Parent is a noun, not a verb
There is some property of broccoli that evokes an almost instinctive revulsion in numerous children. Whether it is the texture, the color, or the smell, or whether it is some combination of these that is the cause, I do not know. I have read that both infant humans and monkeys have an analogous horror of objects that look like snakes. So perhaps the loathing of broccoli and snakes is somehow primordially hard-wired into the human brain.
I experience a similar, almost instinctive repugnance whenever I hear the word “parent” used as a verb. Since an unexamined revulsion is not worth adherence, I have pondered this usage for some time in order to determine whether my horror is reasonable or simply a pet peeve. This usage has crept into common parlance and become pervasive within the past twenty years. For the sake of the integrity of the language, for clarity, and for effective communication, we avoid neologisms because they make novelty trump accuracy and they confound our native tongue. Men of good sense have always eschewed neologisms. Completely made-up words and forced, inappropriate use of existing words both fall under the heading of neologisms. This is not to deny the legitimate uses of neologisms. An example of this is Einstein’s “relativity.” But the making up of new words is not to be casually undertaken. Boswell relates the following regarding the great Samuel Johnson: “Johnson assured me, that he had not taken upon him to add more than four or five words to the English language, of his own formation; and he was very much offended at the general license, by no means ‘modestly taken’ in his time not only to coin new words, but to use many words in senses quite different from their established meaning, and those frequently very fantastical.”
Our examination will reveal that the conversion in use of the word “parent” from noun to verb is an invidious instance of the illegitimate sort of neologism. “Parent” in English has always been a noun meaning the immediate, biological ancestor; it expresses a relationship based on a natural fact. In the current usage as a verb, however, “to parent” has no such clear meaning. Expressions such as “parenting class,” “parenting magazines,” and “how to parent well” are not instructions in begetting. We can see that though the dictionaries still have it as a noun, “parent” is being used as a vague replacement for “child-rearing,” or “raise” or “nurture” or “bring up” children. The verb “parent” implies “the things done by a parent,” without specifying what those things are or specifying the identity of the person doing them. Further, it negates the meaning of parent: a man or woman in an undeniable relationship with a child by reason of a biological fact.
The two biological parents of any child have separate appellations whose origins go back to the original Indo-European, and which have cognates in every modern language which belongs to that family: mother and father. It is interesting that the words “mother” and “father” (unlike the word “parent”) are properly and historically used also as verbs. “To father” means “to beget” or “to sire.” “To mother” has a different but complementary meaning: “to protect and nurture,” and is also commonly used for relationships outside the natural family to connote protectiveness. The current use of “parent” as a verb has little to do with the biology of begetting but has some correlation to the idea of mothering in the sense of “nurturing.” But why should our culture adopt a neologism that tends to blur the very real differences between the way a father and a mother nurture their children?
The answer may lie in one or two areas: general cultural confusion about the notions of nature and act, and a certain strain of a malevolent ideology (such as Gnosticism). The first cultural confusion about child-rearing consists in the idea that the raising of children is properly and primarily a technology or set of techniques (I will use the terms interchangeably). Certainly all the other species on the planet get by without the use of technology to rear their offspring. In fact, beasts protect their young and (at least in the higher species) augment their instinctive behaviour with a certain type of instruction. Humans too got by well enough before the systematization of techniques was applied to the raising of children. So there is no biological requirement for technology in child-rearing. Early in human civilization, the natural phenomenon of begetting and nurturing offspring was assisted by law or religious texts. The key difference is that until a few years ago, child-rearing was considered natural and instinctive, an emergent property of the real-world biological fact of fatherhood and motherhood. Child-rearing is a consequence of a relationship that ultimately resolves to DNA – a fact. Advice and law were seen as aids and assists, not the primary basis of the phenomenon. In contrast, today, the biological fact is obscured almost completely, and the technology of child-rearing is elevated to the highest level of importance. The neologistic verb “to parent” reflects this contemporary confusion between that which arises from a relationship based on nature and one based on technology.
The second cultural confusion consists in the idea that the fact of becoming a father or mother is fundamentally voluntary. However, it is an illusion to view the begetting of children as something that is ultimately under human control. The vast sums spent on either preventing or abetting the natural process of pregnancy are clear evidence that this is not an area under our control.
In God’s plan we see a clearly preferred sequence: human love results in a mutual, voluntary, and lifelong commitment that becomes publicly solemnized. This human love generally results in offspring. The offspring are then reared and educated until the time they achieve maturity. Contemporary culture has a contrary preferred sequence: human love or lust are indulged in a haphazard and experimental fashion according to the pure volition of each individual. If any female chooses, she may avoid or achieve pregnancy. Ideally, in the contemporary view, pregnancy occurs only when voluntarily chosen by a female, and this without any requirement of a lifelong commitment from a male counterpart. Whether the pregnancy is achieved by natural means, by a turkey baster, or in a petri dish, it is the will of the female that is the paramount consideration under current law and prevailing social mores.
The implication of this voluntaristic notion is that the rearing of children is not a right and duty arising from love and from a biological fact. It is no longer natural to our humanity. Instead, it has become “parenting,” which is considered almost wholly voluntary. It is true that financial obligations may temporarily continue if a father or mother chooses to abandon child or children. But there remains little moral or societal censure against parents who choose divorce and effect child abandonment. Much more common than divorce/abandonment is the routine practice of contracting out portions of the parental obligation. This begins in infancy. Mothers must supposedly return to work, so they must have recourse to child care. Small children attend preschool in the day and have some form of babysitting in the afternoon and evening. Older children spend most of the day in school and the remainder of the time unsupervised or in a “purchased,” supervised activity. A few hours per week of “quality time” with the child is considered sufficient.
Previous to women entering the work force in overwhelming numbers, only the wealthy contracted out child-rearing functions. From infant care through all phases of education, this phenomenon of “contracting out” has trickled down to all economic classes. In consequence, the majority of parents in modern American society (who themselves serve as wage slaves) delegate many or most of their child-rearing responsibilities, contracting their duties out to other wage slaves. In this situation, anyone – a hireling, the latest lover, two persons of the same sex – are considered equally capable of employing the technology of “parenting.”
Confusion abounds in every area surrounding human love, conception, and rearing of offspring. To what extent is ambiguity being promoted in pursuit of an agenda?
Many take the position that a single person, a couple regardless of sex, or a group of people (Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village) are equally capable of performing the technology of child-rearing. The redefinition of “parent” into a verb suits such an ideology. Making a verb of “parent” helps to conceal the tremendous difference between the role of the mother and father. This concealment is a key premise for those who support same-sex “marriage,” homosexual adoption, and the like. The idea that child care should be universally available on the same basis as public schooling is also supported. Is this then merely an attribute of current attempts at re-engineering human culture? Does it also reflect the fundamentally perverse notions of what it is to be human, as might be expected of a Gnostic anthropology?
Two prevalent threads in Gnostic systems are (1) that matter is evil, and so the biological facts of male and female are inconsequential, and (2) that secret knowledge is required for salvation.
If I am right in thinking that the verb “parent” signifies a belief that the technology of child-rearing is paramount and the biological facts are almost inconsequential, then this is consonant with the Gnostic attitude toward matter. Technology, considered as secret wisdom forming the pathway to “salvation” (happiness), is also contained here. The idea that one can become happy (successful, effective, etc.) in the child-rearing process by gaining knowledge through classes, books, and magazine articles fits right in. Like the elusive techniques for successful weight loss, the techniques for successful “parenting” are constantly changing, always in dispute, and ultimately chimerical. Nonetheless, the belief in the secret knowledge, that it is out there somewhere, remains pervasive.
Using “parent” as a verb reflects a Gnostic confusion and another component of the ideologically motivated attempt to engineer society by means of an Orwellian distortion of language. The neologism kidnaps the title of dignity that belongs to a real person, a real mother and real father, and transfers it to an abstraction, a function, to the set of techniques used by anyone who happens to perform the external procedures of child-rearing.
I conclude that my revulsion is reasonable. The subtle shifts of usage and significance in the words our culture uses to talk about the matters of fundamental human concern are frightfully, critically important. We must avoid slipping into sloppy habits of speech when we speak of love and family. When we firmly reject using the language crafted by the ideologues of modernity, we strike a blow for sanity.
Cliff is a consultant living respectably in Berkeley, California, with his wife and those of their ten children not yet gone away to college.
This article was first published in January 2006 and reprinted with permission from NEW OXFORD REVIEW, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.; www.newoxfordreview.org.