I’ve been watching the Rachel Canning case with interest since I first came across the general premise: an 18 year old girl who left home is suing her parents for the costs of her private high school tuition, her costs of living, and the future costs of her university tuition (for more info, see this article at CNN) .
Clearly, this case raises all sorts of issues about what parents “owe” their children, and some of my fellow dad bloggers have begun to extrapolate what this “owing” may mean—particularly to a generation that seems to feel entitled to nothing but the best. In fact, it was this post at daddylibrium that pushed me to offer my own take on things.
I think the question of “owing” starts with birth. Tired anecdotes and clichés abound with mothers berating their children over “everything they went through” birthing them, with the implication that the child should be grateful for everything the mother went through FOR THEM.
But that’s not really true, is it?
We don’t have children for their own sake; children do not CHOOSE to be born, they don’t exist as cognitive beings prior to conception (no matter which pro-life/choice camp you’re in, I think we can agree that this is true), and the choice to have children is a selfish one. We have children, by and large, because we want children—or, we wanted sex and children were the consequence. The pain a mother goes through at birth, the sleepless nights that follow for the parents, and the hardships the family may face in the short term are the result of a selfish desire. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that; arguably eating can be labeled a selfish desire, because it only benefits the person eating—that doesn’t mean we should stop doing it. I’m just pointing out that many of the things we go through for our children, particularly when they’re little, are often more about us, as parents, than them, as children.
Along the way, though, this balance starts to shift. Our children become people unto themselves, with individual personalities, desires, and goals. Parents give up things for the benefit of their children, not just because they want their child to succeed and be happy for selfish reasons, but for selfless ones, as well.
So how do we determine where that shift begins and ends?
Some of it is legal, as this case has brought to light. Parents are generally responsible for their child’s basic needs until they are 18. That means that food, clothing, shelter, and basic schooling must be provided. There may also be additional responsibilities, such as health coverage, until a certain age in some places.
From a parental standpoint (at least the standpoint of what I believe to be a good parent), what you’re looking for is the best end-product for your child, mitigated by what you’re actually able to/willing to provide. You want a happy, healthy, and potential-filled child, and you *should* want that for them, not just so that you can brag about them (though there’s bound to be some pride there, as well). This necessitates a few things, but I would suggest that many of them can be rolled up into emotional, mental, and logistical support; that is, you help them develop and use the tools they need to get them where they want to go. How much assistance, what kind of assistance, and how that assistance is applied form the endlessly-debated core of parenting.
Some argue that it’s up to the parent to give the child every advantage they never had (or perhaps they did), so that their children rise to the top.
Others argue that it’s the journey that builds character, and believe that struggle and discipline result in the best end-product.
I believe that the best end product I can hope for with my sons is that they have strong, independent, and yet empathetic, hearts. I want them to know that, ultimately, they need to make their own way in life, but that I will always be there to comfort and advise them when they need it. A big part of that will be teaching them that the things they want require effort to earn, and that sometimes expectations have to be tempered by how much time, effort, and opportunity you have available.
So how does Rachel Canning fit in?
From what I understand, Ms. Canning is no longer at home (whether she left or was kicked out is not an issue for the point I’m making) because she refused to follow her parents’ rules—one of which required her to give up her current boyfriend. Were the parents justified and were their rules “fair”? I have no idea. I could foresee, as a parent, determining that someone my child was intimately involved with was a detriment, but I would have to have a life and safety reason to forbid them to see anyone; that kind of outside meddling in your child’s life needs some pretty dire reasons behind it, I believe.
As for the other rules that she wouldn’t abide by—curfews, etc—she had the choice to either live by those rules in her parents’ household, or leave…so she did. But having left, and deciding to begin her own life outside of their house, she also gave up the inherent advantages of that household—including room, board, and expenses. Even were her parents still responsible for her basic needs, those needs would not include private-school tuition (that’s public school tuition for you UK folks), or university tuition, nor would they necessarily include money for her to fulfill her needs of food and shelter as she saw fit; just because your child loves steak doesn’t mean that it’s your responsibility to pay for them to eat at a steakhouse for dinner every night; basic needs only require that there be supper on the table, a bed to sleep in, and clothing that conforms to basic requirements for weather and social acceptability (i.e. covers the important bits).
The question remains: is Rachel Canning’s behavior indicative of an entire generation’s sense of entitlement? That’s a hard question to answer, primarily because it deals with sweeping generalizations, and sweeping generalizations are almost always wrong. I think what we can say is that Rachel Canning is the way she is because of how her parents raised her. Her sense of entitlement is their fault—though she is now finding, much to her surprise, that she has to take ownership for her attitudes and actions as she becomes an adult. The same can be said for every other child; their sense of entitlement (or lack of it) is due directly to the kind of job their parents did raising them.
Maybe it’s time that people start thinking about that. It’s easy to point the finger at the next generation; it’s a lot harder to take ownership for the creation of those flaws we perceive and work to correct them before they get out of hand—for everyone’s sake.