The New York Times Magazine’s cover story about fathers’ rights last month reminded me of a little-noted bit of data from that much-discussed “ugly children” study, which came out around the same time. Researchers observing parents and toddlers in grocery stores discovered that pretty children were treated more carefully than homely ones.
I suspect that study is flawed in its main point for many reasons, the most basic of which is the attractiveness of the parents themselves wasn’t noted. Since unattractive children are often connected with unattractive parents — who are more likely to be unattractive, for reasons of obesity, style and general health, if they’re lower on the socioeconomic scale — presumably the parenting habits have as much to do with the parents’ class as the children’s prettiness. And attractiveness, especially of children, is pretty subjective anyway.
But here’s a stark fact from the study that flies in the face of those who argue that fathers are always every bit as careful with children as mothers: “The difference was even more acute when fathers led the shopping expedition — in those cases, none of the least attractive children were secured with seat belts, while 12.5 percent of the prettiest children were.”
As it happens, I offended a lot of fathers’ rights types last year with a National Review Online column about a dad I’d noticed in the grocery store, who was so busy discussing his anti-war activities with a friend that he didn’t notice his small unsecured-with-seatbelt son was about to fall out of the shopping cart:
Now the problem here was that even though I could see this dad was reveling in his fab daditude, like many guys he found it difficult to do things at once– like watch a child while chatting with another adult. Men in charge of small children are like women and parallel parking: Attention must be paid or something’s going to get dented. Because at this point, the son was really bouncing around in that cart, to the continued obliviousness of his father and the father’s friend. The two men were too busy congratulating themselves on their moral rectitude to notice.
“Sir,” I felt like saying, “your child and various pork products are about to spill themselves upon the ground.” But I didn’t. Because I know from experience that sensitive Today’s Dad types are quick to dismiss women like me as Mean Ladies.
I suspect that this dynamic may have had something to do with my infuriating Lawrence O’Donnell last month on Dennis Miller, when I questioned the “West Wing” writer’s insistence that “every single one” of the teachers in his daughter’s elite public elementary school was “GREAT!” (And maybe all the children there are above average?)
I used that experience, by the way, in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece last week that the Times titled “Elitist Parents and Their Sappy Class Delusions.” And considering the Miller show was cancelled a few days later, I’m grateful my encounter with O’Donnell’s throbbing neck veins and clenched fist got in just under the wire. Had I missed it, I might have felt like a radio announcer who lost his job just before the Hindenberg exploded.
Anyway, baby boomer dads typically congratulate themselves on how involved they are in their children’s lives because compared to their own fathers, they are indeed: At least they’ve changed diapers and gone to parent-teacher conferences.
But they’re still rarely as involved as moms, who, for instance, via the day-to-day drudgework of picking up kids and hanging out with other moms, not only know the names of all their children’s teachers as a matter of course, but also the names of also the preferred (and unpreferred) teachers in each elementary school grade — and how to improve the odds of getting their own kid into the favored class.
That’s always a major topic of conversation at schools in rich neighborhoods like O’Donnell’s. And although he may be happily ignorant about which teachers at his daughter’s school are considered not-so-great, I’d bet that his wife (or, more likely in his case, his ex-wife) is rather more knowledgable.
Obviously, there are exceptions — some fathers are excellent home cooks, housekeepers and school volunteers, while some mothers are slatterns who take the kids to McDonald’s several times a week — but that doesn’t mean it’s not true as a general rule, just as the existence of six-feet-tall women in the world (of which there are plenty) doesn’t negate the fact that most women are shorter than most men.
But fathers’ rights types find any acknowledgement of these facts of life offensive. Worse, they’re trying to move custody disputes from what’s in the child’s best interest to what’s fair to fathers.
“You’re taking one person’s life and ruining it to make another person’s better,” movement leader Michael Newdow told the New York Times. Newdow, an athiest (and apparent control freak) who argued before the Supreme Court last year that every time his daughter says the Pledge of Allegiance with “under God” in it she’s forced “to say her father is wrong,” also laments that “women can choose to end a pregnancy but men can’t.”
Personally, I don’t think Newdow should have any custody or visitation rights regarding his daughter, since he never married her mother — nor should he be therefore required to pay child support. The hard bottom line to these conflicts is that if abortion is legal and ultimately a woman’s decision, then supporting the child should ultimately be the man’s decision– unless he was married to the mother, which involves a contract and therefore an obligation. I can’t see why the state should get involved in disputes outside of state-recognized relationships.
If we didn’t require unmarried fathers to pay child support, I suspect that the big heads of steam many of these fathers rights guys work up would vaporize. Morally, I think most unmarried fathers probably should help pay for their offspring. But not everything that’s morally correct should be legally required.
Among Michael Newdow’s many, many complaints are that he couldn’t take his daughter out hunting for frogs late one night because her mother said no: “It’s as bad as slavery.” The solution, according to Newdow and his allies, is for each parent to make all decisions for the children during their own custodial time — which might sound reasonable for a few seconds until you consider the real-life applications: Mom RSVPs for a birthday party or class outing but the event is scheduled for dad’s time; Dad says that’s his time and he doesn’t feel like chauffering the kid to the activity. Children are reduced to pieces of property (property of their fathers, that is) — which is indeed how they were historically regarded until the mid-19th Century.
I suggest that any parent who considers “parental rights” more important than a child’s best interest should be automatically disqualified from being the custodial parent. Parental rights are an absurd notion in relation to children anyway. It’s certainly a basic human right not to be awakened several times a night by someone screaming at you — any guard who made the same demands on prisoners that all infants make on their parents would violate the Geneva Convention several times over — but if that “right” took precedence over the child’s right to be cared for, humanity would have died out long ago.
Catherine Seipp is a writer and visiting fellow with IWF. She also maintains a blog, “Cathy’s World.”