MIAMI — While we are waiting for the Land of the Pregnant Chad to declare the new president, may I rewind the tape for just a moment? There’s something from that last madcap weekend before the madcap election that is worth thinking about.
No, it’s not whether the revelation about George W. Bush’s drunk driving record had a defining impact on the election, drawing it to this stalemate. It’s whether the disclosure of a Bad Dad moment would really have had a defining impact on his daughters.
In the midst of all the hysteria, George W. Bush said he wasn’t trying to keep his drunk driving record from the public but from the kids. "I didn’t want to talk about it in front of my daughters," said W. He feared the message would be undermined by the arrest record of the messenger: "I made the decision that as a dad I didn’t want my girls doing the kinds of things I did."
My own unscientific — but hand-counted — poll of parents on the subject of whether Bush was right as a dad divided almost as closely and far more passionately than the election itself. Some said that what was bad for the candidate was good for the kids. Others said that disclosure is better than secrecy.
But it raised the old question: What do we and should we tell our growing, growing, grown kids about our own lives? What do we tell them about our indiscretions — youthful and otherwise? What is the impact of our lives on theirs? Are we really worried about them or about us?
These are questions that sneak up on all parents, not the least of them the baby boomers. The 1960s counterculture has become the 2000 counter-counterculture. The vice president who smoked dope and the governor who drove drunk are no exceptions.
I still remember the Rolling Stone survey of a decade ago showing that baby boomers did everything, regret nothing and want their kids to do none of it. Baby boomers belong to a generation that believed famously in telling it like is.
Now the whole culture encourages far more openness in families. Adoption is discussed among parents, children and even birth mothers. Divorce, which was once hidden out of shame, is now acknowledged. So, increasingly, is homosexuality. And a whole lot of adults who were born 8 pounds and 6 months after their parents’ marriage now know they weren’t premature.
But into every parent’s life comes that magical moment when their 13- or 20- year-old asks: Did you and dad have sex before you were married? Did you do drugs? Did you drink and drive?
The very same folks who once worried about getting caught by their parents may find that was a whole lot easier than explaining themselves to their kids. Many who duck and weave rationalize that they are protecting the children. But are they in fact protecting themselves?
When I was a kid, my father had a debate with a clergyman whose Freudian training had made him wary of calling God "Our Father." When this man wanted to expunge Fatherhood from the liturgy, my father replied, "I can assure you that my children have never confused me with God."
Well, no. But most parents do bask in a young child’s awe. It’s not that easy to see awe give way — in small lurches of disillusionment or one outright rebellion — to reality.
In many ways, George W.’s "protection" sounded tinny. What better object lesson for the kids than his own arrest? But how much does any parent want to aid and abet the fall from grace?
One surprising insight in Judith Wallerstein’s study of adult children of divorce is how many didn’t know why their parents split. They’d been protected from long, bitter recriminations — but left vulnerable to the belief that at any moment for no apparent reason a good marriage could go bad.
I am not suggesting that we give 10-year-olds access through the Freedom of Information Act to every detail of their parents’ lives. It’s not wrong to cover our tracks with a generic confession about "mistakes" to a 12-year-old or promise a confessional rain check to a 15-year-old.
But sooner or later — sooner than we like and later than the children ask — those who want to be known as people and not just parents err, if err it is, on the side of openness.
Memories of our own near-misses, semi-disasters, close calls, may not undermine but energize our warnings and worries. And usually we discover our growing, growing, grown children didn’t confuse us with gods after all.
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