Parenthood: A 'Precious' Privilege

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Barbara Bush looks like she's always been a mother: softly coiffed hair, calm demeanor, always graced with her signature classic pearls. So when I saw the former first lady as a 'My Turn' contributor in Newsweek (December 14, 2009), I was curious about what she had to say.

In "A Precious Moment," Mrs. Bush discusses watching the film, Precious, and how the "story of an illiterate African-American teenager growing up in poverty ..." inspired renewed energy for Bush's longtime fight against illiteracy.

Bush believes teaching children to read will help them lead productive lives. "If young people can read and write, they are less likely to drop out of school, turn to drugs and violence, get pregnant, or depend on welfare," Bush writes. Who could disagree with that?

I do.

The issues of ignorance and poverty are not founded solely on a child's inability to read; they evolve from neglect and the absence of parental guidance. Learning to read may develop into a love of books and learning but it is the purposeful love of a parent that steers a child toward a hopeful future.

Think about it. A child can learn to read but without the benefit of a supportive family, the child lacks the necessary resources develop the confidence and faith that he/she needs to succeed. A child like that may learn to read and hide within the fantasy of books rather than live a full life.

Hollywood is all a buzz about Precious. The movie has received enthusiastic reviews. This Sunday, Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, who plays Precious, may win a Golden Globe for best performance by an actress. I have not seen the film yet but the mother's abusive behavior -- and neglect -- underlies the tragedy. I have not seen the film but I have seen the same scenes play out in real life.

As a reporter, I once covered the case of a missing 13 year-old girl in Oakland. A cameraman and I went to the girl's home, a small apartment on the east side of town, to interview her mother. I found Mom lying on a couch watching television. When I attempted to ask her about her daughter, she didn't seem concerned at all. Even if the missing girl had a history of staying out or running away, the mother's reaction was disturbing, removed. Oakland Police had already decided because of the girl's young age, she was in possible danger and needed to be found.

During the course of our conversation, Mom was continually distracted by the soap opera on TV. I left the apartment feeling surprised, and sad. Outside, her other children played in the apartment driveway, the closest thing they had for a playground. No mother (or father) was going to take these kids to the neighborhood park. Most likely, I thought, these kids would be told to stay outside in their concrete jungle, all day long. If this, I thought, is their childhood, how can we expect them to become vital adults one day?

Becoming a parent is a privilege and unfortunately, often not properly planned. In the US, we can't do anything without filling out a form, taking a test, proving ourselves worthy -- yet anyone with the biological capability can become a parent. People say, "No one teaches you to become a parent, you just do your best as you go along." Before teaching disadvantaged children to read, let's teach their parents how to lend guidance, cope and address their own problems, and create a real home. Maybe then, these parents will show their children the value of reading. Maybe then, fewer children will be illiterate.

In the homes of many illiterate children, the parents themselves never learned to value education. We cannot expect them to have conversations with their child's teacher much less join the PTA when their own memories of school are unpleasant.

None of us is perfect but as parents, we must be responsible. Quantity time is just as important as quality time.

Parents: take advantage of layoffs and the down economy. Spend time with your children. Become Mr. Mom. Schedule fewer outside activities for your child and spend some one-on-one time together. Limit or eliminate TV and video games. Until we do, generation after generation of children will far short of their potential and you can bet, when those children grow up and become parents themselves, they will perpetuate a life cycle of superficiality.

Mrs. Bush says her foundation's literacy grants go to programs that teach both parents and children to read; the foundation has awarded 773 grants. I suspect that funding for positive parenting classes is less generous. Budget problems, such as here in California, mean social programs such as parenting classes face severe funding cuts.

Yes, Mrs. Bush, read to your toddler, read and discuss books with your older children. Literacy is an essential skill but should not become a parent's one and only safety net.

Your children love you. They want you. Teach them to read, but also learn to be a better person so you may inspire them with your actions and deeds.