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Good gifts to our children

There seem to be government publications on almost everything: how to insulate your attic, how to build a chicken run, how to turn your backyard into a woodlot. But not a single compact booklet, say twenty pages, on how to be a useful parent. Why could not the government have come up with a few guidelines on this, one of the most pressing responsibilities most of us will ever face? Why couldn't such a booklet arrive, say, with one's birth certificate? Every November I get a brochure from Massachusetts on how to save on my auto and fire insurance, but nothing on how to strengthen my children. I've been trying to understand where is the profit in such neglect.

It makes me particularly testy because in ancient Athens, that blueprint for democracy, it was widely assumed that government was simply an extension of the family. Those who had closely knit, soundly functioning families were commonly regarded as those who could run the State itself most effectively. Certain principles of human interaction were thought to carry over from one to the other. Unfortunately, the Greeks were a bit too much taken up with justice, the great political virtue, and not enough with love. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as Creon and Oedipus failed as political leaders because they had wronged their families.

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It is easy to say that what makes the difference between the ancient Greeks and modern Americans is the renewed understanding of love as a concept, but the fact is that love as a conceptm is totally useless in ensuring family happiness. It is just too vague. If an athlete were told to pursue physical excellencem would that make him a star? Every coach in the world knows the folly of such a hypothesis. One must pay attention to specifics. When I was having a catch with my son the other day my nephew, a nine-letter man in high school, eager for some good exercise, took one look at me, saw I was throwing the ball off my back foot , and walked back into the house. He knew there wouldn't be much excitement in the field where I was playing. I had the basics wrong.

In sports there are specific recommendations that have nothing to do with overall excellence: in hitting a baseball, don't drop your back shoulder; kick a soccer ball with your instep, not with your toe; in tennis don't swing at a volley, jab it. How different this is from child-rearing where, for years, the only clear recommendation was not to breast-feed the infant, and that one turned out to be wrong.

There is no doubt that the worst thing parents can do is to bring up children to be never quite sure of lovem. But how one creates the assurance of love is quite another thing. All of us no doubt want the best for our children, and sometimes we content ourselves with that good intention, thinking that it serves as a continuous proof of our love. But if we do so, we become a little like those people in ancient Israel who dreamed of a peaceable kingdom without raising one finger for the poor.

It is, in some cases, the very assumption of good intentions that allows us to turn away from the difficult details which children actually represent. What a child needs most is not much different from what anyone else needs most: the recognition of his own emotional validity. He wants to be treated not as an object of good intentions, but as an end in himself. He needs the assurance that his concerns are real concerns and that his emotions are real emotions - real to someone beside himself. That assurance can be achieved only through a parent's sympathetic identification with the child. It has nothing to do with rarefied good intentions. Thus, the crux of the matter is that we must not only love our children, we must make them feelm they are loved.

Yet, as a practical matter, how is this done? Government is quiet on the subject.

These days there is a good deal of purse-snatching in the streets, uproar in the schools, even computer crime among the bright. The government is worried. It talks of the disadvantaged, of the underprivileged, of standards and discipline. But the focus is always on money and proper schooling. Doesn't the government understand that the truly underprivileged, rich or poor, are emotionallym underprivileged? A family can be poor as dust and yet rich in emotions, so rich that everything grows straight in that family.

Perhaps someone could have told us: ''Touch your children as you pass by them in the house - don't slide along the wall'' or ''Do dishes together - not one night you, the next me; you can talk about the world over the suds.'' When it comes to academic grades, athletic letters, or student government positions, why didn't someone tell us: ''To consider eveything from the point of view of achievement or appearance is to consider all that is secondary; a young person's assurance does not derive from achievements but from a sense of inner worth.'' Or someone could have said: ''If a child comes home with a complaint about school, don't first defend the school, pay attention to the complaint.'' In such ways perhaps a child will never feel the vague abandonment of being never quite sure of love.

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Someone might say things like that for all of us. Any help along these lines might be better than rereading the Greek tragedies.

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