Tuesday, February 27, 2007

what does a young punk like me know about parenting anyway?

Recent posts by Kitana, Humanoid Interface, and Trisha (how come all female bloggers ah?) got me thinking about parenting and education. A long time ago, a teacher of mine shared this with me: in order to drive a car, we need to pass an exam to get a license, because driving a car without adequate knowledge of how to handle a car can cause much harm and destruction. Being a parent without adequate knowledge of how to be a good parent can cause even greater harm and destruction compared to an automobile (think if your child grew up to be a mass murderer, or Hitler), yet there is no such thing as a parenting license or a parenting exam.

I recently asked myself and two individuals this question: "If WSM was your daughter, how would you feel about what she said?". Would you feel upset that such a "horrible" person was your daughter? Or would you feel sad that you have in some ways, failed as a parent, because you are also responsible for the kind of person your daughter turns out to be? [Note: I am making no claim about WSM's actual parents. This is a thought experiment, nothing more.]

I don't think anyone denies that parenting plays a very very big role in determining what kind of person the child grows up to become. This role is so big, that some of us have a tendency to attribute moral blame to parents for "poor upbringing" whenever a child has done something undesirable, even after the child has attained legal adult status.

I have two questions. The first question: what is good upbringing? Is there any gauge or metric for good or not-so-good parenting? Is academic success an indication of good upbringing? Some parents like to brag about the schools their children go to, or if their children go on to become successful doctors, lawyers or whatever high places in society. If your child is relatively bright, and mugs like crazy so that he can enter RI and RJ, but acts like a complete snob to your neighbour's children, would you feel like you've been a successful parent? Or perhaps you feel better that than the ah beng across the street who can only be a sweeper at best? Other metrics of good upbringing? Perhaps the popularity of your child? Or perhaps the very generic sense of is he/she a "good boy" or "good girl"? Or perhaps, as I suspect, you'll never really know how successful you were as a parent, until you see your children when they are 30, and you see how they treat their own spouses and children, as well as how they treat their colleagues, friends and fellow human beings in general.

To be fair, there is some sense which, surely we know, certain things are definitely bad parenting. And avoiding such bad parenting is some progress towards good parenting. Things such as spoiling the kids so that they have no sense of discipline or respect towards others. Things such as too much restrictions, or worse, physical abuse, that the kids have a battered self-esteem. Things such as exposing them to risks and dangers.

But for each of these trademarks of "bad parenting", there are grey areas. One should not spoil the kids but one must love them, and loving them sometimes means buying that barbie doll for them. Where to draw the line? One must not restrict/scold/punish the child too much, but a total lack of restriction is no discipline at all, and an ill-disciplined person is doomed to failure in life. Where to draw the line? Some risks and dangers are easy to identify. Drugs, for example. How about more grey areas? Smoking? Alcohol? Pre-marital sex? Or how about dating at the age of 15? 17? 19? 21? Where to draw the line?

The second question is this: if there is someone whom we feel is not practising very good parenting, do we, either as individuals or in the collective power of the state, have any right to force them to change? In the US, and I'm sure many other nations, there is a child protection agency which picks up children from parents who fail to meet certain criteria of good parenting, and puts them in foster care. As far as I know, there is no such agency in Singapore, and the state does not intervene in parenting, except in cases where there is clear abuse. A few years ago, there have been some failed attempts to draft a law in the US (as well as the UN) making it criminal for any form of physical punishment by parents at all.

Perhaps another way to think of this question is this: if I think my way of parenting is right, and your way of parenting is not so right, how sure can I be of that? If I have children one day, I might teach them to love fellow humans selflessly (although be wary of strangers). Some others might want to teach their children to be more self-interested, because in that way you protect yourself, and also you stand a higher chance of success in a world which is highly competitive. I might believe in caning my child, because I believe the pain is necessary for them at a young age because it protects them from greater dangers. But some others might believe that are other ways of teaching instead of using physical punishment. Which philosophy of upbringing is more "right"? Can we really know whether or not it is the "right" philosophy until after we see our children grow up and see how they function or fail to function as adults in society?

I believe that by and large, parents ultimately love their children very much. I believe most parents, if shown irrefutable proof (maybe a magic looking glass into the future) that their current way of parenting is indeed not the "right" way, then the parent would change the style of parenting without battling an eyelid. Ultimately, a parent will try his/her best to do what's in the best interest of the child. This I believe to be true for almost all parents. The problem is, there is no magic looking glass into the mirror. There is only, I say this is the correct way, and you can disagree. But at the end of the day, my child is my responsibility to raise, not yours.

Parents love their children. Tremendously so, even. But parents are also human. They may also love success, wealth, a comfortable lifestyle, career, status, themselves. And parents being also human, may make mistakes. They might balance the different loves in less than ideal ways. They are not superhuman after all. Or it may not even be their fault, it may be circumstances beyond their control.

Do I have a point to make in this article? Yeah, and that is that it is a ridiculously difficult job to be a good parent. Too much uncertainties, too little information, and quite literally, lives are at stake. Perhaps someone might feel that this is sufficient reason to decide never to have kids. I would see where he/she is coming from, but I would personally disagree. I would love to have kids. I think having kids to love and to love you in return, is by itself so valuable that it is worth taking the risk of parenting. Although nothing might hurt more than realizing you failed to be a good parent, but then again nothing might make you feel happier to know that you've brought up and help to mould a person of solid character, who is making a difference to the lives of others and of society.

At the end of the day, let's not forget that its a tremendously difficult job to be a good parent. It is so difficult I think, some parents, many parents perhaps, are bound to fail. But if you think you are blessed with great parents who brought you up well, then do take the time, perhaps today, to show your appreciation for them
(give them a hug and tell them you love them, for example) and the wonderful job that they've done, for it is not an easy job to do at all.

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