Parenting is not a side issue

Most weekdays you will find me in an office downtown, working with kids who have lost access to their parents.

Sometimes it’s not that big of a deal — it’s a custody dispute that’s getting out of hand, or a kid who really did just take a nosedive down a flight of stairs. But, most of the time – it is a kid whose life is going to be a whole lot worse because he was born to the wrong people. Most of the time, I can prove statistically, if he’d had a mom who was sober, a dad who was around — he would lead a happy, healthy, loving, productive life, and yet with the hand he was actually dealt, prison, teen pregnancy and abuse are in his future.

And yes, these are the extremes — but even within the margins of “normal” it is so important to remember that people don’t just become adults. Children are raised. They are tended to. I don’t know why, but these days there is very little interest in the art of parenting. We spend hours watching cooking shows, gardening, hunting, home renovation. Why are we not as passionate and interested in the art of rearing good human beings? They don’t just show up in a business suit with a job. Someone makes choices, all day, everyday, that completely affect the trajectory of that child’s life. People must learn to be honest, kind, helpful, gracious, patient, good. They are taught these things. They learn these behaviors are expected in their home and in their community. When they meet dishonesty or cruelty it should register with shock because that is not how they know the world to be designed.

I can attest that kids also learn deceit, cruelty, impatience, addiction. If that is the world they experience, they will mold themselves to the same behavior.

The most thought provoking book I’ve read in the past decade is called “The Marshmallow Project.” It is a book based on decades of study on children and self-control. The kids in the program were offered a marshmallow now, or two marshmallows if they could wait. The authors of the study then followed these kids well into their adult lives. The correlation between a child’s ability to wait to receive two marshmallows and his success in life was insurmountable. Guess what made the biggest difference between a child who could wait and one who could not? No surprise, it was family life.

Active involved parents were teaching their children patience – but also teaching them trust. If they had a mother who followed through on what she said, the children could wait. If a father could be depended on when he said there would be a punishment or a reward – those kids were comfortable waiting. But, if they didn’t trust their parents to follow through, they didn’t trust the second marshmallow was worth the risk of skipping the one they could have now. If dad never is actually around, never plays with us like he promised – then I learn I should take the good things while I have the chance. And this little belief — this little idea about how the world works, becomes a huge issue as an adult. A tiny belief about trust will have a trajectory that will play out in a dramatic way in a child’s future.

We need to start holding parenting to a higher station. We need to recognize how profound, beautiful, important, and irreplaceable the role of parents truly is. I know life is busy and crammed to the gills … mine is and it’s something I’m personally battling … but parenting can’t be the side issue in life — it needs to be the primary issue.

At Court Appointed Special Advocates of the 7th Judicial District, I am watching daily the slow destruction of innocent people on their road to adulthood. It’s apparent over and over and over that kids are needy. They are not a low maintenance gig. A child needs chronic, constant, daily, incessant love. They need to be the absolute joy of someone’s life. That’s not a negligible issue to a child. They have to matter more than anything, more than a boyfriend, or booze, or jobs, or friends. They need to be the whole world to someone. And when they are not – when they are the side dish on a full plate… it changes them.

“Remember that children, marriages and flower gardens reflect the kind of care they get.” —H. Jackson Brown Jr.

Twyla Righter is a native of Western Colorado. She is the mother of three children bent on world domination (they have pie charts) and a proud CASA advocate. She writes two columns for The Press as well authoring the definitive guide to a horrible pregnancy: “About That Pregnancy Glow.” Righter’s “Outside the box” column appears every other Friday in the Montrose Daily Press.

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