Hillary Clinton probably deserves all of the hostile criticism she has received for her silly new book, It Takes a Village. Her ghostwriter, Barbara Feinman, has the prose style of Barney the dinosaur, and, as reviewer after reviewer has noted, much of the book consists of dumbed-down versions of all the nanny-state policy proposals—socialized medicine, home visits from “child-care professionals,” midnight basketball—which have so endeared the Clintons to social workers.
But while most of the popular scorn has targeted Hillary’s propaganda for the Democratic Party, her personal childrearing philosophy has either gone unnoticed, or worse, passed muster, even on the right. In this age of contraception, we can set aside our doubts about “parenting” tips from a parent who has limited herself to one child, but the First Lady’s zaniest opinions on children have escaped criticism, precisely because they are indistinguishable from the advice that appears in the “parenting” manuals and newspaper columns that teach late 20th-century parents how to rear their children. Lengthy passages are lifted from “parenting” guru T. Berry Brazelton, and her endorsement of “letting [children] choose for themselves” as the proper path to “self-disciplined autonomy” bears striking resemblance to the advice of another famous childrearing expert who wrote recently in his newspaper column that “self-esteem” flourishes in the “most democratic” families.
“Parenting” is big book business these days, even as marital fertility in America is at an all-time low. The First Lady’s only departure from the conventional wisdom is her candor in expressing the operating principle that binds the childrearing experts on the left and on the right: “There is no such thing as other people’s children.” Yet only people who do not have enough children of their own have time to concern themselves with the “parenting” skills of strangers. Never in history have human beings been surrounded by more institutions—public and private—to supervise the rearing of so few children, and never has the job been performed so poorly.
For all of the attention we are giving to childrearing, an increasing number of children are growing up miscreants. The First Lady may argue that there is no such thing as other people’s children, but the public parks to which I take my children are frequented by other people’s rotten children. The younger ones are pushy and selfish, and the older—though not much older—are sloppy and foul-mouthed.
There is no time to fret over the arrested development of the children of strangers because the task of rearing two boys occupies the energies of two adults, with no time left over for: “Videos with scenes of commonsense baby care—how to burp an infant, what to do when soap gets in his eyes, how to make a baby with an earache comfortable” playing continuously “anywhere people gather and have to wait.” My wife is too busy making dinner to evaluate the theory that “a sensible meat serving . . . is about the size of a deck of cards.” Even if I listened to the radio—known as “the electronic village”—I might not appreciate the “child-care tips” Hillary wants inserted in “the middle of the Top Ten countdown.”
Even in a world of so few children we ought not require experts—public or private —to tell us what is self-evident. When we need a baby-grooming video at the airport to tell us how to deal with a child who gets shampoo in his eyes, we are really in trouble. Human nature, however, ought to prevent such a day from ever coming. While the saints in our midst might truly cherish those magic moments—of the 3:00 A.M. feedings—the rest of us, fretting about the trials that tomorrow promises, will continue to get up for our screaming children so that we can all get back to sleep.
If you are searching for solid childrearing advice, and your own common sense and parents have abandoned you, you could do worse than consult some of the aphorisms that never would have become trite if they were not true: little reflections on such things as the consequences of sparing the rod overmuch and the benefits of seeing, not hearing, children.
Should you require more detailed guidance, one reliable rule of thumb would be, “the older, the better.” Plutarch’s De Liberis Educandis is safe; my favorite is St. John Chrysostom’s “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Vp Their Children.” A sample: “When he is ten or eight or even younger, let him hear in full detail the story of the flood, the destruction of Sodom, the descent into Egypt—whatever stories are full of divine punishment.” Doubtless the good bishop felt such stories would do wonders for the child’s self-esteem.