Parenthood in America Conference

Jack C. Westman, M.D.
Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The essence of the inspiration for this Conference was captured in a conversation I had with my 11-year-old grandson, Matthew, and my 8-year-old granddaughter, Carly. I asked them what was the most important thing in their lives. Both answered without hesitation, "my Mom and my Dad." Far too many children are unable to answer this question in the same way.

Although most children are raised by the parents who conceived or adopted them and who live in committed relationships with their children, an increasing number are not. The aim of this Conference is to bring out the unfortunate consequences of the inability of children to say with confidence that their parents are the most important factors in their lives for those children, for their parents, and for society -- and what we can do about those consequences.

As we enter the 21st Century, we are developing the capacity to think in terms of outcome-based initiatives. We want to know the consequences of our actions. We have a relatively clear vision of the efficiency and creature-comfort outcomes we seek from the material things we attain through remunerated work. But we are only beginning to envision human outcomes in the kind of citizens we would like to have in our society. We need to decide whether or not we seek thoughtful, moral persons, capable of rearing their children and contributing to their communities. This is a crucial choice because of the current trend toward a self-centered, impulsive, amoral, and exploitative citizenry.

At the core of the hostility, loneliness, and unhappiness that plague our society, in spite of its relatively favorable economic status, lies an inability to form and sustain intimate relationships. We can no longer afford to focus only on the socioeconomic and cultural factors that contribute to our social problems. Inadequate, disrupted, and strained parent-child relationships are more important. We must face the fact that "goodenough" parenting prevents, and not "goodenough" parenting contributes to, our social problems.

If we do aspire to a competent, moral citizenry, we need a paradigm shift from primarily emphasizing material wealth to emphasizing the quality of our lives. Inherent in that shift is valuing the things that contribute to personal fulfillment in life. At the core of personal fulfillment is the capacity to form and sustain intimate relationships. That capacity is formed in the parent-child relationship in early life. This means that we need to recognize that the parent-child relationship -- parenthood -- is the most fundamental and important institution in our society.

We deliberately chose parenthood rather than parenting as the theme of this Conference. Parenting implies a set of functions that can be delegated to others. Parenting can be cast in the model of past royalty or the present wealthy in which one "has" children who are reared by others. Parenting functions also can be, and too often are, pieced together around children in foster homes and institutions without providing those children with parents.

In contrast parenthood is a way of life, a career. It implies "hands on" developmental work in which parents grow with their children and in which parents and children are bonded to each other. It connotes one role in life and recognizes the importance of others, such as companionship and remunerated career.

We need to clarify our understanding of parenthood because we live in a time of dramatic and rapid changes. These changes have led to confusion about family and employment roles, about mothering and fathering, about love and sex, and about authority in the home. Many adults prefer acting like children to caring for children. In the past parents tyrannized children. Now many children tyrannize their parents. Many adults and youth are fascinated by violence and seek freedom from responsibility. Because they have been traumatized by their family relationships, many persons experience anxiety in intimate relationships and tend to avoid or disrupt them.

Compounding all of this is the tendency of the generous side of our society abetted by commercial interests to turn to child caring institutions, schools, professionals, and volunteers to fill in when parents fail. There is a strong tendency to avoid holding parents as responsible for their actions with their own children as they are for their actions with persons outside of the family. The persistent belief that children are the property of their parents remains strong in spite of the efforts of child advocates in the legal system.

Although the pressures of change have negative effects, they also provide opportunities for constructive developments. Many fathers now participate more significantly in their children's lives than in the past. Many women and men choose to give their careers as parents as much or more priority as their remunerated work. Many foundering parents are receiving education and support. There is a trend toward shifting the helping focus from children and their families as freestanding units to children and parents as vital members of neighborhoods and communities.

I encourage you to envision with me what our society would be like in the 21st Century if every child had an effective parent and if parents felt supported by their families, neighborhoods, and envision what our society would be like if parenthood was a valued and supported career. This paradigm shift from society valuing only remunerated work to valuing parenthood as well would produce dramatic reductions in our social problems and dramatic improvements in personal well-being. It would make it possible for every child to answer the question "what is the most important thing in your life:" "My Mom and my Dad."

Copyright © 1998 Jack C. Westman.

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