Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Father Knows Best" Was a Fantasy Even in the 1950s

Over dinner tonight, Mary-Jo told me a little anecdote that I thought was interestingly revealing. As you may know, she works with adolescent patients at a psychiatric hospital.
Mary-Jo: The new guy at work was commenting last week about the kinds of patients he'd been seeing. "I can't believe we have all these kids who are acting out, and almost none who are depressed," he said. I told him, "Just wait till school starts." Sure enough, this week all the depressed kids are being admitted.

Karl: Huh. Why is that? What is it about the school year that brings all the depressed kids to the hospital?

Mary-Jo: It's simple. During the summer holiday, the depressed kids just sit at home in their rooms, quietly plotting how they're going to kill themselves. No one notices they have a problem till they go to school. Then the teachers and counselors get alarmed and send them to us.

Karl: That's kinda weird.

Mary-Jo: Yes, you'd think the parents might notice that their kids are in trouble. But usually they don't. When we ask them about how their kids have been during the summer, they say, "Oh, everything seemed to be fine." And from what I've read, it's the same at every psychiatric hospital--the same ebbs and flows that match the school seasons.
I've written before about the silly smugness of the ultra-conservative "family values" crowd that loves to mock Hillary Clinton's slogan, "It takes a village to raise a child." (Yes, I know Hillary borrowed it from an African proverb. But if Hillary hadn't appropriated the idea, do you think Rick Santorum would have written a book ridiculing it?) These conservatives prefer to insist "It takes a family to raise a child," and they dream of insulating their kids from the evil influences of the world behind a wall that only people like them (in ethnicity, religion, language, and beliefs) and are allowed to enter. Hence the attraction of home-schooling--not for all home-schoolers, but for those who are driven by theocratic motives.

This little story is a perfect illustration of why they're so wrong. The fact is that families alone cannot provide everything that young people need. The average mother and father just don't have the time, the specialized knowledge, or the disinterested wisdom that it would take. In most cases, they can't even tell when their kids are considering suicide. (And let's not even talk about the families that drive their kids to consider suicide.)

If all our kids were "shielded" from the broader society and left exclusively to the tender mercies of their parents, the results would be scary.

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