Column: Being an involved parent should, but often does not, come first

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 6, 2002

One of the reasons I stopped working as a staff writer for the Tribune was that I found my heart was not in the job. I don’t have the instincts of a reporter. But there was another reason, which arose at home.

Working as a journalist for the Tribune kept me busy. I had worked hard as a teacher, but this job was different. There were many days with long hours. There were early morning, evening and weekend assignments. I was constantly working under a deadline, frequently tired, and even crabbier than usual.

My responsibilities as a parent started competing for time and energy with my job, something that happens in many families. But as the parent who had done most of the caregiving when the children were very young, the realization that family could no longer come first hurt. And trying to justify paying someone else to supervise my kids all summer, while I was at work, became the final straw. So I quit my job at the paper.

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Unlike some, I don’t see quitting a paying job for one that brings in no income as a sacrifice. No job I know of is more important than choosing to make child-rearing a full-time occupation.

This idea, however, is no longer commonly agreed upon. With each generation, fewer Americans think they or anyone should spend most of their time with their children, and that both bothers and worries me.

What bothers me is the sense I get from some, that staying home is a copout, that working full-time outside the home is the only way to claim full citizenship in America. Homemaking is something that gives others the right to treat you as if you don’t really matter.

What worries me is actually a bigger issue, especially when we consider the needs of very young children, because no time is so crucial to a person as the first six months to a year of life. That’s when our brains lay down the foundation for future learning


you can call it the hardwiring, if you like.

If certain very important things don’t happen in that short window of time, in connection with hearing, eyesight, coordination and the ability to trust another, an individual will carry permanent scars. As with technology, if the hardwiring is incomplete or defective, then the software won’t run. Sometimes there is nothing better than a caregiver’s unconditional love and individual attention.

And even though older children don’t need that individual attention from caregivers, the bond between parent and child continues to be important, and a couple of hours each evening or on the weekend just aren’t enough.

I know this may sound harsh, but having a child requires changes in the way that the adults in a family live and work. It isn’t fair to the child to be sent off to a paid caregiver or left alone after school so that mama and papa can continue to make their contribution to the economy. At a very basic level, all of us are confusing priorities.

The most dangerous situation involves families who are already most at risk, whose choices are being made for them by politicians. If current efforts at welfare reform continue down the path they’ve taken, with income subsidies dependent on full-time employment for all adults in a family, poor mothers or fathers won’t even have the right to make the choice to stay home, unless they want to turn their car into their home and depend on charities for food and medical care.

What exactly are we saying here? Do only rich people have the right to stay home and raise children? Are we punishing poor families for the &uot;crime&uot; of poverty? Have I missed something in the discussions about welfare reform? It seems that balancing the budget on the lives of poor children is the main impetus for the reforms we are undertaking.

These attitudes towards poor families are cruel, the results of policymaking by leaders of both major political parties (who probably did not spend a lot of time raising their own children). They will lead to problems later, both for individuals and society. Do we want all Americans to be able to grasp the opportunities of a free society? Or do we want to build more prisons and asylums?

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.