There are times these days when I feel a little like the Ancient Mariner-- or, at least, the Ancient Parent. There are so many youngish men and women pushing strollers and carrying babies on their backs that I keep feeling I should waylay some of these former members of wedding parties and communicate some of the things I have learned in twenty years as a father.
There are three things-- at least-- that I want to tell all those earnest young stroller pushers, and I usually want to start by assuring them you really do get more out of parenthood than you put into it. It is, if all goes well, full of little pleasures and adventures, and there is one aspect of it that is absolutely unique. When you raise a child, you get to do two things that are profoundly satisfying. You give the world to another human being, and you give another human being to the world.
There is no other occupation, as far as I know, in which you can do that. And the nice thing about it-- considering the magnitude of the achievement-- is that it's relatively easy. You just have to decide you want to do it. The world, after all, is already there. I didn't have to write The Prisoner of Zenda or Doctor Dolittle. I just had to read them to my son. Anthony Hope and Hugh Lofting did all the really hard work. I just had to make the introductions.
My second message is closely related to the first. You must never forget that you have responsibilities to the world, as well as to the child. A lot of parents, it seems to me, become intensely preoccupied with their child's welfare, and forget they are also supposed to protect the world from the monsters we are all capable of becoming.
People who really like their children want their children to like them, too, and that makes it hard to say no. It helps, in my experience, if you remember that you are a sworn and properly accredited agent of the entire human community, with full responsibility for the lives and property of four and one half billion human beings and everything they and their ancestors have created in the last few million years.
There is, as the saying goes, some bad news and some good news, and parents are the diplomats who must convey it to the aliens who have landed in their homes. The bad news, kid, is that the residents of this planet aren't allowed to rob, murder, and rape their neighbors. The good news is that your neighbors aren't supposed to rob, murder, and rape you.
If you can keep that fundamental bargain, furthermore, you get a bonus. You don't have to cower cold and bored in the wilderness. You get to sit in comfortable rooms and do interesting things.
If you're going to raise a child, in other words, I think it helps if you like the part of the world people have made. The more things you like, the more things you can give to your child. The more things the child likes, the easier it is to put up with all those irksome restrictions on theft and murder.
The last item on my agenda may be the most urgent. It's something I especially want to tell all those modern parents who think their children should be reading Scientific American before they enter nursery school-- and all those old fashioned parents who are afraid their children will turn into loafers and ne'er do wells if they don't flog them every time they forget to squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom. The most important thing you can give your children is a good relationship with their parents.
Our relationship with our parents is one of the cornerstones of the human personality. Our parents, after all, are the first people we have to deal with. If that relationship works out well, then there's a good chance it will set a pattern for all the relationships that will come later.
Nobody wants their kid to be a bum. Getting into Harvard is very nice. But don't let your natural concern about such matters interfere with something that is far more important. Children who like their parents-- and know their parents like them-- will go into the world with a piece of equipment that is worth a dozen degrees and several dozen lectures on punctuality and good manners.
Many years ago, in an article by the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I came across Balzac's definition of a full life: to write a book, to plant a tree, to raise a child. I think it's significant that Balzac wasn't talking about a pleasant life or a comfortable life, or a life without responsibility and anxiety. If you're the kind of person who places a high value on your own personal pleasure and comfort-- if you don't like to commit yourself to responsibilities that may be "too restricting" or that may "alter your lifestyle"-- then you are probably making the right choice if you decide not to have children. But if you share Balzac's hunger for a full life, I think I can tell you he was right.
Copyright (c) 1984 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited. A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Philadelphia Welcomat.
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