Monday, May 26, 2008

Parenting Advice from John Adams - A How Not-To Guide

With parenthood just over a month away, I've been spending a lot of time wondering if I'm up to the challenge. In many ways, I still feel like a kid myself.

Thinking about parenting has made me take an interest in other people's relationships with their kids - and my continuing interest in the history of America got me thinking about John Adams - Founding Father and second president - and his relationship with his children.

On the surface of it, most people would probably imagine John Adams to be a wonderful parent. After all, he himself had a reputation as a grumpy, pessimistic but scrupulously honest man and his oldest son, John Quincy, went on to become president of the United States himself a few years later.

But not many people know that John Adams had four other children, two girls and two boys. Sadly, his youngest daughter died in childhood, but his other three children lived to adulthood and the way their lives turned out paints a pretty dim picture of Adam's parenting skills.

The most obvious example is Adam's second child, Charles. A sweet and kindly child, he was pressured by his father to follow family tradition and enter Harvard, before pursuing a career in law. Charles, however, was far too free-spirited and artistic for the constraints of the legal profession and hated being forced into a career he didn't want to pursue. He'd much rather have been a farmer back in Boston.

John Adam's surviving daughter, Nabby, was likewise a sweet and intelligent young woman who wanted to marry a young man by the name of Royall Tyler. John Adams would have none of it and forbade the marriage - forcing his daughter to dutifully marry one of his father's colleagues, Colonel William Stephens Smith.

Nabby probably had good reason to be reluctant to marry Smith. He was an excellent soldier, but a miserable businessman and they spent most of their marriage in debt. The man Nabby had wanted to marry, Royall Tyler (whom John Adams had considered unlikely to make anything of himself) went on the have a very successful career as Chief Justice of Vermont and was one of the first accomplished American playwrights.

Youngest son Thomas was also not cut out to be a lawyer, but was forced into the business by his overbearing father. Despite early success, his legal career led him into debt - eventually forcing him to move into his parent's home with his wife and seven children. They lived the majority of their lives totally dependent on his parents.

Even John Quincy Adams, the 'success story' of the Adams family, was berated and belittled by his father for many years - warning him: "You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness, and obstinacy."

John Quincy rose to the challenge and become one of America's most noted presidents - but the effect his upbringing had had on him was noticeable even to himself. John Quincy admitted that his upbringing had left him "a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners."

John Quincy's life story is familiar to most Americans. The fate of his siblings, however, is not. Charles Adams, after being virtually renounced by his father, died of alcoholism at just thirty years old. Nabby lived only thirteen years longer, dying in poverty after a long battle with cancer. Thomas Adams lived with his parents until he, too, drank himself to death in 1832.

So what went wrong? How did an inspirational American like John Adams prove to be a wonderful parent to the fledgling United States, but such a miserable one to his own flesh and blood?

Some people blame his New England puritanical sensibilities. Although not a particularly religious man, John Adams was filled with a rather Protestant predilection for criticism, both of himself and his children. He and his equally overbearing wife, Abigail, constantly berated and belittled their offspring and as a result, Charles, Thomas and Nabby were all noted for their lack of confidence and self esteem.

Perhaps this is why they surrendered to their father's pressure to follow marriages and careers that made them unhappy.

It's not even as if John Adams had been a particually good parent in other regards. Charles Adams, in a rare moment of self-confidence, confronted his father once about how he was so critical and demanding of his children, while at the same time such a frequently absent parent. John Adams had spent many years abroad, in the courts of France and England, and the correspondence he occasionally wrote to his children tended to be full of unwanted 'advice' and criticism.

All in all, it's a very tragic story - more so because of the nature of John Adams himself. Although not a very likable man - he admitted to Thomas Jefferson that he was "obnoxious and disliked" - Adams was a principled man of scrupulous honesty who was immune to the temptations of corrupt politics. Although he crossed swords with most of the Founding Fathers, including Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, they all regarded him with immense respect.

Even when it comes to his children, Adams clearly just wanted the best for them. He wanted his sons to pursue the career that had given him such success and notability. He wanted his daughter to make a good marriage to a man who could support her. All the overbearing pressure he put on his children's lives was well intentioned.

But part of growing up is finding your own path in life and pursing what makes you happy. If John Adams had loosened the reins a little and allowed Charles, Thomas and Nabby to follow their own destiny, perhaps their lives wouldn't have had such a tragic outcome.

I've been very lucky. My parents have supported my ambitions, even when they haven't always agreed with them. I hope that whatever my child is, I'm going to be able to encourage them to pursue their dreams too, whatever they may be.

1 comment:

April said...

The fact that you are aware of what you want for your child and that you are already concerned about what kind of parent you will be says a lot. It can be difficult when you realize they are no longer shapeless pieces of clay, but they have minds, thoughts and opinions of their own. But accepting them as they are is the key. Because you already have this as your goal, I think you are going to do a great job. Good luck! :)