Let’s begin with a worst-case scenario, then zoom forward: A woman finally divorces her husband after struggling for years to keep the family together through hard financial turns and her husband’s escalating instability. One afternoon, the distraught father comes over to their former home with a gun and takes out everybody, then himself. You and I have to hear one of these stories in the news with tragic regularity. Enter “Father kills family then himself” into a search engine, and you may get over 12 million results as I did.
I don’t want to open up on deep mental illness, I just need to extrapolate one singular dimension from this horrible scenario: The father appears to think he has a ‘right’, albeit one mixed into his deranged reality: He may be estranged from the wife, but those kids…. are his.
This dimension of parents having something akin to property rights over their children seems to pop up whenever we’re struggling with some parenting issue that has for some reason gone public. Toward the end of last week, it was in the weave of the mash-up over whether Laurence and Marianne Sunderland of Thousand Oaks were ‘right’ in letting their 16 year-old daughter Abby attempt to sail around the world after her boat was damaged in the southern Indian Ocean and she had to be rescued.
In the period where we all waited to hear that Abby was safe, not only were the Sunderlands not buying back their approval of Abby’s journey but rather they were assertive in stating that their daughter’s “age is not a criteria. Abby is a fine sailor.” Abby’s father went on to argue that children should be encouraged to confront and manage challenges.
The Sunderlands were also unabashed in revealing that the family draws strength from, as the Times described it, their intense born-again Christian faith. “We don’t make any decisions just based on a feeling, or even on sound knowledge,” Laurence Sunderland revealed to the LA Times. “We also pray about it. The conviction of prayer and answer to prayer has led us to where we are with Abigail’s campaign.”
Abby Sunderland was safely rescued over the weekend, so let’s put aside for a moment just exactly whose campaign any of that was. Let’s turn instead to graduation season, and the new crop of college graduates who are hearing from just about every corner that a college degree will not help you get a job. Or even that parents might have blown tens of thousands of dollars and racked-up debt to prepare their children for a job market that doesn’t need them. That, in fact, government stats bear out that the majority of job gains this year have gone to workers with only a high school education or less.
Sure, college isn’t for everybody. But this fungus, this creeping mold currently attacking higher education that argues that broadening a young person’s mind is a waste of time because it doesn’t precipitate an immediate job result is in its way more insidious and toxic than BP’s colossal dump in the Gulf. Let me pull on that for a moment: If you can look at what happened in the Gulf and tell me that the path of our future demands fewer evaluative and probing minds and more “workers” who have passed on college to master a technical task such as drilling for oil, then I’m scared for all of us.
But we were talking, I believe, about parenting and the rights of parents. Last week the Sunderlands were unquestionably taking the “It’s my child, stay out of it” posture, and adding territory to their possession of daughter Abby by clearly stating that religious faith had a power at least equal to if not greater than the power of the high seas to, say, bust the mast off your child’s sailboat. Abby’s journey was risky, and from a purely pragmatic standpoint it was completely needless. But her father asserted his right to lead his daughter into a vortex of danger, alone… by merit of owning her. She was his daughter, and if she wanted to threaten (okay, “challenge”) her own life… fine.
If we do ultimately have these possessive rights, can we at least turn them toward such things as ensuring that a child has every opportunity to grow and be a more complete individual with a wider range of interests in life by way of a college education? Gosh, I hope we can. My own parents repeatedly stated to me that college was not specifically about getting a job; it was about having a richer life with a horizon made wider by knowledge, curiosity, and a thirst for learning and understanding. They wanted it for me, but in the entire process I have absolutely no recollection of either of them saying, “You will go college, because you are ours to do with as we please.” My recollection is that I went to college because it made absolute and total sense that I do so if I could.
Perhaps what some of us wrestled with last week was the amount of sense represented by Abby’s solo attempt to circle the globe. Abby has a richer life and has seen a wider horizon as the result of her voyage, although I hope I’m not being annoying by suggesting that surviving a plane crash would also give one a deeper appreciation of existence. Others Abby’s age might have been hanging out at the mall while she was at sea. None of the action there will ever be as dramatic as fighting to keep your boat right in a storm at sea, but hanging out causes you to learn things too. About yourself, about the people you want your friends to be, about whether your values include getting a job at the Orange Julius for the summer so that you can have your own money to do things. And these would all be things you’d be thinking about on your own, without Dad or Jesus getting into it.