The Art of Imperfect Parenting

Every generation, it seems, looks to its children for hope of a better world. Yet there are few challenges more daunting–or downright foolish–for progressive-minded parents than setting out to raise little revolutionaries. (They often turn out to be accountants.) Kids just seem to naturally follow their own inner voices. But don’t despair; no matter how far your children (or nieces and nephews, or other kids you care about) may veer from your own chosen path, there’s probably more of your values in them than they care to admit.
–The Editors

Ariel Gore’s daughter is a cheerleader. Make that captain of the cheerleading squad at her school. For most moms that might be a source of pride. But for the 32-year-old Gore, punk priestess of riot grrrls everywhere and publisher of the radical mothering zine Hip Mama, it is more than a little mortifying.

“I hadn’t been to a football game since I was, like, 3 years old,” says Gore from her Portland, Oregon, home. But the other day, she drove over to the school like every other dutiful parent to watch 13-year-old Maia help cheer the boys on to victory. When she tells me the story I can sense it was a disconcerting experience; and as a parent myself, I know what she means.

“My daughter is totally mainstream right now,” she sighs.

It is not an unfamiliar complaint among radical-minded parents whose values often get trampled by the forces of pop culture, peer pressure, and simple obstinacy as their children mature. Who hasn’t heard stories of the son or daughter of some shining radical who grew up to be an investment banker or real estate mogul. As a colleague of mine who attended the University of Pennsylvania pointed out the other day, “The Wharton School was full of hippie kids who are now happily looting Wall Street.”

It is, of course, completely unremarkable for children to rebel against their parents. I did it. You did it. It’s just the way things are. But it can be particularly devastating for parents intent on raising their children with a well-honed social consciousness. To many of them, the future of the planet hinges on their performance as parents–their ability to raise a good revolutionary.

“If this country continues on its current trajectory toward becoming a police state,” says Gore, “we’re going to need a lot more revolutionaries–from leaders and organizers to people who are simply ready and able to say no when asked to conform to something that goes against their humanity.”

Parents hoping to provide reinforcements for the war against imperialism, injustice, and general right-wing idiocy, however, may find it is not just a tall order, but one that may be completely counterproductive. In fact, changing the world may not be about raising revolutionaries at all. It may be more about raising the kinds of kids who are strong enough to break their parents’ hearts.

Jim and Susan Vogt know a lot about raising kids. The Covington, Kentucky, couple have four of their own and offer tips to other parents through a program called Parenting for Peace and Justice. And yet, paging through Susan’s new book, Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference (Loyola Press), I can’t help wondering whether as parents they’re just as clueless as the rest of us.

The Vogt household is a paragon of progressive parenting strategies: family meetings, strict limits on TV and junk food, patient modeling of environmental and social consciousness, regular field trips to soup kitchens and other community service opportunities. “To a great extent, raising children who will contribute to society in positive ways involves helping them to find themselves and to like what they find,” Susan writes.

But to read her kids’ responses to some of the stuff Mom and Dad put them through, you’d think not much of it has stuck. One evening, for instance, they showed up at the kitchen table with a “Family Pledge of Nonviolence” and asked each of their children to read and sign it. “It seemed like just another one of the hokey things our family did, like the prayer chain during Advent, or the family meetings that always seemed to run around in circles before we finally came back to the starting point,” writes Dacian, who was 17 at the time. He refused to sign, because the pledge didn’t reflect his reality. “If your friends are going to a movie that has violent content, standing up and denouncing them for their evil ways isn’t going to get you anything.”

Then there was the volunteer work in the local soup kitchen, which daughter Heidi called “a chore” and her brother Brian said didn’t leave much of an impression.

None of the Vogt kids enjoyed going to church on Sundays (Jim and Susan are heavily involved in the local Catholic parish), nor did they comply eagerly with the limits on TV viewing or the regular exhortations to recycle or take the bus or talk about important issues around the dinner table. They were, in other words, like most kids–searching for an identity, pressing against parental boundaries, finding their own way. And as Susan Vogt freely admits, not even the most conscientious parent can shape a child’s future completely.

“We can’t make our kids care,” she writes. “We can’t pour into them a social conscience. But we can put before them prompts and possibilities that will increase their odds. Our efforts won’t be perfect, and they won’t always work, but we will have tried, and that’s all we can do. The rest is up to them.”

Books like Vogt’s are filled with prescriptions for raising kids who will make their parents proud, like modeling compassion and empathy, teaching self-respect, and setting boundaries. And as challenging as it is to aspire to these values and offer them to your kids, I think it’s way more challenging to know when to drop them from your parenting repertoire.

Take the issue of guns and violence. In our old neighborhood, where my daughter, Nora, and son, Martin, spent their first 10 and 8 years, respectively, disarmament was the rule. No toy guns were allowed on the premises. It became sort of a neighborhood joke that when you came over to our house you had to leave your squirt guns and plastic Uzis on the sidewalk. There was a very practical reason for this: The crack house at the end of the block invited periodic gunplay that was all too real. We made it clear to our kids and their friends that the local gangstas as well as the cops, faced with someone holding what looked like a gun, tended to shoot first and ask questions later–if at all.

Five years ago, when we had finally outgrown our tiny two-bedroom bungalow and moved to a larger house in a less exciting neighborhood, gun control was less of an issue. My wife, Sharon, and I discovered the pacifist stance we had inculcated in our son was a lot less durable than we thought, and Martin was soon lobbying for an expanded arsenal of weapons (he had been content until then with fashioning small revolvers and derringers from Legos). We backed away hesitantly from our nonproliferation treaty, with the agreement that guns shouldn’t be pointed at anyone, and soon all manner of weapons began infiltrating our home while spirited armed skirmishes began breaking out in the yard. The war, we soon realized, had been lost.

But I’m not sure it was such a bad thing that Martin was able to change our minds. It didn’t come about through strategically planned tantrums or through a long-term program of low-level whining. He’d basic-ally made the case that running around with play guns was no longer a big deal. He knew the difference between real and pretend violence. And, eventually, so did we.

Nora and I had a similar revelation earlier this year, when she announced her interest in seeing Eminem’s new movie, 8 Mile–“which you’re not seeing,” I quickly interjected. Reviews of this film had incited a firestorm of debate over its violence, sexual content, and liberal use of the F-word, and we had maintained a pretty rigid policy on what movies and TV shows were considered acceptable viewing.

And as Nora and I faced off in the kitchen that evening, I could sense the first twinges of teenage independence pulling at her — and me. I told her about the reviews of the movie, and stubbornly argued that we shouldn’t be supporting artists and production companies who spread degrading images of women and rappers through the mass culture, and how this sort of thing debases even the viewers, and yadda, yadda, yadda . . . Even as I was making the argument, though, I knew it was lame. And so did Nora.

We let it drop for the evening, and the next day I happened to ask a colleague about the movie. The reviews were overblown, she told me; it really wasn’t that bad. So Nora and I negotiated further and came to a compromise. We agreed not to shell out $7.50 apiece to see something that might be stupid (at least to my way of thinking) and would wait until it came to our nearby second-run theater. Then we’d see it together and talk about the stuff all the reviewers were saying was so dangerous to the morals of America.

And so we did. It wasn’t the best film I’d ever seen, but it wasn’t bad (sort of a hip-hop Rocky). And it turned out there wasn’t even that much to talk about. The sex stuff, we agreed, was pretty gratuitous, and the violence said a lot about Eminem’s particular neurosis (though Nora maintains he’s not as nasty as the media make him out to be). And the language? We agreed that after the first five minutes or so (in which conjugations of the word fuck are firmly established as the film’s central communication vehicle) you could pretty much ignore it.

The point here is not that the kids got their way or that the parents practiced the art of noble compromise. It’s that certain values (honest debate) can sometimes be honored even as other values (pop culture purity) are shredded. We want our kids to have their own convictions and be able to defend them in a way that respects other people’s opinions but doesn’t discount their own. They don’t win many of these arguments with us, but when they do, I can’t help thinking we’ve all learned something.

Bee Lavender takes a similar approach with her two children. The 32-year-old writer/activist, who’s working on a book about raising kids to be political dissidents, says she has always stressed the importance of communicating with respect. Her 13-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son simply won’t get their way by whining. “Even if the kids dislike the approach at times, they truly do have exceptional negotiation skills,” she says. “I don’t mean to imply that they are perfect. They have gone through all the standard developmental stages; it is just that along the way, I have insisted that they communicate with words instead of tantrums.”

And this allows kids–and parents–a little more latitude in the way they approach the world, she adds. “When you act with diplomacy, you can afford to be more radical in the scope of your plans.”

Lavender, a “radical unschooler” in Seattle, who prefers that her kids avoid structured education, points to her daughter’s decision to attend public school as an example of a child making the case for change and following through with it–even when the parent doesn’t agree. “While I fretted and worried about what to do, she went off and located a mentor to help her get the paperwork organized, found a ride, applied, and was accepted. She was about 9 years old at the time,” Lavender recalls. “I was shocked, but proud of her initiative and daring, and let her go. It would have been easier to say no and keep her home, but it was a better lesson for her to make the choice and accept the consequences.”

In a way, it’s about giving up your power as a parent (or at least deconstructing it), something most kids begin to demand by their preteen days and something most parents dread. “Just trust them,” says Peggy O’Mara, editor of Mothering magazine and mother of four grown children. “If you’re modeling the environment, they will learn those qualities you want them to learn. Then educate them when they’re in junior high and high school. Tell them the truth, or as much as they can handle.”

Just don’t expect them to hew precisely to the path you’ve so carefully prepared for them. Teenaged Maia Gore doesn’t like being dragged to protest rallies anymore (though she did participate in an antiwar walkout at her school last spring); O’Mara’s daughter embraced the Nike swoosh as a teen, even after her mom told her about the sweatshops; Lavender’s kids won’t watch the news with her, for fear of yet another political lecture. (“When I get my knickers in a twist about current events, my daughter tells me to calm down.”) Heidi Vogt was a Peace Corps volunteer, but has serious doubts about her ability to effect change-a concern not uncommon among even the most activist parents. “If I were told I could save the world by sacrificing myself,” she writes, “I might just decide that the world wasn’t worth saving.”

And my kids–unschooled, organically fed, and thrift-store clothed–exhibit no particular proclivity toward radical activism. Like most kids, they understand intuitively the concept of fairness (racism and homophobia never made any sense to them), but as much as they may understand on some level how screwy the world is, they seem to have no particular interest as yet in committing their lives to changing it.

But maybe the real issue is how we define the revolution we’re all so intent on making with our kids. It is, after all, convenient for moms and dads to extrapolate the goals of movements past to the social change possibilities of the future. It’s what we know, what we’re comfortable seeking. The next generation, however, may have a totally different idea of what tools and strategies can push the forces of injustice off the map (like, duh, the Internet). Maybe it’s not about barricades and tear gas anymore; maybe it’s about poetry slams and gender-shifting, or things we can’t even imagine.

And maybe we shouldn’t be so intent as parents to manufacture social change through our offspring at all. As Ariel Gore notes, it can be a painful business. “Being radical often requires a radicalizing experience–and probably not a pleasant one,” she says. “The natural thing is to shelter our kids from painful experiences. There’s a conflict there.”

The conflict isn’t simply internal, either; it’s cultural and political as well. We live in a society that values children chiefly for their ability to consume and their potential as future compliant workers. “Society mostly looks at kids’ deficits, not their strengths,” says O’Mara. “It’s a culture of crisis all the time; everything’s a problem. There’s not a lot of modeling of just trusting the way of things, just trusting them to be children.”

Changing those societal values is everyone’s job, O’Mara says. It starts with raising healthy children, of course, but extends to teaching them civics, educating them about politics, encouraging them to vote. “In this time particularly, we need to educate kids about democracy,” she says. “We need to stress civic education and media literacy.”

And we need to acknowledge that the experiences we share with our children don’t necessarily have to lead to some political outcome, says Gore. “Ultimately, the utility of taking our kids to political protests, teaching them the history of feminism and social justice movements, teaching them how to think critically, and doing our best to foster empathy and compassion is the same as teaching them to read,” she says. “We are giving them the basic life tools they will need, and will be able to build on later in life on an as-needed basis. These things are not a recipe for raising a revolutionary any more than teaching our kids to read is a recipe for raising a writer-or even an avid reader.”

And those life tools can be applied in revolutionary ways, like when Maia accompanied her mom last summer to the radical parenting “Mama Gathering” in Los Angeles. “My daughter was able to help the Radical Cheerleaders (most of whom had no formal training) choreograph their cheers,” Gore recalls. “Even though she refused to perform with them–with a resounding ‘NO!’–she made sure that they didn’t fall on their asses. And that’s enough to make any mother proud.”

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.