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.

10 comments on “Congratulations, Good Parents: We Will Ignore You

  1. insanityranch says:

    I have so many conflicting and puzzling thoughts about this post that I cannot (yet) comment. Thank you SO much for raising one of the truly fascinating and unremarked issues of this historical moment!

  2. Thank you for reading, and thanks for commenting! It’s a paradoxical situation that we have created for parents by emphasizing their rights over their responsibilities. And in the midst of that paradox we have somehow managed to stop appreciating the work that parents do as moral teachers, which, I think, has led to their devaluation, not only by society in general, but also by parents themselves. A tragedy. I look forward to hearing any further ideas you may have on this subject!

  3. insanityranch says:

    So, I’m back. As I say, this post has really made me stop and sort some things out, and here is where I came out, after taking some time to think. Please forgive me if I express things clumsily — I come very late to philosophy, and I’m not really familiar with the language of philosophy of rights.

    It seems to me that there are three “clouds” of rights that can come into conflict here. Parents have rights over their children, but children have rights as well, and society (and in fact various levels of society) have rights in the process as well, such as the right to protect the weak from the strong and the right to prevent the destruction of the social resource of a child’s talents and health.

    There are also incentives for each rights-holder to overstep his or her rights. Children, for instance, mostly spend their teenage years insisting wanting or trying to exercise rights they are not yet equipped to exercise in full. Society is always tempted to intolerance or busybodyness. And parents… well, parents are to some extent often engaged on an experiment in doing a better job than they feel their own parents did. This is a powerful psychological force that can lead them to ignore both the well-being of their children and the opinions of society-at-large.

    One of the commonest destructive dynamics that arises — the one that spawned any number of horrifying counter-examples to your words as I read them — is the parent who feels so harmed by the external world that they resolve to bring their children up in isolation from its corrupting influence. I read any number of blogs by refugees from independent evangelical or quiverfull homes. Their stories illustrate the many ways that parents can abuse their parental rights, in the matter of discipline, in the matter of (lack of) education, and in the matter of autonomy of adult children.

    Such parents tend to be parental-right absolutists, denying that either society or children have any inherent rights. (In fact, there is a politically-significant movement to withdraw the US from the UN, specifically because of its position on the rights of children.) Such parents go to extreme lengths to “protect” their children from opinions other than their own, and from contact with people unlike their small community.

    The answer must be, I think, to support children and parents, to keep them connected to the broad and diverse society. But I am not sure that, in a substantial number of cases, we can avoid coercive measures. And at the same time, I am well aware of the potential harm that applying force can do to damaged people.

    What are your thoughts about such cases?

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful comment. Certainly there are, as you say, three categories of rights here – the rights of children, parents and society. I do believe that children have rights, and I don’t consider myself a parental-right absolutist. But at the same time I am uncomfortable with the idea of the ‘powers that be’ looking over my shoulder as I parent.
    I agree that there are extreme cases where parents isolate their children which are troubling. The problem is that there are things to which parents do not want to expose their children, and at the end of the day who is going to judge whether the parent is going about protecting their child in the right way? For instance, I don’t want my children exposed to pornography. At all. I don’t watch it because I think it is harmful and wrong and incredibly addictive, and I don’t want them to watch it. And yet, it seems that nearly every teenage boy – and most men – in America watch porn. As porn continues to be more and more acceptable, am I soon to be considered an extremist in society because I isolate my children from porn? My point is that as the standards of society changes, we as parents are expected to change our standards as well. But sometimes our standards are based on principle, and we don’t feel we can change them, and then all of sudden we find ourselves in some sort of extremist camp.
    As you say, we need to keep our children connected to society. I do agree with that, as long as being ‘connected’ to society does not mean being forced to march along some so-called path of progress. I want my autonomy. The question, as you also seem to imply, is what it means to keep our autonomy as parents while at the same time deciding how best to prepare our children to exercise their own autonomy.

    • insanityranch says:

      For good or ill, the issue comes down to phronesis, I guess. I imagine that, no matter how strongly you wish to prevent your kids from accessing pornography, you would not be willing to lock them in their rooms and prevent them from using any communication devices. Ultimately, at some point, you have to decide that what they do about pornography has to be their decision, and you are the person in a position to make that judgement. One of the diciest duties of parenthood is handing over agency.

      For myself, I eventually pulled my daughter from public school (at her request) and homeschooled her for several years before sending her to a nearby community college to (I thought) get her lab sciences. She in fact got her associates’ degree at 17, went on to finish four-year school Magna from Emerson College two years later, and is managing, despite the crappy economy, to keep herself and her fiancee solvent by her own efforts, so I’m not dissatisfied with my decision.

      Our state is one in which, once we notified the school district, nobody came around to “interfere” with our efforts. At the time, it was something of a relief. And yet… Not all the homeschool families we associated with (very distantly — we mostly did not find them congenial) seemed to be doing a reasonable job. (And we didn’t, after one incredible meeting, have anything to do with the explicitly religious homeschool camp. Those folks were scary.)

      From this distance, I think it would have been better if, like the state to our north, our state had insisted on a lesson plan at the start of the year and some sort of accounting at the end. If rights and responsibilities are intertwined (and I believe they are), then in not exercising the society’s right to assure the healthy development and education of children, my state also abdicated its responsibility. Reading bloggers like Libby Anne (of Love, Joy, Feminism) and Lana Hope (of Wide Open Ground) only strengthens that conclusion.

      • Thanks for this. On the phronesis point, I completely agree that what we are aiming for as parents is to raise healthy, stable human beings who can make their own decisions, which are good decisions. The only issue here is that Aristotle did not think that children could have phronesis in the proper sense of the word. Phronesis is a virtue that requires life experience and a good upbringing, so while we can raise our children with that end in mind, we also have to understand that they are only in the process of developing phronesis – they have not yet acquired it. That means that while they are developing phronesis, they still need guidance; that is, they are not ready for a full exercise of their agency.

  5. Norine says:

    Post modern academics think it’s possible to choose from a position of neutrality. It’s a pretension. The ‘sociology’ of religion is not an intelligent position that permits children to choose (or not) from a position of neutrality. They will have been indoctrinated by a valueless post-modern skepticism that has all the features of a nihilistic ‘religiosity’. Beware such people. “They have rigid values which make them intolerant participants in public discussion”. Like fish, they cannot see the water they swim in. In THIS sense, there is actually no such thing as neutrality.

    • Thanks Norine! I have to say that while I was writing this post the troublesome nature of ‘liberal neutrality’ became quite clear. Indeed, liberalism has it’s own version – or versions – of the good.

  6. insanityranch says:

    For some reason I can’t reply within the earlier thread (unless I reply to myself?) but here I am anyway.

    As I think it through, the fact is that, in our particular kind of society, people are accorded rights without regard to their level of phronesis. We tend to err on the side of according rights rather than restricting them — at least for favored groups. To limit ourselves to the arena of parenting, we do not restrict who can become a parent, and so long as the children are not malnourished or visibly abused, we do not officially interfere in the internal dynamics of the family.

    The only checks and balances placed on families tend to be unofficial and social. If I read your post correctly, you tend to find those burdensome. I have very mixed feelings. I know, for instance, that social disapproval is dealt out on the basis of social class. You (and I) are / were subject to far less scrutiny and implicit criticism than many black mothers, who are implicitly expected to fail. On the other hand, my heart hurts for the pain expressed by Libby Anne and Lana Hope, whose parents managed to insulate themselves from social judgement.

    Your point about children not (yet) having phronesis is an interesting one. Aristotle, to the best of my limited knowledge, didn’t really “do” child development. But of course the entire purpose of childhood is the gradual and guided development of phronesis. To a certain extent, that’s true of parents as well. Very few of us parents go into the job with sufficient “life experience and good upbringing” to know exactly what we are doing, and to do it with the confidence of expertise. Could that be why the social monitoring chafes — because we are trying to develop a skill, and we are forced to do it in public?

  7. bonniesimone says:

    Hi Holly, I enjoyed reading your post. It gave me a lot to think about.

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