America’ Uber-parent? I Think Not

On the night before school starts, I announce that it’s time to take our walk. All six of us fan out throughout the house to find our flip flops, someone gets a leash for Scotty the Dog, and we set out in a disorganized band up our street. But it’s not just a walk. It’s a ritual.

As we stroll through the neighborhood, my husband, our four children and I take turns confiding our intentions for the coming school year. By announcing our aspirations, we turn our dreams into goals, our hopes into plans. But the exercise also reminds us we’re not alone in our efforts – we have family cheering us on and faith to support us.

Along the way, the encouragement and advice we give to our kids is not unlike the message President Obama delivered in his address to schoolchildren this week.

Make goals for yourself and announce them to others so you’ll be accountable. Work hard. Take responsibility for your success. Get help when you need it.

Since the President’s message was so similar to the advice we give our own children, why did it seem inappropriate to me?

It’s entirely fitting for schools to air presidential addresses. I certainly don’t object when it happens in the event of a national emergency such as 9/11, or during an historic occasion such as an inauguration.

Is it just that I’m cynical because I disagree with the President’s politics? Or because the Department of Education’s first pass at supporting materials for teachers was found to be overty partisan and subsequently were changed?

Those who favor the president’s speech to schoolchildren point to previous addresses by George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan as proof that a precedent has already been set for such an address.

I don’t want to be labeled a hypocrite, and I’m careful not to criticize President Obama for things that would not bother me in a conservative leader. So I went back and read those speeches by Presidents Bush and Reagan and realized why President Obama’s talk bothers me.

George H.W. Bush encouraged students to take greater interest in science and math. He used the occasion of a space launch to focus on the sciences at a time when it had been well established that US students paled in comparison to others around in the world in this essential discipline. The speech also pointed to several national education goals that had been adopted by the bi-partisan Governor’s Association together with the Department of Education. (Even still, then-Speaker of the House Richard Gephardt said, “The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students.”)

Ronald Reagan’s speech was something else entirely. It was a primer on American political theory. He focused on the Founders and on our Constitutional Republic, and he talked about how our form of government and the lifestyle we enjoy because of it are the envy of the world.

Neither Presidents Bush nor Reagan inserted themselves into the personal lives of their audiences, but instead asked schoolchildren to insert themselves into the public life of our nation. (Sounds a lot like, “Ask not what your country can do for you…”, yes?)

On the other hand, President Obama’s talk was deeply personal – both about himself and his audience. He told the children about his experiences as a student and mentioned his family circumstances as a special challenge, and he spoke to kids about setting goals for themselves, establishing aspirations in life, and living up to their own potential and to the expectations of others.

Supporters of Mr. Obama’s address note that too many kids in America don’t get the kind of strong, positive message from their own parents that the president delivered. I agree, and it’s too bad. I wish more parents would help their children set and reach their goals.

But the President of the United States is not our nation’s “First Father.” His constitutionally mandated role is not to be an uber-parent, offering sage advice on personal behavior for school kids via televised lectures. Even if the message is a positive one, the very fact that he delivered it is intrusive and assumptive.

If we accept this display of non-partisan “presidential parenting,” we’re tacitly acknowledging that the government of the United States of America has an appropriate role to play in raising our children. Once we allow this, it isn’t a very big leap to a department of children and families, just like the ministry in Britain that imposes government-sanctioned advice through government schools and health clinics, much of which undermines parental authority.

To be sure, the president gave a great talk. It’s one that parents — not our president — ought to deliver.

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