“You don’t know whether you have succeeded as a parent until you see how the grandchildren turn out.”
- Mary Ellen Smoot
For the first twenty years of my life, I lived next door to my grandfather. Grandma died when I was three so I don’t remember her much, but I remember grandpa as a very kind, very old, tall and skinny man who had to use a cane to walk and even then had a very severe limp. Grandpa was born in the last decade of the 19th century and in many ways was a very old-school Mormon. He wore the old wrists-and-ankles garments, and he personally knew cohabs who had been incarcerated for the practice of plural marriage. He prayed aloud five times per day — morning and evening, and he also said a looooong, kneel-down prayer before every meal. I know this because as a young boy I would wake early, get dressed, then go next door to eat an early breakfast with grandpa. I would then go home and have a second breakfast. Score!
I’ve been thinking about grandpa lately because I’m transcribing recordings of the memories of his life. In his last year, my mother took one of those new-fangled cassette tape recorders over to his house, turned it on, and asked him questions about his life — what it was like growing up in rural Utah, his parents and siblings, his education, the depression, his marriage and family, his church service, and so on. It is an incredible and emotional experience to hear and recognize a voice I haven’t heard in thirty years, and to remember again some of his idiosyncratic and endearing ways of speaking I thought I had forgotten. And it is especially meaningful to get to know him again from the perspective of an adult who has now shared in some of those experiences. I’ve learned that grandpa ditched school now and then. I’ve learned that the world where he grew up wasn’t much different from ours. Even in LDS communities in rural Utah there was danger and violence. Grandpa got in brutal fights with boys from the other side of the tracks (today we would speak of gangs and turf wars), and sexual morality was a challenge for the young people then as it is now. Indeed, if the reports from speakers in general conference in the first decades of the twentieth century can be taken at face value, in many of our communities more than 50% of the marriages were of the shotgun variety. Maybe the good old days weren’t all that great after all.
But the part that has really caused me to reflect has been the part where grandpa talks about his family. Several of his children eventually disaffiliated from the LDS church, and an even larger number of the grandchildren and great-grands have done the same. He served actively in the church his entire life, and with our strong emphasis on teaching the next generation, I wonder if he ever felt like a failure as a father. It is unfortunate, but whether we like it or not, and whether it is fair or not, we often evaluate ourselves and one another as parents based on how active and committed in the church our children turn out to be.
Our assumption about our fitness as parents based on how the children and grandchildren turn out is difficult to reconcile with two fundamental LDS beliefs: our doctrine of the pre-mortal life and our doctrine of agency. We believe that the children who come to our homes are not blank slates, but that their characters and personalities were developed to some extent before birth. And if agency means anything at all, it means that we cannot think of our children as lumps of clay we can shape to our will, but as individuals whose abilities, quirks, and tendencies should be taken seriously, even at a relatively young age. It is a form of idolatry for us to try to shape them after our own likeness and image. So, given our belief that raising children is important, how can we best understand and evaluate what we are trying to do?
Last Father’s Day weekend, The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating piece on parenting. It is worthwhile to read the entire article, but a few quotes will be enough for this blog post.
Parents may feel like their pressure, encouragement, money and time are all that stands between their kids and failure. But decades’ worth of twin and adoption research says the opposite: Parents have a lot more room to safely maneuver than they realize, because the long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are much smaller than they look.
Parents have a strong effect on which religion and political party their kids identify with, but little on their adult behavior or outlook. Some, but not all, twin and adoption studies find that parents have a modest effect on tobacco, alcohol and drug use, juvenile delinquency, and when daughters (but not sons) start having sex.
Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it’s great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful “investments”—and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.
If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you’re not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents’ consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids’ development, so it’s OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids “for their own good” rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you.
The most meaningful fruit of parenting, however, is simply appreciation—the way your children perceive and remember you…..If you create a loving and harmonious home for your children, they’ll probably remember it for as long as they live.
From all this, I conclude that parenting is important, but often not in the ways we think, and that we expend a lot of time and effort on things of little long-term value. It is good for us to remember that, as President Hinckley once said, “Most children grow up to be just people.”