In Plato’s perfect Republic, children would be “taken to a pen or fold and raised by nurses…the process of suckling shall not be protracted too long; and the mothers will have no getting up at night or other trouble.” Plato’s Republic had parents without parenthood.
Israeli Zionists in the early Twentieth Century thought the burden of childrearing and homemaking was the cause of gender inequality. They emulated Plato’s Utopian form of childrearing in their communes and tried to eliminate parenthood. Similarly, royalty and the wealthy usually have hired others to care for their children.
The motif of delegating parenting now permeates the United States, although it is encountering resistance from those who prize close relationships with their children. This resistance by parents and grandparents led ultimately to abolishing the separation of parents and children in kibbutzim. Today kibbutzim support parenthood with long parental leaves and accommodation of the work place to family living. The society that once attempted to abolish parenthood became a strong advocate of parenthood because after decades it saw that the lack of attachment bonding during early life produced adults who lacked empathy for, and the ability to sustain committed relationships with, others.
Parenthood generally is not accorded a high value in the United States. Having a baby is a status symbol…caring for one is not. Having a parent in itself means nothing to babies, children and adolescents. Competent parents who can handle the responsibilities of parenthood mean everything to them.
Unlike other Western nations, the United States does not recognize the economic value of parenthood. Many parents are diverted from childrearing to paid employment either by choice or by necessity in welfare-to-work programs. In fact, competent parents contribute $1.4 million to our economy for each of their children who becomes a productive worker. Incompetent parents cost our economy $2.8 million for each child they damage by neglect and/or abuse.
The disparagement of parenthood is felt particularly strongly by adults who place parenthood above employment away from home during their children’s early lives. The term “working women and men” refers to people who are employed away from home and implies that homemaking is not work or is less important than paid work.
In the United States, childcare is regarded as a marketable educational function rather than as a fulfilling developmental experience for adults and children as it is in other Western nations that support parenthood through paid family leaves and other benefits. Hiring non-parents to care for children creates jobs.
Our society also is imbued with materialistic beliefs that encourage parents to seek alternatives to caring for their children. One widely held belief is that both parents should be employed away from home on a full-time basis in order to generate enough income to pay for high quality childcare along with luxury goods and services.
Most importantly, our society doesn’t recognize parenthood as a career. It doesn’t formally acknowledge that childrearing is skilled, hands-on work in which parents and children bond and grow together. It automatically awards full parental rights to any genetic parent regardless of age or ability until the child is damaged by the parent’s neglect or abuse and parental rights are terminated by a court.
Nonetheless, parenthood is a lifelong career. For most parents, parenthood is just as important as a paid career if not more so. This is especially evident during a parent’s later years. Louis Terman’s Stanford study of eminent women and men found that, as they looked back on their lives, they valued family relationships over their professional careers.
Our society doesn’t formally articulate parenthood standards except for adoptive and foster parents and for the adoption of pets. However, our culture does hold expectations for people who give birth to a child. The vast majority of children are raised by parents who fulfill these cultural expectations by building and maintaining parent-child bonds, but an increasing number are not.
Adults who didn’t have caring, intimate relationships with their parents find sustaining committed relationships difficult, including with spouses and offspring. Because committed relationships and teamwork are vital to our society’s integrity and prosperity, we must articulate our cultural expectations of parenthood, the source of committed relationships. Our implicit cultural expectations codified in child abuse and neglect statutes include a child’s right to competent parents.
Plato’s idea of raising children away from their parents was not realized in ancient Greece. It failed in all subsequent childrearing experiments from the Israeli kibbutzim to the People’s Republic of China. Even the wealthy who delegated childrearing often do not have rewarding family relationships. Still, Plato’s ideal is taking hold in the United States.
In the long run, parenthood is more important to our society than paid vocations. Competent parents produce our citizens and workers. Parenthood is the career that benefits everyone.
Parents need an effective political voice to ensure that parenthood is valued in the United States. An “American Association of Parents” could be that voice.
Dr. Jack Westman develops public policies to give every child the chance to become a productive citizen. During decades as a psychiatrist and professor, he has maintained a focus on strengthening families. Currently, he is a family lobbyist and author of Parent Power: The Key to America’s Prosperity. www.jackwestman.com and www.americasparentpower.com.