Parents after Littleton
June 3, 1999
by Ryan Streeter
A flurry of activity has followed the Littleton massacre. Numerous "expert elites," - from political leaders to academics to entertainment figureheads - have been scurrying to and fro, pressed for time to find "The Cause" of such tragedies and promise "A Solution".
Armed with reams of polling data and hot-off-the-press studies, Congressional leaders heroically marshal gun control legislation, President Clinton exhorts violent Hollywood, Vice President Gore blasts Internet perversities, Rosie O'Donnell becomes Hollywood's "passion for gun control legislation" incarnate and national radio programming abounds with special reports on how Doom, Kingpin and Marilyn Manson are winning the battle for our children's souls. We look to Washington. We look to Hollywood. We look to New York. Somebody has got to take responsibility for this horrific mess and get us out of it. And all the buzz indicates that those in-the-know and in positions of influence, the expert elite are crafting the Solution.
When the dust settles from this frenetic display of activity, as it always does, will the condition of our children be any better? The expert elite assures us that our children will not be able to get guns so effortlessly. Nor will they be able to surf onto macabre web sites so seamlessly. Nor will they be able to watch violent movies so easily. The Cause has been identified and will be disarmed.
There is a question many Americans are asking that has been kept off center stage: Are not parents primarily responsible for the kinds of children they raise?
Underlying the post-Littleton frenzy is the belief that parents are - by some natural law - separated from their teen children by a monstrous gap in age, interests and values. To think they should be expected to take the lead in raising children to be responsible adults has become passé.
In her controversial 1998 book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do: Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More, Judith Rich Harris argues what many Americans seem to be taking for granted: Parents are not the ones who shape their children's values and habits. The formative power of peers is just too strong.
Advocates of Harris' thesis think she describes a previously unknown natural law. She doesn't. She merely describes the condition of the disconnected family unit that many people now consider normal.
By not questioning this condition, the expert elite has embraced it. That is why its response to Littleton has been entirely predictable.
In its view, since parents cannot cultivate character in their children, responsible parenting entails either policing what kids do or "respecting their space" by remaining silent on matters of principle and value. In short, parents can be authoritarian or egalitarian or both in alternating fashion.
Nothing could be more alien to the roots of American public life. One of the greatest differences Toqueville noted between his fellow Europeans and the Americans he traveled to observe in 1831 was the American penchant for regarding the home as the wellspring of public character. In Europe, he claimed, "almost all the disturbances of society arise from the irregularities" of life in the home. "While the European endeavors to forget his domestic troubles by agitating society," he wrote, "the American derives from his own home that love of order which he afterwards carries with him into public affairs."
Europeans of the early 19th century could only conceive of social order in authoritarian or egalitarian ways. They never understood republics as well as they thought they did. And neither does our expert elite. If it did, with Toqueville it would see families as "model republics" in which the rulers (parents) guarantee equal treatment under the laws of the home and the means to develop sound character in their subjects (children).
The home should teach self-confidence and deference, benevolence and integrity, responsibility and compassion. It does this when parents listen to their children, work on their own character, enforce the rules of the home, apologize when they are wrong and make the moral life a journey they share with their kids. It cannot leave the task of cultivating sound character to a society that depends on it for the same.
If parents are struggling to provide the moral leadership their family needs, then they need to seek help. Responsible parents consult friends, congregations, local family service agencies and extended family when they need support in building a mutual bond of love and respect with their children.
In the wake of the massacre at Columbine, not one prominent national leader has mounted a cogent case for the need to strengthen the organizations and institutions that can help parents raise children of sound heart and mind.
If political leaders, entertainment figureheads and community activists want to help families, their best contribution would be in the form of support to organizations that can really improve families. Hundreds of churches across America offer help. Numerous organizations offer character education and counseling. Perhaps it is time for a "Family Savers" built upon the model of "Marriage Savers," the highly successful national organization that brings new life to formerly distressed marriages.
A host of possibilities exists, but the key lesson is this: If the expert elite is to be any help in the midst of our latest national tragedy, it has to let go of its corner on the "solution market" and start creatively supporting those who can truly help us fill our nation with "model republics."
Ryan StreeterRyan Streeter is Vice President of Civic Enterprises, LLC, a public policy development firm in Washington, DC. Streeter was a research fellow of the Welfare Policy Center at Hudson Institute from 1998-2001.