You have to give the guy points for bravery. Dr. B.J. Cohler of the University of Chicago stood up at a science writer's symposium here and actually said: "Parents are not responsible for their children's outcome to the extent to which we've been taught. Children are independent creatures who create their own lives."
He then went further. "I believe that worrying about a kid's psyche is probably more damaging to him than not worrying about his psyche," he said.
The doctor's speech was about as popular as a diatribe against baseball. Worrying about our children's various and assorted psyches has been the favorite indoor middle-class American sport for years. And parents have borne the responsibility for their children's lives since Adam asked Eve: "Where did we go wrong?"
But in the past decade, the whole thing has gotten out of hand. Parents are worrying more and enjoying it less.
One reason is that the child-rearing "experts" have lowered their research sights into the nursery. Now every baby arrives with a full layette of instructions for proper growth.
For my own part, I am eternally grateful that my daughter was four before I found out it was all over by three. But I have seen many parents truly convinced that the first three years are the "laboratory of life," and if they do not hang the right mobile over the crib at the right moment, their child will be refused admission into the adult world (not to mention Harvard) when he or she turns 18.
I am sure, for example, that the people who wrote the ad for Burton White's book, "The First Three Years," did the appropriate research into the guilt market before they penned the unforgettable line: "Will your children remember you for what you did for them, or what you did TO them?"
But it's also true that parents are more vulnerable to this sort of anxiety today. The people who go into the family business make a different kind of investment. Having children has become a decision - sometimes an agonized decision and usually an economic one.
They are warned about it on all sides. The economists have put a price tag, a sort of bounty, on the head of each off-spring that inflated recently to $64,000. The sociologists have told them their marriage may suffer. The psychologists remind them that their post-partum depression may last a decade or two, while the educators suggest that it is harder to raise children than orchids.
Under all of these inhospitable conditions, the decision to become a parent has taken on the momentousness that once accompanied marriage - till death do us part. They often approach parenting with fear, trembling and a determination that looks a lot like Grit.
They are having fewer children, and they want to "do it right," whatever that may be. They want some assurance in return that, if they have children, they will be the most important - even omnipotent - force in their lives. Children are the product of the family business after all, and if the parents are the perfect manufacturers, they assume they will have the perfect products.
Now comes along a fellow like Dr. Cohler to tell them that they don't have the only hand on the quality-control button. "Given the expectable environment with some warmth, some guidance, food and shelter, beyond that the kids make their own destiny."
Dr. Cohler was talking in broad generalities. Not every child has an "expectable environment." But still, what he was saying is a realistic reminder.
On the whole, we wish we could guarantee our kids a prepackaged future - prepackaged by us. But kids take their own inherent qualities - from their brains to their athletic ability to their sense of humor. They interact with a complicated world. Their parents aren't in charge of that world; they're only a part of it. In some crucial ways, kids are on their own.
What Dr. Cohler said isn't an excuse for neglect but, rather, a prescription for relaxation. We shouldn't be the anxious guardians of the psyche, but the grown-up half of a relationship with people who are shorter than we are, but pretty interesting.
Will your children remember you for what you did for them or what you did to them? That's a lousy choice. They may remember you for what you did with them, or for the person you were with them. On the other hand, they may not have to "remember" you at all. They may still come around from time to time.