your kids; my opinions

I have a few things to say about the idea that, because I'm not a parent, I shouldn't voice opinions about parenting. And I'll just be direct and say that this is more or less in response to Jenna Cole's retweet of @benjhaisch's tweet, which was this:

And all I know about Ben Haisch is what he describes himself as, on his Twitter profile: a husband, a photographer, and a "jesus follower."*

And really, this isn't about going after Jenna. Jenna, I'm not going after you on this, honestly. This has nothing to do with you personally, other than the obvious fact that I disagree with you. It's just something I've seen said before, and it always rubbed me the wrong way. But since I never took the time to collect my thoughts into some kind of coherent post, I want to do that now. And yes, I know I'm probably not saying anything that hasn't been said before along these lines. But when people propagate a belief with which we disagree, we have two choices: a) sigh, say nothing, and be frustrated, or b) stand up and say something, and humbly dump our teaspoon's worth into the conversation.

If you don't have kids, keep your opinions on parenting to yourself.

It's an easy, pat little sentiment. Superficially it seems sound enough, right? Somewhat fair and logical? I mean, I'm not a surgeon, so I wouldn't go around advising people on what sort of operations they need. Likewise, I'm not a dietician, so I wouldn't presume to dispense advice on diet and nutrition - or exercise.

I just don't think it's quite as simple, however, when it comes to parenting. Because no, I don't have kids. But childrearing doesn't occur in a vacuum, or on some isolated island, where the decisions you make as a parent affect no one but yourselves and your children. It happens in the collective society, where I live, work, pay taxes, and vote. As a parent, you're raising children who will be interacting with me, directly and indirectly, for the rest of my life. Your parenting decisions affect me now, and they affect my future.

Let me back up and say that there are obviously some parenting choices that have nothing to do with me. Though now that I've written that, I'm having a hard time coming up with examples. Because there is very little that you do or say to your children that won't shape who they grow up to be, or the kind of person they are, out in that world they share with me. But let's assume that while I can't think of any but the most trivial (such as what toothpaste your kids use), that there are plenty such examples.

What you teach your children at home is what they'll carry out into society at large: kindness, or a lack thereof; empathy, or a lack thereof; generosity, or a lack thereof. Etc, etc, etc. And as we all know, children learn more by example than by verbal instruction alone. Do as I do, not as I do say sure sounds good, but we all know it doesn't work.

Children repeat and manifest the behaviors that are modeled to them by adults. Every single thing you do, all day long, teaches your child something about life, whether you mean it to or not. In your life choices - big and small, in your words and actions, you are passing on your values, day in and day out. Parenting never stops. Every single thing you do says to your child, Hey, it's ok to do this. The lessons your children are gleaning from your behaviors are the mold into which you're putting them. And when they reach an age when you gently flex that mold and pop them out - where they're venturing out into the world they share with everyone else, including the childfree - those lessons will be put into action. And each night they come home to you, until they're of an age that they leave the nest, they're climbing right back into that mold.

And as a thinking, feeling human being, as one of the seven billion people on this planet, I sure would like those little humans to be decent, thoughtful, and kind. And as someone who contributes to their welfare by way of public schools (among other collective services),  I deserve them to be such, as well. And for my part, I have a responsibility to them. Because I'm helping to shape them, too. Every time they see me hold the door for their mother and smile; every time I stop to let them pet my dog (though really, Chaucer and I get equally as much joy out of those encounters), or clear a seat for them on the Metro, I'm having a hand in their molding, too. In some small way, I'm teaching them, too.

The idea that the childfree shouldn't opine about your parenting is problematical for another reason. It almost posits the child as the property of her parents. As if the child is some belonging, something that is kept in a bubble, an entity only affected by the two people responsible for its primary care. But this isn't the case. Children aren't property. They aren't just dolls to be dressed up and shown off. They aren't mini yous.  Don't be fooled by how small and cute they are - they are fully formed (and forming) human beings, complete with their own personalities, their own needs and desires, their own capacities, and their own value. They're just as unique and special as you are; being charged with their care only gives you so much dominion over them. They need guidance, but they deserve respect. They're yours to cuddle and love, but they also need the things they can't easily ask for, because they don't yet understand them.

Things like privacy. And now I'm going to wax tangental, but only a little bit so, because I think this is a good illustration of the larger picture I'm trying to paint. It makes me sad and sometimes concerned, when I see the lax attitude some parents have towards sharing photos of their children on the internet. And I'm not talking about 95% of the photos I see, which are happy and harmless and sweet. I'm talking about that other 5% that are questionable. Photos of children undressed, partially or completely. Photos of children in emotionally compromising or embarrassing situations. When parents post photos of their kids selfishly, without regard to the child as a complete, respect-deserving human being on its own, they're doing exactly what makes me cringe: they're treating that child as property. As a toy of theirs, or an accessory to display however they choose. It's selfish and it's unfair to the child, who is simply just a small human.

And I'm not even going to get into how grossly inappropriate and dangerous the undressed photos are. I've had two - TWO - real life anecdotes come my way in the past six months, having to do with child pornography. People, it's real. It happens. One of my best friends had his world turned upside down when, out of the complete blue, his roommate was busted for it. And this is a man with a four year old child of his own. 

So yeah, I don't even want to get into that. Point made, I hope.

Here's another problem I have with this idea that I should keep my ideas to myself. The same people who want me to shut up about their parenting choices tend, in my experience, to be the same ones who complain the loudest about what they deem to be society's apathy towards their parental plight. They're the ones who bitterly decry the lack of consideration when a stranger fails to help them with their stroller in a busy subway station. They're the ones who get insulted when I comment on their pregnancies. When I ask the "wrong" question, or the right question the "wrong" way. They get indignant when I express interest and curiosity about this child they've created. Well I'm sorry, but you can't have it both ways. You can't ask the world to accommodate your choice to procreate and then dictate how all of us respond to that choice.

Look, I'm happy to help. I'm actually quite grateful you've taken on the tremendously difficult work of raising a kid or two, maybe someone who'll approve my bank loan in twenty years, or help me cross the street when I'm eighty. Because hell, I certainly didn't want the job. So thanks. But do me a favor and stop demanding, out of one side of your mouth, that I back off - and complaining I'm not contributing enough out of the other.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But that expression hails from a time when children grew up in actual villages. The distance and time elapsed between "village" and "multibillion person global community" is vast. And while in some ways we're closer to one another, in many ways, we've become more isolated. But no matter how much time your kid spends playing on my block vs. holed up in his room staring at an iPad, he's going to be a part of my life, in some way. You might not like that I have opinions about the way you're raising him, but it's hardly fair to expect me to fork over my tax money, to pony up my empathy and attention when you want it, and then to shut up the rest of the time.

It just doesn't work like that.


* and in case it needs explaining, yes, I used scare quotes purposefully. I'd also put "teapot follower" or "unicorn rider" in quotes, because to not do so, IMO, legitimizes the worship of a supernatural deity, and that just ain't my game.