worked. The more we tried, the worse he got. We got notes home from the teachers; we got advice from friends; we took him to every professional. He's 21 now and he's a real mess."

"We were made to feel like it was our fault."

It's easy to throw stones at this family. It's fun to find fault: You were too strict; you were too lenient. You went to too many soccer games; you didn't go to enough soccer games. You shouldn't have made him play soccer; you should have made him play more sports. You should have hired a math tutor; you hired too many math tutors. You should have let him find his own way; you should have given him more direction. You should have given up after the first $50,000 spent on treatment; you should have spend another $100,000 to help your son."

The other side of this issue--parents who claim credit for their child's every accomplishment--burns me up. People frequently corner me in Publix (where, apparently, chatting is also a pleasure) and tell me their children's SAT scores. "Tabitha got a 1300," they intone. Then, in a conspiratorial whisper, they continue: "We read to her as a child."

If only good parenting were that simple. If only it were the case that by reading and loving, all our children would grow up to live contented and fulfilled lives. If only the direction of the causal arrow were that clear and straight.

I'm not making a case for nature over nurture. I'm just suggesting that our current models for how to bring up happy, healthy kids are way too simplistic and don't work for every child in every family. I'll let Will bring us home this week:

Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour's tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call'd mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

In other words, because his son is drinking, whoring and theiving, Henry IV wishes his enemy's kid was his.

In sum, here's what I've learned after 30 years of advising parents about how to educate their children:

"Love the kids you get and you'll get the kids you love."

"Take your kids to the woods or you'll end up paying someone else to take them."

"When nothing is working, try something else."

As always, thank you for reading.

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