Monday, September 04, 2006

Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference

The author of Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference, Susan Vogt, is deeply Catholic. If there was only one thing I could tell you about the book, that would be it. Nearly every aspect of Vogt’s parenting approach is informed by Catholicism. The title might lead you to expect that the author holds the beliefs commonly attributed to the so-called “Left” in the United States. However, if you try to make sense of politics as a spectrum from right to left, Catholic folks can be downright infuriating and this book will be infuriating too. I remember when I first started working with Catholic people in social justice movements I often felt disoriented. They oppose abortion. Homosexuality may be something to be tolerated or channeled, but definitely not celebrated. The church hierarchy is like a living museum of classical patriarchy. And yet, you’re likely to find Catholics at the forefront of peace movements, anti-death penalty movements, and economic justice movements working in coalitions alongside liberals, anarchists, and socialists.

Once I reconciled myself with Vogt’s avowedly Catholic approach, I was able to open myself up to the wisdom she had to share. For example, when she suggests listing the qualities you might hope for from your child and she includes “sexually chaste until marriage” in her suggestions, I took away the basic idea of making such a list. And I tried to make up my own language like “sexually responsible” or “takes joy in all things corporeal without getting hurt” or “respects her body.” (By the way, I’ve been singing a folk song to BabyG with the refrain “My body’s nobody’s body but mine, you take care of your body and I’ll take care of mine.” It’s a fantastically hokey song.)

The names of the twelve chapters – Identity, Time, Materialism, Ecology, Media, Health, Peacemaking, Spirituality, Global Awareness, Diversity, Service, and Motivation – should give an idea of how encompassing and wholistic Vogt’s conception of parenting is. The book doesn’t really present step-by-step guides. It mostly features the generalizing reflections of a lifelong activist, marriage counselor, and mother of four grown children. She speaks of what worked initially but that had to be let go of or adapted as her children became adolescents. She advises patience. In the Epilogue, she writes, “Some might call these stories of failure…” Indeed, what really sets the book apart are the responses she includes from her children and other parents. Her sons and her daughter expose the gaps in her accounts of family life. Her friends recount having daughters who get pregnant in high schools, sons who are in jail, and children who grow up to be Republican investment bankers. Vogt goes on in the Epilogue, “[R]emember that a parent’s willingness to go beyond embarrassment to vulnerability is a gift to all the self-flagellating parents that inhabit our planet—many of them mothers.”

Vogt’s vulnerability is a gift. Even though the book is definitively in the self-help genre, by the end I felt the degree of intimacy I expect from a well-written memoir. Her best advice is often about what she seems to have struggled with most. “We must take care to not over-control our children,” she writes, “or become too proud of how little we own and consume. Our children and friends will resent our self-righteousness. And our souls will suffer from arrogance.” After all the advice on written contracts with children and morality lessons at the dinner table, I got the sense that the Vogt home was saturated with self-righteousness. Or worse, a humorless and ruthlessly ambitious drive for righteousness. The Vogt children’s responses are worth studying. They resisted. They fought. They played their way out, and back to, their parents’ vision of living with integrity, valuing simplicity, and caring for others.

No comments: