Leading Our Children Away From Celebrity Culture

Is anyone else tired of hearing about Miley Cyrus?  Or Justin Bieber, Selina Gomez, Lindsay Lohan, or any other teenage – or not-so-teenage – celebrities?  Their dysfunctional relationships, audacious behavior, drug abuse, sex lives, partying, etc. is paraded constantly before our eyes.  We live in a strange world where emotionally unhealthy people with very little self-control or sense of purpose are held up as icons to be worshipped. Their bad behavior is portrayed by the media as disgusting and tragic, perhaps, but also as exciting and glamorous. So, we keep admiring them, no matter how they act.

The longer I am a parent, the less I understand our fascination with celebrities.  Being a parent, I think, opens your eyes to what is really important in life – things like unconditional love, selflessness and stability.  Yet, the celebrity culture seems to turn everything on its head:  what is essential for a happy life is not valued, while the less important things – such as wealth, fame and beauty – are touted as the only way to happiness.

Recently, the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in the Guardian that we need celebrities because we have a natural tendency to admire people who seem glamorous and successful.  We should ‘anoint’ good celebrities, he argued, so that we can channel our admiration appropriately.

I disagree.  In fact, I think it’s a dangerous idea, because celebrity culture is based upon myths about what it means to live a meaningful human life.  For instance, celebrities are portrayed as skinny – but with big breasts – unbelievably beautiful or handsome, wealthy and famous.  The message we get is that, because of these things, they are therefore of more value than us. And they have more fun, better sex, and more meaningful relationships.  Indeed, the wisdom from celebrity land is that beauty, wealth and fame are the things that give anyone value, and they must be pursued above everything else.  

Now, these may be myths, but they are very powerful myths.  Because celebrity culture is an integral part of our wider culture, these myths can affect us.  Sadly, they can also have a great influence upon our children.

Parents as Leaders

So, how do we help our children understand the myths of the celebrity culture as myths?  I would suggest that how we answer this question has to do with what we perceive our role to be as parents.  Is our role to bring a child into the world and then let that child uncritically absorb whatever ideas happen to be prevalent in society at the time?  Or, is our role to provide leadership to the child regarding the ideas he encounters?

Indeed, are parents leaders?  As a society, do we perceive them as leaders?  I don’t think we do.  When you first became a parent, did the doctor hand you your baby and say ‘Congratulations, what a fabulous leadership position this is for you!’?  Probably not.  It may have been more along the lines of ‘Good luck with that.’

And yet, here is some startling news:  In February, Forbes magazine ran an article by Rob Asghar, in which the job of ‘stay at home parent’ was ranked as the #1 ‘toughest leadership role’, beating such positions as university president, congressman, and CEO!

Why does Asghar consider parenting to be such a challenging leadership role?  Quoting family therapist Joanne Weidman, Asghar argues that ‘the greatest leadership challenge for a parent today is to be countercultural …’  We must be ‘thoughtful, intentional and articulate’ about ‘determining what on the children’s achievement hamster wheel is good for [our] family’.  In the same way, we must also draw ‘boundaries around what is not’ good for our family.

On this view, parents are leaders because they have a vision of what is ‘good’ for their family that is not dependent upon current cultural expectations and norms.  And, it’s interesting that Weidman uses the word ‘countercultural’.  This implies that there is much that is valued in our dominant culture that will not be a part of our vision of the good life.

In other words, when parents are leaders, they don’t worry about ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – or, say, the Jolie-Pitts – in terms of what they buy, how they look, what they do, or what they think.  They parent to the beat of their own drum.

Parental Leadership as Vision

What kind of leadership model is this?  I think the key concept here is vision.  This leadership model involves seeing things that your children can’t see, usually because they do not yet have experience, maturity or wisdom.

For instance, I’ve seen the sadness and emptiness that happens when people – especially women – base their self-worth on their appearance.  Thus, the vision I have for my children is that they learn to value themselves for who they are, and I lead them according to this vision.  I teach them to be healthy, but I tell them to be happy with the body that they have.  At this stage in life, they may believe the ubiquitous cultural message that what you look like determines your worth, but I am trying to lead them away from this false notion.

Interestingly, Plato had a notion of leadership that may provide some insight here.  Plato’s vision of the ideal leader is one who has a true conception of what is ‘good’.  He is called to lead others, however, who do not have this understanding.  Indeed, those who he leads are living in a state of deception regarding the good.  It is the leader’s responsibility to recognize those deceptions and try to govern his followers instead according to the truths which he knows but they do not.

One of Plato’s most famous discussions regarding his idea of leadership as countering deception is what is known as his allegory of the cave.  In this allegory, he invites us to imagine prisoners living in a cave, chained so that they cannot move and can only see in front of them.  Unbeknown to the prisoners, there is a fire in the cave behind them which casts some light against the wall of the cave facing them.  There are also people behind them, who hold up various artificial objects, like figures of men and animals, which project shadows onto the wall by the light of the fire.  Because the prisoners cannot see – and have never seen – anything other than these shadows, they suppose that the shadows are indeed reality.

Plato then asks us to consider what would happen if one of these prisoners was set free and could be ‘healed’ of the ‘unwisdom’ of the cave.  The prisoner would be unchained, forced to turn his head and look at the fire and the objects behind him.  Plato argues that this experience would, at first, be painful and dazzling; the prisoner would be confused and still believe that the familiar shadows on the wall were the ‘real’ objects rather than the objects themselves.  He would experience further trauma if he were forced out of the cave and into the sunlight, where he could experience reality to an even greater extent.

Yet, Plato argues that gradually the freed prisoner would come to understand the difference between the reality of the world above and the deception of the cave.  He would be happy for himself that he had gained wisdom, but sad for his fellow prisoners in the cave when he thought of what they considered to be wisdom.  Thus, he would have a duty to go back down into the cave, to help enlighten his fellow prisoners as much as possible.

The Challenge:  Leading Our Children Away from Plato’s Cave

Now, I’m not saying that Plato’s allegory of the cave is something that we can apply directly to parenting.  For one thing, most parents I know do not consider themselves to be as ‘all-wise’ as Plato’s ideal ruler, or the freed prisoner of the allegory.  Although they have strong values, they continue to learn about the good, even as adults.  So, they refine their idea of the good life on an ongoing basis.  For another thing, although children are lacking in understanding, I would not consider childhood to be a state of deception.  Adults can be deceived as well as children, and indeed, there are times when children can see the reality of a situation far more clearly than adults.

Yet, Plato gives us as parents plenty of food for thought about our culture and what it tells us to believe.  We and our children are surrounded every day by images and messages that do not tell the truth about what is means to be a happy human being, or live a good human life.   

As parents, when we can recognize the falsehood in our society’s messages, no matter how popular these messages are, we have a duty to reason with our children and expose them for the ‘shadows’ that they are.

They may disagree with our reasoning, and think that we are the ones who are deceived, not them.  And, there will probably be other parents who discourage you from having and implementing a vision of the good life for your family.  They will think you are over-protective and domineering, and will want you to ‘go with the flow’.

But of course, this isn’t supposed to be easy.  There must be reasons why parenting is such a tough leadership challenge.

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Congratulations, Good Parents: We Will Ignore You

A few years ago, I attended an academic conference on religion and freedom. Many of the academics there were sympathetic to the notion of a free society, and so I was surprised when several of them expressed significant unease with the idea that parents had the right to give their children a religious upbringing.

For one thing, they didn’t feel that bringing up a child in a religion gave that child a genuine choice regarding whether he wanted to be religious or not. ‘Parents say that they will raise their children in their religion, and then let them choose whether they will continue the religion when they are older, but it doesn’t seem to work that way,’ they complained.

Secondly, because they didn’t seem thrilled about children continuing in the religion of their families, I can only presume that they were worried about the influence of religious people in a free society. They thought of religious people as having rigid values, which made them difficult and intolerant participants in public discussion about what freedoms people should be allowed to have in society.

For these academics, there was a conflict between the health of a free society on the one hand, and the rights of certain parents to pass on their ideals to their children on the other. So, rather than valuing and appreciating the role of parents in a free society, my colleagues worried about their role.

Our Unease with Parenting

A friend of mine is a foster parent, who presently cares for a four month old boy. Like most foster children, the story of his parents is tragic. His father is in prison, and his mother is a drug addict. Her use of drugs has affected her to the point where she really has neither the mental capacity nor emotional resources to cope with caring for a child. In fact, she was high when she gave birth, in a stranger’s bathtub.

As a society, we respond with abhorrence to this kind of incompetency in parents, to our credit. However, it strikes me that when we see competency in parents, we usually don’t have a correspondingly intense, positive reaction.  

Why is this? Why do we not celebrate and applaud competent parenting? One reason, as I have argued before, is that we take the process of raising a child for granted. But perhaps there is another reason: incompetent parenting may make us angry and horrified, but competent parenting can make us uneasy.   Like my fellow academics, we can see that there is more going on in the good parent/child relationship than keeping a child safe, fed and clean. Indeed, in this relationship, values are planted in deep. We have no control over this process, and yet, because those children are members of society, the process affects us.

Parenting with Values – But Which Values?

Parenting, in its essence, is surely about passing down one’s values – ways of doing, thinking, and living – to one’s posterity. I have written before that one of our responsibilities as parents is to develop ‘moral reasoning’ in our children, which is the reasoning we use to decide what is good and what is bad. I have also argued that the purpose of parenting is to raise good human beings.  

So, on this view, the family is a realm of morality. So far, so good. Surely most people agree that teaching children what is right and what is wrong is a basic responsibility parents have. Yet, there is a problem: what one parent thinks is right and wrong may be different from what another thinks is right and wrong. Indeed, a parent’s values may be at odds with the dominant values society happens to espouse at the moment.

When this happens, there will be people who don’t want parents – at least, certain parents – to teach their values to their children. The somewhat paradoxical situation arises where we as parents we have a responsibility to teach our children right and wrong, and yet people around us may be unhappy about us fulfilling that responsibility. For instance, I consider it my responsibility to teach my children that abortion is wrong, even though it is allowed under the law. Suddenly, the focus shifts from a recognition of the vital role that parents have in the moral upbringing of their children, to a grudging acknowledgement that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit.

Liberalism and the Rights of Parents

The fact that our society reserves the right of parents to impart their values to their children is a result, at least in part, of the philosophy of liberalism. Liberalism argues that people will have differing conceptions of the good, and that they should be free to pursue those conceptions – and teach them to their children – as long as they do not bring harm to others whilst doing so. This means that the liberal state makes laws which ensure that people are treated equally as they live their values, while remaining neutral regarding the question of whether their values are good or bad.

That’s the theory, anyway. The problem is that liberals disagree among themselves as to what it means to have a ‘free’ and ‘equal’ society, and even to what extent liberalism can remain ‘neutral’ regarding different conceptions of the good. These disagreements bear directly on the rights of parents to teach their values to their children.

Political liberals think that a free and equal society is one that is tolerant of diverse cultures among its people, even when those cultures promote values other than freedom and equality, or understand freedom and equality in a different way than liberals might understand them. So, for instance, if parents are religious, they should be free to raise their children in their religion, even if that religion promotes ‘illiberal’ practices and doctrines. These ‘illiberal’ practices could include, say, specifying gender-specific roles within a religion which could be seen as supporting inequality between men and women, or preaching ‘limits’ to freedom by teaching that certain actions are not allowed by God, such as abortion or homosexual behavior.

Comprehensive liberals, on the other hand, think that a liberal society should actively promote a certain kind of freedom and equality among its members, even if it means interfering with the beliefs and practices of various groups within that society. So, for instance, they may demand that all children be taught that homosexual behavior is a practice that should be welcomed and celebrated in order to promote equality in society, even if certain parents have conscientious objections to homosexuality due to their religious convictions. Thus, for comprehensive liberals, there may be cases in which parents should not be ‘free’ to teach certain values to their children, in order to have a truly free society.

Can a Free Society Ever Really Value Parents?

Of the two kinds of liberalism, it seems that political liberalism is more sympathetic to parental rights.   Now, I am very much in favor of parental rights. Yet, I would argue we need more than a healthy respect for parental rights in order to show real support and appreciation for parents. This is because it is possible to respect the rights of parents, while wholeheartedly disapproving of what they are actually doing in exercising those rights. And it’s hard to appreciate or value someone when you disapprove of what they are doing.

But surely this is an intractable problem. Freedom in a liberal society means I am free to teach my children as I please, but I am not free to get your support or appreciation as I teach them. In this sense, can a free society ever really value parents?

In my view, there is not a short or easy answer to this question. But here’s why I think it’s important: Parenting is very demanding. It requires life-altering sacrifices of time, money and energy. Children are immature and taxing, and being around them requires you to strive constantly to be a better person. In fact, I would argue that its demands are so great that parents can get depressed and discouraged if they don’t have a good support network.

So, for me, it’s not good enough to look at parents only as rights-bearing individuals. That implies that the best we can do for them is to force ourselves to ignore them, which also means we force ourselves to ignore the importance of what they doing.  And that is surely not only dishonest, but also unjust.

I think we have a greater chance of giving parents real support if we shift the focus back on their responsibility as moral teachers. We may disagree with what they are teaching, but by emphasizing the responsibilities that go with their rights, we can be more honest about the fact that parents are the very foundation of our society. The truth is that nations depend upon them to fulfill their responsibility as moral teachers. We have to find a way to recognize the tremendous importance of parents, without being threatened by them or wanting to control them.

Is Good Parenting a Problem for Society?

About a year after my first child was born, a friend of mine came to visit me. We were both enrolled in PhD programs, so he was aware of my workload. He took one look at me with my baby, and a look of terror came over his face. Although he didn’t have any children, it was as if by simply looking at me he could comprehend how much work it was to look after my child, and how that conflicted with my PhD studies.

He spoke with desperation in his voice. ‘Is your church helping you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Well,’ he explained, ‘do they provide childcare?’

I knew that he meant well, but I was frustrated that all he could see was how parenthood was a disadvantage to me. What I wanted him to do – indeed, what I needed him to do – was to recognize the good I was doing as a parent. He saw parenthood as problematic, but that wasn’t helpful.  I needed him to recognize that parenting was an activity that was worth the massive effort it required.

Is Parenting a Problem?

I have pointed out before that philosophers don’t often speak directly to parents. As I reflect upon this state of affairs, it strikes me that one reason for this may be because many philosophers regard the family – and therefore the activity of parenting – as problematic.

Some see the family as problematic for society in general, others see it as problematic for children, or for women. But whatever criticisms philosophers make about the family, one thing is clear: some thinkers seriously question the ultimate value of what we do as parents.

Questioning the value of the family for society goes back as far as the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. In his Republic, Plato argues that in an ideal state, the ruling class could not be permitted to have families. The rulers, or ‘guardians’ as he calls them, would need to be virtuous, wise and selfless, and have all things in common among themselves. Families allow people to form exclusive attachments, and would therefore hinder the guardians in regarding the good of the group as higher than the good of their family. So, the guardians would ‘mate’ with one another, but when children were born they would be taken away immediately from their mothers and raised communally.

There is speculation among philosophers over whether Plato was serious in making this proposal. But whether he was serious or not, he is among the first in a long line of thinkers to propose that the activity of parenting – with all the love and partiality that it entails – obstructs the goals of the unity and equality of a larger group.

Is Good Parenting Bad for Society?

It’s not common today for philosophers to propose something as radical as Plato’s abolition of the family. In our modern liberal societies, people are free to become parents, and they have rights over their children. Yet, even among philosophers who espouse the importance of freedom and rights regarding the family, there are some who worry about the adverse effects it has upon society.

The great liberal theorist John Rawls argued that the family was a fundamental cause of inequality in society. Certain children, he said, will be born into good families where they are loved and their capacities are developed. Other children will be less fortunate and be less loved. For Rawls, how people fare in life has much to do with their upbringing – particularly if they come from a happy home. Rawls does not argue for the abolition of the family, but he acknowledges that the idea of equal opportunity does ‘incline’ in that direction, if equality is considered to be the most important goal in a society.

Certain feminist philosophers, too, believe that the family causes inequality. Philosopher Susan Muller Okin argued that the family puts women on an unequal footing with men in society, as long as women carry out the role of caregiving. For Okin, caregiving puts serious constraints on a woman’s time and energy, thus denying her ‘equality of opportunity’ in wider society.

Both Rawls and Okin have made points worthy of consideration. It is true that there are good parents and bad parents, and that children with good parents often will be better able to access opportunities than those with bad parents. It is also true that the caregiving aspect of parenting requires just as much time and commitment as any full time job, and therefore those who choose to do it are foregoing certain opportunities outside the home.

Yet, ultimately, Rawls and Okin are questioning the value of parenting for society. Indeed, they have questioned more than that: by raising concerns about the inequality created – among children for Rawls, and among women for Okin – by the love and time that parents give to their children, they have, in effect, questioned the value of good parenting for society.

Truly Supporting Parents

The trouble is that concerns like those of Rawls and Okin about the family are shared by many in our society, particularly among politicians and opinion-makers. We can see this as parents who take the time to actively parent their children are criticized in a variety of ways. On the one hand, they are criticized for not being ambitious enough to ‘lean in’ at work, or for taking a career break and thus failing to use their talents to ‘give something back’ to society. On the other hand, they are portrayed as people who have the ‘luxury’ of looking after their own children, who through sheer luck are in the fortunate position to create a loving and stable home environment which other parents envy but cannot have.

The issue here is that a society which views the activity of parenting as problematic cannot produce policies or even a culture that is truly supportive of parents. Any support that parents feel that they have will be given from a position of contempt for the parent/child relationship, which means ensuring that parents don’t actually get to spend much time at all parenting their children.

In my view, true support for parents can only be given from a position of respect for the parent/child relationship. This means acknowledging that the time and love a parent puts into raising a child are necessary for the child’s well-being – not instruments of oppression for the caregiver, or commodities to be redistributed somehow by the politician.

A parent’s time and effort on a child, however demanding, must not be considered a burden or a waste or an injustice, but rather time and effort well-spent. We mustn’t pity or resent parents.  We must respect them as equals in our collective effort to build a good society.  That’s all I needed my friend to do.