Hanging ornaments on her grandparents' Christmas tree, my two-year-old beamed with pride for having hooked a snowman on a branch all by herself. A few seconds later, she was struggling to hang a sparkly star. I offered help. She yanked the ornament from my hand, yelling, "Self!"
All of the sudden I realized, by praising my daughter's ability to do things all on her own and not emphasizing that asking for help and working together are just as praiseworthy --- if not more so --- not only was I failing to equip her for trials and tribulations beyond tree trimming, I was indoctrinating her with the core values of conservative ideology.
You know that conservative worldview is dominant in our society not just when it governs Washington (including the fiscal policy of a Democratic president) but when it seeps into your own, otherwise-devoutly progressive home --- and you don't even realize it. Even the very progressive academic Amy Chua managed to write a book about parenting that is steeped in the very same do-it-yourself, hyper-individualism at the core of conservative ideology.
In 1977, Dr. James Dobson founded Focus on the Family --- one of the foremost institutions spurring the Right wing political movement nationwide. But Dobson's first activities through Focus on the Family weren't aimed at curbing socially progressive legislation or even spreading evangelical teachings in mainline churches. He wrote a book about parenting --- ultimately, several in fact. True to its name, Focus on the Family saw American families as its primary target. If Dobson could help raise a new generation awash in conservative social and cultural values, political domination would be a natural --- and relatively seamless --- by product.
Dobson's first book was Dare to Discipline, which made a moral and practical case for corporal punishment but replace the references to spankings with war instead and the arguments hold.
Around the same time, feminist activists coined the phrase, "The personal is political." Indeed, throughout the 1970s and 80s, some liberal parents were also trying to raise their children in expressly progressive ways. At the extreme end were communes. At the other end were middle class suburban kids like myself singing along with "Free To Be You and Me." It was a start.
The feminist movement very clearly saw that child rearing habits were a path to preserving patriarchy and sexism --- or smashing it. But as the feminist movement faded slightly and gay rights took center stage in the 1990s, something changed. Gay rights activists were attacked by Dobson and his ilk for seeking to indoctrinate homosexuality into America's youth. Rather than respond, "Yeah, who cares?" most gay activists balked and went to great lengths to show their agenda was only political, not social or personal. Gay rights activists didn't want everyone to be gay, or even sexually liberated --- they just wanted equal rights for everyone regardless of sexual orientation.
And so it happened that conservative evangelicals became the foremost authority on how to properly, morally raise a family --- while progressives were relegated to, or relegated themselves to, matters of the state. Yet, as linguist George Lakoff and others have explained, we see the state as a metaphor for the family. (Note, for instance, the effectively-wielded analogy between family budget tightening and government budget tightening in the last year.) So if the Right maintains an authoritative monopoly on personal and familial morality, all progressive pleas about separating church and state cannot surmount the subterranean influence of a fundamentalist worldview so uncontested that it is almost invisible.
Sure there is such a thing as "progressive parenting" today but it's mostly focused on feeding your kids organic food or helping them be self-actualized "free spirits". While opposing the physical discipline and authoritarian style pushed by Dobson, today's progressive parenting more represents a lifestyle than a worldview. There's no broader political analysis, leaders or movement shaping parenting doctrines that will lead to a more egalitarian, cooperative, anti-war generation marked by gender non-conformity and sexual liberation. Dr. Dobson, still putting out books today, has no real competition.
Maybe it's the nature of the left --- we don't think we should tell people how to live their lives in the way conservatives seem comfortable with. Yet as a member of the "professional left" I was shocked to realize my own complicity in the rightward tilt of our nation. I spend my days railing against conservative orthodoxy at work. Who knew I was regurgitating it at home? I initially thought my two-year-old having tantrums about not being able to do things herself was natural. Then I realized it was because I was praising self-sufficiency over asking for help, the same way we as a nation praise billionaires and over those on public assistance. Now I'm on the lookout for the impact of conservative ideology not just in politics but in my own day-to-day life.
My partner and I started praising teamwork instead, being overjoyed whenever our daughter asked for help. Just yesterday, my daughter beamed with pride when she asked me to help zip her coat. With that kind of thinking, she could grow up to be a bold progressive with backbone some day.
Sally Kohn is a community organizer and progressive political commentator. She is the Founder and Chief Education Officer of the Movement Vision Lab
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