Parenting is the hardest job in today’s world. Here’s what Bill wrote in the opening sentences of two of his books for parents.
“We reinvented family life in the twentieth century but never wrote a user’s manual.” (The Intentional Family)
“I see a growing confidence gap among American parents. We may now have the most child-sensitive generation of parents the world has ever known–and the most confused and insecure.” (Take Back Your Kids)
Given how hard the job of parenting is today, my focus is on how communities can support parents and challenge undermining influences in the larger culture. I use a community organizing approach to working with parents on problems stemming from this mixed up culture of parenting, including the issues of overscheduled kids and underconnected families and out of control birthday parties. I have worked with groups of citizen parents to change the culture of excess in these areas, including ongoing projects Putting Family First and Birthdays Without Pressure. A new project with African immigrant families is tackling the special challenges they face in raising children.
My work with professionals who deal with parents also focuses on community issues. The Community Engaged Parent Education Project is training and mentoring parent educators in Early Childhood Family Education to see parent education classes as laboratories for civic dialogue and citizen work by parents on behalf of their own children and all the children in the community.
As you can see, I believe that the solutions to the serious problems in today’s families will not come mainly from professional services or even public programs, as important as those are. They will come from citizen parents and citizen children working together in communities to take back family life.
The idea of citizenship is at the heart of all of my work for families. I fear that the new culture of childhood in the U.S. is one in which children are seen mainly as consumers of parental services, and parents are viewed as providers of parental services and brokers of community services for children—and also consumers of professional services. What gets lost is the other side of the human equation: parents as leaders in their homes and citizens in their communities, and children as citizens of families and communities. It may sound strange to use the word “citizen” along with “child.” What I mean by “citizen” here is that children are not just bearers of individual rights and entitlements in families and society; they also have responsibilities to family and community, responsibilities that grow along with the child. Citizen children actively contribute to the world around them, they do for others, they care for the younger and the old, they add their own mark to the quality of family life, and they contribute to the common good in their school and communities. If children live only as consumers of parental and community services, then they are not active builders of families and communities.
If we see ourselves only as providers of services to our children (and indeed, this is one important part of parenting), we end up confused about our authority, anxious about displeasing our children, insecure about whether we are providing enough opportunities, and worried that we are not doing enough to keep up with other parents. In a market economy, the service provider must offer what is newest and best, and must avoid disappointing the customer. When applied to the family, this is a recipe for insecure parents and confused kids.