“Good parents are sooo hard to find these days!” exclaimed my teen-aged daughter Dhara recently. She was talking with her tongue firmly in her cheek — I hope!
In recent days, she’s been re-reading our collection of Calvin and Hobbes books, where the world’s most cheeky six-year-old keeps making wisecracks about his own mom and dad (‘Your approval ratings among household six-year-olds are way down’, ‘When are you standing for re-election, dad?’, etc.).
But Dhara’s light comment rang true, generally speaking. As every parent discovers sooner or later, parenting is a 24/7 job that lasts for two decades or longer. There’s no help desk or emergency number we can call. It’s more an art than a science, for which there is no comprehensive, fail-proof guide — even though plenty of advice is available on TV and online (some of it better than others).
Generic advice is helpful but not sufficient. Every parent-child situation is unique, and every parent has to find what works for him or her…ideally, the two parents working in tandem.
Does parenting come naturally? If only it did! I don’t believe in this grandma-knew-best kinda romanticising. For sure, some in our grandparents’ generation got it right, but there were also many who never did.
For something so consequential for the future of our species, there’s no minimum age or entry level or qualification. (As Dhara occasionally asks me, “You didn’t have to take any exam for this job, did you, dad?”. Come to think of it, I didn’t — although, in my case, I did give it a lot of thought first. Honest!)
Geeks express it a bit differently. “A human being is the best computer available to place in a spacecraft. . . It is also the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labour,” said the German-American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the brains behind the Apollo project that landed men on the Moon.
Although I can’t vouch for its authenticity, a similar quote from the mid 1960s is attributed to the US space agency NASA: “Man is the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labour.”
I don’t like their cynical analysis of something far more nuanced than their usual hardware and software. But they got a point there. Biomedical sciences have advanced much since the Moon landings, and today some medi-geeks are trying to ‘play God’ in creating life in a lab. I’d like to see how they can get a machine to mimic the 20+ year parenting process…
Making babies may be accomplished by unskilled humans in the right age, but raising babies is most decidedly a high skill, high intensity and highly demanding job. Especially in this day and age, when many kids are more tech savvy than their parents: the Digital Natives can easily run virtual rings around their Digital Immigrant parents.
We have to watch out, though, to listen carefully to what our children are saying to us — and also about us!
By the way, as one of my favourite authors, Roald Dahl, reminded us, “To children, all grown ups are like giants — who tell them what to do all the blooming time!”. (The worst parents in my mind are also created by Roald Dahl’s imagination: Mr and Mrs Wormwood, in his 1988 novel Matilda, which was adapted into a movie in 1996. In the movie, Papa Wormwood tells the precocious little Matilda: “Listen, you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong; and there’s nothing you can do about it!”).
The bottomline: am I a good parent? It’s not for me to judge — but I try hard being one. It isn’t an easy act for anyone, and especially for a single parent that I now am.
Someday, I hope, the one-woman jury won’t be too harsh on me…and may she never need to advertise for a replacement.