however, that preparing these remarks was not so easy. I have a vision
of what I think childhood can be, and a vision of what I think parenting
must be. But as I thought of sharing that vision, I was troubled, for I
know that not all of our children enjoy the benefits of my hopes for
them and not all parents meet their responsibility to provide those
In large and growing parts of our
society, children have guns, children have drugs, and children have
babies. In large parts of our society, children are lonely, children are
ill, and children are insufficiently educated, even insufficiently fed.
We have not made a world that is always hospitable to children.
And as I thought of these wrongs, I began to fear that
my visions of childhood and of parenting were just outmoded,
sentimental, and idealistic, unworkable in todayís harsh world.
I expressed my concern to my wife, whose opinions in
all things I cherish. Almost without pausing she said, "No. What you
believe about children and parents is not idealism. It is a moral
Make no mistake. I am not putting myself on a pedestal
or trying to make you believe that I have the moral authority to deliver
unto others truth from on high. I am an ordinary person with ordinary
weaknesses and ordinary flaws. My beliefs are morally imperative to me,
but need not be to anyone else. But these beliefs I will share with you
are not extraordinary. They are simple, and they work. I know they work.
Children are Godís gift to their parents, to their
families, and to their world, and they are a great gift. But with the
gift comes responsibility, the obligation and the duty to protect, to
nurture, and to teach. That responsibility is not a burden to be borne.
Rather, it is part of the gift. It is a privilege and a pleasure. How we
meet it is a measure of what our children can become and a measure of
what we are.
A parentís responsibility for his or her children does
not end with divorce. It does not end with illness, or poverty, or
disappointment. It does not end with promotion or achievement or
success. It does not end at all. It grows, and with every year and every
travail it grows even larger. This is so because a parent is not simply
the creator of a life, but also an architect of a person, a person who
will be under construction for decades.
In every family, even in ordinary times, a parentís
responsibility is daunting.
When children are babies, it includes the
responsibility to feed, to bathe, to change, to soothe, to comfort, and
to reassure. It includes the responsibility to know where the blanket
is, what toys are best loved, and how to ensure safety. It includes the
responsibility to open the world of language and thought, to share and
encourage joy, and to instill confidence.
When children are in school, it includes all of those
and more. It includes the responsibility to nurture companionship and
community, to teach and demonstrate morality, to foster responsibility
and restraint. It includes the responsibility to show children respect
and the responsibility to both earn and expect it from them. It includes
the responsibility to help them find new talents and skills, to help
them heal small wounds, to comfort them through measles and mumps and
the bumps of childhood friendships, and to know security of place and
When children are in adolescence, a parentís
responsibility grows yet more. It includes the responsibility to impose
discipline, to teach self-discipline, and yet to make their dreams as
big as their hearts. It includes the responsibility to know where they
are and who they are with, to know and control what they put into their
bodies, to know what they hope for and to know what they fear. It
includes the responsibility to help them separate the piles of dirty
clothes on their floor from the piles of clean ones and the
responsibility to teach them to drive safely. It includes the
responsibility to make them earn what they get and share what they have,
to know their world and to know their family. It includes again the
responsibility both to earn and to expect their respect, and to return
that respect to them. It includes the responsibility to build bridges
for them back when they transgress and bridges for them forward when
they succeed. And at the end of the day it includes the responsibility
to let them go, to let them go but to leave a light on for them.
These responsibilities and more are part of every
parentís task, even in the best of times. But when things get bad, the
responsibilities grow. Where there is illness, there is the
responsibility of caring and of healing and of giving hope. Where there
death, there is the responsibility of permitting grief and of
More normal than illness and death for our children,
though, is the trauma that comes with the separation of a family. When
that happens, there are special responsibilities for parents, and they
are not separate from these others I have discussed but in addition to
So let me give you some principles that can guide
parents in meeting their responsibilities to their children during
They have a responsibility to know that children are
not possessions, and to act accordingly. Our statute talks about
custody, and custody implies ownership. You do not own your children.
They own you. They cannot be divided, like bank accounts and stock
portfolios. Parents must fight less about where their children will
spend their time and more for what they will become.
They have a responsibility to know that children are
not weapons, and to act accordingly. This means that they must ensure
that children are shielded from litigation. The separation of a family
is always a trauma to children. They need security, predictability, and
safety. They want to know that their world will continue in some
reasonable fashion. They cannot have those things if they are made into
weapons to be aimed at the other parent, if they are told things about
litigation or finances that will frighten them, or if they are forced to
become protectors to one parent or another.
They have a responsibility to know that children have
rights, and to act accordingly. Children have a right to have a lawyer,
including the right to have a confidential and privileged relationship
with that lawyer. Children have a right to medical and mental health
treatment as is necessary, including the right of confidentiality and
the right to have no one interfere with their treatment. Children have a
right to as much economic security as their parents, through diligent
work, can provide. Children have a right to an education. And parents
must fight for those rights.
Parents have a responsibility to appreciate that
children have two parents and need two parents, the responsibility to
protect their relationships with both whenever that is safe. When people
choose to have a child, they make two choices, both irrevocable. One is
that the child will be born, and the second is who that childís mother
and father will be. No one would doubt the intensity of anger, hurt,
disappointment and fear that comes into a parentís life when a marriage
breaks up, but all that must give way whenever possible to the right of
children to have meaningful relationships with both their parents. Both
parents must meet that responsibility, and they can best do it in two
ways, by treating the other parent with respect and dignity, and by
living in a way that earns dignity and respect for themselves.
Parents in dissolving families have responsibility to
provide leadership for their children, to teach them resourcefulness and
resilience, to teach them responsibility, and often to teach them the
healing power of forgiveness. For we know that a parent forfeits
something in his own life and injures something in her childís when the
parentís own desires become more important to him or her than the
The law makes little mention of children, but the law
has a heart, and its heart is big enough, with your help, to protect all
of our children and all of our hope. That is a moral imperative.