I posted this at dad-blogs.com a few days ago and it struck a chord with Dads there.* It got triple the normal amount of hits and comments. See what you think…
There is nothing in life that requires more collaboration between two people than raising one child. That is why I sometimes think of Mom and Dad as a coalition government governing a single, two-foot-high swing voter. In many (but not all) parenting coalitions, Dad appoints himself the Minister of Sports and Recreation and Mom becomes the Minister of Hygiene and Cleanliness. The two ministers back each other up 90 percent of the time, but rifts begin to form when, for example, the recreation agenda conflicts with the priorities of the cleanliness minister.
The swing voter, in this case, might frustrated when his two ministers can’t agree on whether it is okay to take a 10 year old to a PG-13 movie or make mandatory the use of backseat seat belts for short, inside-the-neighborhood trips. In these cases, the swing voter might try to play one minister off against the other. Or he may gravitate toward the recreation minister because that is where the fun is. This, in turn, can open up additional rifts in the coalition if the swing voter starts to openly support one minister over the other.
In this political arena, it seems to me that the minister of sports and recreation has some advantages. Swing voters are probably more likely to thank recreation minister for throwing the ball around the front yard or building a skateboard jump in the driveway than thanking the cleanliness minister for making them clean up after themselves or for making sure homework is done before they go out to play. The Minister of Sports and Recreation often tends to favor deregulation while the cleanliness minister is a compassionate conservative who favors smarter regulations and accountability. As a result, the recreation minister’s position on most issues is to say ‘yes’ to the swing voter’s requests unless he can think of a compelling reason to say ‘no.’ Wanna walk by yourself to the neighbor’s house, sure. Wanna see how high you can climb in that three, sure. Wanna go out for tackle football, sure. Unfortunately, the recreation minister’s agenda often leads to cuts, bruises, and accidents that the cleanliness minister has to clean up by virtue of her responsibility for the all-important issue of healthcare.
Because the cleanliness minister needs to balance out the recreation minister’s sometimes dirty and dangerous agenda, she might tend to default to ‘no’ unless there is a reason to say ‘yes’ and risks looking like the bad guy. Wanna play walk to the neighbor’s house, not without an adult. Wanna climb that tree, you might fall. Wanna play tackle football, you might get injured.
Much of the chagrin of the swing voter, the Minister of Cleanliness also sometimes borrows from Dick Cheney’s 1% doctrine which says that if a particular event has a 1% chance of happening, it must be assumed to be a virtual certainty and steps must be taken to avert the potential disaster. Cheney, of course, was worried about terrorist attacks, but the minister of cleanliness is more worried about the possibility of a wandering pervert staking out the route to school or a hidden heroin needle discarded in the McDonald’s ball pit. Again, cleavages in the coalition appear when the 1 percent doctine is employed by one minister to the consternation of the other.
To keep this political analogy going a little while longer, if the divisions are not healed during closed-door negotiations between the two ministers, the coalition risks falling apart altogether. The minister of recreation might declare that the time has come for him to depart the coalition and rule his own way. The two ministers might both claim to have veto power over the other’s agenda, forcing a showdown and perhaps eventually new elections to replace one minister or the other.
In real life, politics and the pursuit of power is a zero-sum game and a bloodsport. But the politics of parenting cannot be. When the recreation minister gets frustrated and persuades himself that he can go it alone, he is fooling himself. The recreation minister needs the cleanliness minister and the cleanliness minister needs the recreation minister. The power of the parenting coalition is always strongest when the two ministers work together and always diminished when they part ways.
The best way to govern, therefore, is for the recreation minister must assume some of the cleanliness agenda and vice versa. Ideally, the swing voter should not be able to tell who is carrying out which agenda and supports each minister equally. I know this is a high standard. I can blog casually about it but have great difficulty following my own prescription in my daily life. But it is worth the effort because, like in real life, the one who gets screwed when government is divided and ineffective is the little guy– in this case, our little swing voter.
* This is the second piece I’ve done on the horizontal aspects of parenting (Mom and Dad) instead of my normal assessment of the vertical relationship between Dad and son/daughter. I hope to do more, because there is a lot to be said about this important topic.