The Devout Daddy

January 15, 1994|By ANDREW RATNER

The other night, upon putting my 6-year-old to sleep, we exchanged ''good nights'' and ''I love yous,'' and I told him he was a good boy. ''You're a good daddy,'' he replied.

A journalist exchanges a lot of words with other people in a day, but rarely does a statement land with the impact that that one did. Maybe the sleepy boy was merely repeating what I had just told him. But as a parent, the fact that my son now seemed old enough to judge me as a parent, was overwhelming. It felt like an epiphany for parenthood.

The more I thought about it, the more I decided that raising children really is akin to religion. You faithfully light a candle every day and only once in a great while do you see a vision to confirm your investment of self and your steadfast beliefs. Parenthood is also like religious doctrine in that it is practiced by millions of people and experts have written about it ad infinitum, and yet it is an individualistic expression that is as varied as the number of families in the world. Anyone who has tried recounting for a friend the latest amusing thing their kid said or did knows that the story always loses something in the retelling; you can't adequately describe the raising of kids. You just have to believe and do it.

Unfortunately, parenting has become like faith in one more way: It seems like something about which people have become less devout. Measures to quantify this are hard to come by, but the underlying theme of many public issues today revolves around parents not having a clue about their children's behavior.

Here in Maryland, a high school administrator was lionized in Howard County when he proposed that the schools bill inattentive parents for their extra staff time their unruly children require. The governor is seeking money from the General Assembly this session for a special school for disruptive youths. And on a national level, Hollywood producers and video-game manufacturers are taking heat for spicing their products with too much violence, although the truth is, aggressive tendencies in children are usually allowed or abetted by their parents (and sometimes beaten into them) way before they start playing video games or watching TV movies. The video games and shows on the market may be too violent, but they're not the cause of nastiness in kids, they're an effect.

The education community especially seems at wit's end about the lack of energy parents are investing in their offspring, because the schools bear the brunt of it. In a report this month, the National School Boards Association blamed part of the growing problem of school violence on a lack of parental concern and supervision -- even in suburban families who don't have to struggle against the poverty, guns and drug trafficking that cleave inner-city families.

A teacher in Baltimore County put it well: The baby boom produced America's first ''leisure generation.'' For people who grew up in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, things came fairly easily. We didn't have to struggle as hard as our parents to go to college or get a car. Now, we're grown and used to having a good time. Being with the kids cramps one's style. Plus, the frequency of divorce has put many adults in the position of having to rebuild their own lives, making it no easier to concentrate on children's needs. Mom and dad are off doing their thing, and before they know it, Beavis and Butt-head are putting the kids to bed.

For all the ''parenting'' magazines at the newsstands and all the psychobabble talking heads on TV, there are no experts in raising one's own children. Any mom or dad can empathize with the article last week in The Sun about parents who feel compelled to hire private investigators to keep their kids from getting involved with a drug crowd, or in another vein, with the recent front-page news in the New York Times about how the gap-toothed 7-year-old son of New York's Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani ran amok at his father's inauguration ceremony. If you're certain it couldn't happen to you, you must be raising livestock, not children.

The development of young ones requires inordinate amounts of energy, selflessness, patience and planning. It's elementary mathematics: For your kids to come first, you have to come second (most of the time). Raising kids isn't a party. It is nobody's idea of adult fun. But it's a responsibility. It's fulfilling.

And certain moments, like youthful sentiments whispered in the dark, are as close to heaven as some of us will get.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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