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Rethinking Universal Princehood

Getting Beyond ‘A Youth Of Self-Absorption and an Adulthood of Sacrifice.’

by Marc Porter Zasada

This morning the Urban Man finds himself at a youth gymnastics competition, where my children are warming up on a floor mat with the team. I pause to watch them stretch, tie up their hair, and preen in their unitards. I note the lithe movement of muscle under black spandex, like the ripple under the skin of big cats. I gaze at their untroubled faces, boy and girl alike: Smooth not just with youth, but with long experience of carefree safety and good nutrition.

They seem, well, content.

And then I turn to look at the ragged collection of parents, myself included, scurrying grimly in the background. We make sandwiches, sort shoes, repack gym bags, and shout into cellphones. As we move, we appear neither lithe nor muscled, and display no catlike qualities or signs of good nutrition. Our bodies are overweight, our faces careworn, and our movements both rushed and clumsy. From a distance, we don’t seem important to the scene at all.

Merely, well, "supportive."

And today, for the first time in years, I pause to wonder: What’s wrong with this picture?

The dedicated reader of The Link may call the question itself a heresy: "Nothing’s wrong with this picture," he may bluster. "Only the kids matter this morning. You should ask only whether they will have a good experience or a bad, make progress or fall back, show cheer or despair, get along or get in trouble at the big competition. Who cares what kind of day the parents may have?"

But today, I do care and I do wonder. In fact, keeping my eye on the dancelike stretches of the team, and balancing an empty snack bag on one arm and a collection of dirty sneakers on the other, I pause to consider the whole curious landscape of modern American parenting. And I find it troubling.

On the one hand, of course, I see the famous Uninvolved Parents, legendary in story and radio talk show, pursuing their shiny careers, expensive pleasures and novel therapies without regard, or seemingly without regard, for their wide-eyed children. The Uninvolved, often vilified in these pages, are known to dump their children on teachers and after-school programs, willfully ignoring bad influences and television habits. They trust blindly to the many and only-too-willing institutions of our day: School, church, state and team, to raise the next generation.

We know the Uninvolved by sight and we know them by reputation. But none of them read The Link. And few, I fancy, are scurrying behind the scenes in the gymnasium today. Their reformation, well pursued by a thousand other articles and books and plays and sermons, needs no addition from me.

No, today I want to talk to the Highly-Involved Parent here at the gym: Running for a water bottle for the eldest, while fumbling with a nutrition bar for the youngest. Who has six rolls of film ready in her backpack, but no time to load the camera. Whose lithe, pampered child barely looks up as she combs his hair and hands him the unwrapped but unappreciated treat.

I want to talk to a believer in universal princehood. I consider interrupting one now – a fortyish, dumpled homeschooling mother of three. I know her as once a great reader of Dickens and lover of Beethoven piano sonatas, a fine office manager and a hiker to the tops of Sierra peaks – but not much time for that now, not with the sippy cup falling out of her backpack. Not with the middle child way behind in math.

If I stopped her to talk, and I somehow quieted the ringing chaos of the gym so she might collect her thoughts, she might even wax eloquent and philosophical for me:

"Surely you know how it goes," she might say, pushing back her undone hair, and looking me straight in the eye. "The very arc of life peaks in the childrearing years. And that energy must be used to begin the arc of the next generation, so that it might soar higher. As for our own bright curve, well…we’ve got to earn a living, get the car fixed, keep the kids clothed and scrubbed and prepped for their afternoon piano lesson. It’s worth it to see them glow with beauty and accomplishment, like princes and princesses. Who can blame us if we ourselves start to run downhill? If we give up our finest selves to the office or the kitchen or the carpool? If we let go our ambitions, our books, our looks, our music, and our passions at 35? Leave me alone, already. Don’t make me miserable."

And then she might add menacingly: "What kind of father are you, anyway? Get back to work, man. Your son is asking for one of those apples you’ve lost in a bag somewhere. And look, your youngest is crying."

No, on second thought, better not to interrupt. Better not to hear this speech. I shall keep my thoughts to myself this morning, and write them down later:

"Actually, the idea of universal princehood for the young is a fairly recent invention – something that started around the Industrial Revolution and only picked up steam after World War II. Sometime in there, lots of folks began placing all their hopes in the next generation instead of their own. They began wanting fewer children, so they could be sure to offer each one ‘the good life.’ They began to offer each prince and princess more and more and to ask less and less in return. And if the effort sometimes proved counterproductive, well, the parents just worked all the harder.

"Before that, for untold thousands of years, people had big families because the children were needed to help them out: Work on the farm, work in the kitchen, keep the family business going and prop up their parents in old age. Not just the young mattered, and not just the old, but the family itself – the honor and prosperity of its name. The pre-industrial family was focused, however, not on the child, but on the patriarch and matriarch, whose well-being, well, mattered plenty. One hoped someday to become the patriarch or matriarch, not to remain as long as possible the giddy, pampered dauphin.

"And you know what, for those untold thousands of years, children accepted this arrangement as the natural order of things; and as I understand from old accounts and old novels, often they loved and revered their parents anyway. Strangely, the parents seemed to love them, too. Pampered princes and princesses existed, of course, but they were a small and selfish class."

Later, driving home exhausted as the athletes exult and despair in the back of the minivan, I listen carefully to the radio – switching around through the channels so I can hear small catastrophes pass across the face of the globe. Again and again, I note how the newscasters and pundits focus their tales. How they instinctively use children to tug at our heartstrings: Victims and prodigies, educational programs and nutritional concerns, costs and calculations, debts and disease. Again and again, they chide parents for our inadequacies.

And I notice how the broadcasters never speak simply of families—never discuss family victories and defeats, costs and calculations, debts and disease. A radio broadcast from three hundred years ago might have run: "The Smith family suffered a blow this week when grandpa James grew too ill to handle the plow. Fortunately, son Thomas and daughter Rachel were there to pick up the slack under his guidance. Meanwhile, Richard continues his studies in Boston, managing to send a little money home from his stipend."

I try not to idealize pre-industrial life, but I do wonder if we might learn something from this older paradigm of families and clans. Let’s call it: Families should work hard together for the common good. Perhaps it might offer an alternative to the formula I hear in every book and article these days, and see reflected in the harried, haunted eyes of parents -- homeschooling or otherwise. It goes something like: You should pursue a youth of self-absorption and an adulthood of sacrifice.

Say that last phrase aloud and see if it does not taste familiar, but faintly bitter on your modern tongue.

As I drive, I wish for a moment I had taken the dumpled woman at the gym by the shoulders and made my own speech:

"Just as you seek accomplishment and contentment and virtue and passionate goals for your children, and just as you work or school or homeschool to bring these blessings to the next generation – so must you seek them for yourself, for you are also a member of the family. If you truly want to be a good parent, you will take care of yourself and your heartfelt quests, so your kids may inherit both your health and your passions – and experience them with you. Ask for the support of your children in your home and your old age and your illness and your quests, and they may find fulfillment in giving that support. Perhaps even in this third troubled century of the modern age, a family can figure out how to help one another to a complete and graceful life, adults for children and children for adults, all for one and one for all."

But who am I to offer that kind of advice, or such an idealistic vision? Who am I to buck the great paradigms of our day? And why should she or her magnificent, carefree children listen?

I’m just another Highly-Involved Parent, pausing to think a little this morning, before I become supportive once again: Before I take one hand off the wheel of the minivan to rummage in yet another bag for the still-lost apple.

Writer Marc Porter Zasada and his wife have been homeschooling their four children for the past nine years. You can read more of his essays at www.theurbanman.com and reach him at marc_zasada@hotmail.com.