Raising a Molecular Family in an Atomic Age


If you’re a parent on social media or you’re friends with a parent on social media, you have probably seen Bunmi Laditan’s Facebook post from Mother’s Day:

How To Be A Mom in 2017: Make sure your children’s academic, emotional, psychological, mental, spiritual, physical, nutritional, and social needs are met while being careful not to overstimulate, understimulate, improperly medicate, helicopter, or neglect them in a screen-free, processed foods-free, GMO-free, negative energy-free, plastic-free, body positive, socially conscious, egalitarian but also authoritative, nurturing but fostering of independence, gentle but not overly permissive, pesticide-free two-story, multilingual home preferably in a cul-de-sac with a backyard and 1.5 siblings spaced at least two years apart for proper development also don’t forget the coconut oil. How To Be A Mom In Literally Every Generation Before Ours: Feed them sometimes. (This is why we’re crazy.)

While parenting has always been hard work, at least the expectations for children in “Every Generation Before Ours” were generally achievable: learn a trade, pair up with another decent human being, have children of your own, and don’t bring shame upon the family through some moral misadventure. But none of those expectations have really gone away, either; we’ve just added more and more on top of them. Latidan’s list (which is focused on younger children) only expands as children get older and parents feel pressured to ensure that their child goes to the best school possible (which often entails living in the “right” school district) and to choose all the best extracurricular activities in order to maximize their child’s academic and vocational prospects.

The crushing weight of these expectations produces its own entertaining backlash in media like Laditan’s various writings and “bad mommy” social media that encourages parents to vent their frustrations with their children and the perfect ideals they won’t ever reach. While Laditan’s vision of 2017 Mom-hood may be exaggerated for laughs, parents are deadly serious about imbuing their children with appropriate values and equipping them with the skills to “succeed.” The problem is that the values and skills that we most often hope to imbue in a liberal society are confined to a narrow and even dangerous view of flourishing. The sort of child that parents are pushed to mold is the ideal liberal citizen: a totally independent person, free to determine their own destiny unhindered by GMO ingestion who is at the same time a diligent worker drone for the Rainbow Oligarchy. While the specifics may differ from subculture to subculture, the overall goal of parenting in our current age is still focused on maximizing achievement and autonomy. Any moral formation is directed towards raising children who will extend the same license to others.

Deviation from this dream has consequences. Children who are not able to acquire the skills to succeed in our rapidly evolving economy are punished with financial insecurity, while those who cannot master the constantly realigning moral code face social ostracism (and thus potential career suicide) in a variety of arenas. Technology continues to grow more powerful with almost no built-in safeguards, which lowers any natural barriers towards lust, pride, anger, or sloth. Kids these days are no more wicked than they were a century ago, but at least back then you had to get up out of bed if you really wanted to endanger your soul.

A premodern child coming of age would have little choice as to their vocation, their spouse, or even where to live when they left their parents’ home (if they left it at all). While many people around the world still face these constraints, more and more children are getting enough education and have enough access to technology such that the best and brightest can be concentrated in liberal city-centers and the rest can enjoy ever-more-ubiquitous drugs and pornography brought to them in their less desirable locales. Faithful living in such a world demands that we name these temptations—rotting in place versus floating off into an inaccessibly privileged perch—and then develop strategies for dealing with them. The precepts of liberal parenting are not enough to form the future citizens and neighbors we need—we need ways of postliberal parenting that help our children reckon with these freedoms.

Parenting that addresses the challenge of liberalism cannot merely be a rediscovery of what generations before ours did, either. We all have to live in the world that liberalism has created, not only because of economic necessity but also because God has not rescinded his mandate that we preach, heal, and baptize in His name. Whatever formation our children receive from us will always be in the context of a surrounding community, and there will always be the world, the flesh, and the devil to reckon with no matter how dominant Christianity may be in that particular community. The autonomous liberal ideal of “liquid modernity,” like the idol worship that the ancient Israelites battled against in their hearts and communities, can’t be escaped in an ark or kept out with a wall.

Faithlessness necessitates the crushing anxiety of control; we’re crazy in 2017 because the failure of your children will be your failure. Our children’s first observations of faith will be our faith on their behalf; they are discerning creatures and will be able to tell very quickly if we are trusting more in our own parental skills or God’s providence for them. Parenting that relinquishes this anxiety must begin with the acknowledgement that we must surrender our children and any outcomes they experience to God.

Furthermore, in the event that your child is called by God to a profession where the cutting edge of progressive values is aiming for the jugular of conscience, they will need to be equipped to work faithfully in such a profession. Even if your progeny doesn’t become an obstetrician or a florist, it is incumbent upon us parents to raise children who can be faithful in any circumstance, who are not only capable of retaining the faith of their youth and the humanity of their ancestors, but are thriving people who can love and serve their neighbors. At the same time, we do not want to produce interchangeable, autonomous cogs for the industrial economy—we want to form human beings who will choose to love particular places and embrace their particular callings. This task of postliberal parenting will require discipline of all sorts, but most necessary now are the values of solidarity, discernment, and rootedness.

The first discipline of postliberal parenting we learn to apply to ourselves and our children is that of solidarity. Solidarity is in contrast to the liberal value of autonomy, which in the 2017 Mom formulation is achieved by nurturing children, but “not too much.” We would all agree that children’s choices need to be guided and supervised, but the liberal ideal of an adult is a person who grows out of this state and is neither obligated to anyone else (except for their obligations to humanity at large, mediated through the state) nor places an undue burden on anyone else. A far more realistic and Christian understanding of human capacity recognizes that we are all dependent on one another and that it is good to fulfill our obligations to one another.

To cultivate solidarity in our children, we have to begin by talking about it. We have to teach them about how they have received what they have; about the hard work of previous generations and the complicated inheritance of privilege. In emphasizing the value of their own work, we must help them to see that their efforts can only bear fruit because of the labor of others. The privilege they bear is not an opportunity for ceaseless self-flagellation, but a blessing to be shared with others.

Our children will also notice when we place ourselves in positions where we are dependent on others and they are dependent on us. Habitual acts of service, like a regular time of visiting a fellow church member who is elderly or disabled, should be chosen not because it will look good on a college application but to build a relationship with someone who will never fulfill the liberal ideal of autonomy. My own family has gone to the extreme of living on support from other people so that I can work full-time as a physician among the poor, but simply participating in institutions that depend on donations or grants (mercy ministries, the Y, arts institutions, etc.) is enough for children to understand that the things they cherish require the love of other people.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the added challenges that it brings, inviting other people into our homes for meals or even to live with us gives us opportunities to share in daily rhythms of interdependence and solidarity. One of the chief drivers of atomization is the division of people into separate physical spaces, and our media technologies do not compensate for the lack of physical proximity (often, they make it worse). Opening our homes to other people allows us to resist this impulse and bless people who might otherwise be quite lonely because of the ways in which our neighborhoods are structured. It also brings in other people who will teach and disciple our children in ways we cannot.

The next virtue to cultivate is discernment. Both secular and Christian moralisms excel in preaching abstinence; it makes very little difference to a child whether your banned literature is Harry Potter or The Bell Curve. A parental culture that emphasizes following the rules is one in which the Law is supreme; you will either form proud elder brothers who live for the rules or rebellious prodigal sons who break them at any opportunity. It is easy to pillory the most extreme examples of GMO-free eating and Jesus rock, but what can we develop in their place?

I don’t wish to suggest that parents not set rules; one has to be firm about most things with young children and to set hard rules about things which could destroy your child’s life. However, children will never learn to make moral decisions unless they are given real choices, and their process of learning will come through watching you make moral decisions that affect them. Thus, we have to involve our children in our processes of discernment in prayer and be open about how we make the decisions we make.

If your family’s decisions about where you live, where your children go to school, how you spend your money, and how you choose to spend your time basically resemble that of your non-Christian neighbors, they will intuit that Christianity is primarily about voting preferences and one’s choice of movies. The liberal value of autonomy and its tendency to insulate oneself from any genuine obligation to others will still be supreme when we simply add a Christian veneer to the liberal dream. Whether one simply wants their child to be an ideal liberal citizen who also happens to go to church every Sunday or insists on “worldview classes” that ensure said citizen can find a Bible verse to support the latest Republican policy initiative, we must be careful that our parenting goals are not captive to the gods of our age in whatever disguise is most alluring. This syncretistic approach is especially deadly to true faith when mixed with a political ideology (as we are seeing now, many promulgators of American syncretism are choosing political power when there is a conflict between the Bible and their true god).

In particular, many more Christian families need to move to undesirable places to carry out the work of God’s Kingdom: “dying” rural areas, suburbs that are “going downhill,” “dangerous” urban neighborhoods, or another country entirely. One does not need to be employed in full-time ministry (it has its own spiritual dangers) to do this work; simply prioritizing one’s call to love others above your potential home value is a tremendous example of discernment. If a family is able to discern this area of calling together by moving (or staying), then more mundane tasks of discernment like determining what movies, music, and books are good for you will be relatively easy by comparison.

Lastly, rootedness is a necessity in a world where freedom allows people to flit from one place to another whenever things get difficult. Rootedness recognizes that there are many opportunities to apply oneself, but it is only by long and faithful attention to a particular work that we can accomplish what we want. Liberalism imagines human beings and the places they live in to be interchangeable and wholly malleable; it assumes that wisdom and expertise can be acquired independently of relationships, history, or virtue. We must reject this line of thinking while also recognizing that the freedom to act in such a way is available to any child who has the capacity to exercise the gifts they have been given.

Like every other character trait we want our children to learn, rootedness must be practiced in front of them. Children—especially young children—thrive on routine and do best when they know what to expect. Even as they grow older, their desire for novelty and adventure never surpasses their need for faithfulness and reliability from their parents. If our family’s attention is shackled to our technology or our schedules are wholly dictated by a need to accomplish and participate in as much as possible, then our children will discern that our love is fixed upon those things. Regular and small rituals of serving those in need or participating in local institutions can help in this regard, but even when it comes to activities like entertainment and sports that occupy a great deal of our time, we can choose music or movies that we can all enjoy together or pursue sports like martial arts that allow all ages to participate simultaneously.

We should also pursue activities as parents and as families that are unique to the place and location that God has called us. Whatever city, town, or neighborhood we choose to live in has a unique history that we should know—even if it is boring or unpleasant. Teaching this to our children will come very easily if we choose to live in a place because of its potential to love others in that place or worship God, but even if our home just happens to be the cheapest place close to work, its history is still worth digging into and sharing with our children. The reality of history is such that many places are the way they are because of what has come before, and in America in particular it is worth knowing how your home has dealt with issues of race and class (and is still dealing with them today).

Being rooted and dependable must be distinguished from equality, for every child will need different things from each parent. (“Your children will demand to be treated equally,” my father once told me. “There are few worse things you can do to them than to meet this demand.”) There will be many variations in the sorts of rewards, punishments, and gifts we give to each of our children, requiring discernment on our part as parents to figure out just how to bless and reprove each child for who they are. The constants must be that our children hear that we love them, that they observe us being willing to sacrifice for them and for the God we want them to worship, and that they can see us repent whenever we wrong someone (including them), as well as forgive those who wrong us. The best way that we can love our children is to live a faithful life before them.

Postliberal parenting draws on the best wisdom of the distant and recent past to help our children to resist the dehumanizing effects of unchecked atomization and make the most of the new powers we find ourselves responsible for using. There are no guarantees when it comes to raising children, but the practices of solidarity, discernment, and rootedness will always be good for our families even if they fail to produce our desired outcome. Indeed, relinquishing our sense of control over everything is the first step in rejecting the lies of the liberal order.

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who teaches and practices in Baltimore and East Africa. He tweets @matthew_loftus and is a regular contributor to Mere Orthodoxy and Christ and Pop Culture. He currently lives in Kenya with his family; you can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org.