Monday, July 18, 2011

What raising a child means

I've been thinking a lot the past few months about what it means to raise a child. There's the feeding, burping, changing and other stuff, of course, but there are other things too. What are my hopes for my child, and in turn how do I help shepherd them along in that process?

That starts with what kind of home we have.

Our kid is going to be lucky because both parents will be firm believers in education and all that entails: diversity, open-mindedness, reason, curiosity, and a brain that seeks to constantly know more (among other things). I can't help but hope that I can help raise a kid who really values learning and all the great things that come from having an active mind. My wife takes a similar view of the world and I believe this is going to rub off on our child.

But it's more than teaching. We have to model it too in the home. What I'm really talking about is environments.

I grew up in a super conservative home. My dad is a minister who spent a lot of my youth packing in the diet of Rush Limbaugh. Both of my parents are conservative as are both of my siblings (to varying degrees, of course). What I grew up in was a household that was pretty closed to other ways of seeing the world. My dad often parroted talk radio phrases that disparaged liberals, probably without thinking about what it means in the context of family.

Fast forward to the college years and beyond for me. I changed a lot. I went through a lot of bad things from about my senior year onward and began to see the conservative version of the faith I was raised in much more critically. I came to detest the power plays that happened in congregations and lack of compassion for those who suffer from being different. Not all Christians are like this and I never walked away from my faith, but it went a different direction than those I grew up with. Now I see things like my former youth minister making jokes about killing the President and it just breaks my heart. I am so far away from that circle of people and I don't feel bad about missing it.

What happened, then, is by default as I changed I grew up more isolated. Liberals were the enemy. I was not a liberal, and don't describe myself as one now (I technically use the term "leaky libertarian"), but even moderates were leftists to those who grew up with my background. After years of hearing how people who think differently were destroying America, suddenly I was one of those people. How was I to square all that with daily interaction with my family?

Well, for a while I just buried it. I learned to be ashamed of how I'd changed rather than own it. And so there was peace, because I decided not to be me. This is not unfamiliar to many people; it's how we get along in society.

Things changed when I hit grad school. I've often described the process of a PhD as rewiring the process of thinking. It doesn't change what you believe per se so much as how you analyze the world around you. And as I became rewired, I realized that being something other than I am was no longer an option.

All those things came to head. I was a "liberal journalist" which led to the easy shorthand of "oh you're just a liberal" every time I disagreed with some discussion. I was open about voting for Obama in 2008 (after years of bouncing back and forth between parties on my votes) and it was interpreted as an act of turning away from how I was raised.

It was just a shorthand way of understanding the world, applied to me. My way of seeing the world has always been more complex than that, and there is nothing more disconcerting than realizing you're seen as something you're not.

What has resulted from this process has been uneasy peace and outright tension at times. I get the "I don't think those horrible things about you" line now, which is meant well. I don't doubt my family's love for me or mine for them, but I can't say it's been an easy process squaring that reality with what I was fed growing up.

I swear I'm not writing this to be critical of my family (whom none of you has met). Every family has its uneasy tensions and tough spots. And we all make mistakes. But things aren't the same, and I realize that a lot of this is my fault. I stopped going along to get along, and while I haven't always done this in the best way, it's easier to assign blame to the person who stepped out of turn. And so I've taken that on and realized that's the way things have to be.

The reason why I write this is because that's all in the back of my head when I think about the kind of environment I want our home to be. I want it to be a place of tolerance and, to the degree that it's possible, where our kid can ask questions and disagree, to think critically about the world around them (even take a conservative view of the world if they so choose). If the Socratic style works for teaching, surely it can work in raising a kid as well. Even if that probably will be mentally exhausting.

And I want it to be a place where faith has an important place. Maybe I can help our kid get along in this world where they struggle to integrate faith with all those other things that come in education. Because faith often is deconstructed in the world of academia, not built up. It's hard work reconciling the truths you learn about this world with the truths you come to see in the spiritual realm. It's messy and it's hard work, and you're uneasy all the time.

Lest my family think I've chosen the easy road. At times I am an alien everywhere. If you think the faith-siders have issues with my academic side, it can be just as tough in reverse. It can become a giant "What happened to you?" because you don't fit the mold that's been made for you.

It's in those moments of thinking about this that I realize that I've found the grace to reconcile my own family dealings, messy as they are. You learn to understand that you're imperfect, just as those around you are. The logical consequence of what I've lived through in my own family life need not be hatred or anger; it can be a call to forgive, move on, and try to be better - and have a bit of humility when you fall short.

Yeah, there are still consequences. There always are. But you muddle through.

But mostly I don't want my child to feel ashamed of the fact they're not the same as me. I'm fully prepared to fail at this because I'm human, no less human than anyone in my family. I do hope, though, that when I don't follow my own ideals that I can own that and help use my failings to be a better explainer (and parent).

At least that's where I'm at now. I've been thinking about this since the day we found out we are having a baby. It's scary to think that you could repeat history for the child, to recycle the same scenarios that once had me feeling small. For now it's my motivation to be better. Always better.


Post #33 in my 90-in-90 blog challenge. Blog with us and join the fun. I'll be blogging both here and on my professional blog for the challenge. For more about the 90/90 challenge, read about my call for participants. The blogs participating are on the list at the right, or follow us on the #LUBlogTribe hashtag on Twitter


  1. Really great, candid post! I think you really got at the heart of what a parent goes through as they think about raising a kid the "right" way. It's a really tough thing to think about - is there a right way to raise a kid? I think it's definitely important to impart your values and the way you look at the world to your kids (it'll happen naturally I'm sure), but, as you said, it's also important to give them the opportunity to come into their own.

  2. This resonated with me - you knew it would. I am in that messy place - somewhere between holding on to the nuggets of truth, and letting go of all the things that are opinion - and were given as truth.

  3. One of the blessings of being an older parent: wisdom.