For years the Peace Corps has used a clever marketing slogan to recruit volunteers, describing its work as "The toughest job you'll ever love." It's a line that could apply equally to parenthood, a lifetime career with challenges and rewards that elated mothers and fathers can only imagine when they hold their firstborn.
As one way of paying tribute to these largely unsung heroes on the domestic front, a fledgling event next week will honor parents. Respect for Parents Day, to be observed Tuesday, Aug. 1, encourages Americans to "consider the value parents have in our society." Its founder, Marilyn Dalrymple, who lives in Lancaster, Calif., hopes the day will eventually be celebrated nationally.
Her event follows on the heels of National Parents Day, which took place unheralded last Sunday. Signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton, the day, always observed on the fourth Sunday of July, is intended to "uplift and support the valuable role parents play in the rearing of their children."
Instead of focusing on greeting cards and gifts, as Mother's Day and Father's Day do, these observances both center around proclamations and community activities - open houses, workshops, essay contests.
For all the brave talk in recent decades about creating a "family friendly" society, many parents still face daunting odds in fulfilling the daily demands of their "toughest job." At-home mothers find their role undervalued as they struggle to answer the dinner-party question, "What do you do?" At the same time, working mothers feel defensive about everything from day care to asking for family time off. Divorced fathers are often portrayed negatively in newspapers and magazines. And a growing backlash by childless workers against family-friendly initiatives threatens to make parents feel even more marginalized.
Mrs. Dalrymple's cause, a one-woman, low-budget effort, began eight years ago with a newsletter. It grew out of the serious problems she faced when her three children were teenagers. As she turned to various agencies for help, she found some professionals quick to point fingers at parents for whatever might be wrong with their children.
"Wherever I went for help, people were so intent on blaming me," she recalls.
In addition, Dalrymple says, laws and policies on child abuse have made some parents increasingly afraid to discipline their children, even verbally.
The entertainment media also play a subtle role. "So many movies make parents out to be incompetent or dysfunctional," she says. "It's the view society seems to have of parents right now." TV commercials also cast children as super-smart, take-charge types, confidently giving consumer advice to their parents.
Calling for better examples in movies and on TV, Dalrymple says, "We need to show parents as being strong and competent and trustworthy. To be a parent, you need to feel confident about yourself and your decisions."
As a child, she recalls, she looked up to her parents and respected them. "I didn't always agree with their decisions, and sometimes I got angry with them. But I still had faith and trust in them. Our society needs a sense of faith in parents."
It's easy for Congress to clutter the calendar with days designated for various causes. It's equally easy for presidents to issue lofty proclamations. Rhetoric is cheap. But for parents who can identify with Rodney Dangerfield's classic line, "I don't get no respect," a few nationwide reminders of the value of good parenting might encourage a cultural shift that would make the "toughest job" at home a little easier and a lot more respected.
As Dalrymple says, "We keep saying it's the most important role in the world. We need to start understanding parents' problems and supporting them more, rather than blaming them and putting them down. We need to start trusting parents more. The majority of parents are doing the best they can. They're doing a wonderful job."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society