Parenting and Democracy

I am reading Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker Palmer this morning and was particularly intrigued by a comparison he drew between parenting and managing a democracy. He is trying to demonstrate the tension between seemingly conflicting values.

“As we who are parents…try to give a child both feedom and discipline, we may run into inner obstacles that keep us from holding that polarity with grace. Perhaps we are overwhelmed by fear about the future of the child we love. Driven by anxiety, we may tilt the balance toward confinement and safety instead of freedom and its risks, depriving our child of the growth that can only come from learning the hard way. Or perhaps we look back on our own childhood as repressive, making our movement into adulthood slower and more painful than it needed to be. Driven by resentment, we may tilt the balance toward more freedom than our child can handle.”

I clearly remember when I would lay a restrictive rule on one of my teens, I would hear the classic teen response, “You don’t trust me.” My response was always, “It isn’t you I don’t trust. It is the rest of the world.” I understand the tug Palmer is talking about. Freedom so that my child can learn or restrictions in which my child is protected. How does a parent live with harm that might come to their child; how does child when leaving the nest survive in the world if they enter it without knowledge and skills? My children are now dealing with the same dilemma as they raise their own children.

Palmer suggests that political life in a democracy is full of these kinds of contradictions and conflicts. He writes, “What shall  we do when the will of the majority infringes on the rights of a minority? If we want both feedom and justice, what is the proper balance of unrestrained personal or economic activity and government regulation? Which is most effective in transforming various kinds of behaviors: educcation, incentives, or legal sanctions? I the face of a foreign threat, is our national interest more likely to be secured through quiet diplomacy or saber-rattling?”

My dilemma over the parenting question ended magically as each of my children left the nest. Yes, yes, I know. They could get in just as much trouble or even more “out there” but I was one of the blessed moms who could let go. But the dilemma of the contradictions and conflicts in our democracy will be there as along as we have a country. The big kid never leaves. Palmer says that it was understood at the beginning by our founding fathers that there would always be opposing views. “The United States Constitution,” he says, “is a life-giving set of principles and practices in part because itmakes final solutions impossible.” Ouch! He also suggests that we need to be wary of so called final solutions. Hitler’s program was touted to be “The Final Solutions” for Germany and for the world.

This book was supposed to help me in my struggle over how to be a good and wise citizen. I am afraid that accepting that there will always be a struggle, that somehow it is the nature of a democracy to wrestle…and keep wrestling…over issues isn’t exactly the kind of guidance I was looking for.

It just makes me want to go take a nap.

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