The Public as Parent

Being the public is at least a little like being a parent with small children. The public is responsible for setting appropriate limits, so individuals, businesses and institutions have the freedom they need for innovative learning, healthy growth and independent living while staying within the boundaries that keep them and the public at large safe. When parents don’t provide appropriate limits, their children are either overly restrained for healthy development or turned loose to experiment with risky behavior. When the public fails to create appropriate limits, we get massive numbers of bankruptcies and foreclosures, mega-companies that are too big to let fail, insurance companies that ration health care to maximize profits and executive pay, lobbyists with more influence in shaping legislation than public opinion, and continued dependency on oil and coal in spite of climate change warnings and global supply uncertainty. In my estimation, the public is overdue for a good, stern counseling session.

Over the past 35 years as a parent myself and having numerous counseling relationships with parents, I’ve observed that children and parents have very distinct job descriptions. It’s the job of kids to learn about themselves and their world within a safe and secure environment, but it’s natural that they are constantly pushing on the boundaries of their surroundings to make sure it’s still safe enough for learning to continue. It’s the job of parents to provide appropriate boundaries of behavior for kids so they can learn without worrying about their safety, but that means they must be consistent in applying those fair boundaries in the face of the children’s unrelenting and tiresome testing. You guessed it…this creates an ongoing tension between parents and kids that easily escalates into tantrums, anger and resentment. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to break the news to frustrated parents: “Your children are doing their job better than you’re doing yours.”

Today I feel I need to deliver some bad news to an angry and frustrated public: “Some of your individuals, corporations and institutions are doing their job better than you’re doing yours.” It seems to me that it’s the job of ambitious individuals, entrepreneurs, managers and CEOs to push against the boundaries of what already exists to learn, to grow and to prosper. Plus, it’s the job of an informed and responsible public to provide the boundaries of acceptable behavior so risks are mitigated while innovation is appreciated and rewarded. Judging from the miserable state of affairs in the economy, the public hasn’t done a very good job in setting healthy limits. Sure, it’s easy to blame those who have taken advantage of open-ended credit accounts and deregulated markets for great personal and corporate benefit…but they’ve simply used a system put in place by an over-indulgent and permissive public. As the crisis deepens, the consequences of a massive public negligence are bringing denial and finger-pointing. Sadly, we are the generation that has allowed practices of extreme risk to detrimentally shape the future of at least two or three more generations.

We need some serious talk about boundaries. This is a public responsibility…not something to be left to the ‘honor system’ for determination or application. A public conversation is needed about acceptable risk and appropriate behavior. Our most recent experimentation in ‘free market’ economics has been a complete failure. It’s time to recognize this simple fact and to take action in defining a set of boundaries for a new start…not a return to the same, free-wheeling practices that got us into this mess. While it’s obvious that this ‘public as parent’ premise is an over-simplification, I believe enough parallels exist here to make it clear that we need to grow up and to take responsible actions to turn things around…very soon. Now, do you want to schedule another counseling session for next week?

 

Archived Comments:

I really like this use of the parent-adult relationship reframed with public as parent instead of as child to the governmental parent. Of course, one of the complicating dynamics in parenting is avoiding the trap of one being played against the other by children who become increasing skilled at this game. We can see how that happens for the public as parent, most certainly. And, we can see how important it becomes for the public/parent to communicate in such a way that these dynamics are recognized and worked through.

I find that more often that not I default to a modified “family systems” approach to viewing relationships in a variety of settings.. But I am not so sure that model works well with a family of say 300 million people. So public as parent seems a bit of a stretch to me using my frame of analytical reference…
There is a huge and dynamic discussion going on at present in economics about the “rationality” of markets system versus the “behavioral” economics system. This debate gets to some of the issues that your alluding to.. The lessons of the behavioral economics are useful in that they can make myth of the “rational actor” model of market formation. Why does this matter?
Because people are actually poor decision makers subject to poorly understood desires & impulses.. Aggregate these folks into social networks and you have the kind of things your currently seeing in health care town meetings around the country.. Hysteria….
I am pretty sure I do not want these folks setting boundaries for me in a public as parent model… thanks anyway…
A family member of mine once was a high level US Senate staffer.. We always talked about the US Senate (for good and ill) as the flywheel of the American political system… So what is the flywheel (energy dissipation system) of the public as parent model?

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