»  The Straggler, No. 4

February 24, 2003

  Dads and Cads


My sister's children were fully grown at the time my own first child was born, so she was handy with advice. Her first precept was: "John, parenting equals guilt." How right she was! When I contemplate my own offspring, currently aged ten and seven, I am oppressed by the reflection that I have left undone those things which I ought to have done, and done those things which I ought not to have done.

Mainly the former. Most of my child-raising guilt arises from the knowledge that I am a negligent parent. Please do not mistake my meaning there. I do not leave the little mites locked in the basement for days at a stretch with bowls of dog food for nourishment while I gambol among the fleshpots of Long Island. My children, though thanks mostly to the ministrations of my wife, are well nourished and clean. Each of them owns, I am sure, more items of clothing than I do. They are well supplied with toys, at least to the degree that I have long since learned not to try crossing any room in the dark while barefoot. They enjoy the regular attentions of properly accredited doctors, dentists and music instructors, quite apart from their regular schooling. As far as I can discern, they are happy, healthy and well-adjusted.

Nor are the little Derbyshires bereft of affection. Neither I nor my wife go in for the — it seems to us foreign-born citizens, and I apologize for any offense — cloying and embarrassing American habit of saying "I love you" to people we love, especially children. I am sure my own parents loved me in the proper measure, but if either of them had said so out loud, I would have assumed that some sort of acute mental illness had taken hold, and made my escape at the first opportunity to alert the proper authorities. In any case, my kids hear enough tender words, catch enough fond glances, see enough anger evaporate at the sight of a trembling lip, and squirm in enough parental embraces to know that they are, in fact, doted on.

No, the origin of my guilt is simply the awareness that I cannot be much bothered with my kids. Though they are certainly very sweet and adorable in their own way, it is a childish way, which cannot hold my attention for long. I am not quite such a curmudgeon as Evelyn Waugh, who regarded his own children with more or less open irritation, but I do see what he meant when he referred to them as "defective adults." Children of course know next to nothing about the world, so it is not possible to engage them in any long conversation about anything interesting. Most children — the proportion seems to me to be actually greater than it is amongst adults — have a sense of humor, but it is of a naturally undeveloped, primitive sort, and soon palls. Kids say the darnedest things, but only very occasionally and by blind chance. Most of what they say is gibberish.

Feeling thus, I do not spend as much time with my kids as, I think, a conscientious modern parent is supposed to. Anthropologists, in their studies of human cultures, distinguish between "high-investment" and "low-investment" parenting. Societies that practice high-investment parenting are those in which people go to a lot of trouble over raising their children. "People" in that sentence means mostly males, who have much more choice in the matter. In the most extreme cases of low-investment parenting, the menfolk simply impregnate women at random, then wander off in search of other women, a state of affairs(!) that can be sustained society-wide only in lush climates where women are able to provision themselves and their infants without too much trouble. In a piece of informal jargon I like very much, anthropologists contrast male practitioners of the low- and high-investment styles as "cads" and "dads," respectively.

I am certainly not a cad in this anthropological sense, but I am not much interested in dadding. On external evidence, I think this attitude is very widespread, certainly in the land of my birth. For some centuries now, every Englishman that could afford to do so has sent his children away from home to be raised by paid professionals. None of the parents concerned doubts for a moment that they are doing the right thing, nor is there any reason to think that they are especially deficient in affection for their children. I am looking at a photograph from the early 1920s of the Conan Doyles standing in a family group on the platform at Waterloo Station, whither they have gone to see their two boys back to boarding school after the summer break. Their parental affection is plain to see; and indeed, after Sir Arthur's death, his sons went to much trouble and expense in attempting to get in touch with him through spiritualist mediums. Likewise, Rudyard Kipling's letters to his son at boarding school are filled with kindness and humor, in between stern warnings to avoid "beastliness," and he was emotionally devastated when the boy was killed in WW1, as can be seen in several heart-breaking poems.

Organized systems of education are just high-investment parenting by proxy. Parents who, like me, are unwilling to give their children much time, hire other people as substitutes. Increasing numbers of parents in today's America regard this as an abdication of responsibility, and take charge of their children's education themselves. Whenever I grumble in an online column about my kids' experiences in the public education system of my district, I get reproving e-mails from home-schoolers telling me I only have myself to blame for having been so heartless as to hand over the poor tots to the unionized products of teacher-training colleges staffed with all the horrid menagerie of fin de siècle nihilism — structuralists, feminists, Queer Theorists, peaceniks and the rest. If I truly cared for my children's welfare, these e-mailers tell me, I would home school "as we do."

I quite see the arguments of the home-schoolers, and applaud their dedication, at least up to the point where their ill-disguised attitudes of moral superiority come surging up over my threshold of irritation. Yet I find myself wondering: don't they have anything better to do? It seems to me that this world offers far too many pleasures to the adult imagination for that imagination to be trapped four or five hours a day in the company of unformed minds, unless paid for the trouble.

If I reply in these terms to a home-schooling e-correspondent, he (more often she, actually) generally responds by asking me why, in that case, I bothered to have children. This always leaves me at a loss. I suspect that a civilization in which "Why did you have children?" is an intelligible question is a civilization on the way out. My attitude here is pretty much that of Basil Fawlty when asked what is the point of being alive. "Beats me. We're stuck with it, I suppose." There are quite large areas of life in which, in my opinion, nothing is gained and much may be lost by thinking about things too much.