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My daughter, my conservatism

There ought to be a word – something not quite the same as gratitude – for that tingling feeling inspired by a Ross Douthat column noting a tilt toward conservatism by people who by all accounts should be liberals, especially one that uses a fictional character from a novel by a New York literary darling to make its point. Because as Douthat helpfully confirms, things are more complicated for liberals than they might have thought, especially when it comes to raising daughters.

Don’t I know it! As the father of a girl and a parent whose adult social set overlaps with the un- and never-married, plus the divorced and remarried, plus the spouseless adoptive-parent, plus the same-sex unmarried with children, plus the mixed-race couple with dogs, not to mention the two-parent (one woman, one man) married, my own uncomfortable reckoning arises from contemplation of my daughter’s future happiness, and a young male – all right, a boy – named Dexter P.

This character, Dex to his friends, doesn’t technically exist; he’s a composite of several of the boys in my daughter’s fifth-grade class at her Brooklynite elementary school. But his type exists, in more or less the same form, wherever ten-year-olds congregate and socialize (in playground and lunch room) or pair off (as math and reading buddies). Not the worst kid, by any means: Dex is no bully, and he doesn’t wipe his nose on his sleeve as much as he did even last May. He’s attentive, after a fashion, and mildly artistic, judging from the cover of his report on westward expansion. But he can be a source of irritation, if not exactly misery, especially for the girls whose section of the coat closet he shares. He doesn’t mean to make them unhappy; he even seems to try to please them, in his way, which is the way of so many spirited young boys – swiping their pencils when they’re not looking, for instance, or falling out of his chair on purpose or fake-belching. Yet what he ends up doing, in spite of himself, is provoking their displeasure.

He does so by attempting to operate within an educational and cultural landscape in which biology hasn’t changed, yet expectations – and maybe even abilities? -- have been decoupled from gender. Dexter P. does what seems like the right thing: Round this number up to the nearest tenth, he might suggest to my daughter during an in-class session on decimals, even going so far as to helpfully if mistakenly erase her correct answer. Or he might snatch her saxophone case and start to haul it up the four flights to the classroom only to abandon it somewhere on the stairwell between the second and third floors because it’s too heavy for him. Indeed, these acts, well-intentioned as they are, seem to be the hidden taproots of the typical fifth-grade female’s academic and social angst, and one of the plausible explanations for her increased sullenness and a noticeable uptick in back-sass in the hours immediately after school.

One obvious solution to the Dexter P. problem is a culture that downplays the abilities of girls so that boys can continue to receive the attention and validation they want and need from them. To the extent that parents tend to see the next generation’s world through their children’s eyes, that’s an insight more immediately available through daughters than through sons – especially since girls retain the mysterious power to shape future-men. For example, must my daughter (or anyone’s) continue to outperform Dex in math? How will she ever graciously cede oversight of the household checking account – to say nothing of finding happiness in a household in the first place – if she persists in doing better on her assignments? Or, why can’t she switch to a lighter, more feminine instrument like flute or clarinet, thus giving Dexter P. the chance to realize the fruits of his chivalrous offer to carry her instrument up the stairs for her – and in the process allow him to re-establish, firmly, the behavioral norms inhering in the physical differences between male and female?

No matter what studies or Ross Douthat say about the likelihood of turning into a social conservative, now that I’ve begun to flirt with this insight—though I’ll admit a formal engagement may still be some ways off—I’ve tiptoed a little closer to a kind of moral traditionalism that dare not speak its name (cough! – male chauvinism – cough!). Next up: getting my wife and daughter out of Brooklyn, for their own good of course. Can’t wait for Douthat’s next column! 

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Chris Rock on daughter-guarding:


As the saying goes: "You have no idea!" Despite growing up in a very tough neighborhood I have always been the premier peacemaker. My daughter was an intern at a mental health facility for mental patients, a requirement for her Occupational Therapist Masters. A large 20 something patient lashed out and struck her physically. She telephoned me crying on the way home. I was ready to drive up to destroy him that evening. Despite knowing that he had a mental disease and that he was double my weight. There is a lot to the story of a former liberal who was mugged yesterday. Place a daughter in the mix and forget rationality. But you are still in la la land. Wait till the serious criticism comes. Unkindest cut of all when you believe you will die for her that she tells you that you do not love her. It is enough to revert to that old (Italian?) dictum" Children should be seen and not heard."  Even now after she has given us two stellar grandchildren (for whom we are virtual nannies) one treads lightly tho firmly in the ever developing communication amidst inevitable conflicts. Etc. etc. etc.

My daughter and other children did make me more conservative to a certain extent. When either one, after being refused or denied this or that, would tell me that s/he did not love me, I would say that "you don't have to love me. You just have to respect and listen to me. " 

Coraggio, figlio mio!

FWIW, here is my speech at her wedding: 

          For sure there  is no kind of affection so purely angelic as of a father to a daughter.  I was there at the beginning when the doctor said: “A redhead!” You came out screaming and have not stopped since. But not screams to me. Always music to my ears. How can you measure a father’s pride and love for his daughter. She is a gift of God and how happy I am to have her.

If you want to know about Alyssa look to her friends.  You cannot know a more enthusiastic Maid of Honor and Bridesmaids. That’s what friends are for. How about that. 

If you want to know about Alyssa, look to her brothers. They share a lot together. They will tell you she is the glue that keeps the family together. Further, if you want to know about Alyssa, look to her mother to know where that goodness comes from. Both gifts from God.

I am so pleased to see her with Kevin. How well he treats her. How respectful he is to us.

So rich are the memories.  How they  make life complete.

A daughter makes the day brighter and the heart warmer. I cannot be more proud.  Thank God  for you.



Rod Dreher, the original crunchy-con, is considering this very question over at his blog.  See the thread "Fathers of Girls = More Conservative".  Some of the comments are interesting too.

I dunno. Our One and Only is a boy, and I'd say we've become more socially conservative naturally; most parents, I think feel a responsibility to society not to unleash some little monster on the rest of society.

From second grade onward, I have been asked many times to "translate" female behavior for my son. I hate giving away the secrets of the sisterhood. (Yes, there are many nuances to tattling to the teacher, among them ingratiation, self-aggrandizement, distraction from the tattler's own behavior, and, most powerfully, as a weapon. Yes, when girls hit or slap you, it's usually a way to get their hands on you without making it seem like they're making a pass. Yes, sometimes girls do have pain during their periods, but usually not so much that they need to leave school and hang out at the Subway.)

I take these questions as a testament to the kid's wanting to become a more socialized individual. Well, up until his 18th birthday this weekend, when he announced he did not need any sermonettes and was going to buy lotto tickets with his birthday money from Gramma. Oh, and could he have $20 for date night on Friday. (No, he could take his date to the party store and buy lotto tickets.)

There have been some interesting studies about how ethnicity affects parenting styles in the U.S., the more recent the immigrant, the more they will conform to certain behaviors prevalent in their home countries. At the risk of shamelessly generalizing, Irish parents play favorites and pit kids against each other, Italians favor their boys and baby their girls, and teenagers drive German parents around the bend when they stop following orders. See "Ethnicity and Family Therapy," Monica Goldrick et al.

The notion that a liberal political outlook translates into liberal parenting styles, or vice versa, seems like a really lazy way of viewing the world, whether your children are boys or girls.  My parents were rabidly liberal and they were extremely conservative in their parenting style (in Jean's example, they had a germanic parenting style, or tried to -- you know kids).   On the other hand, there are political conservatives who seem to have a laissez-faire parenting style that matches their laissez-faire economic views.  The best parent maintains a degree of control that matches the child's need for structure, given temperament and environment.  Some kids just don't need much of any and others need a lot.  Getting that right is a challenge each and every day.  Mismatches probably make for a lot of unhappiness and youthful angst and rebellion, and in extreme cases, perhaps tragedy (honor killings, say).  I just don't see this as a political issue, and if it is, then you probably aren't paying enough attention to your children.

 The notion that a liberal political outlook translates into liberal parenting styles, or vice versa, seems like a really lazy way of viewing the world...

 On the other hand, if you can’t be liberal on your own time (with your own daughter), what right do you being liberal on other people’s dime?

Er...I meant other people's time, not dime.

You know, come to think of it...

Mark, I have no idea what you are talking about.  If I counsel my daughter to wait to have sex or to avoid single encounters, I don't think that is a reflection of conservative political views. It is a reflection of my concern for her welfare and prudence about the consequences of youthful dalliances, which should be obvious to anyone who looks around and takes stock of facts in the world.  Moreover, I think she as a human being deserves better and I would be remiss as a parent for not encouraging her to do the best she can in both personal and other areas of her life. As a person who has been married exactly once, and for a long time, I would be pleased for her to model my behavior because I think it is generally a good model for human happiness, not because I am politically liberal or conservative.  Indeed, it is one of the saddest attributes of our current discourse that we see things like "strong marriage" in terms of people's political views.  In fact, I doubt if the institution is healthiest in those places that are most politically conservative. 

Re laissez-faire parenting, the story about the kid in Texas (his father owns a company and several homes in the Ft. Worth area) who got a reduced sentence after causing a driving fatality while drunk because his parents were rich and permissive--he suffered from "affluenza," said one of the boy's experts--has been interesting.


I imagine you have at least some idea of what I’m talking about.   Though my comments were half in fun, there is some seriousness in them.   If you counsel your daughter as you conjecture, then isn’t it hypocritical if you would support politicians who support policies that militate against the virtues you are trying to instill in your own daughter?   Even worse than hypocritical, self-centered?

Chicago is filled with people who vote Democratic but live morally conservative lives (or maybe have slipped and fell from time to time but at least recognize the worth of morally conservative values) and strive to instill those values in their children.  I happen to be married to one such Chicagoan, and have met many, many others.

Of course, there are also quite a few people (I am led to believe) who live promiscuous lives but vote Republican.



"...Even worse than hypocritical, self-centered".

 Or just respectful enough of others to understand what are personal, private decisions. One may not personally subscribe to another's lifestyle, but that doesn't require one  to impose their personal morality on others.  Pretty consistent with being a liberal, I think. 


The “impose your personal morality” mantra is, I know, a liberal favorite, but it’s a non-starter.   And there's a reason you hear it most often from college students.

We impose our morality on others just about every time we pass a law punishing certain types of human behavior.

Mark- No, not we   This is where being a grown up comes in; where we can distinguish boundaries-what are the things we need to regulate, what are the things that are private and personal and no business of the state or of anyone else.  For example, I don't know what you're teaching you're children, if you have any, about contraception. I may well disgree with what you teach them on the subject but certainly wouldn't consider it my business to intervene.   There may well be books I won'tt let my children read that you let yours read. I certainly wouldn't try and get those books banned to prevent not only my children from reading them but yours as well.

But I'm not sure you're really trying to have a thoughtful conversation about the contradictions we all face in trying to raise our children.  Referring to others' comments as "hypocritical" and self-centered" pretty much kills any chance of civil dialogue. 

Merry Christmas.



Yes, we.   We grownups who elect politicians who pass laws “impose our morality" on others.   That that fact may make you uncomfortable makes it no less true. 

You bring up contraception and book-banning, but these were never mentioned by Barbara, whose comment prompted my post, so why would you imagine it is that to which I referred?

The tendency of the liberal elite to live differently from how they vote has been touched upon by others—both the NY Times and Charles Murray:

so it's not something that has gone unnoticed.

I’m sorry to see that you attribute to me things I have not done.  I did not refer to anyone’s comments as hypocritical or self-centered.   What I did is raise the question whether certain actions are hypocritical or self-centered.   I trust, upon further review, you can see that now, and see that you have falsely accused.

 Merry Christmas to you too!

Mark - I'm glad to hear you didn't mean your comments the way they sounded; thanks for clarifying. My own comments were just to give you a couple of examples where one it would be perfectly consisten- not self-centered or hypocirtical- to  refrain from imposing one's owen behavior and values on others. 

I think you are correct and others here have  pointed out that in some ways liberals are more apt to vote differently than the way they might live personally and conservatives are more apt to try and impose their private values on others. 

Mark, the tendency for ALL elites, liberal and conservative, has increasingly been separation in terms of lifestyle and geography from others -- liberal or conservative.  This has to do with socio-economic developments not parenting styles.

Furthermore, for every liberal elite accused of some kind of liberal faux pas (e.g., sexual harassment) there is some conservative elite (politician or what have you) engaging in distinctly non-culture warrior approved behavior.  Let's say that the apex (or nadir) of this trend was Newt Gingrich (serial adulterer and serial monogamist) and David Livingston (alleged serial adulterer) teaming up to impeach Bill Clinton more or less because of his romp with Monica Lewinsky.  It took Hustler Magazine to shame Livingston for his rank hypocrisy, humiliating his wife and causing Livingston to resign his seat in the House. 

Notwithstanding, from what I can tell, Livingston and Clinton both seemed to be pretty good parents.  

Does everything have to be political?


 I think you really missed the point. Douthat's premise that you have to become a republican is stupid, but his real point is this: there used to be a double standard/chauvinism that kept women down and now there are no moral standards and women are still down. What's a parent to do? ( I have two little girls)

What's a parent of little girls to do?  Show by example that injustice to girls/women in something you won't tolerate.  Don't belong to any clubs, religions, etc. that discriminate against women.  Don't work for any corporations that discriminate against women.  Don't buy products from companies that discriminate against women.  Don't subscribe to magazines that discriminate against women.  Etc.

Show the little girls how to find out which companies, organizations, etc. are worth their time and money.  Make sure that they have training in self-defense and sports.  Talk to them plainly and truthfully about every aspect of their lives and how to choose schools, boyfriends, careers, etc.


No, no, no.

What Douthat really shows us -- perhaps unconsciously -- is something simple. The affinity between American conservatism and patriarchy is not coincidental. Nothing more!

Regarding Jim's comment at 4:53 yesterday, my sense is that the worst of the liberal thinking is typified by personally opposed (to abortion, or other immorality, etc.), but unwilling to impose on others. The worst of the conservatives would say they personally favor (abortion, or other personal immorality) but are unwilling to allow others that same leeway. It has a kind of charming reciprocity to it.

In all seriousness, the disconnect between ideology and morality was outed a long, long time ago. It's only in a fairy tale are Republicans and conservatives more moral than anyone else, therefore more effective fathers to daughters.

For me the worst of the liberal thinking is typified by intolerance of those who do not subscribe to a certain lifestyle. In some parts of Berkeley, people might give you full support if you walk around the town naked, but they will look at you with disapproval if you wear, say, a suit and tie. The worst of the conservative thinking is typified by a similar intolerance of those who do not subscribe to their lifestyle. On both sides they take their personal preferences as the norm and are unwilling to tolerate that others may have different preferences.

It’s interesting that the left immediately has become defensive, and has tried to show that they make just as good parents as conservatives, when that’s not the issue raised here.   The point in question is whether liberals show disdain for their Samaritan neighbor when they don’t support laws that will provide the helps to their fellow man that they believe are so important to themselves and their daughters.

Why all the nasty observations about liberals, Mark?  The point of thisp ost is not at all whether liberals show disdain for their Samaritan neighbors- you're the only one here trying to frame it that way.   It's clear you dont identify with liberals, but why constantly criticize them? Wou;dn't thye be your own Samaritan neighbors?

I think the glass ceiling for women is still very real and we need to applaud the ones who manage to break it.  One way to help our daughters not get trapped by it, though, is to expose them as much as possible to women who've broken gender barriers and who show our girls by example that they can do anything.



I don’t think these observations (questions, really) are nasty.   The whole thrust of the thread is the inconsistency (I’m deliberately not using the neuralgic “hypocrisy”) between how liberal parents raise their children guided by conservative values but try to elect politicians (who pass laws impacting how other parents can raise their children) guided by liberal values.   I can understand the angst that might cause, and I think it’s worth unpacking a bit.

Has my criticism of this (very) apparent inconsistency been any less constructive than your criticism of me?   Jesus himself was certainly not averse to offering constructive criticism, even to the woman who was to be stoned.    I think it’s a recognition that none of us is excluded from the commonweal.

Mark --

You seem to have such a narrow definition of "liberal" that you don't allow for some overlap of liberals and conservatives in specific matters.  In my experience there are few liberals or conservatives who hold all of the opinions that are often said to be characteristic of "liberals" or "conservatives".  Because we don't all agre about everything that's no reason to call us inconsistent or hypocritical (as you sometimes have done).  

People use language messily because most of the time that's good enough, and it doesn't make us hypocrits if we change meanings somewhat sometimes.  Most of the time, it works, though not always.  


I refer you back to the headline of this thread, and this from the opening paragraph:

...things are more complicated for liberals than they might have thought, especially when it comes to raising daughters...

These are the words of, I am fairly certain, a liberal, not a conservative.   Your argument is not (only) with me and, while I am in agreement with much of your latest comment, it does not address the substance of the opening post, nor the substance of my comments.    Specifically, neither you, nor anyone, as far as I can tell, have addressed this contradiction:

Why are some values so fundamentally important that liberals insist on them when raising their daughters, yet they do not have the courage to vote for politicians that would help others do the same?  Are liberals unable to resist the taunts of “Don’t impose your morality on me!”?    Are they that concerned with being popular in their close circles of friends?    That self-centered?

On the way to Samaria, we see a man and his daughter in need of assistance by the side of the road.  Do we say to him, “Well, my daughter’s fine, don’t want to impose on you and yours, have a nice day”?




Mark --


I really don't see your point.  You seem to be saying that there is some sort of discrepancy between the way liberals  think, the way they live and the way they vote.  True, some liberals raise their daughters in an old fashioned way with regard to sexual values, but I don't see any discrepancy there.  Some liberals do not adhere to the old sexual values and some do.  So what does that have to do with being inconsistent with *their own* respective morals?


The old values are called "conservative" because they're old, but so what???  Do you think that liberals automatically reject everything old??  That would be ridiculous.   Practically all Americans, both liberal and conservative, value democracy, which is an old value.  Does that make that value a non-liberal one?  Of course not, and the old-fashioned sexual values are not thereby something a liberal has to reject in order to be appropriately called a liberal.  The age of a value does seem to be the reason why some conservatives hold to it, while age as such for liberals is generally irrelevant.  For instance, while some conservatives do hold to the old sexual mores simply *because* they're *old*, some liberals hold to them *because* they think that they *lead to happiness* and the old mores can *destroy* individual happiness. 


Just look at some of the the far out "liberal" feminists -- they're some of the most anti-prostitution people of all, and being anti-prostitution is an old value.  Does that make those feminists hypocrites?  Of course not!


So where is this discrepancy you're talking about?


As for liberals not voting for politicians who support the conservative principles of *other people*, well why in the world should they unless 1) they agreed with those principles (and many of us do agree with the old sexual mores) *and* 2) they find the politicians to be wise in other important respects as well?    


Sorry, Ann, I can't make it any more clear than I already have.    Guess we're just not connecting on this.

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