Can you imagine acknowledging your worst parenting fail? How about doing it at an AEI event with C-SPAN’s camera rolling? If you’re a mother, I’ll bet you’re out. But if you’re a father, you might be game.
What is it that makes men and women see the world so differently, especially parenting and our roles as parents? Is it biological, cultural expectations, or some mix of the two? Because it’s clear that we don’t all live in the same head space where parenting is concerned.
I write this with a high degree of confidence after listening to a panel at AEI on Monday night, during which several contributors to The Dadly Virtues: Adventures from the Worst Job You’ll Ever Love discussed their take on fatherhood. Editor Jonathan Last (of Weekly Standard fame) asked the panelists to share their worst parenting mistake, along with some parenting wisdom gleaned from their own experience.
As both a parent and a parenting writer, I’ve read and listened to a good deal on the subject, and this panel was unlike any other I’ve encountered. I dare say that’s because it was populated entirely by fathers, and witty conservative dads at that.
I cannot imagine a similar panel of mothers laughing as they described purposely breaking their child’s leg, as P.J. O’Rourke’s son believed he did, while regaling the audience with the saga of teaching that young son how to ski. The experience taught O’Rourke that he’s better off being the breadwinner who can afford ski lessons.
I’m also not sure how many mothers would repeatedly joke about nudging a child toward a favored extra-curricular or coaching them for public recognition, as Stephen F. Hayes did, while poking fun at his interest in sharing his hockey obsession with his only son. His son’s willingness, and even excitement, at sharing the spotlight with his less hockey-enthused sister showed Hayes that his son may learn graciousness and other good habits, even if that wasn’t the intended lesson.
Jonah Goldberg sounded endearingly clueless – since we gather his daughter’s alright now – as he described a fall she took during toddlerhood that resulted in a sizable forehead gash. Apparently, Goldberg was still new enough to parenting that he didn’t realize his daughter’s bloody face needed to be stitched up professionally. Luckily, his sister-in-law was able to advise via telephone and pass along the good advice to wait for a plastic surgeon at the hospital.
James Lileks was highly entertaining, but I’ve yet to meet a mother who would publicly admit to going down a slide with a child aboard, let alone with a video camera in-hand. Since The New York Times reported shared slide rides are a common way for kids to land in Emergency Rooms, we (mothers) would likely be shamed, or at least gossiped about for exposing our children to such gratuitous risk.
Tucker Carlson’s presentation may have been the most different from what a panel of mothers might offer. Amidst his lighthearted remarks, Carlson repeatedly mentioned that he’s not reflective about his parenting and takes no responsibility for any of his four children’s failings; he believes any mistakes his children make are strictly their own, and he does never holds his wife or himself liable. Mothers don’t think like that, and we definitely don’t talk like that. We also instinctively know that society will blame us if anything goes wrong with our children (as if we wouldn’t already be blaming ourselves).
This is all to say: fatherhood sounds rather liberating. Whatever our cultural expectations of men, it seems our standards for fathers are less exacting (and crazy-making) than those for American mothers. Having listened to the fathers on this panel, I dare say that difference is largely driven by the fact that men aren’t critical of one another’s parenting in the same way that women can be.
Men also seem to take parenting more in stride, and less as a sign of their being successes (or failures) at life. There’s more levity, less angst. Fatherhood may be the best unnamed parenting philosophy of all.