President Obama interrupted my Father's Day with an e-mail announcing the launch of "The President's Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative" and an associated Web site, Fatherhood.gov, which honestly I could have mistaken for an elaborate prank undertaken by some libertarian group trying to make the point that the next thing you know, Big Government and President Obama are going to try to insert themselves into the father-son or father-daughter relationship. Except that, sure enough, at the bottom of the Web site is language announcing, "This is an official U.S. Government Web site managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services."
So I ignored my children for a few minutes of Father's Day and did what the president asked which was to check out the Web site, and especially the government's "Tips for Parents." They were infuriating.
Here was tip number two: "Watch a game on television with your children. Cheer for your favorite team and chat about the plays. Mute the commercials and use those minutes to talk about what's going on in your lives." Here is the government telling Americans to "mute the commercials." Suppose I work at an advertising agency and earn my living making commercials, or own a company that has just invested millions of dollars in those commercials in the hope of winning customers and making a profit? Suppose I own a television network that makes its money by selling those commercials? Suppose I am a taxpayer who has just shelled out major bucks for the Army or the Census or some other branch of the government to buy these commercials, only to have another branch of the government instruct Americans not to listen to the same commercials my tax money was just spent to purchase. If I had any advice for fathers, it would be to mute the ballgame and turn up the volume for the commercials, or turn off the tube altogether and go play a game with your child. But now the government wants us to mute commercials? Really.
Here was tip number three: "Take a virtual vacation with your children. Decide on a 'destination' then borrow a library book that features facts and photos of your dream locale. Prepare a meal based on the native cuisine and enjoy it together while you watch a documentary about the country or a movie that takes place there. Let these fantasy voyages be your passport to lasting family memories." The assumption seems to be that the dream destination is outside America, unless by "native cuisine" the government means corn and venison.
Here's another tip: "Plan ahead so you and your little trick-or-treaters are safe on Halloween. ...Examine all treats for choking hazards and tampering before allowing your kids to eat them." What better way to raise paranoid, anxiety-ridden children than by giving them the idea that their neighbors are going to be slipping poison or razor blades into their tampered-with Halloween candy?
Another tip: "Buy compact florescent light (CFL) bulbs, which last about 5 years and use less energy. Switching just one standard bulb to a CFL can help you reduce your electricity bill by as much as 75 cents per month." I used to believe in this idea. Then, after putting CFL bulbs all over the house, I found that they don't last five years. They may last a couple of years. There are four of the expired ones sitting on my desk because they are full of mercury and there is no safe way to dispose of them in New York City other than remembering to drop them off at a Home Depot or Ikea. The whole thing strikes me as a racket for the light-bulb companies to charge five times as much for a light bulb. And if the government is going to hector fathers to use these lightbulbs, the least the government could do is to provide proper disposal facilities for them.
Another government tip for fathers: "Instead of buying bottled water, use a water filter on your tap and keep a pitcher of filtered water in your refrigerator to fill a reusable bottle." In my city, the government is in charge of making sure my water is safe. Now it's telling me I need to filter the water it's selling to me? If you really want to be "green," as the parenting tips are supposed to be, skip the filter -- it just makes more trash, and it takes energy to manufacture and deliver. Do we really need the executive branch of the federal government, without any mandate from Congress, siding in favor of the water-filter industry and against the bottled-water industry?
I don't blame President Obama alone for this. President George W. Bush was pushing this fatherhood stuff through his Health and Human Services Department and its official, Wade Horn, as well. And look, maybe there is a role for the government in helping people be better fathers. But as a father myself, I find these "tips" to be maddening. The current federal government can barely do the tasks that it is assigned in the Constitution, such as keeping us safe from foreign invaders and regulating the value of money. I'd be happy if the government could just win Iraq and Afghanistan, secure the border, live roughly within its means, and make sure the beaches of Florida aren't covered with petroleum products. If the government is going to beyond that and assign itself, unbidden, the all-new task of improving the nation's fathers, it's going to have to do better than telling people to filter their water, mute the television commercials, use more expensive lightbulbs, and check the Halloween candy for tampering, if President Obama wants to avoid spawning more of the very cynicism he went to Washington vowing to defeat.
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