Parenting as a moral barometer

We associate parenthood with virtue: “As American as motherhood, baseball, and apple pie.” The importance of parents cannot be overemphasized. “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” This is true as far as it goes. Notice this aphorism doesn’t say “The hand that rocks the cradle is good and holy. The hand that rocks the cradle is the epitome of virtue.”

Parents are undeniably important, and parenthood can teach a person to be less selfish, more hardworking, more patient, more loving, more empathetic, more thoughtful, and humbler. It can, but it doesn’t always. Even when it does make us better as parents, those virtues don’t always spill over into other areas of our lives.

“Junnier and Tesler — devoted family men and who gave selflessly to the communities”
From a story about former police officers in Atlanta who were sent to prison for lies and corruption that lead to the death of a 92 year old woman.

“He was both an evil man and a family man,” Schwarz says.
From a Smithsonian Magazine article about the excavation of a jail for slaves called “Hell’s half-acre.”

People can be good parents and jerks, simultaneously. They can be loving parents and criminals. They can even love and want the best for their children and make horrible, hideous decisions for their children. I believe female genital mutilation is an abomination that should be eradicated, but I don’t believe that everyone who maims his little girl with this barbarity doesn’t love his child.

Familial love is a good thing and God’s common grace on us all. But being a good father or a good mother is one of those “supposed to’s”–the default position. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children. . .” It’s what makes child abuse and other crimes parents commit against their children so horrific. Parents ought to love and care, anything less than that is subhuman. To admire someone because he loves his family is like admiring someone for feeding or clothing himself: it’s the baseline for humanity.
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I get that parenthood gives us common ground. “I’ve got kids, you’ve got kids, we’re all in this together.” It’s great to realize our commonality, to see “the other” in a familiar light. And I happen to think kids are great and being a mom is the best job ever. I know that God has used my children to grow me and stretch me in ways I never thought possible. But that doesn’t mean that because I am a parent, I have some sort of moral gold star that puts me ahead of the childless. And even if I were the “best mom ever” (HA!), that doesn’t preclude me from being a jerk, or worse, to others.

In fact, things done “for the children” can harm others. See, for example, the CPSIA. People can be selfish and fearful and small in the name of their children. And they can be brave and sacrificing for those same children. People without children can be selfish or giving, fearful or brave for their own reasons. The only thing they lack is that pithy “for the children” slogan.

Parenting can be the most fulfilling adventure of a lifetime; the trials and challenges can make me a better person. But it doesn’t always happen, and we shouldn’t be shocked when it doesn’t. So why, then, do we use parenting to make decisions about people not related to their parenting?

Should a murderer who loves his child get a lesser sentence than a childless murderer or one who is an indifferent parent? Is a parent more likely to govern well than someone who has no children? George Washington had no children (yes, he had stepchildren), did that affect his leadership? Why do we insist on the inane portrait an ideal politician being “a good family man.” (Or woman, which is why it was okay to hit Palin so hard–apparently she didn’t parent as she should.) If Pol Pot was a good daddy, would we give him a pass? Kim Il-sung was very good to his son, he set him up with a whole country. How does that change his murderous legacy?

A person’s parenting skills are a poor measure of virtue or skill. We would do good to remember that next time commends someone as “a good family man” — in either a political campaign or a criminal defense.

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