The Workaday Heroism of Dedicated Parents

If you wanted to make the case that Akira Kurosawa was the greatest filmmaker of the 20th century, one leg of your stool would be the number of talented directors who copied him, including George Lucas and John Sturges. I watched Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven on the plane back to the states, and while it’s not as good as Seven Samurai (is anything?) it holds up very well with moments of thrilling action and surprising humanity. Of the latter, my favorite involves Charles Bronson, who plays a deadly, moody gunslinger who has been hired by a Mexican village to help defend it from bandits.

The boys in the village idolize Bronson, and tell him that they prefer being around him because their fathers will not take up arms and are therefore cowards. Bronson’s response brings a lump to the throat of many of a dad and many a mom too:

Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery.

The tens of millions of moms and dads who toil at low wage jobs for decades and give up countless selfish pleasures for the betterment of their children remain for me the greatest source of inspiration in American life. It is commonly remarked how sad it is that children don’t admire their parents more, idolizing instead rock stars and sports heroes, but this is a myth. In surveys that ask young people to name a specific individual whom they consider a hero, LeBron James is of course going to wipe out Jack Smith or Lin Wang or Clausell Taylor or Maria Gomez, but whenever researchers group all the individual answers that mean “mom and dad”, parents emerge as the greatest heroes of American kids. If you are being twisted by that big rock, know that you are hero in the eyes of the ones you love.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “The Workaday Heroism of Dedicated Parents”

  1. My grandson was interviewed by a local tv station at a dog parade honoring Bo Obama two years ago.
    “Barack Obama is my third hero,” he said.
    “And who are the first two?”
    “My Dad,” he replied proudly.
    Then he paused. “And Alex Rodriguez.”

  2. I think Andrew Peach puts it best in his article “On The Demise of Fatherhood”:

    “Most fathers-to-be suppose that their old ego-centered lives will continue more or less unabated after the child arrives. With the exception of a few more obstacles and demands on their time, their involvement with their children is envisioned as being something manageable and marginal. Nothing like a complete transformation ”an abrupt end to their former life” really enters men’s minds.

    But then the onslaught begins, and a man begins to realize that these people, his wife and children, are literally and perhaps even intentionally killing his old self. All around him everything is changing, without any signs of ever reverting back to the way they used to be. Into the indefinite future, nearly every hour of his days threatens to be filled with activities that, as a single-person or even a childless husband, he never would have chosen. Due to the continual interruptions of sleep, he is always mildly fatigued; due to long-term financial concerns, he is cautious in spending, forsaking old consumer habits and personal indulgences; he finds his wife equally exhausted and preoccupied with the children; connections with former friends start to slip away; traveling with his children is like traveling third class in Bulgaria, to quote H.L. Mencken; and the changes go on and on. In short, he discovers, in a terrifying realization, what Dostoevsky proclaimed long ago: “[A]ctive love is a harsh and fearful reality compared with love in dreams.” Fatherhood is just not what he bargained for.

    Yet, through the exhaustion, financial stress, screaming, and general chaos, there enters in at times, mysteriously and unexpectedly, deep contentment and gratitude. It is not the pleasure or amusement of high school or college but rather the honor and nobility of sacrifice and commitment, like that felt by a soldier. What happens to his children now happens to him; his life, though awhirl with the trivial concerns of children, is more serious than it ever was before. Everything he does, from bringing home a paycheck to painting a bedroom, has a new end and, hence, a greater significance. The joys and sorrows of his children are now his joys and sorrows; the stakes of his life have risen. And if he is faithful to his calling, he might come to find that, against nearly all prior expectations, he never wants to return to the way things used to be.

    Reflecting upon this transformation, it must be concluded that virtually all of the goods that fatherhood has to offer originate outside of or are only tangentially related to the will and rational planning of a father. All of the Norman Rockwell moments in fatherhood ”watching a son cleanly field a ground ball or a daughter sing in the school choir” are real, overpowering, and ultimately not of a man’s doing. In some nominal sense, of course, men give consent to be fathers, which is to say that they willingly hold their post while a swarm of unforeseen contingencies relentlessly comes their way. If they choose not to escape this form of bondage, most fathers, I would hazard to guess, would rightly regard themselves as “the luckiest men alive.” In their hearts they know that the goods of fatherhood are among the highest available in this life and that those goods are principally the result of force of tradition (and perhaps even Providence?) outside their rational plans.

  3. That was really great, Bux. I’m 6 years in, with two girls. I often feel as though I’m watching my life at a distance. But strangely, it often feels as though I’ve never experienced more clarity or genuine calm.

    I will echo Keith’s point, as well as add that the love and support from a committed parent can add more good to the world than most things I can think of. Every second of that child’s rearing that receives support and wisdom from a parent is a small but crucial investment in the future of humanity. It’s hard to remember to notice, even harder to see it forming. But the difference in outcomes between children with that kind of support and those without is tragic. They will carry it with them into the world.

    Personally, I don’t consider it much of a sacrifice, but simple honor and duty. I am fortunate to be able to make the sacrifice, instead of maybe being tricked away into childish things. I was given the gift to be able to be this for the people in my lives, and so I do the best I can. For an Atheist, it’s as close as “God’s work” as I can imagine. Maybe “man’s work” is sufficient.

  4. …However, I just read the full Andrew Peach piece, and I would also be remiss if I didn’t add that I disagree entirely with his larger thesis about the “decline of fatherhood” having anything to do with individualism or rational choice over tradition and faith. The problem of which he speaks is one of poverty, not the better educated upper classes which are quite individualistic and rational, yet nonetheless completely devoted to fatherhood. Suffice it to say the story is a much larger one, and that his narrow emphasis on his ideological bogeyman has blinded him to the deeper tragedy of the real roots of fatherlessness.

    But he describes the act itself brilliantly.

  5. Bux: Thanks for passing along that marvelous and well-written description of fatherhood.

  6. For Bux (and Keith) — In the words of that great American philosopher Homer Simpson, “I won’t lie to you. Fatherhood isn’t easy, like motherhood.”

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