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Opinion & Essays - Dec, 1993 (#25) 

by: Lon Woodbury

I have four children. In our current day and age, statistics suggest it is very likely that at least one of my children would decide to make poor and self-destructive choices. With negative peer pressure, with Television and other institutions glamorizing children's freedom to do what they please, with child care workers and adults in authority too often confusing what children want with what they need, with a society actively hunting for victims to protect, with a tax system not recognizing the tremendous costs of raising children and more concerned that the government has enough money than that the family has enough money, and with a legal system and public child agencies sometimes ready to believe that parents are the enemy, I knew that providing the best home my wife and I could might not be enough.

I knew that if one of my children were to turn very manipulative, all these elements could be used against me in my attempt to provide what I felt each of my children needed. Unless I was careful, any one of them could bring in an outsider who could interpret my discipline as abuse or neglect, and make accusations that could result in putting my family into turmoil. Unless I was careful, my wife and I might interpret our children's behavior differently and be unable to present a united front. I had to understand what each child really needed, even though a child might be totally unable to verbalize what it is he/she really needs, or would do everything he or she could to hide from me what was really going on in his/her life. I knew I was still held responsible for the behavior of my children, but without some of the rights, respect and tools my parents had. I knew there were people who would automatically believe the worst about my parenting without checking (or believing) if there were another side to the story. All of these elements make me cautious about taking a stand, and I could sense myself at times pulling my punches, for reasons other than the good of the child.

Parenting is more difficult today than it was in my parent's time largely because parents in general are viewed differently, and at times suspiciously. Of course there are some parents who are totally irresponsible in their parenting. The children of these parents absolutely do need to be protected. The tragedy is also on the other side of the coin, in that children of responsible parents lose some of their parent's best efforts because of the social and legal environment we have created. This result is very subtle, and hard to measure, but the damage is real. Less effective parenting can occur when parents hesitate to take a stand and exert discipline for fear they will be critized or investigated. Damage can happen when a manipulative child challenges and/or rebels against his/her parents and can find help and support in the community for his/her immediate wants. Damage can happen when a manipulative child threatens to report the parents to the authorities when the parents try to stop the child from doing something. Damage can happen when a hostile neighbor makes an anonymous and trumped up report, which by law must be investigated, with no possibility of consequences to the person making the charges. Damage can occur when a parent gets so overwhelmed by the double bind of all options appearing bad that they just give up and act like they don't care.

In my educational consulting practice, I have seen all of these, and in some extreme cases fathers have been jailed first and investigated later based exclusively on made-up charges filed by a manipulative and out-of-control teenager or by an angry ex-spouse. Fortunately, in my experience, most Social Workers and child care workers are aware of the way the system can be abused, and take action to minimize the damage. But, even if the government official is sensitive and full of common sense, it is still scary to parents, and reminds them their home is not free from interference if some authority thinks their parenting skills are weak. Even worse, all it takes is a few child workers, using the full power and force of the law, acting out of their personal biases and hostility, to do an incredible amount of damage, both directly and indirectly to responsible parents and their children. It just takes a few to destroy confidence in the whole system. We have much work to do in devising institutions, laws and ways to protect children in abusive situations, and at the same time protect responsible parents from having the system used against them.

(Continued in the next issue - when the odds caught up with me)

Copyright 1993, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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