One of the great unremarked developments of our time is how difficult parenting has become.
I'm not crying the blues of personal frustration. My children seem to be doing all right -- not as well as my wife and I had hoped, but all right. All seem to be doing reasonably well in school; all are reasonably polite (except to each other); none seems inclined to lawlessness, drug abuse, parental defiance and the other things that drive parents crazy.
But we agree -- and conversations with middle-class friends and acquaintances confirm -- that the enterprise of raising children is a lot tougher than it used to be. There's more money, and therefore more opportunity, than our parents would have dreamed. But they had a lot more know-how.
They learned it from their parents. Our parents raised their families, as their own parents had, in small towns (or in self-contained neighborhoods, the big-city counterpart of small towns), in circumstances that rendered harsh economic limits a routine fact of life. The lessons they learned from their own parents stood them in good stead, and, as a rule, they did very well with us.
But we, my friends and I, are for the most part first-generation middle-class, and the lessons we learned from our non-middle-class parents don't always work. We are constantly having to create guidelines, not out of memory but out fallible instinct and intellect. How do you teach children the value of a dollar when dollars are not in excruciatingly short supply? Where do you draw the line with regard to overpriced clothes, teen-age driving, children's telephones, television sets, stereo systems, and, hardest of all, car ownership?
These problems didn't exist when a family television set cost the Old Man two weeks' pay, when the single telephone extension was in the hallway, when record players were cheap junk. Our parents could have given us virtually anything they could have afforded to give us, and it wouldn't have been too much. If my friends and I give our children half of what is within our economic reach, we run serious risk of ruining them.
Still, those of us who were brought up in values-oriented two-parent families learned enough that we are generally able to work out rules that make sense.
We are the lucky ones. PBS recently provided a look at the unlucky other half: a special on battered children, with actual footage of child-abuse caseworkers as they made their rounds in an attempt to rescue children who had been brutally abused -- physically and psychically -- by their confused parents.
Perhaps the most poignant thing about that disturbing program was the youthfulness of the parents. It occurred to me that if middle-class parents, brought up in solid if economically tight circumstances, have it tough, how much tougher it is for unmarried parents who are themselves children. And what parenting skills, what values, what reasonable rule-setting will these children of children be able to pass on to their own offspring?
It is no trivial question when you consider that one-sixth of all children born in America are born to single mothers. Fully 55 percent of all black babies are born to unwed mothers, most of them poor and a hefty percentage of them mere teen-agers.
I don't mean to suggest that these young mothers are likely to become child abusers. But it is fair to wonder to whom they, and their hapless children, will turn for help and advice in the difficult task of parenting.
We spend a lot of time on the subject of sex education in the schools. Maybe it's time to introduce mandatory courses in parenting -- for boys as well as girls. Parenting skills, difficult enough for the lucky half of us to acquire, are all but impossible for the unlucky half to come by.
And yet nearly all of them will become parents. We'd better start doing what we can to help them do it right.