Raising Human Beings

     What does it mean to raise a human being?  As parents this is perhaps the most important question we will ponder.  It is a question that goes beyond our relentless day to day interactions with our children; and yet, those daily interactions will be transformed by answering this question.  As a student of philosophy as well as a parent, I have found that philosophy can shed some light on this issue.

Children and Robots

I have a teenager who, for a long time, seemed to thrive on disobeying me.  Actually, the chronic disobedience started way before she was a teenager.  As my husband and I tried to cope during those early years, we constantly reassured ourselves that all the disobedience would be out of her system by the time she hit adolescence.

Well, we were wrong.  When she was twelve we gave her a very old phone, and told her to only use it at certain times.  She never followed our instructions.  When she was thirteen she got Facebook, and she was only allowed to go on it in certain places, for only a certain amount of time during the day.  She only did what we said if she was being monitored; beyond that, she disregarded our rules.  Then, we started seeing inappropriate comments she would post on Facebook, which sometimes included swear words.  We told her not to use swear words, but when we checked her messages, we saw that she was, again, disregarding our injunctions.  Other adults would contact me to tell me the bad things she was posting on Facebook.  It was embarrassing.

I felt like a bad mother, but at the same time, I didn’t feel I could blame myself for her actions.  I had done everything I could to teach her responsible and upstanding behavior, and I had tried to model it myself.  But it seemed that no matter how much ‘input’ I gave to her in terms of values and expectations, there was not an ‘output’ aligned with those values and expectations.

Then, it struck me.  My child may not follow parental instructions, and that may signal a host of vices on her part, but at the same time, my child is not a robot.  She is something far more complex, far more difficult, but far more wonderful.  She is a human being.

Then, I realized that as a parent I had never really thought about what it means to raise a human being.  Although I consider parenting to be the most important job I will ever have, up to this point I had approached it thinking about my children as individuals, not so much as beings with a common, human nature.  I started to think more about what I could expect of them as human beings, and what they could achieve as human beings.

Aristotle on What it Means to be Human

In pondering this issue, I turned to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.  Although Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics does talk about what humans need to be raised properly, his discussion is based on a more fundamental question:  what does it mean to be a human being?

Aristotle discusses this mostly from the concept of what he calls the human good.  What is ‘the good’ for human beings?  If we know what is good for them, and, more especially, what is the ‘highest good’ for them, then we will know what it means to be human, and vice versa.

However, when Aristotle addresses these questions, there is something deeper going on.  For the idea of ‘the good’ for humans is tied up with what he calls the ‘end’ of a human.  The Greek word for end is telos, and it also means ‘purpose’ or ‘goal’.  Nature always acts for a purpose, or an end, and therefore man has an end which is dictated by his nature.  The question of what it means to be a human being is defined by what man’s telos – or end – is.

Man’s Telos and the Function Argument

In exploring man’s telos, Aristotle says that we need to identify what he calls the ‘function’ of man.  The function of a thing is its ‘characteristic activity’; it is what a thing does specifically as that thing.  So, for instance, the function of an eye is sight.  The eye is made up of many different elements, which, when put together in a certain way, operate to enable it to see.  However, we understand what an eye is, not by looking at its constituent parts (although that may help), but by defining what its purpose, or function is – that is, by understanding what it does.  Furthermore, a ‘good’ eye is one that sees well; that is, it performs its function to a high standard.

So, what is man’s function?  What is it that a human being does that is special to him  as a human being?  Aristotle’s answer is to compare humans to other living things (plants and animals), to isolate what is peculiar about humans.  Plants can receive nutrition and grow, so merely staying alive and growing physically is not peculiar to us.  Animals have sensation (pleasure and pain), perception, imagination, and movement.  Human beings, however, have a rational element to their soul which is not present in other living things, so for Aristotle, the function of man ‘is an activity of soul’ in accordance with ‘a rational principle’.

To achieve the ‘human good’ then, which is also to reach one’s telos, is to live according to reason in thought and in action.

Practical Reason

But what does this mean, to live according to reason?

Aristotle believes that as human beings we have different parts to our soul, an irrational part and a rational part.  The irrational part includes involuntary actions, but also our passions, emotions, instincts and impulses.  To act in a way characteristic of humans, we need to govern the irrational part of our soul with our reason.

By the term ‘reason’, Aristotle does not just mean the thought process that allows us to understand concepts such as ‘2 + 2 = 4’.  He calls that ‘theoretical reason’.  There is also ‘practical reason’, which is the reason we use to guide the irrational part of our soul.  We don’t want to be controlled by our impulses, emotions, etc.; rather, we want to control them.  For instance, if we feel angry, we want to be able to control our anger so that we don’t lash out in violence; if we feel fear in the face of a challenge, we want to be able to overcome the instinct to run away.  Animals act on instinct, and in this way they do not have the power to act ‘otherwise’.  Humans, however, through their reason, can overcome their instincts and base their actions on choice.

Furthermore, for Aristotle, it is through our reason that we come to understand what is right and what is wrong.  When Aristotle says that we need to govern our actions through a ‘rational principle’, he means that there are good and bad ways of acting, and we can understand what is the right thing for us to do through our reason.

Parenting Human Beings

So, what implications does Aristotle’s notion of the human good have for raising human beings?  Try this:  if the human good is to live a life according to reason, then raising human beings must entail respect for their developing rationality.  This means two things.

First, I should expect a lot of irrationality.  Since their reason isn’t fully developed, my children will not have great control over their emotions, impulses and instincts.  There will be times when they make bad choices, including the choice to be disobedient.

Second, although they are not yet fully rational, I should expect that they will want to enjoy the privilege of rationality – that is, being able to make choices on how to live their lives.  It is in their human nature to try to use whatever level of reason they do have, even if, again, it means they make a bad choice.

This does not mean that I have to agree with their decisions which I believe to be wrong, let them carry out a course of action that I know will harm them, or neglect to teach them values for fear of ‘forcing’ my own reason upon them.  On the contrary, Aristotle says that children must be taught values – and trained to live those values – or else their reason will not develop properly.

What it does mean, however, is that learning to use one’s own reason rightly takes a long time. During the process, I should expect disagreements, arguments and differences of opinion. I should expect children who test boundaries to see if the notions of right and wrong that I set down for them are those they can one day accept for themselves.

In short, I should expect children who are human beings.

14 comments on “Raising Human Beings

  1. Hannah says:

    My interest was piqued as soon as I saw the title. We have found as parents that we are constantly talking about some of those topics you mentioned in this post as we try to raise each of our four, very different children; not to be robots, but to be well adjusted, happy,(and hopefully obedient!) individuals. I’ll follow this blog with interest!

  2. Melody says:

    I enjoyed reading this first post. I certainly agree that children are, and should be treated as, human beings. As we know, (& I have certainly been reminded of lately!) even children from the same families, upbringings and backgrounds can be very different in personality, opinions and learning styles. What works for one may well be ineffective for another, I think it’s all about working out how our children ‘work’ and tailoring our parenting to suit. I think a key point you mention is respect; I personally feel it’s important to show respect from the start in order to gain respect from our children. I also agree that when we allow children to make choices in their own lives, even simple things like what to have for breakfast or what clothes to wear etc, they respond much more positively than if told what to do and expected to comply ‘robot style’.
    I too will follow this blog with interest 🙂

  3. Heather M says:

    Travelling and staying with so many families exposed myself and my husband to a range of different parenting styles. I learned that each style though different was not right or wrong. I think that it is not only a planned parenting strategy in each situation, but also a reaction to being confronted with individuals and personalities. Children as you said are human beings with their own personalities, with free agency to react to situations differently. I really enjoyed your perspective on this.

  4. Anneliese says:

    We have over the past 18 months or so started to recognize the differences between our young girls. What worked so easily for our first is totally backfiring with her younger sisters! I zeroed in on your “respect” idea here as well as I’ve just finished reading “Positive Time-Out,” which has at its heart respect for children. I’m curious if you’ve read that and if so what you think…

    • I haven’t read ‘Positive Time-Out’ (sounds interesting, though), so I can’t comment. I can only comment on my view of respect which I mentioned here. By respect, I don’t mean that we as parents have to agree with or even support everything our children say or do – for instance, when they beg you for that second or third chocolate bar, or demand to have SnapChat (I’m not a fan!). Rather, reading Aristotle helped me to think about respecting my children in the sense of respecting the capacities they have as human beings. They are developing their potential to be rational every day, even though sometimes all it looks like is tantrums and defiance and whining. The difficulties are an inherent part of the process of becoming rational. Rather than letting the difficulties get to me, I have found that thinking of my children as future ‘rational thinkers’ gives me a newfound respect for them and I can be a bit more circumspect – and less worried – about their bad choices.

  5. Katy says:

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post. I have been thinking a lot lately about the dichotomy between wanting strict obedience from our children and yet also wanting them to develop into young adults (and older adults) who are capable of making rational, educated choices. Your words have given me more food for thought!

  6. Norine Bleakley says:

    “The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only – and that is to support the ultimate career. ”
    ― C.S. Lewis

    I’ve often used a quote that marked a shift in my own child rearing approach when my kids were young that is “I used to have six theories about child rearing. Now I have six children and no theories” I can’t remember who said it but trust she won’t mind if I quote it. It marked a shift in my perception that nature vs nurture was ALL there was and that THAT was merely a matter of degree. How to ‘nurture’ their individual gifts in a way that respects their ‘nature’! But then to the question of their nature. Human nature. And what exactly does THAT mean? Re the need for boundaries: someone once used a metaphor of cows pushing against the perimeter fence in a field or a new family pet exploring the limits of his new house as an illustration of a child’s need to know where the boundaries are and where the lines are drawn, so to speak. He said it isn’t that cows necessarily want to escape from the safety of the field or the family pet from the safety of his home (assuming the animals aren’t being abused) or that the child actually wants freedom from the limits he/she is driven to test. The suggestion is that a child really wants to find the boundaries he continually tests secure and firm. He wants to know what they are so he explores their limits – like cows in a field hanging about the perimeter fence. The key is – if you have the stamina and can keep one step ahead of all six children (or maybe it’s only one) – to reassure him they are firm and haven’t changed and can be relied on by the application of kind, child-sized consequences for their breach. Removal of a privilege? A little less freedom for an hour or so as a ‘penalty’. No child will say “Thank you mummy for correcting me or thank you for showing me how important these boundaries are that I need”. They’re more likely to show you how much they hate being restrained by making YOU feel like the ogre. If I needed them to like me I’d have caved long ago. Fortunately they say they never doubted I loved them though, to be perverse, someone of them will likely thwart this too smug sounding self perception. This will be more theological than philosophical but there’s this old idea that human nature is ‘fallen’ seeking it’s own good which is really no good at all. Body, soul (mind, will and emotions) and spirit. Inside, there’s a spirit longing for fulfillment of it’s purpose ‘God sets eternity in the heart of man’ seeking freedom AND safety and longing to be filled while ‘reason’ vainly attempts to work out what it wants and how to get it. Power, usually. Soft power. Manipulative power. Control. Conflicting ‘purposes’? The shift in perception for me was accepting or delighting (when I’d energy) in their creative one-up-man-ship – sabotage of rules that they hadn’t already been persuaded were accompanied by blessings (rewards) and by not being surprised to discover that children were not naturally ‘good’. Finally sharing with them the journey of what it means to submit the desire for power and control to a greater good. A greater god (than me).

  7. Brandi says:

    Thank you for the lesson in age-old truths, familiar but through another perspective. Most profound for me is this idea of giving a human being child the “privilege of rationality.” I find, at times, that a particular pattern for disobedience and a poor choice making history causes me to attach a disobedient label or expectation for disobedience. Although trust and privileges must be earned and sometimes re-earned, I find that when my approach to that child comes from a place of love rather than judgement, the result is much more effective guidance. It’s enlightening to understand why it is so. Thank you Holly and Aristotle!

    • I have found the same is true in my experience – where there is a history of poor choices, it is hard to trust that child. And yet, I have found that I must not make it too hard for them to earn back my trust, because children want to exercise their budding rational capacity. It is, dare I say, in their nature to want to guide their own actions.

  8. Every parent of more than 2 children has at least 1 child that never does as they are told – just so we can never think that when it comes to parenting we have all the answers!

  9. Helen says:

    Hi Holly! So glad you have your blog started! I will follow it with interest!
    This post made me think of two things around the topic of raising human beings, that are kind of connected.
    I remember a quote from an Apostle saying that he tried to say no to his children as little as possible. This has stayed with me over the years – children do want to feel secure inside some boundaries, but not in a crippling way which doesn’t let them develop their own human-ness… I think we need to pick our battles (over which boundaries we set) with great care.
    The second thing was a quote from Truman G Madsen. ‘Law doesn’t tell us what we MUST do. It tells us the inevitable consequences of what we CHOOSE to do.’ This has great implications for parents. I do not see myself as a law giver in the wider sense, but I see my role as a ‘law explainer’. Universal laws do exist, and like I think Aristotle was saying, compliance with these does lead to ‘the good’ for humans. (For those of us who are religious, we have a clear ideas about these universal laws.) We do of course have to be small scale law enforcers at times – like you say to protect and teach them, but as they get older and their ability to reason grows we can be united with our children in helping them discover the laws, and in helping them learn how to comply with them to their ultimate benefit. My kids are not fighting against me, in that I am not the law or consequence giver (beyond small scale day-to-day things). When they realise this, there is little to rebel against, but this realisation has to come alongside an understanding of the natural consequences.
    I have seen this shift in mentality – this greater ability to reason, really kick in at about age 10-11 in all of my children above this age. It seems to be a time when there is a greater need for attention, love and conversation, and where the bonds are strengthened in preparation for the type of relationship which is needed where you are in a position to be a ‘law explainer’ and in helping them discover what the laws are, and how best to live them. (I’m not saying we don’t also teach them before this age, by the way!)
    Hope you are all well anyway!

    • I love the image of reasoning with your children. It is another aspect of respecting their rationality which I didn’t mention in this post. One sense of respecting them is understanding that they will want to try to be in control of their own actions, and expecting that at times they won’t do this well. Another sense of respecting their rationality is, as you say, reasoning with them about ‘the good’ – engaging with them over questions of what is right and what is wrong.

  10. Stephanie says:

    I agree. It’s so hard sometimes to let our children experience the natural consequences of their irrational decisions, but it’s the only way they can independently confirm the (in)validity of their choices.

  11. Wendy says:

    There is nothing more rewarding (and frustrating at times) than attempting to raise our children to fully develop as human beings with all their potential for good (and for mischief), hoping to help them “see” what sorts of choices will bring them lasting satisfaction and enduring freedom…Therein lies the importance of our work as parents. Thank you for creating this blog!

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