What are the most important things parents can give to their children?
While parents’ aspirations for their offspring may differ from family to family, it’s unsurprising that within any given culture, some goals acquire a higher prominence than others. It’s not too difficult to tell when a particular hope stands out in terms of its importance based on how the parents treat it.
Take, for example, American attitudes towards a college education. In general, middle-class parents with means treat college as a matter of paramount importance for their children—as an expectation rather than an option (indeed, even parents without means often sacrifice a great deal to help make a college education possible). This expectation may manifest itself differently according to different parenting styles and financial circumstances. There are no doubt exceptions — parents who do not really expect their kids to attend college at all. But despite the exceptions and variations, a very common set of customs and practices have emerged that require parental involvement throughout the process.
One of the earliest steps many parents with means take is to set up a college fund for their children—sometimes even before birth—to help make it affordable for them. As they’re growing, children are often reminded by mom and dad about the importance of a college education to their futures and careers. Once high school rolls around, academic performance takes on a new urgency. Though most parents no doubt find education important in and of itself, things like GPA, class rank, and standardized test scores become a new focus—not simply because they measure educational progress, but because of their centrality in the college admissions process. Parents will buy their children books or sometimes even additional classes merely to improve their SAT & ACT scores. They will encourage participation in extracurricular activities simply because they will look good on college applications. For those deep in the game, gauging the effect of specific classes on one’s GPA often becomes as important as the subject matter when signing up for courses each year. Parents will read articles in “Consumer Reports” and other publications that rank colleges to improve their progeny’s odds of finding a quality institution. They begin planning trips with their teenagers—not for vacation, but to get first-hand information on colleges that already look good on paper. In short, a great deal of effort is put into the twin tasks of finding great colleges and making their sons and daughters prepared for and attractive to great colleges.
Of course, not every middle class family takes part in all of these customs. Nevertheless, the emerging pattern is clear. Parents deem a college education to be too valuable to leave to youthful indiscretion and deeply involve themselves in the process as a result. It’s not as though parents are typically forcing their teens into college against their will or unilaterally deciding which college they attend; they’re simply intentionally cultivating worthwhile goals, effective preparation, and practical wisdom for the pursuit thereof. For the most part, the youth get a significant degree of choice in where they go, but not in a vacuum. They have guidance, discipline, and resources provided by their parents to help thwart potential bad decisions made in the irresponsibility of youth.
It would be foolish of parents who so value a college education to content themselves with telling their little children that they’ll come across the right college someday and feel in their heart that it’s the right one when it happens. They wouldn’t disregard their high school students’ academic indicators, content that the right college won’t be shallow enough to care about such things. They would hardly resign themselves to passively watching their offspring occasionally audit classes that look fun or sign up for a correspondence course from time to time, remaining silent except for the occasional passive-aggressive comment at Thanksgiving dinner that it would be nice to see them settle down with a nice B.A. program. If parents think of college as extremely important, avoiding this uninvolved approach would be a no-brainer. It’s too key to a child’s future to approach the goal so casually.
It is therefore a stark contrast when we compare parents’ dedication to getting their children into a good college with their dedication to getting their children into a good marriage. One cannot help but suspect from the lackadaisical approach of middle class parents to their progeny, that they do not consider marriage very important at all. Of course, this attitude is expected for those who have unfortunately come to believe that marriage is an outdated and irrelevant custom. However, it is not at all reasonable for those social conservative parents who still find marriage important—those who (rightly) profess it to be the most fundamental building block of society and (rightly) wish to defend it against various contemporary perversions of the institution.
Even conservative defenders of marriage lack intentionality when it comes to the marital prospects of their own children. It’s not as though they’re ignorant of how to handle important things because they also deeply involve themselves in goals like securing a college education. It is simply that they do not treat marriage with their actions the way they treat it with their rhetoric. They complain about institutions when they redefine marriage. They complain about the media when they demean or devalue marriage in various ways. Nevertheless, when it comes to that segment of society in which they have the most influence—their own family—they often do not seem to make the “college” kind of effort to cultivate a desire for marriage, to prepare their sons to be good husbands, to prepare their daughters to be good wives, or to help them find a good spouse.
Consider, as one small example of this, the virtue of chastity—a disposition to prepare and direct our sexuality towards marriage—and contrast it with the far more popular term among social conservatives: “abstinence.” This shallower word merely means that one shouldn’t have sex until one is married. This is a true moral rule and good advice. However, it is also a very peculiar expectation coming from those who decry premarital sex while still adhering to the American customs that encourage it. Our middle-class coupling system has two basic imperatives that parents are to deliver while keeping their distance: First, do not get married until one is established in a career (which itself must follow receipt of both a high school diploma and bachelor’s degree.) Second, in the meantime, one should date–spend copious amounts of time alone with members of the opposite sex selected primarily on the basis of physical attraction for the purpose of enjoying romantic feelings and having fun. The kind of fun they have should not be a surprise, nor should the fact that trying to add a third bare imperative, “don’t have sex until you’re married,” makes very little difference to the outcome. No matter how often it’s repeated and how many purity rings its accompanied by, it’s still like saying “run straight at that concrete wall without stopping” and then adding “but don’t hurt yourself.” If it actually works, it’s something of a fluke. Meanwhile, social liberals instead add “but be sure to wear a helmet,” the only virtue of which is being marginally less stupid.
The sad fact that divorce, illegitimacy, and fornication have become the norm is a testament to the reality that American coupling traditions no longer serve to cultivate marriage. This puts social conservatives in a bit of a bind since they tend to be traditionalists. Traditions are indeed wonderful things, but sometimes vices become part of a culture for so long that the vices become traditional. As G.K. Chesterton once pointed out, “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.” Given that the sexual revolution is now geriatric, perhaps a time has come when rebuilding is more necessary to society than conserving.
If marriage is as important as social conservatives say — and it is — then serving one’s children well will involve cultivating their desire for marriage and readying them for it. If the customs and traditions that parents receive from their culture are inadequate to this task, then they need to take up the burden of developing new ones. They can find ways to make marriage an expectation, to set aside resources for the establishment of a child’s future household, to help them find good prospective spouses, and to prepare them to be good spouses themselves. Much of the parental involvement in college has some kind of corollary in the realm of marriage. Parents can also learn from the past, for many other times and places have seen more effective approaches to marriage than what we practice today. Perhaps some older customs ought to be adapted and revitalized for our own culture.
It is time for conservatives to remember their entrepreneurial spirit and come up with something new. There is no question that this endeavor will be challenging. We have social dynamics at work that delay marriage more and more. We have absentmindedly acquired other life expectations that conflict with marriage. Even the fact that parents need to go out of their way to prepare their own children suggest that it will be difficult to find prospective spouses whose parents have done the same. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to assume that these challenges have no solutions and let them go unanswered. Parents must not simply give up on their child’s future. Meeting the challenges will involve going against the grain and experimenting with unfamiliar approaches, and it is the nature of experiments that they sometimes fail—something no parent wants for their children. Nevertheless, it is clear that America’s current approach is already a known failure. Accordingly, a calculated risk has become the safest route.