The nature of parenting


Waco, Texas -- FAT SQUIRRELS frolicked on the expansive lush green lawn below. In a dead limb at eye level a pair of pileated woodpeckers ignored the smoke from our cigars and the squeaks from our rocking chairs while they fulfilled their genetic duties.

White and pink dogwoods were in full blossom. Twining wisteria vines festooned with heavy clusters of bluish, purplish flowers swayed easily in the early morning breezes. And like teen-age girls in a new convertible, neon pink and deep red azalea bushes demanded attention. One of life's most pleasant commands.

"My oldest girl was 12 the last time I paddled her," my friend said gazing out over the wrought-iron railing of his second-floor balcony where we had settled in with a supply of strong coffee, mild cigars and Sunday papers -- a genteel transition from bed to breakfast.

Surrounded with the sights, smells and sounds of propagation, our conversation had turned to parenting as it is currently practiced by the rapidly disintegrating American family. It appeared obvious that the squirrels, woodpeckers, azaleas and all other living creatures Do the woodpeckers efficiently preparing their nursery know more than human parents?

were going about their business raising their offspring as nature intended.

But when it comes to raising children, humans, specifically American humans, have somehow gotten lost. If these efficient woodpeckers preparing their nursery can stay on track, then why do higher-order humans have so much trouble?

The woodpeckers are just doing what comes naturally. Is there such a thing as natural parenting for humans? Has our growing brainpower outsmarted nature? Are we evolving a new form of parenting required to meet the changes in our lifestyles?

If so, doesn't it seem that our lifestyles are leading us in the opposite direction to where we want to go?

Rapidly escalating numbers of American children grow up in single-parent homes. Nearly two of every five American children grow up in fatherless families. Many others are reared in a confusing series of broken families. Marriages are discarded as easily as disposable razors.

Criminologists say that growing up without a father's influence is a better predictor of future criminal activity than either poverty or race. And certainly juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, drop-outs, drug use, declining academic achievement and the welfare rolls have skyrocketed in lockstep with the breakup of what used to be called the traditional American family.

In some animal species, the fathers don't do much more than impregnate the mothers who then must raise the offspring with no assistance. But nature isn't much of a parenting guide for humans because in some species it is the mother who abandons her offspring.

However it is done, each animal species has a specific way to select its mates and care for its offspring that ensures the survival and prosperity of its kind.

It just seemed to me and my rocking-chair friend on this redolent Sunday morning that something had gone terribly wrong in nature's plan for human propagation as it was being performed between the Canadian and Mexican borders.

For lack of anything better to suggest, I wondered if diminishing parental and societal discipline for misbehaving children has contributed to the problem by passing this trait along to increasingly undisciplined generations.

That's when my friend told about the last time he paddled his oldest daughter. "She told her mother that if I ever did that again she would run away."

"So what happened?"

"So I never did it again. And she and the others all grew up fine. So that isn't the answer."

We watched the woodpeckers in silence until we decided it was time for breakfast.

Rowland Nethaway is senior editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald.

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