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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: There's only so much a parent can influence a child

February 14, 2002

We love it — maybe just a little bit — when other people's children get in trouble. It allows us to point fingers at other parents' choices, to question their values, to feel superior. The implication being that the child would not have gone wrong had you or I reared him instead of his obviously inept parents.

It's even better when the parents in question are public officials. Because, added to the sense of superiority, there is also the specter of hypocrisy unmasked. The mayor's kid gets pinched for shoplifting, the police chief's is hauled in for selling pot, the president's are nabbed for underage drinking or, as happened Tuesday, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's 24-year-old daughter, Noelle, is arrested for allegedly trying to obtain drugs with a fraudulent prescription.

Letterman and Leno go to town on it and you laugh right along, secure in this wicked little sense of vindication that says, "Hey, this guy's always spewing high-flown, staff-written rhetoric about God and country, but look! He can't even manage his own kid."


There was a time I might have felt that way. Then I did something that has, over the years, made reflexive self-righteousness progressively more difficult:

I had kids. God help me, I had five of them.

It has made me less smug over the years. Less likely to regard some other parent's misfortune as automatic evidence of my own superiority. And more humble about the ability of parents to shape children as they, the parents, see fit.

Don't misunderstand. My point is NOT that parents — and, more broadly, environment — play no role in whom or what a child grows up to be. If that were the case, our prisons would not be full of violent felons who grew up in abusive homes. Parents affect children.

And yet …

I suspect it's also true that a certain amount of a child's identity is hardwired into him or her at birth. So that a parent doesn't write upon an empty slate so much as he or she struggles to react properly to what's already upon that slate when the baby arrives. If that weren't true, children born of the same parents, raised in the same home under the same child-rearing philosophy, could be counted upon to have the same values and world view.

That's certainly not the way it worked in my house. My folks somehow managed to give me a gay brother and a conservative Christian sister. I have a friend who's a free spirit, world traveler who married late in life. Her sister — her identical twin, no less — is a homebody, long married with children. My own kids do things I never taught them, say things I've never said, believe things I wouldn't believe in a million years. They are unlike me — and each other — in very many ways.

I watch them with trepidation. You see a kid struggle and make mistakes and you want to force them onto the proper path. But it quickly becomes apparent that as children get older your ability to force becomes correspondingly limited. I'm reminded of a song Marvin Gaye once sang. "Father," he pleaded, "stop criticizing your son. Mother, please leave your daughters alone. Don't you see, that's what's wrong with the world today? Everybody wants somebody to be their own piece of clay."

Marvin died almost 20 years ago, killed by a father whose approval he felt he had never earned.

The song he left behind is little known, but wise almost beyond bearing. It embodies a painful truth I struggle with anew every time one of my children is bruised by life: Eventually, a child has to take responsibility for him or herself. Eventually, the clay hardens.

Yes, you can offer a child such wisdom as you may possess, guide him to the best of your ability, and nurture him with all your love. But you can't make him someone or something he is not. He is, for better or for worse, his own person.

It makes you sad until you realize:

That's what each of us is meant to be.

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