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A DIFFERENT KIND OF INFLUENCE

by Gerry McCarthy

Maclean’s magazine recently ran a cover story entitled the "50 Most Influential Canadians." Many of the usual suspects were chosen: Jean Chretien, Moses Znaimer, Adrienne Clarkson, Ralph Klein, Izzy Asper, David Dodge, Ted Rogers, Brian Mulroney, and Anne McLellan.

     But as I contemplated the magazine’s idea of influence something gnawed at me. Then I realized what it was: Maclean’s was shrinking my vision. Nowhere on this list was anyone directly connected to the day-to-day welfare of children.

     Of course, many of the influential Canadians selected by Maclean’s are parents. But they’re celebrated for their power in government, law, or media. Children are never mentioned. It’s as if they’ve been airbrushed from the picture. But don’t parents have influence today? Don’t they affect the kind of society we’ll have 50 years from now?

     It’s been said our culture reveres children, but doesn’t support them. It’s true. Even though we’re bombarded with syrupy political homilies about family values, children are expendable when it comes to high-powered career paths, ambitious lives, and Wall Street’s version of success.

     Children need nitty-gritty attention. They need time, patience and understanding. But, sadly, fewer children seem to be receiving it today.

     Fortunately, the concept of "quality time" is gradually being exposed as a manufactured Eden betraying our children’s deepest needs. But the bad news is our money-mad culture still clings to the idea fervently .

     Jean Bethke Elshtain writes intelligently about the
attention children need in her book Who Are?: Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities. She recalls looking after her 14-month year-old granddaughter, and her own daughter providing her with several sheets of paper entitled "Joann at 14 months -Guidelines for Caretakers."
Elshtain writes: "Just reading these guidelines exhausted me, and I was reminded: this is what it means to love a child. This is the difference between loving attention and that indulgent, permissive attitude we often mistake for such. The point is not to `cater’ to the child but to tend to the irreducible specificity of one being, this child of God. We all need such attention paid, and, if we have received it, we are enjoined to return it in full measure, not as tit-for-tat but, as Luther argues, from the abundance of over-flowing faith."

     Those who tend to this "irreducible specificity" of children receive little support from the prevailing culture. That includes government. Plans to provide compensation for stay-at-home parents have been extinguished at least once by the Chretien Liberals. It’s the same story in the United States.

     The wider reality is that far too many parents face severe challenges when it comes to giving their children more attention. Work demands more. The bills keep coming. And wages remain stagnant. As a recent UN Human Development report stated: "The relentless pressures of global competition are squeezing out care, the invisible heart of human development."

     Jean Elshtain has it right when she points out: "That our society at this time draws nearly every adult out of home and community and into what is, for the vast majority, and often stressful world of work absent much in the way of ensured benefits, is an indictment of our society –not of the men and women trying to do their best to remain sane and decent within it."

     Still, people are seduced into a bewildering culture of psycho-babble about children. Soothing tonics are available everywhere. Take Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Sounds good. But I’m not convinced. We need to sweat the small stuff. Especially when it comes to children. Little things matter, and children remember them in remarkably precise ways.

     While reading Philip Berrigan’s autobiography Fighting the Lamb’s War recently, I was struck by the honesty of a particular passage. A long time peace activist, who has spent several years in prison for acts of civil disobedience, Berrigan (a former Catholic priest) writes: "I have very few regrets. I feel a measure of guilt for not playing a great part in raising my children. Elizabeth McAlister (his wife) is competent, capable, and deeply loves all children. She speaks to them on their level, in their language, and with a compassion they know is genuine."

     Later, Berrigan enumerates his spouse’s work at retreats and Plowshare gatherings they’ve attended. "Liz organizes hikes in the woods, sets up tables where the children draw and paint, rents videos for them to watch, makes sure they have plenty of snacks. The children’s laughter echoes through our workshops, sometimes drowning us out. We look up and Liz is playing ring around the rosy with a group of screaming children. When the weekend ends, she hugs and kisses them goodbye," Berrigan writes.

     The loving attention given to children isn’t called influence by our North American culture. But for those parents and caregivers who wipe children’s tears, guide them through the day-to-day disappointments, make them snacks, offer encouragement, listen to their questions, prepare their lunches, chauffeur them to school, and welcome their dreams -it’s influence of a different sort. It’s the kind given with love and God’s grace. The kind that lasts a lifetime.

Gerry McCarthy is editor of The Social Edge.

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