As a parent, what is it exactly you are trying to do? Maybe you are trying to raise your child to be really good at school. Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be responsible with money, or great at sports, or fabulous on an instrument. Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be charitable, or community-minded. Whatever goals you may have for your child, surely most of us as parents have the same end goal in mind: we want to raise our children to be happy.
Funnily enough, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says the same thing about how human beings in general try to live life. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that everything we do in life aims at some purpose, which for him is synonymous with some ‘good’ or ‘end’. Some of our actions are meant to accomplish smaller or lower ends; for instance, I do the laundry because I want my children to wear clean clothes. However, all of the lower ends we aim to accomplish are done for the sake of something higher, until we come to the highest end in life, the ‘chief good’, which is the thing that we aim at above everything else – the thing that we want ‘for its own sake.’ And that chief good for man, according to Aristotle, is happiness.
However, even though we all aim for happiness, Aristotle thinks that many of us will fall short of that goal. That’s because we misunderstand the nature of happiness. For Aristotle, not just any old way of life will make us happy. No, Aristotle believes that you have to live a certain kind of life – indeed, even become a certain kind of person, in order to be happy.
Restrictive Parenting and the Unhappiness of Children
So often my children seem unhappy. Let me talk about the issue that seems to cause a great amount of unhappiness in our household: restricting ‘screen-time’.
Perhaps like many other parents, have a pressing concern about ‘screen-time’. I do not wish to stop the march of technology – knowing this to be only a futile exercise – but at the same time, an ipod, iphone, ipad, smartphone or whatever in the hands of a child or teenager can be a very destructive thing.
First, there is the addiction issue. I have teenagers who live to socialize. If they lived 30 years ago, there would have been natural limits to the socializing during their waking hours. But now, from the minute they awaken to the minute they (don’t) go to sleep, they have instant access to hundreds of ‘friends’. Since socializing is the end of their existence, they see no reason whatsoever to detach themselves, at any point in the day, from the many forms of social media. There is no other activity they particularly want to pursue, such as homework, family time, reading a book, learning a skill, or practicing their music. And I don’t think they are the only ones. If an addiction is defined as something which takes over your life, then most teenagers I know seem to be well and truly addicted to their screens.
Second, there is the privacy issue, which spills over into what I will call the ‘appropriate’ issue. With FaceTime, my children can speak face to face, for free, with anyone, at any time, and more to the point, in any location. So I worry when teenage boys call up on FaceTime, from their bedrooms, scantily clad, wanting to have a very long conversation. With Snapchat, anyone can take a picture of themselves, clothed or otherwise, in whatever pose they choose, send it to their friends, and then a few seconds later the image is deleted, leaving no way for parents to check up on what their children are doing. The ‘screen’ has introduced us into a bizarre world in which what is private becomes public, and at times my children need some convincing that there is a difference between the two.
There are many other concerns I have with screens which I won’t discuss here – for instance, the addictive nature of computer games, especially for boys, and the ever-present danger of pornography – but even these most basic ones are enough for me to be setting restrictions for when the children can have their screens and when they can’t. No screen during homework. No screen during music practice. No screen during family mealtimes. No screen in the bedroom after 9pm (it comes into Mom and Dad’s room for the night), and so forth.
The rules, however, are perceived by the teenagers as harsh, demeaning and punitive. The true extent of their resentment was revealed to me when one of them compared taking away her screen to the performance of female circumcision. The other one said, ‘My friend would have committed suicide by now with these rules.’ Apparently we as parents are engaging in the extremely brutal – and, according to them, completely unthinkable to anyone else – practice of screen extraction.
Aristotle’s Happiness: Align Actions with Values, Not Impulses
Often I feel alone in this battle. So many other kids seem to have their screens all the time; I know, because they try to contact my kids in the middle of the night! There have been times when self-doubt has crept in. Am I doing the right thing by insisting on these restrictions? Am I fighting the right battle? Is it worth it to make my children so unhappy?
I take heart from Aristotle, who takes a longer term view of happiness than what is happening in the here and now. This is not to say that I think we should ignore our children’s immediate concerns and feelings; only to say that Aristotle believes that the concept that happiness is something that needs to be learned over time, rather than something that comes about through indulgence of whatever we want to do at any given moment.
In the last entry I talked about Aristotle’s idea of the human good, which is that man reaches the good for him as a human being when he lives his life according to reason. As may be clear by now, the human good and happiness, for Aristotle, are closely linked: those who achieve the human good are those who are happy.
Yet, there is more to Aristotle’s concept of happiness. Aristotle says that the happy man is the man who acts according to reason well. It isn’t enough for a happy life to sometimes act according to reason, and sometimes not. Acting according to reason must become a habit for us; it must become part of our character. So, achieving happiness for Aristotle is a process. It comes as we gradually develop our reason and learn to be good at using our reason to govern our actions.
We have already established that to act according to reason means to use one’s practical reason to control the impulses, desires and emotions that we have as part of our human nature, so that we feel them and act on them in the right way. Along this same line of thought, Aristotle thinks that reason is the faculty that enables us to act for an end, or a goal. Impulses and emotions make us focused on what is happening right now, and can blind us as to the ‘bigger picture’ – for instance, my child has made me very angry, and I lose my temper, but I haven’t thought about how losing my temper is going to damage my relationship with that child. It is reason that enables us to look past what our impulses are urging us to do at the present moment, and plan for a longer term goal based on our values – on what is really important to us.
How to Help Children Be Happy
Now, what about the child that has a strong impulse to engage constantly (and I do mean constantly) with social media, or play computer games for hours on end? To state the obvious – although perhaps for some it is controversial – these impulses can interfere with some important longer term goals. Achieving a good education, developing the ability to concentrate on tasks which don’t provide immediate rewards, building up family relationships by actually giving them your full attention and talking to them when they are sitting right next to you, keeping physically fit, and so on –these are all part of a fulfilling life, and they are all adversely affected with too much screen time.
Following these impulses may make your child feel as though he is happy, and all of his friends may be unrestricted in following their impulses. Furthermore, your child may throw a major temper tantrum when you get up guts to tell him that enough is enough, and it’s time to get some fresh air and interact with the real world. Yet, no matter what your child’s reaction to the enforcement of your restrictions (and I’ve witnessed some pretty awful ones), I think as parents we have to be confident in the knowledge that the restriction of indulgence is a prescription for long-term happiness. Stay strong, fellow warriors, and remember that Aristotle is on to something when he argues that true happiness comes from acting on our values rather than on our impulses.