Parenting in an Age of ‘Politics-as-Destruction’

Maybe it’s the philosopher in me, but for some reason, I always wonder what people mean when they admonish other people to ‘stop the hate’.  Presumably these admonishments would mean that we are not to hate other people.  If that is the meaning, then I agree 100%.  But there often seems to be an underlying assertion here, which goes something like this:  if we are fighting against hate, the one thing we can and must hate, is hate itself.  But hate itself can only exist in people – whom we can call haters.  So, if you are a hater, you must be hated. 

So we aren’t stopping the hate, after all.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I have found the past 6 months or so to be permeated with the idea of hate.  After all, it was an election season.  I think I have some kind of post-traumatic stress from it all.  And the first weeks of 2021, characterized as they have been by the amping up of partisan vitriol to new heights, only cemented in place my views regarding the urgent problem of political divisiveness in this country. 

So, I am worried – like, sleepless night worried.  I am worried about the intertwining of politics and intense hatred that is destroying so many good things that are fundamentally important to me. 

It’s taking everything I have to protect my family from the toxic political culture in which we find ourselves.  Hence this post: how do you raise children in a democratic society – where they will soon need to be responsible citizens – when the discussion of every political issue puts you in a siege mentality of ‘us vs. them’?  Indeed, where everything depends on your side winning the argument, where you take no prisoners?  We have all but lost the skills of deliberation and negotiation and, in their absence, turning to the practice of ignoring, silencing, full-on censoring – and, if those things don’t work – downright persecuting each other.  And political violence – which is what happens when discussions break down – is fast becoming normalized.  Lately, I’ve just been praying that God will deliver us from ourselves

But, until that deliverance takes place, we have to live with each other, no matter how much our hyper-angry political culture wants to deny that.  So, in that spirit, let me offer a few observations about our current situation, and what we as parents might do to help our children as future citizens.

Let us go back to the idea of hate.  ‘Hate’ evokes notions such as ostracization – and even banishment – from a community.  For, if someone is hateful, we must not listen to them.  They must not be given a ‘platform’.  We must shut them out.  And the reason for this is because, surely, if we let them speak, they would do the same thing to us – that is, they would silence and banish others from the community, because that’s what haters do.  So, we have to get there first

And with the phrase ‘we have to get there first’, we may have articulated something:  to hate the haters is to do to the haters what they are doing to others.  This is, I would have thought, one of the oldest themes in human history:  how does one not become – at least in some sense – what one is fighting against?

Perhaps closer to home is not only the idea of ‘politics as destruction’, but ‘politics as contempt’.  Politics as destruction is based on an impersonal notion of ‘the other side out there somewhere’ – the ‘other’ political party, for instance, or political leaders whom one has never met.  But politics as contempt, I think, is very personal.  It is about feeling contempt (a form of hatred) toward someone you know because you view their way of thinking about things as wholly inferior to your own way of thinking.  But it’s not just inferiority that is the problem.  It is that this particular kind of inferiority also makes that person wholly immoral.  And we can’t be friends with immoral people.  That is, we can’t be friends with the haters. 

And so, we ignore, we isolate, and we ostracize people that we know personally.  Depending on how far we let our contempt extend, we might agitate for their censorship, or even their loss of employment or community position.  In this sense, the political becomes personal.  We are fast losing the ability to make a distinction between the two.

I am not exaggerating.  Indeed, here in the first few weeks of 2021, it is obvious I am not exaggerating.  I know so many people who no longer speak to extended family, old and once very dear friends, and even siblings because of political and philosophical differences.  Perhaps, whoever you are, you can identify with this situation.  But I am not only writing to describe a problem, I am also writing to think about how to help our children in the future.  So, there is a sense in which I am writing, not only about relationships which have broken down (sadly, I know a lot about those), but also about relationships which will never get off the ground because political differences make that relationship impossible.  It is our children who must learn how to navigate this situation in which we find ourselves.  And we must help them.

There is much that is stacked against them.  The social media culture in which they are so immersed demands that they signal their virtue by parroting adamant opinions, by engaging in fierce (online) activism, and by communicating with a polarizing rhetoric.  In this way, social media trains them to become soldiers in ideological warfare, rather than insightful, thoughtful human beings.

Now, if it really is true, as I have just asserted, that social media trains our children to become soldiers, perhaps we could ask:  so, what do soldiers do?  Well, they fight. They fight by defending their own side, and by scouting out and attacking the other side.  And in this war, allies and enemies are identified by their views.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with ‘holding a view’ on a particular matter.  Indeed, as rational, thinking creatures, that is what we as human beings do.  But, in our current political culture, the problem is that ‘holding a view’ has come to define us – that is, our identity has come to be bound up with our views.  And so, our ‘views’ put us into camps, namely the ‘good people camp’ and the ‘haters camp’.  And now, we are back where we started:  more of the siege mentality, more of the ‘us vs. them’, more of the ever-escalating ‘Oh … you think that?  I didn’t know you were one of those people ….’, until human connection becomes the lowest of our priorities.  Indeed, we break our connections – that is, we break our human relationships based on our ‘views’ and what we perceive other people’s ‘views’ to be.  Identify, break, identify, break.  We are continuing to sow for our children the very thing we are now reaping for ourselves.  And it will not end well for them.

However, I think we are getting closer to the heart of the matter:  in our current political culture, human connection has become the lowest of our priorities.  Ideology comes first.  And yet, surely this is completely backwards.  Our ideologies should serve our close and meaningful relationships, not the other way around.  This is because as human beings, we need connections – we need relationships – in order to flourish. 

Now, presumably, we also need political arrangements in order to flourish.  This idea is as old as the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle, who argued that without political institutions, human beings would never fulfill their rational potential.  Political activity stems from the human ability to conceptualize notions of justice, which is connected to our rational ability of speech, by which we can articulate notions of good and evil, right and wrong.  In this way, political activity is a natural extension of our human capacities, as well as a fulfillment of them.  And political activity is meant to create and sustain communities, providing order, safety and justice so that we can pursue our relationships with one another, learn from one another, and thus flourish. 

But if politics is destroying our relationships, then it is necessarily destroying our flourishing.  And it is therefore not fulfilling one of its most fundamental purposes.

So far, I have gone from talking about ‘politics as destruction’, where we are intent on destroying the ‘other side’ (that is, ‘the haters’), to ‘politics as destroying us’, in the sense that putting political ideology before relationships will destroy what is basic for our happiness, flourishing, and spiritual survival.  I’ve tried to tease out how these two notions are really two sides of the same coin, but, either way, politics is now intricately tied to destruction.  And our children are being trained by social media to participate in the destruction, whether we as parents like it or not.

Is there anything we can do?  Seriously, at this point, is there anything we can do?  Can we somehow re-train our children to be thinkers and lovers, rather than fighters?  I think a key to the answer has been with us all along.  There is a sense in which this post is definitely a lament – a lament of human goods being lost in the service of politics.  To put it in a more general way, however, would be to say I have been lamenting that something extremely important has been lost in the service of something less important.   The key, I think, is the notion of order, the notion of priorities.

‘Priorities’ might seem like a mundane, overused word.  But the underlying idea here is that we need to understand the concept of ordering our commitments – that is, of placing in a hierarchy the various things to which we are committed.  In order to keep political destruction at bay, something else has to be above politics in that hierarchy.  In other words, something needs to transcend politics.

The word transcendence is defined as ‘to go beyond, or be beyond’.  In the philosophy of religion, it is often used to describe the notion of God as ‘beyond’ this world.  What could be ‘beyond’ politics then?  Although that is an ancient and daunting question, let me take a stab and say that it would have to be something fundamental to the human condition, something which we do not want politics to destroy.  It would have to be something like the dignity of the individual human person, which is made manifest in thinking, deliberating, and building relationships with other human beings.

And how would a ‘culture of dignity’ counteract the current ‘politics-as-destruction’ culture?  Instead of helplessly watching our children come to view those in the ‘other tribe’ as nameless, faceless ‘haters’, we can teach them that there is a name, a face, a mind, a life, a soul – indeed, a dignity of each person they encounter, which transcends that person’s political views.  This does not necessarily mean that we will always be able to ‘see the good’ in someone who we think has very wrong and immoral views (although I think we should try as much as possible to understand where people are coming from).  But it does mean that we need to model to our children the idea that people are not to be wholly identified with their views on a particular matter.  There is something more fundamental about a person that remains separate from what they think about whatever hot-button political issue that is trending at any given moment.

When we allow the dignity of the human person to transcend politics, there is a sense in which we are limiting politics.  Specifically, we are limiting the ways in which we can pursue political warfare on one another.  We can take inspiration here from what is called a deontological position on ethics, which is also known as an ‘agent-relative’ ethics.  Agent-relativity, in its simplest form, holds that it matters what actions a person does, and it also matters what actions are done to a person.  Taking its cue from the notion of human dignity, agent-relativity can help us think about just what sorts of limits we should put on ourselves in our interactions with a person whom we deem to be some kind of enemy.

The basic thought is that in a situation of warfare, you attack what is hostile about your enemy, but you do not attack what is not hostile.  So, you may disagree with someone regarding their political views, and argue with them on this matter.  But you must not then attack, say, their integrity, their intelligence, their character, their religious views, their family, their friends, their performance in their career, and so forth.  In limiting yourself in this way, you have argued the point, but left the dignity of the person intact.  Perhaps you are intent on winning the argument, but in doing so, you do not also try to ghettoize your opponent – by threatening to destroy their employment, their position in the community, their reputation, or their means of communicating with other people.  And if it someone who is important to you, you do not threaten to destroy your relationship.

More to the point, however, let me return to this phrase: ‘it matters what action a person does, and it also matters what actions are done to a person.’  It matters how we treat other people, and it matters how we are treated.  These things matter because it is through our agency, and the agency of others, that we build or destroy relationships.  And, as I argued above, relationships are essential for our flourishing.  So, it matters how we treat each other, irrespective of our political views, or our larger political goals.  In that way, it is our dignity, our relationships, and our flourishing which must put a limit on politics, because they transcend politics.

In this post, I have talked in terms of the ‘less important’ and the ‘more important’, arguing that we must not let the less important overwhelm and destroy what is more important.  I have argued that politics be deemed ‘less important’ and our dignity, relationships and flourishing be deemed ‘more important’.  But I still have the online warrior in my head, arguing with me that there is nothing more important than the political fight – that it is only through politics that we will redeem and save ourselves from our past and present injustices, and that it is a good thing that our children are being taught to ‘hate the haters’. 

In conclusion, let me respond with this:  it is only through letting something transcend politics that we will, paradoxically, save politics.  Politics will fail us if it becomes our highest love.  If there is nothing to limit it, we will, in the end, destroy the very communities – the very bonds – which politics is meant to protect.  Thus, politics will succeed only if we mark out places where it cannot come.  I suggest that the first place we mark out is our relationship with our children.  When they understand that unconditional, transcendent place which we have set for them, no matter their political views, they can carry that understanding into other parts of their lives.  This will allow them to turn their battles into thoughtful discussions, and their wars into communal searches for truth.  Thus, we can help them become thinkers and lovers. Only then can we begin to ‘stop the hate’.

Philosophy for Parents Re-boot

Due to a variety of circumstances, I have taken a 5-year hiatus from writing for Philosophy for Parents.

And yet, although I have not posted anything for several years, and have not pushed or promoted this blog on social media in any way during that time, this blog continues to get hits and views almost every day.  In fact, just today, someone from half-way across the world posted a comment on one of my posts that I had published back in 2015.  This on-going interest in my work has been very unexpected, and has made me consider how to re-boot this project.

Should I say a few words about why I stopped writing here in the first place?  Probably.

One major reason was lack of time.  I started teaching philosophy at the University of San Diego in September, 2014, which, outside of my family commitments, required a near-constant amount of my attention in writing lectures and mentoring students.  It’s been exhaustingly fabulous, and so much of what I have taught and learned over the past 5 years is fertile ground for much new material for Philosophy for Parents.

But another reason had to do with something deeper and more personal.  About the same time that I returned to academia, a family member who was very dear to me, and with whom I had enjoyed a close and loving relationship for almost two decades, started to become verbally and emotionally abusive toward me.  I can’t get into the reasons for the abuse here, but I will say that it was sudden, completely unexpected, and frankly, soul destroying.

I’ve spent a good part of the last few years working through the profound sadness that this abuse has brought into my life.  That has taken time. I’ve never had an important relationship in my life break down before.  Of course, there have been people who have come into my life and then drifted away.  But that is not the same thing as when something of fundamental importance breaks between you and another person.  And I guess that with a broken relationship, comes a broken heart.  I never knew that broken hearts could hurt so much, and keep hurting, even after you think you have no more capacity to get hurt. 

So … how does this relate to Philosophy for Parents? I think it gives insight into both the hiatus in writing in the past, and also how I want to proceed with Philosophy for Parents in the future.

One thing I would say is that, when you are the victim of emotional abuse, it often takes your voice away.  Part of the trauma that I experienced from this person was done through social media, so the social media platforms where I knew this person was active became places that I simply could not go.  So, I stayed silent.  I stopped writing my blog.  And I stayed off social media, mostly because I didn’t want to be stalked and viciously trolled by someone who had been such an important part of my life for a such a long time. 

And what can we say about silence?  When ‘silence’ is equated to ‘losing your voice’, then clearly that is a bad thing.  On the other hand, silence is not always a bad thing.  On the contrary, there are times when silence is necessary.  I know I am writing this at the tail end of the tumultuous summer of 2020, when it became  commonplace to say ‘silence is violence’.  And while that certainly can be true, particularly in the context of various injustices, there are times when silence plays a vital role in our moral and spiritual development.  In my own case, silence was a form of protection, a way to give myself space to think without complicating that space with the judgments of other people.

And, I suppose, it was in the silence that I was able to pick up the pieces and start to make sense of something that made no sense. And this is where I found philosophy to be a God-send.  Specifically, during this process, I found philosophical inquiry to be helpful in enabling me to resist being sucked into the ‘cycle of abuse’ – that is, the process of being abused, and then letting that trauma shape you to the point where you pass that abuse on to those around you.   Just as philosophical inquiry helped me come to terms with the difficulties of raising small children, it also helped me to resist returning abuse for abuse.  Because I was trying to protect my children in this process of absorbing the abuse and not passing it on to them, my philosophical thinking often literally became ‘philosophy-for-me-as-a-parent’.

I hope to use the next few months to write more specifically about how philosophy has helped me become a better parent during these past 5 years, but in this initial ‘re-boot’ post, I will mention a few key themes.

First, I have thought a great deal over the past few years about the notion of human beings as ‘ends-in-themselves.’  This is an idea that was best developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was writing at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century.  The basic idea here is that human beings are rational, by nature, and so they are self-conscious beings who have the inherent capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong.  So human beings are by their nature morally capable and therefore morally accountable.  Because of this, human beings have an inherent dignity and an inherent worth that needs to be respected. 

This might sound a little abstract, but the upshot of this idea is that human beings have the ability to think their own thoughts, and make their own choices, and we have to respect that about one another.  It’s not that we will all think good thoughts and make good choices all of the time – far from it.  And of course, we must hold one another accountable for the wrong and harmful actions that we do.  But when we treat other people as ends-in-themselves, we see one another as equals.  We recognize and understand that people have their own lives to live, and their own projects to pursue.  They are not tools or objects to be used or manipulated or dominated by us.  To state it somewhat more theoretically, we are not to use other people as a means to our own ends.

I think this is a very powerful idea.  It may be abstract in a way, but it has given me insight, and even comfort.  To treat someone as an end-in-themselves would mean to not abuse, intimidate, humiliate or persecute them.  When you are being intimidated and humiliated, you are being used as a means to your abuser’s end.  Their end is probably something like needing to feel superior to you, and so, they will use you personally – that is, attack you personally – in order to achieve this end.  So, even though I was in a situation where I was not being treated as an ‘end-in-myself’, I found a lot of comfort, and even empowerment, in trying to treat people around me – my children included – as ends-in-themselves:  respecting them, giving them space, looking past their short-comings, acknowledging their individuality.  It was as if I had to find and produce in myself what I craved the most in my difficult situation.    

But still, there was a lot of self-reflection involved.  I’ve walked with God a lot through the recesses of my mind on this one.  And I’ve come to see more how we mustn’t use people as a means to our ends. We mustn’t put words into other people’s mouths, we mustn’t make assumptions about them, we must let them speak for themselves.  Most importantly, we mustn’t use other people as target practice as we fight our ideological battles.  We must hold them accountable, yes, but the flip side to that is we must let them be themselves.  Through all this, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of how to see other people as companions, even in disagreement.  Having been labeled ‘the enemy’ by someone who I thought was my friend, I’ve come to better understand how to not see other people as enemies.

The second theme that I wanted to raise regarding how philosophy has made me a better parent in recent years is something I have been alluding to throughout this piece, which is the self-reflection involved in philosophical inquiry.  I wish I could say that personal difficulties always bring on self-reflection, but I know that’s not true.  There are a variety of ways we can react when our personal circumstances are challenging.  One way is to stop thinking, and close up, emotionally and mentally and spiritually.  But one thing I have come to appreciate more about philosophy over the past few years is the demand that it makes on us to think, and to think in a self-reflective way. 

There’s no question that self-reflective thinking can be painful.  Often when we look in the recesses of our minds, we might not like what we see there.  It’s hard to acknowledge mistakes, bad intentions, and wrong beliefs.  It brings up defensive mechanisms in nearly all of us.  And so philosophical inquiry must be an on-going process, one that we approach when we are ready.

But while self-reflective thinking can be painful, it is also powerfully therapeutic.  For instance, as I have thought of myself as an ‘end-in-myself’, I have become much more aware of myself as a moral agent.  Other people have to respect my individuality, it is true, but I have realized what a responsibility that puts on me, to use my individuality well.  And although I am to treat others as ends-in-themselves, I am not responsible for their actions, only mine.  Which leads me back to reflecting on my own agency – what am I doing?  How am I going to respond? And this line of reflection has led me to be more aware of my relationship with God.  How am I going to use my moral agency to seek God in my life?  I’ve become more interested in the past few years in existentialist thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, who think of the human relationship with God as something very much between just the individual themselves, and God.  According to these existentialist thinkers, you alone are responsible for forging a relationship with God – not your church, not your community, not your spouse, not your parents, and so on.  It is up to you. You bear the consequences of seeking God, or not seeking God.  And, I have to say, I agree with them on this point.

So here, at the moment, is ‘philosophy-for-me-as-a-parent’:   Love your kids.  They are human beings, and human beings are amazing creatures, with inherent dignity.  They deserve respect.  They deserve space – space to think, space to make mistakes, space to figure it out.  If you aren’t getting this respect in your own life, know that when you model that respect toward your kids, it fills a void in your soul.  And you can be happy, knowing that, somehow, everything will work out.

Philosophy for Parents Podcast: Episode 1

I’m pleased to announce the first podcast for Philosophy for Parents!

Episode 1: Reflections of a Failed Tiger Mother

In this podcast,  I discuss my popular post Reflections of a Failed Tiger Mother:  What is a Good Parent? with Saren Eyre, co-founder and co-director of Power of Moms.  We talk about the Aristotelian notion that a thing is ‘good’ when it fulfills it’s purpose, and how that might apply to a discussion about what it means to be a ‘good’ parent.  We reflect on what the purpose of a parent might be, and how defining that purpose has impacted our parenting practices.

Parenting in Space and Time

Author’s Note: My 8-year-old thinks the title of this post sounds like a Dr. Who episode. Since I have never successfully watched a Dr. Who episode all the way through, and since what little I have seen of it always leaves me very confused, I can safely say that any resemblances between what I say here and the events, characters, and storylines of Dr. Who episodes are purely and completely coincidental.

Recently, we took a family trip to the beach. It was a public holiday, and my husband wanted to Do Something on his day off.

Family trips to the beach are good.   They are also stressful, at least for me. And this particular trip was especially stressful. I didn’t have the day off work, so we decided I would meet the family on the beach after I had finished at the university for the day. After an intense set of philosophy lectures, with lots of work still to be done for my next lectures, I set off to find the family. My husband had decided to go to a beach that I had never visited, and I got lost getting there. After driving around for ages, I finally found them. But I was in no mood to be at the beach.

I sat down in a beach chair and tried to convince myself that the outing was a good idea. My youngest had just been in the water, and I noticed she was shivering. So I put a towel around her and hugged her while she sat on my lap to warm her up.

We just sat there, the two of us. I rested my cheek on her sandy hair, and she snuggled against my body. We watched the ocean and listened to the waves. As the time passed, I started to feel a closeness to this child that I hadn’t felt for a while. It felt good and relaxing, like I was returning to something important that I had left – a kind of quiet homecoming.

As I noticed that feeling, I also suddenly realized that I had spent very little time with her recently. Now, that seemed odd to me, because I am around her much of the time. But I as thought about it, I noted that although we had been around one another, I hadn’t really spent much time interacting with her. For instance, when I would make dinner, she would play in her room. When I would work on my lectures, she would watch TV. When I would help my older children with something, she would slip out to the backyard to play. The result was that I had actually seen very little of her lately, due to our very busy lives.

And now, just the simple act of sitting together was making a significant difference to our relationship.   And yet, if I was to be more precise, it was more than the act of sitting together. It was more than the physical closeness that was strengthening our relationship. It was the act of sitting together for a period of time that was bringing us closer together. We didn’t have any distractions. I wasn’t on my phone, she wasn’t on an ipad. For a space of time, we were focused on each other.

Parenting and the Nature of Time

As I reflect on this experience, I am struck that there is something to learn here about the nature of time in relation to parenting. Of course, we’ve all heard the commonplace truth about how parents need to spend time with their kids. Yet, as a parent, I do not always feel that advice is helpful. You see, time is not my friend. I’m always rushing against the clock for something: school runs, deadlines, dinnertime, homework, sports, clubs, activities, etc. I feel like there’s not much I can do about my lack of time, but I berate myself just the same for not managing it better. From a parenting perspective, time is my constantly judgmental, constantly stingy companion.

Yet, if I turn to philosophy to think about the concept of time, there are some profound insights there that have enabled me to see my time challenges in a different light. In essence, time is a fundamental aspect of our human existence. This fact defines not only defines how we move, and how we think, it also defines how our relationships are formed. Time is the medium in which human beings build connections with each other. It therefore follows that parenting human beings will take time. The human condition is such that there is just no other way. Once these stark truths are digested, it seems quite beside the point to look at time as my enemy or my judge. It is, simply, my most important resource.

Philosophical Perspectives on Time, Space and Mind

Since the earliest days of philosophy, thinkers have always been fascinated with time. The study of time often goes hand in hand with a study of space and matter. Matter exists in space, and moves in space. Movement also takes place in time, so matter exists in, and is bound by, space and time. Since our bodies are material entities, we, as human beings, also exist in space and time.

However, as human beings, we consist of more than just our bodies. We also have our minds. Now, when philosophers talk about the mind, they do not mean the brain. They mean one’s thoughts, and one’s feelings and desires. The brain is the physical entity that somehow facilitates thoughts and desires. The mind, however, is not physical. Our thoughts and desires themselves do not take up space.

Yet, although the mind is not physical, and therefore does not exist in space, it still exists in time. That is, our thoughts and desires do not take up space, but they do take up time. According to the early Christian philosopher St. Augustine, our thoughts form a kind of trajectory through time, as we go from one thought to the next. We are at one moment ‘now willing, now not willing; now knowing, now not knowing, now remembering, now not remembering, now forgetting, now fearing, now daring, now advancing towards wisdom, now declining into folly.’

Giving Children Your Thoughts, and Your Time

Now, this all may sound rather abstract. But I would argue that the concept of our thoughts existing in time has some profound practical consequences, especially with regards to parenting. Consider this: our thoughts do not pertain solely to ourselves. Our thoughts happen within our minds, but they affect those around us. Our thoughts determine how we interact with others, both our physical interactions, and our mental interactions. And it is our interactions with others which create our relationships with them. Human relationships, then, are based upon countless sequences of thoughts, which always take place in time.

Understanding time in this way has, for me, made spending time with my children at once less pressured, but also, more profound. Since exchanges of thought take place in time, and family relationships are built upon those exchanges, then our time must be the most important thing we can give our children. Perhaps, really, it is the only thing we can give them. And if that is true, then surely the act of spending time together is just as important as what is done during that time together. This is what I mean by a less pressured approach to parenting. I’m learning to see my children more as creatures to be listened to, hugged, enjoyed and marveled at, rather than as creatures to be herded, pushed, chauffeured, and frustrated with. I’ve become more interested in bedtime stories, nature hikes, spontaneous conversations and ice cream trips, than in ballet lessons, regional orchestra auditions or GPA’s. I’m learning to worry less about getting through a ‘to-do’ list, and instead valuing the interaction in the moment, because I understand now that each moment really does count. Indeed, I am starting to see interacting in the moment as the ‘to-do’ list.

When I say giving our children our time, I mean our thoughtful time. We do not give them our time if we merely exist next to them physically, in space, without much mental interaction. I feel the need to point out the obvious fact that our generation faces special obstacles to achieving this. The constant access of online activity means that it has never been easier to disengage mentally with those around us. Yet, my experience is that spending time with our children really only occurs when we focus on them with our thoughts.

I’m reminded of the time several years ago when I went to a parent’s morning at my son’s preschool. Parents were invited to spend an hour or so with their children, doing whatever the child wanted to do. I still remember how excited my son was to show me around. We looked together at his work, and at his favorite dinosaur books. We did his favorite puzzles together. There were no distractions –there were no escape routes for me, either physically, or mentally. He was incandescently happy to have me as a captive audience, and his happiness filled me in a way that pushed out all my cares and worries. It was one of those moments of pure joy. And really, all I did was show up. It didn’t really matter what we did once I was there. The point is that I gave him my attention – that is, I gave him my mind, and that could only be done by giving him my time. The result was a happy child, and a happy mommy.

Parenting and Truths About Time, Space and the Human Condition

A few weeks ago we saw a student art show at my daughter’s school. I came across an impressive picture of what seemed to be a vast expanse of space. At the bottom it read: ‘All that exists are atoms and space. Everything else is opinion.’ The philosopher in me smiled at the approach, but as a parent I had to dissent. Although many eminent philosophers would agree with this student’s sentiment, it strikes me as a rather indulgent way of looking at the human condition.

Yes, the material conditions of the universe seem to be obviously true, whereas ideas about how human beings should be, and how they should act, seem to be less obviously true. But the conditions of space and matter – and therefore time – make certain things true about us as human beings. Since human beings exist in space and time, human relationships can only be developed by using time.

This is not merely an opinion. This is a truth that bears directly on what is involved in raising happy human beings. Parenting requires thought, which requires time. My suggestion is to embrace this truth, and recognize the value in every moment that you have together.

I’m a Parent, Therefore I Am: Cartesian-Inspired Thoughts on the Value of Caregiving

I’ve had a rather major life change recently. My youngest child has started school. Thus, for the first time in 16 and ½ years, I do not have a pre-schooler in the house. To my mind, this is a parenting watershed moment that calls for some introspection.

It’s a bitter sweet moment. I struggle with parenting. I know, I know – I have six children, and yes, they were all planned. But so often I feel conflicted about parenting – like I’ll never get used to it or get the hang of it, or that I will ever really know what I am doing. I struggle with the constancy of it all. So the fact that I get more of a ‘break’ from my children during the day now is, in many ways, a welcome change.

But the ‘bitter-sweetness’ goes deeper than that. Not only have I had pre-schoolers for the past 16 and ½ years, but I’ve also been a stay at home mom for most of that time as well. So this life change includes not only all kids in school, but also me going to back to work after a significant amount of time. And this topic is the one upon which I have concentrated my deepest introspections.

Please note, it is not my intention in writing this post to offend anyone about the choices we all face regarding ‘working’ – whether that be outside the home, or inside the home. Rather, this post is a kind of meditation regarding my sojourn in the land of stay-at-home motherhood. It has changed me profoundly, and I need to take stock.

Being a stay-at-home mom was difficult for me. I did it out of principle, not out of a natural inclination. I knew it was the right thing for my family, and for myself. But knowing it was the right thing to do still didn’t make it easy.   Throughout my time as a stay-at-home mom, I saw wonderful friends flourish in the working world. They were movers and shakers – empire builders – always on to ever greater positions in the public sphere: at the UN one day, off to India the next, advising the Somalian government on something or other, and then back again in the board room in New York.  I was thrilled for them, but sometimes I couldn’t help interpreting their successes as my condemnation. It was hard to keep the ‘public sphere = success, family = no real success’ thoughts at bay. Yet, bittersweet though it was, I knew I needed to be at home for that season of my life.

In thinking about how I came to my decision to be a stay-at-home mother, I cannot help but think of the philosopher Rene Descartes. That may seem odd, since Descartes was a French man who lived in the 1600’s, and was not, it is fair to say, particularly interested in parenting. He was concerned with topics like metaphysics and epistemology; in other words, with theories about the nature of reality and the nature of knowledge – topics which are very far removed from the decision to be a primary caregiver. But he wrote an extremely important work called The Meditations, in which he describes a kind of philosophical journey he takes in search of what he can know for certain. And it’s that journey that I find mirrors in some ways my own journey in which I searched for what I could know for certain about what really mattered regarding my role as a parent.

Descartes starts out the Meditations determined to build a fresh, new foundation upon which he can base any ‘firm’ knowledge.   In order to do this, he decides he must go through a kind of exercise in extreme scepticism. He decides to overthrow all his beliefs in order to find some principle which he can know for certain is true – a principle which can trump any kind of sceptical argument.

Thus, Descartes descends into a kind of ‘sceptical pit’ as he goes through a process of questioning how he can be sure of what he sees around him.   First, he decides that his senses are not to be trusted. It may seem that his senses are telling him that he is sitting at a desk before a fire, but there have been times when he has been dreaming that he is doing just that, only to wake up and discover there is no desk and no fire. And even if he isn’t dreaming, suppose there is an ‘evil demon’ who is deceiving Descartes into thinking that there is a physical world, when in reality there is not. Although Descartes does not believe there is such a demon, he nevertheless finds this to be a powerful thought experiment. What if everything we see around us is unreal?

Here, in doubting the existence of the physical world, Descartes reaches the bottom of his pit of scepticism. In order to get out of it, he has to find just one thing that he can know with certainty. This is what is called an ‘Archimedean point’. He can then hang onto that certainty, and hopefully use that certainty to help him understand other truths, and thus ascend up out of the pit of scepticism.

So what is the thing that Descartes can know for certain, the one certainty upon which he can build? He decides that even if the evil demon is deceiving him about the existence of the physical world, he notices that he still has thoughts. Descartes might be deceived into thinking the world is there, but even if the world is not there, he is still thinking the world is there. So the one thing he can know for certain is that he has thoughts, and that having these thoughts proves his existence. Thus, we get the famous phrase ‘Cogito, ergo sum’: ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist.’

I find that, as a parent, there is a way in which I identify strongly with Descartes’ process of doubt in order to achieve certainty. I’m not naturally a sceptic, but I have found that some of my most pressing doubts have been regarding my value as a caregiver. I did not search out these doubts; rather, they thrust themselves upon me after my first child was born. But in working through them, I have been able to find my own ‘Archimedean point’ – a truth about the value of caring that has enabled me to see the the importance of being a stay-at-home mom, even though it has always been hard for me to do it.

I’ve written before about the depression I suffered after my first child was born. I don’t think that depression was only a case of imbalanced hormones brought on by pregnancy and childbirth, although that was definitely part of it. (And when I say ‘only a case’ I do not mean to belittle post-natal depression in any way.) No, the depression brought on by the birth of my first child was also a depression brought on by shock, stress, and unmet expectations. Once she was in my arms, I felt love, absolutely, but also panic. I began to realize the enormity of the task before me, and I began to understand in a new way the trade-offs between pursuing my own career and caring for my daughter.

I also began to see that I didn’t want to admit that there were any trade-offs. It was then that I realized that even though I had always, in theory, been sympathetic to stay-at-home parenting, I had serious doubts about doing it myself.

So down I went into a Cartesian-like pit of scepticism about the value of caring, and about the value of caring for my children myself.  Was it important to care for children? Well, of course it was. But then, why didn’t I want to do it? What was it about care that seemed so unimportant? My baby needed constant care, and yet, whenever I gave that care, I felt I should be doing something else, being somewhere else, achieving something else.

I went down further into the pit: if caring for children is important, then why, as a society, don’t we act like it’s important? We condemn people for neglecting their children, absolutely. But we don’t praise them for doing well at caring for their children. Indeed, it is often quite the contrary. If a woman dedicates herself to looking after her family, she is usually the subject of ridicule. If a man does it, that’s a bit better, but only because he is willingly taking on the exploitation that has been born for thousands of years by women. The act of caring remains one that we cannot, for some reason, fully endorse.

Beyond all these considerations, the work of the philosopher Hannah Arendt kept playing on my mind. Arendt was interested in the distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere, and she argued that in ancient Greek thought, the public sphere was associated with freedom, achievement, self-fulfillment, and glory. It was the realm of fame, of a kind of immortality. The private sphere, on the other hand, was associated with necessity. This was the realm of what was necessary for survival; it was, indeed, the realm of the family, of care. It was also the realm of un-freedom, and un-glory.

Now, Arendt was only giving her analysis of Greek thought, but still, it struck something inside me. It’s funny how your circumstances can heighten your perceptions, so that you see things very clearly which you did not see before. During the necessities of breastfeeding, diaper changing, and pram pushing, I meditated on Arendt, pondering that perhaps there is something deep in the western psyche which divorces care from achievement. The basic thought is this: You cannot achieve great things if you take the time to care for little children. And consider a related thought: Caring for little children is not a thing of greatness. Although, according to Arendt, these statements would have been self-evident to the ancient Greek, in my postpartum state I could see that they were still very much alive in our contemporary culture.

All these thoughts propelled me to the bottom of my pit of scepticism. Was I really sacrificing myself on some sort of altar, to be irrecoverably exploited and then spat out into oblivion? What if all this effort, all this care was only going to lead me to nothingness? What if every kind of achievement in the public sphere was more important than anything which happened in the private sphere? What if, if I wanted to be truly successful in life, the last thing I should be doing was this?

But still, in the depths of my sceptical pit, there were certain things I could not doubt. I could not doubt that caring for my daughter was important. I also pondered on the undoubtable fact that my daughter was a human being, and this led me to other thoughts: Human beings are important, and they are designed in such a way that they need care from other human beings. But if those thoughts were certain, then something quite significant seemed to follow: not only is it important to care for human beings, but an important part of being a human being is giving care to other human beings.

Thus, I had found my Archimedean point, and this is what I held on to: an important part of my humanity was expressed – and indeed, was developed – in caring for my child. Somewhere, in all the feeding, changing, pacifying, singing, reading, hugging, mind-numbing swing-pushing, disciplining, and interacting, I was exercising my humanity. Somewhere, in all the thankless drudgery, in all the un-glory, in all the oblivion, was the act of being human, of living a human life, because I was building another human life.

I said earlier that my Cartesian experience helped me to find a fundamental truth about the value of caring that enabled me to understand the importance of being a stay-at-home mom. But please let me be clear: to understand the value of caring does not point exclusively to stay-at-home parenting, of course. I have enormous respect for those parents who find they can pursue a full-time career while at the same time fulfil their caring responsibilities.

Yet, understanding the value of caring does not rule out stay-at-home parenthood, either. For me, coming to my Archimedean point, I came to understand that caring is worth sacrificing for. This may sound obvious, but it is not a principle upon which our society operates. We still live in a world that values only sacrifices for achievement, not sacrifices for care.

Thus, to understand that care was worth sacrificing for was invaluable for me. I could see that, for a time, I was not going to be able to keep up with the demands of caring while at the same time pursuing my career in the way that was expected of me. Exciting though the greatness of the public sphere was, I knew that the most important expressions of my humanity- indeed, the most important expressions of any greatness – would be in my family. If there was a conflict, that had to come first.

And now, after a long sojourn in the wilderness, it’s time to come back. But I am rather surprised by my feelings about it all. When I ponder this change, I feel like I’m standing at the edge of a precipice. However, I’m not about to fall. Rather, I’ve just climbed up the precipice. It’s been a very hard, long climb, and you’d think I would be happy to be at the top. And I am. But, strangely, I don’t feel the strong sense of relief that I thought I would feel. Mostly, I just feel very humbled, and very grateful that I had the opportunity to make the climb. And when I reflect on my climb, although I can remember how difficult it was, all I feel is a deep, incredible peace. The Cartesian-like doubts are gone. That climb was the right one for me to make.

Anger Management for Parents, by Plato

OK, that’s it. I’ve declared my son the winner in the ‘Most-loveable-yet-most-insanely-frustrating child’ category.

My son is lovely. He is funny, well-behaved (mostly), incredibly bright, and interested in everything. He loves to read. He’s the kind of kid that puts up his index finger, and then cites facts about anything from ancient Rome to dinosaurs to conditions on Mars. And when he’s in the mood, he’s very good at soccer, making desserts, household chores, and playing the cello. The problem? He refuses to do his homework. Absolutely refuses.   The other day he took a math test in school and got the highest grade in the class. But he still has an ‘F’ in math, because he doesn’t hand in any of his assignments. Yes, he’s that kind of kid. Very bright, and nearly failing in school.

Every weekday, our conversations go something like this:

‘Son, do you have any homework today?’

‘No idea.’

‘What do you mean you have no idea? If you don’t know, how am I supposed to know? You’re the one who goes to school. Do you have any homework in your backpack?’

‘I don’t know. ‘

‘What do you mean you don’t know? Surely if there was homework in your backpack, you would know about it, since you would have been the one who put it there.’

‘Well, I just don’t know.’

‘Now, your teacher says you are missing assignments in math, but that she will accept late work and still count it in your final grade. Which assignments do you need to hand in?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘How are you going to catch up if you don’t ever do your homework? And how are you going to do your homework if you don’t take responsibility and actually bring your homework home?’

‘I don’t know.’

We have had this problem for years now. At first, I didn’t worry about it very much. As the years have gone on, I’ve tried on numerous occasions to intervene and help him establish good work habits. Yet, somehow, he has always managed to sabotage these efforts, usually by simply ignoring me – even when I am right next to him, imploring him to do his duty. A bit like ‘No hard feelings, mom, but I’m not going to do that.’

But now he’s 12, and I’m at my wits end. More and more, the dominant emotion I experience as I face this ongoing situation is … wait for it … anger. I find myself losing my temper on a regular basis in those daily, exhausting, homework battles. And, dare I say it, an angry mommy is not a happy mommy.

Now, obviously this is a development I need to reverse. I don’t want to get angry at my kids, because that makes them suffer. But as I turn to philosophy to help me with the issue of ‘anger management’, the answers there are rather surprising. For both Plato and Aristotle argue that the main person who suffers from something like anger is not the recipient of the anger, but the person who gets angry. Thus, it stands to reason that it is me, rather than my son, who will be the main beneficiary as I learn how to cope with this challenge in a more constructive way.

Plato on Anger, Justice, and Morality       

One of Plato’s lessons in anger management can be found in a passage that, ironically, really doesn’t mention anger at all. His famous Republic opens with a discussion on the concept of justice, both what a just action might be, and what it means to be a just person. The concept of justice in the Republic is perhaps a wider notion than what we might think of as justice today, so this discussion can really be seen as one about what is means to be a moral person. The underlying question here is ‘Why should we be moral?’

One of the characters in the story, Thrasymachus, argues that we only try to be moral because we do not want bad things done to us. We would all take advantage of other people if we could do so without being caught. So, we act in the right way only because we lack the power to get away with doing wrong to others.

Glaucon, another character in the story, tells the fable of the Ring of Gyges, to add more weight to the claim that no one values justice, or morality, in and of itself, and no one would practice it if they didn’t have to. In the fable, Gyges, who was a shepherd for an ancient Greek King, was one day looking after the king’s flocks, when he found a special ring. He discovered that when he put on this ring, he became invisible. He then used this ring to make his way to the king’s court, seduce the Queen, murder the king, and eventually seize the throne.

Glaucon argues that if there were two such rings, and one was given to one an unjust man, and the other to a just man, we would see that there would be no difference between the two men. ‘No one … would have such iron strength of mind as to stand fast in doing right or keep his hands off of other men’s goods, when he could go to the marketplace and fearlessly help himself to anything he wanted, enter houses and sleep with any woman he chose, set prisoners free and kill men at his pleasure, and in a word go about among men with the powers of a god.’ Surely, he concludes, the Ring of Gyges proves that ‘men do right only under compulsion; no individual thinks of it as good for him personally, since he does wrong whenever he finds he has the power.’

This is one of the burning questions of the Republic, then: Why should I be moral? Should I be moral just to ensure that I am protected from the immorality of others? Or is there something more to being moral than the external benefits?

Plato answers the last question with a resounding ‘yes’. He argues that living a morally good life, in itself, benefits the person who is moral. Quite apart from what sort of accolades, reputation, or protection a person may get for ‘doing the right thing’, being moral is the single most valuable thing for a person’s soul. Developing the moral virtues has an ‘intrinsic effect on its possessor’. In other words, being good is good for you.

Being A Good Parent is Good for You

I’ve always thought that sharing the ‘Ring of Gyges’ with my kids would be a great teaching moment about the importance of doing the right thing, for the right reasons. So a few days ago, as we were driving to school, I related the fable and causally asked, ‘So, would you do the right thing if you had one of those rings? Why do you think we should do the right thing?’

My nine-year-old said, ‘Well, you should do the right thing because then other people will like you.’ Hmm, I thought, the message didn’t quite go in. Then my son said, ‘You should do the right thing because you feel good when you do it.’

And then I was struck by my hypocrisy. Why was I trying to get my children to see that doing the right thing was good for your soul, when recently I had been letting myself doing the wrong thing by frequently losing my temper with my son? I was trying to teach them to take care of their own souls, without showing them an example of taking care of my own soul. If anything, I needed this lesson more than they did.

The immoral person, Plato says, is like a diseased person. He has a diseased soul which is ‘out of order’. The human soul is meant to be a certain way, with the passions being subdued by the thinking, reflective part of the soul, rather than letting the passions take control. So ‘anger management’, for Plato, is a study in how to have a healthy soul. More to the point, it’s a study in how to have a happy soul.

Thus, a ‘trying-to-be-good’ mommy is a happy mommy – or, at least a happier mommy. And if that’s true, being good, as a parent, doesn’t only benefit your children. It’s of immeasurable benefit for you, too. So I shall re-dedicate myself the principle of ‘keeping calm, and carrying on.’ It’s the best I can do, for both of us.

Philosophy and the Art of Parenting: Sheb Varghese interviews Philosophy for Parents

Today’s post is a ‘Q and A’ session with one of my readers, Sheb Varghese.  He’s asked if I would answer some questions for his blog, Faith Colloquium, and I’m excited to publish our discussion here on Philosophy for Parents as well.

SV:  As someone who was in graduate school, while also starting a family, could you tell us what that experience was like and any advice you might give to someone who is in school or considering going into school while also raising children?

HHB:  Honestly, it was really, really hard. I’ve spoken a bit about my experience in a few of my posts.   Looking back on it now, I think I probably suffered from something like post-natal depression. But I think my difficulties came, too, because I struggled with how to balance looking after a baby/toddler, and also pursuing my studies. I felt a lot of pressure to make progress on my thesis, and then found myself feeling frustrated by the time-consuming demands of parenting, especially the parenting of small children. I would want my daughter to sleep so I could work, but she wouldn’t sleep. Or I would put her on the floor to play while I worked, but that would only last for 15 minutes or so before she needed my attention, and so forth.

Of course I knew it was important to take care of her, but the panicky thought kept coming to me that it was more important to work on my thesis. So I would resent the interruptions my daughter would make to my work, rather than just let myself enjoy her during that special time.

Yet, through all that frustration, something creative and productive started to happen. I started to see with new eyes not only the demands of parenting, but also how as a society we take parenting efforts completely for granted. I realized I was taking my own parenting for granted, and that explained, at least partly, my view that my academic work was more important than my parenting. Parenting was supposed to be easy, something anyone could do, something that just happened ‘on the side’, but academics was a serious career that needed time, thought and investment. And yet, caring for my child was one of the hardest things I had ever done. Mind you, it wasn’t one of the hardest intellectual things I had ever done, but it was one of the hardest things I had ever done that involved my whole soul – my mind and my emotions – my character, I suppose. Through a lot of soul searching and prayer, I came to see that it wasn’t caring for my child that was the problem; rather, it was the message from society – which I had internalized – that caring for a family is not an important way to spend one’s time, particularly if you are woman.

OK –so let me link this back more directly to your question! Starting a family in graduate school was very hard, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be if you have the right mindset.   Children are not a burden, they are a blessing. However, they may slow you down in your graduate work. I went to a career seminar for academics once where the presenter was saying that because he had children – and he only had 2 – he would never be at the top of his field because he wanted to be home for dinner every once in a while. And he wasn’t even the primary caregiver!

To my mind, this is all very tragic. Children are a lot of work, but being a parent opens your eyes to so many things that you just didn’t see before. Do we really want the majority of our top academics – our thought leaders and researchers – to be childless, or uninvolved parents? I remember going to a professional dinner once where I was the only parent at my table, and I had a much different perspective on government policy and current political ideas than my childless colleagues.

So, my advice to someone who is in school whilst also raising children is to go for it, we need your perspective! Yet, you must also be prepared to go slower than others around you. Having said that, don’t let the demands of parenting frustrate you. Rather, be assured that your parenting experiences will give you a depth of character that will serve you well in your work.

SV:  Some of us may not immediately see a direct link between Plato or Aristotle and parenting. Could you explain what the connection is, and why philosophers/philosophy is important in raising children?

HHB:  I think there are several different ‘links’ between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and parenting. For me, the main relevance of these philosophies comes down to the interest that both Plato and Aristotle had, in their different ways, in the concept of the ‘human good’. In its simplest terms, the idea of the human good means that there are certain ways of being that are better for humans than other ways. For Aristotle, especially, the human good means that there is such a thing as a human nature. To achieve the human good is to ‘flourish’ as a human being, and this can only be done when one lives in accordance with one’s human nature. Aristotle thought that man’s nature was defined by his ability to be rational, and this rational ability enabled man to be moral. So, living in accordance with human nature means, among other things, to develop one’s capacity to reason about, and to understand, what is right and what is wrong.

Plato and Aristotle were also very interested in the concept of the human soul. Both saw a kind of division in the soul between the rational and the irrational parts of the soul –that is, between our reason and our passions. Both stressed in their own way the need to control or govern our passions with our reason. So, on this model, the human being has thoughts or feelings that might not always be ‘right’; we can be deceived by our desires, or let our passions rule over our reason in a way that we don’t think clearly about the concepts of right, wrong, good and bad.

Now, as a parent, I find this all very fascinating, because I’m in the trenches, raising some little human beings, and I like to think about just what it is I am trying to do here. What exactly am I trying to achieve with these little ones? What kind of potential do they have as human beings? Also, and very importantly, how do you raise a human being to be good? How do you raise a human being to be happy? I think Aristotle is good to ‘think with’ on these kinds of questions. We don’t have to agree with him, but he can offer us some important insights that will at least help us think more deeply our roles as parents.

But it’s not just Aristotle that is good to ‘think with’ – other philosophers take up this idea of the human good in one way or another. Many philosophers, especially modern philosophers, have rejected the idea of the human good. Many have rejected the idea of a ‘human nature’. This kind of philosophical skepticism has huge implications for us as parents, because we have to raise our children in a world that often tells us there is no meaning behind ‘being human’ beyond the meaning that we choose to give it ourselves. I disagree with that idea. But it’s important to understand the philosophical background to that kind of skepticism, if only to realize how it might be influencing us as parents.

SV:  What do you think are some of the greatest challenges/obstacles are for parents raising children today, particularly for parents coming from faith traditions? How might we overcome these challenges?

HHB:  Where do I start?

First, I think as a society we are developing a rather distorted view of freedom, which is impacting parents significantly, most especially parents from faith traditions. This is a radical concept of freedom where the most important value seems to be ‘choice’, and it is choice itself that makes an action right. The problem is that this radical concept of choice does not sit well with other philosophies which do not exalt choice as the highest value. Take abortion as an example. The pro-abortion argument is a pro-choice argument – a woman should have the right to choose what to do with her body. But for someone who is pro-life, the question of when it is morally right to take a human life is a more important consideration than the concept of ‘choice’. Euthansia is another example – should someone be able to ‘choose’ when they die, or is it morally wrong to take one’s life? The proponents of choice say that one should be able to do with one’s body as one sees fit; but there are others that think the sanctity of life is more important than individual choice. Transgender issues are another example – should you be able to choose whether you are a man or a woman?

In all these cases, when choice is the highest value, it becomes the cuckoo in the nest that drives out all other values, all other considerations. And often, the person who suggests that there are other values besides choice is seen as a hateful, backward person who wants to implement some kind of tyranny. Thus, you declare a ‘war on women’ if you are pro-life; you are heartless and cruel if you do not think people should be able to choose when to end their own lives, or choose their own gender.

The problem is that there are other values in that nest with the cuckoo of choice – indeed, those values are what should inform choice. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton puts it: ‘Freedom is of no use to a being who lacks the concepts with which to value things, who lives in a solipsistic vacuum, idly willing now this and now that, but with no conception of an objective order that would be affected by his choice. We cannot derive the ends of conduct from the idea of choice alone.

Because politically we want to protect choice, we often do not speak publically of good choices and bad choices. But as parents, we are the ones who teach our children what kinds of reasons and values need to guide their choices. We are the ones who teach the difference between a good choice and a bad choice.

This is our right, and our duty, as parents, but there are times when I feel this right is slipping away. Just recently there was a story in the news about a teenage boy who wanted to become a transgendered girl, but his parents were Christians and tried to dissuade him. He committed suicide, which caused an outcry in the transgender community against his parents’ efforts to help him accept himself as a boy. Yet, the parents had a right to teach him Christian values, which assert the sanctity of the body, and the importance of the body for one’s identity.

Coming from a faith tradition myself, I am particularly concerned with the increasing hostility toward religion in western society. This hostility seems to be linked to the idea that religions do indeed have a concept of the human good which therefore constrains individual choice. Sadly, it is this hostility which is leading to an increasing suspicion of parents who want to raise their children in a religious way.

Another challenge, of course, is social media. Social media can be wonderful and indeed it has revolutionized the way we do things. I do think it presents a challenge, however, in that our children can spend much, much more time with their peers ‘virtually’ than we ever did in the flesh. It is true that you become like the people you spend time with, so the problem with social media is that if your child is on it all the time – and I do mean all the time – then you really have no idea who they are socializing with, what they are saying, or what is being said to them.

It comes down to a question of influence, I think. As parents we have less of an opportunity to influence our children if we let our families get sucked into the never-ending world of social media. Thankfully I think it is a challenge that can be successfully met if you set limits on when and where your child can have access to the internet, etc., but prepare yourself for an on-going battle, particularly through the teenage years.

Another challenge I must mention is the rise of pornography. I see this as another area in which parents are not only losing influence, but also are being shouted down by those who see no problem with pornography. Ten years ago we were all up in arms about how to protect our kids from internet porn; now, we have government ministers suggesting that kids can turn to porn to learn about sex.

I’ve written about porn in the past; my wholehearted disapproval of it is no secret. I think it gives all the wrong messages and teaches all the wrong lessons about sexual behavior. It trains our passions to desire a certain kind of sexual experience which is selfish, violent, and ultimately lonely; it teaches us to treat the ‘other’ as an object, not a person. It is incredibly addictive and trains us to need new images in order to get aroused, thus making it much harder to sustain fidelity in a committed relationship like marriage. It completely desecrates the sacred union between a man and a woman, and is thus of special concern to parents from faith traditions. Exposure to porn at a young age literally hijacks a child’s sexuality and passions. Yet, the ‘freedom culture’ tells parents they are controlling and backward if they try to protect their children from encountering these monstrous images.

SV:  Given our culture’s emphasis on individualism and personal freedom, and more parents being out of the home so often, could you talk about the importance for parents spending consistent and quality time with their children (e.g. family dinners, family prayer)?

HHB:  These questions all go together so well! I was just talking in the last question about our society’s concept of radical, personal freedom, and also about the notion of a parent’s influence on a child, and those two themes seem to be a part of an answer to this question, too.

Yes, we certainly do emphasize individualism in our culture, as well as a kind of personal freedom that brings with it a kind of unrealistic idea that we are independent from others, particularly our families. That individualism, however, can be very closely tied to an isolated loneliness, especially in the teenage years (just look at the recent growth in self-harming among teenagers), if it isn’t tempered with a good dose of family connectedness.

And how does a family feel connected? Time spent together is an absolutely essential part of it. But it doesn’t have to be ‘perfect time’. In fact, I’m a big believer in the imperfectness of families. One session at our family dinner table can go from laughing to fighting to complaining to scolding to edifying in about 5 minutes, and then repeat the cycle for the rest of the dinner. So parents spending time with their children is not about some kind of perfect world where the child never misbehaves and the parent is never grumpy.   But it is in the acts of eating together, praying together, working together, reading together (I’m a big believer in bedtime stories as well) that those bonds are formed, no matter how clumsy we are in doing them.

What is miraculous is just how important those family bonds are. There is a very high chance they will save a kid from depression, drugs, self-harm, suicide attempts, teenage pregnancy – you name it. And even if a child does get involved in those things, he or she will get out faster and recover quicker if he comes from a strong, close family. So don’t give up on those family dinners and bedtime stories, no matter how chaotic!

SV:  You’ve written about pop music and celebrities in our contemporary culture, and the impact they have on children, particularly teens. Could you talk more about this, specifically the role art and aesthetics play in raising children to be people of virtue? And when and why did this go by way the wayside for parents in our culture? How can we recover the role of art in raising children?

HHB:  I wrote about the influence of celebrities on our children in the context of Plato’s cave, and I still think that is a good analogy. Children are in a kind of ‘cave’ in the sense that they really do not understand, or are aware of, many things around them. So when they encounter celebrities, either in pictures or videos or whatever, those celebrities are presented in such a way that they seem to be so much more beautiful, so much more interesting and so much more successful than ordinary people, or say, one’s parents. I think this is so harmful, first of all because it is false that celebrities are necessarily any of those things (indeed, define ‘beauty’, ‘interesting’ and ‘success’), and second of all because idolizing celebrities stops children from understanding what is of value in their own lives – indeed, what is of value, in itself. In fact, celebrity culture seems to thrive on our weaknesses as humans – our tendencies toward jealousy, vanity, selfishness, and popularity.

Art definitely has an essential role in helping us all – not just children – to become ‘people of virtue’. Speaking for myself, I know when I came out of watching, say, Les Miserables, I was a better person, with a greater determination to love and appreciate those around me, and to live closer to God. I didn’t have a similar determination, however, after I saw Shrek on the West End. Nothing was wrong with Shrek, but it wasn’t ennobling, either. It seems to me that many of us have somehow lost the expectation that art should ennoble us somehow. We expect art to entertain us, but not necessarily to make us better people. On the flip side, many artists these days seem to be more interested in art as a form of self-expression, rather than in art as a way to uplift and inspire. So we spend a lot of time watching and listening to things that are substandard and rather mindless, or that do nothing to inspire the virtues.

How can we recover the role of art in raising children? That’s an excellent question, and like most questions that have to do with raising children, I suspect it doesn’t require a hugely complicated answer. Essentially, I would say we have to use the time we have together to explore art that does inspire virtue. Listening to classical music is a great place to start. Read inspiring books together – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Garden, Heidi, The Giver (my kids loved that book!), and so forth, on a daily basis. Get on google images and look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, etc. Take your children to Shakespeare plays, museums, historical sites and classical music concerts, from a young age. If you can’t afford those sorts of things, then go to YouTube and watch a concert, or get art books or Shakespeare from your library. Indeed, one of my resolutions this year is to memorize passages from Shakespeare with my children. It may seem like a drop in the ocean against the art out there which leads our children away from virtue, but the investment will pay off, and your children will develop a love of good art, even though it might not seem like it for a while.

SV:  For those parents who are interested in more in philosophy, particularly how it relates to parenting, who might you recommend for further reading?

HHB:  That’s a bit of a tricky question, because although I think many philosophical discussions are hugely relevant for parents, the problem is that those discussions are very rarely aimed at parents. So it is often hard for the typical parent who is not trained in philosophy to see what relevance philosophy might have for them in their parenting challenges. Another problem is that many of our major thinkers in Western philosophy were not parents themselves, so although they write about issues that are important for parents, one wonders how their philosophy might have been different if they had had that experience.

Indeed, these problems are among the very things that motivated me to start Philosophy for Parents in the first place! What I try to do in Philosophy for Parents is to write about philosophical concepts that I think can be of help to parents in their everyday interactions with their children. I approach, and write about, philosophy as a parent, whereas perhaps many other philosophers approach philosophy as philosophers. In the future I hope to turn my blog into a book, so that parents will have something to turn to if they want to use philosophy to help them in their parenting.

Having said all that, philosophy is relevant to parents in the sense that it is relevant for all of us: it provides a discussion about what it means to be a good human being, or live a meaningful human life. With that in mind, ancient Greek philosophy is an excellent place to start. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a must. In Plato’s Republic you will find fascinating discussions about why we should be moral, how to educate the young to be virtuous, and the ideal state. I’ve written about Stoicism before – I think it is an especially applicable philosophy for parents, so I also recommend The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I’m fascinated by Thomas Aquinas’s theory of natural law as a way of thinking about our human nature, and that can be found in his Summa Theologica, IaIIae, questions 90-95. Rousseau’s Emile and John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education provide food for thought on education and human development. Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is a less accessible, but profoundly important work on what it means to be moral.  John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism was a significant philosophical work in the 19th century, and continues to be influential on our moral philosophy today; it contains, among other things, thought-provoking discussions on happiness, morality and justice.

If you can’t bear the thought of primary sources, then as an introduction to philosophy try A Short History of Ethics, by Alasdair MacIntyre.


Nature vs. Nurture: Do Your Efforts As a Parent Really Matter?

‘You know what, I actually like helping you. This is a new development for me.’

Thus spake my 16-year-old, a few days ago. Indeed, this is a new development.

Actually, I’ve been noticing an overall change in her for a while. My observations have been done quietly; I didn’t want to draw too much attention to this change, in case making a Big Deal out of it would jinx the whole thing. But recently, it seems that there has been a kind of metamorphosis in her, from a sullen, shouty, defiant young person to a (mostly)cooperative, responsible, caring, mature and joyful one.

Even friends and family have commented to me in private moments that they, too, have noticed the transformation. Interestingly, not one of them has said to me, ‘See, you didn’t have to try so hard as a parent! Everything would work itself out eventually.’ On the contrary, most of the comments have been along the lines of something my father-in-law said to me recently: ‘A lot of time and effort has been invested into that child, and now it’s paying off.’

Please be assured that this ‘success’ has not gone to my head; parenting brought me to my knees –literally – years ago and I remain in a perpetual state of abject humility and vigilance, ever aware that tomorrow may present a challenge which I am not ready to face. Yet, I can’t help feeling a deep sense of satisfaction regarding my daughter’s recent flourishing.   For, according to Aristotle, human flourishing does not just ‘happen’. It takes time and effort on the part of the older generation to help the younger generation reach their potential as human beings. In that sense, I feel a powerful sense of peace, knowing that although my efforts to raise my children require a tremendous sacrifice on my part, they are not in vain.

Aristotle on Human Development

I have explained before that Aristotle thinks that human beings have what he calls an ‘end’ or a ‘purpose’, which is to live in accordance with reason in thought and action. Remember that reason, for Aristotle, has a moral function: it is the faculty we use to understand what is right and what is wrong. I have also explained that he believes that happiness – which can also be translated as ‘flourishing’ – is achieved by human beings when they live in accordance with this ‘end’. That is, human beings flourish when they have developed their moral reasoning in such a way that they can not only understand what is right, but also conform their actions to this understanding.

Now, for Aristotle, the concept of ‘end’ is also associated with what he calls ‘form.’ The form of a thing is, quite simply, what it means to be that thing. So, for instance, the form of a horse is a mature, healthy, well-functioning, adult horse.   The ‘form’ of a horse is also its ‘end’, in the sense that horses have a natural tendency to develop into their form, and stop developing when they have reached this form.

In this way, Aristotle thinks that form operates as a dynamic power in all living organisms, driving them toward their mature state. An immature organism –for instance, a lamb – possess the form of a sheep, but only in a state of potentiality. As the lamb grows into a sheep, its form manifests itself gradually, from differing levels of potentiality, into, finally, a state of full actuality.

Now, human beings have a form, too, which is to live in accordance with reason. But Aristotle thinks that man is separate from all other natural beings in that he is much less determined by nature to reach that form. He is designed by nature to become a certain kind of person, but he will not naturally develop into that kind of person without help and guidance.

Parenting: From Potentiality to Actuality

As a parent, I find Aristotle’s description of the human condition fascinating here: as human beings we have capacities for specific ways of being, but those capacities may never see the light of day if we aren’t nurtured in the right way. Thus, for me, much of parenting is about guiding the process of growth from a child’s potential character to their actual character.

But the problem is that this is not a straightforward process. Not at all. Aristotle tells us that it is through the repetition of virtuous acts that children will one day develop virtuous characters, and this certainly seems true. Yet, what if, as a parent, you try your absolute best to raise your child to be a good human being – to bring out those capacities for goodness – and they still do not seem to develop in the right way? What if your efforts seem to yield no discernable results? What if your child complains about every rule, defies every injunction, and refuses every opportunity?

I thought about all these issues a few weeks ago as I sat and watched my 16-year-old perform in her Christmas Choir Concert. She auditioned last spring for the top choir in her school –a very competitive process – and got in. At one point during the concert, the singers sang by candlelight an arrangement of the Coventry Carol, a moving, painful song that talks about the babies killed by King Herod as he tried to find the baby Jesus. I was brought to tears as I watched her sing that song; she sang it hauntingly, and so beautifully, with an expression of tenderness that came from somewhere deep in her soul.

As I watched her, I started to ponder on the recent transformation I and so many others had noticed in her. She may have only been giving a performance, but it seemed to me that the ability to sing in this heartfelt way had to be grounded in a character which was beginning to develop a more mature understanding of right and wrong, redemption, and love.

And then, so much of the past flashed before me. I thought about all the fights with siblings over the years, and what I thought at the time were my failed attempts to intervene – sometimes to just say ‘stop it’ and give some kind of random sanction, but other times to talk seriously about what it means to be loving and kind in a family. I thought about all the talks we had about what it means to be a good person, most of which I thought had gone in one ear and out the other.

I thought about other character building experiences, too: all times she threw a fit about practicing her music, and I insisted.   I thought about all my failed attempts to find good music teachers, and somehow trying again and again until we found what she needed. I thought about all her struggles in school: my many attempts to help her develop a good work ethic; the frustrating parent/teacher conferences I had, where I had to fight her corner against teachers who saw no reason to help her succeed. I thought about all the times she was passed over for major roles in plays and musicals; all the music competitions where she didn’t place. I thought about all the schools I researched for her over the years, as I constantly looked for new ways to help her reach her potential; even all the family hikes and museum trips we took, and all the bedtime stories I read to her, all of which gave us occasion to talk about human themes such as family, faith, sacrifice, goodness, freedom and love.

As all these things flashed before me, I got a very distinct feeling that even though so many of my efforts with her seemed to be failures – or at the very least inconsequential – they were all worth it. They had all contributed to the incredible, maturing creature I saw before me.

Please note that the creature was just singing. She was not winning any major awards or competitions. But her flourishing, as a human being, could not have been more evident to me.

The road of parenting is a long one, and often a hard one. So much of the time, we cannot see the fruits of our labors. None of us are perfect, we make mistakes, and at times it feels as if our repetitious and often clumsy efforts aren’t producing anything of significance.

But they are.


To Edit, or Not to Edit, Your Child’s Playlist: That is the Question

I spend a lot of time, it seems, in the car with my children. My teenagers especially get lots of car time. I try to use this time well – you know, talking about the meaning of life, encouraging them to talk about their experiences and feelings, exhorting them to goodness, and so forth. But after about 3 minutes of parent/child quality time, inevitably one of the teenagers turns on the radio.

Then we are treated to what is apparently some of the very best music that contemporary Western culture has to offer. And there is no getting away from it, since every station plays the same stuff. So inspirational is this art form of pop music that I break out into a kind of sullen monologue every time I hear it. The monologue varies slightly from day to day, but runs pretty much like this:

‘This song is about getting high. Change it please. OK, now in this song we have a bunch of young women shouting at us “I don’t care, I love it, I love it” over and over again. What kind of a song is that? Let’s change it. What? Here’s another young woman shouting in a different song that she really doesn’t care. This is all really rather mindless. I’ll change it, shall it? Ahh, more shouty music on this station, with no discernable tune. Someone is shouting something like “turn down for what”. Can’t even listen to it – neither the words or the music make any sense. You know what? Let’s just turn it off. Did you know that was an option?’

OK – I’ll admit it: I have high standards when it comes to music. My opinion is that classical music, opera and musical theatre are superior art forms to pop and rock music. But you don’t have to share that opinion – as indeed my husband does not – in order to appreciate that pop music seems to be more or less the only form of music which our society makes accessible to children. The teenage culture filters down to the younger ones, and basically as soon as a child starts watching TV, movies and playing computer games, pop music becomes a huge part of their lives. Pop music is played routinely in stores, theme parks, swimming pools, and at school assemblies and community events. TV shows like The X-Factor or Teen Idol of course exalt the pop music culture further, spreading the myth among the rising generation that being a pop star is the apex of musical achievement.

There are a few problems with this ubiquitousness of pop music. One is that it is really very confining. We think we have lots of choices in our ‘free market’, but the truth is that we are confined by what is on offer. And we start to think that what is on offer is all there is, unless we are educated otherwise.

For instance, a few years ago, I went to a talent show at my children’s elementary school. With the exception of two or three performances out of about twenty-five, the talent on offer consisted of one child after another ‘singing’ current pop music to a pre-recorded track.

I don’t blame the children, and I don’t even blame the parents. It’s just a reflection of the utter lack of musical education in huge parts of our society. It’s also a reflection of the way the market thrusts its own kind of education upon us – and more to the point, our children – if we aren’t discriminating consumers.

This leads to the second problem regarding the ubiquitousness of pop music. It seems to suggest the idea that we don’t need to be discriminating consumers. Pop music is fun, it is catchy. Above all, it is entertainment. And what’s wrong with entertainment?

Actually, the idea that music is purely for entertainment is a modern idea. Ancient thinkers had a much different conception of music, where they understood it to have a significant impact on human beings, and therefore, upon their communities. The philosopher Plato gives us a provocative discussion of the influence of music in his Republic, a work which discusses the conditions necessary for the ideal state.

Plato argues that the ideal state needs to be governed by guardians, a class of people who would be bred and selected for their tendency for unselfishness and a love of wisdom, as opposed to a love of power. These guardians must be carefully educated from their birth, and exposed only to art forms which would encourage them to temperance, bravery, wisdom, piety, virtue and so forth.

Music, Plato argues, is ‘more potent’ than other types of art, ‘because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten’. Therefore, the guardians must not be allowed to listen to certain kinds of music:   harmonies which encourage ‘drunkenness and softness and indolence’, and rhythms which encourage ‘meanness, insolence and fury’. Plato goes so far as to list the specific harmonies and cords which should be banished from the state, and then argues that instruments should be made in such a way that those harmonies could not be played. On the flip side, the guardians should listen to the harmonies and rhythms which inspire them to courageous acts in battle, pious moments, self-control, moderation and wisdom.

To modern ears, Plato’s views on music seem completely alien. But, in a way, that’s what makes him so important. Now, of couse, Plato has some rather draconian and totalitarian recommendations, and his total disregard for freedom of expression – outlawing certain harmonies, for instance – offends our modern sensibilities. But he is motivated by a truth that as a society we have lost: the truth that music has a serious effect upon our minds, and our emotions. In short, it affects our souls, if you believe, as I do, that there is such a thing as the soul.

One could argue that in our modern world we do still have a conception of art, and especially music, as a serious communication of important ideas. But I would argue that while this is true, we moderns are also unwilling to acknowledge that art can have a significant negative affect upon us, to the point that we should avoid it.

For instance, if I stop my children from being exposed to certain types of music, by say, turning off the radio or editing my teenager’s play list, then I am a controlling parent. (And indeed, I certainly felt like a controlling parent when my 12 year old stomped, screamed and slammed multiple doors when my husband and I deleted Katie Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ from her playlist).

Even worse, I am working against the noble ideals of free speech and freedom of expression. I may not like it, but I shouldn’t stop it, even in my own home. So our children listen to the music of pop culture, unchecked. The vast majority of teenagers, and even pre-teens, are plugged constantly into their playlists, receiving a steady stream of music that is either mindless and trivial, or centered around themes of sex, drugs, alcohol, defiance, unhealthy relationships, and anger.

Our liberal world demands that we hold up freedom as the highest value. Yet, in order to do this, we often have to convince ourselves that nothing resulting from our culture of free expression affects us, or our children – not very much, anyway – and that we can handle anything.

In my view, free expression is a necessary, noble thing. But, as parents, we have to understand that this freedom must be tempered by a different kind of freedom: the freedom that comes from understanding our human condition. As human beings we are affected profoundly by our culture and our environment. The messages from what we see and what we hear have a huge influence on how we live our lives. Even though we live in a free society, our culture can be almost oppressive at times in its ubiquitousness.  Yet, we always have the choice to ask our children extricate themselves from their headphones, or turn off the TV, and look together for alternatives to what our narrow, overly-commercialized, spiritually deficient, pop culture has to offer our children.

This is what I would suggest.  Because believe it or not, your children will thank you one day for showing them a different way.  I’m off to put Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven on my teenager’s playlist.  (Good luck with that).

Fighting Children, and Happy Families

Yesterday, we were driving home from the swimming pool. ‘Ok’, I said to the children, ‘we have a busy evening ahead of us, and the first thing we need to do when we get home is have showers.’

They responded almost in unison. ‘I bagsy the shower first!’ said the 11-year-old. ‘No, I’m first!’ said the seven-year-old. ‘I’ll be first!’ said the nine-year-old. The five-year-old was silent because she hates showers.

It’s the summer (still – but be assured that I am still smiling, mostly), and with the opportunity to spend long days together, I have noticed a lot of competition among my children. However, ‘competition’ might be putting it nicely. Basically, they seem to fight a lot.

They fight over what movie to watch on family movie night. They fight over computer time. They fight over who does what household job, when they get to practice their instruments, who gets what cereal in the morning, what cookie, the last drop of milk, etc. They fight over who made what messes (and therefore who should have to clean up said messes), who stole from who, who bullied who. And I, unhappily, take on the role of the policeman, who reigns in the inertia towards mutual destruction.

Thinking with Hobbes About Why Children Fight

In observing these distressing tendencies of my children, I am reminded of what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as the ‘natural condition of mankind’. He famously declared that when humans live without a common power ‘to keep them all in awe’, life for man is ‘nasty, brutish and short.’

Although I hope our family life is better than that, I do sometimes wonder what would happen to my children if I wasn’t there to keep them all in awe by reminding them that I, indeed, am in charge. I don’t think things would get as bad as they do in, say, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, it is a very rare thing indeed to see my children de-escalate a conflict without my (usually exasperated and rather unsympathetic) assistance.

So, why the natural tendency toward conflict? We could look at a myriad of philosophical and theological discussions on this question, but at the moment I want to focus on Hobbes. He argued that nature has made human beings more or less equal to one another in their abilities, both regarding physical strength and intelligence. Of course, some people are stronger or cleverer than others. But Hobbes thinks that when all is ‘reckoned together’, the differences between humans are small enough that, when one man ‘claims to himself any benefit’, another man can ‘pretend’ to that benefit as well.

In other words, our natural equality leads us to see ourselves as having an equal claim regarding whatever we need, and whatever we want. When resources are finite – which they always are – and two people aim to obtain something which they both cannot have, they become enemies. Thus, rather than engendering feelings of cooperation and respect for one another, this equality among humans instead leads to strife.

This strife is so endemic of the human condition, that Hobbes argues that when men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in ‘that condition which is called WAR.’

Human Beings and the Natural Tendency Toward Conflict

Now, I should note that Hobbes is talking about humans in society generally, rather than about family life. Yet, I have found him to be an interesting starting point in thinking about the contention among my children.

Hobbes’s bold, provocative statements about human beings get me thinking about what is ‘natural’. Hobbes stresses that we have a ‘natural’ tendency toward conflict with others, but what does that mean for our families? How are we supposed to keep our families together if by nature we are disposed to act in ways that drive each other away?

Also, if I look at my children from an Hobbesian point of view, I find myself thinking, ‘What is the point of all of this effort? I don’t want to spend my day policing my children, settling their squabbles, only to wake up again the next morning, and the next, and the next, and have to do it all again. Why have children if nature has made human beings so disagreeable?’

Now, of course one can argue that our nature isn’t all bad. We ‘naturally’ have other tendencies, like the tendency to love and to care. We may have anti-social tendencies, but we have social tendencies, too. By nature we seek out the company of other humans. Indeed, as Aristotle and many other philosophers have argued, we are social creatures.

What Does it Mean for Something to be ‘Natural’?

But I want to think for a minute about a different sense of ‘nature’. We have been talking about ‘nature’ in the sense of having a natural tendency toward something. But what is natural for us can also be what is necessary for us to develop and fulfill our human potential. For instance, when Aristotle argued that humans are by nature social, he didn’t mean that social life for humans would ‘come naturally’ to them, in the sense that it would always be harmonious and free from contention. What he meant was that humans have a nature which needs a social environment in order to thrive.

If I think of nature in this way, then I start to look at my children’s fighting differently. Humans are by nature social, and the family unit is a fundamental part of that sociability. In this sense, humans need to be a part of a family in order to thrive and fully develop their human nature. Family contention, though distressing, is not a sign that families are bad for us, or indeed that it will always be thus. It just means that some of the most important, ‘natural’ aspects of our human existence do not always come naturally. Rather, they take practice and effort. In our case, lots of it.

Parenting: Working to Create What is Natural

Recently I went to the grocery store with my oldest daughter, who is 16. As she pushed the cart around the store, she suddenly said to me, ‘I have a feeling this is what it’s going to be like in 40 years from now.’ ‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘You know, going shopping with you, leading you around the store because you’ve got Alzheimer’s or something, pushing your cart, wiping your drool ….’

‘Well, it will be pay-back time,’ I said. I laughed, but soon I felt myself welling up inside. It wasn’t because I was afraid of the prospect of getting Alzheimer’s or growing old. Rather, I was welling up because even though we were laughing, I knew she was serious, and I was overwhelmed by her willingness to be there for me. And in a moment of sudden clarity, I realized that despite all the conflict and strife, something somewhere in our family had gone right. Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, my daughter had developed into an incredible human being who understood the importance of family.

Some days, my parenting feels like nothing more than a futile exercise to keep in check my children’s natural tendency to compete and fight. But I can see now that my efforts have not been in vain. By not giving up on the goal of a happy, loving home, we are all learning together how to create this most natural of human institutions.