Knowing How to Parent is Not Natural

One of my children went through a phase where he lied to me about almost everything for about two years. Initially, my reaction – indeed, my instinct – was to take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach and divvy out a harsh punishment for every single lie I discovered.

The problem was that he was lying to me nearly all the time, so that meant I was punishing him nearly all the time. That, in turn, meant that tensions between us were high. I was also starting to panic that he was developing into some kind of pathological liar, and that therefore I was a terrible parent. My parenting instinct of ‘focus on the problem and immediately punish’ was not working.

Then, one day, the leader of our church congregation said to me, ‘I know your son has a problem with lying, but I can see past that. He’s a great kid.’

It was one of those moments that changed my life. Until then, I had never considered seriously the idea that I could look past my children’s faults and wrongdoings. After all, as a parent I had a responsibility to raise my children to be good people. I felt that in order to do that, I had to identify what they were doing that wasn’t good, and correct them accordingly.

What I hadn’t appreciated was the idea that raising children to become good people doesn’t usually happen by always focusing on what they are doing wrong. So, even though my intention was to raise good people, I wasn’t going about it in the right way. I didn’t really know how to turn that intention into a reality.

But that day, I learned something about the ‘how’ of parenting.

Practical Reasoning and the Philosophy of the ‘How’

How do we raise our children to be good people?

There are a myriad of sources out there dedicated to the ‘how’ of parenting. That’s a good thing. We need, I think, as many ideas as possible about what works and what doesn’t work for people in their parenting journeys.

I am not, however, going to discuss specific ‘how-to’ ideas here. I want instead to think about how we use our minds and our hearts when we decide ‘how’ to parent.   I think philosophy can give us some food for thought regarding just what parenting requires of us, and indeed, what it enables us to become.

In philosophy, practical reason is the reason we use to decide what is right and what is wrong. Along with this, it is the reason we use when we decide how to act.

How does it work? Theories of practical reason distinguish between what are called ‘universal’ rules of action, and ‘particular’ directives. With our reason, we understand certain universal rules, or principles regarding how we should live our lives. These could include, for instance, things like ‘be good’, ‘be just’, ‘be respectful’, ‘help others’, and so forth.

Universal rules, however, although they give us general guidelines regarding how to live, give us no instruction as to how to apply these guidelines. We know we need to ‘be good’, but that is of little use in helping us know how to act. Our actions take place in the here and now, in a very particular and contingent set of circumstances. The same action that is ‘good’ in one situation may not be ‘good’ in another. Thus, we use our practical reason to formulate ‘particular’ directives about how we should apply a general rule to a particular situation.

According to Aristotle, practical reason is fraught with difficulty. In order to use our practical reason well, we have to be able to figure out not only what is the right thing to do, and but also how best to do it. That is a huge challenge. As Aristotle says, ‘anyone can get angry or spend money – these are easy; but doing them in relation to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, with the right aim in view, and in the right way’, that is not easy.

Practical Reasoning Applied to Parenting

How do philosophical discussions of practical reason help us with the ‘how’ of parenting?

What I want to point out here is that practical reason can be translated into parenting terms.   If practical reason is about knowing the right thing to do in a particular situation, then it is also, quite simply, about knowing ‘how’ to parent.

Consider these scenarios:

My kids are fighting: how do I stop them – without taking sides, shouting, or making them even more upset?

My kids won’t get off their i-pods: how do I inspire them regarding the benefits of activities that don’t involve a screen – without lecturing them or ignoring their point of view?

Two of my children are jealous of each other: how do I inspire them to be self-confident, and loving toward each other – without being impatient regarding their insecurities?

My child is uber-defiant: how do I diffuse the tension he causes with his defiance and still require that he follow parental instructions?

As parents, in order to be able to solve these problems, we need practical reason. That is because there is no one blanket, universal solution to these problems.

For instance, we want to teach our children to ‘be peaceful’, but knowing how to get this particular child with his particular personality and particular sensitivities to stop fighting with his particular sibilings, with their particular issues, is something that takes incredible insight and sensitivity.

Virtue and the Art of Parenting

Now, I’ve just gone from saying we need practical reason to solve parenting challenges, to saying that we need insight and sensitivity to solve parenting challenges. To some, these might seem like two unrelated things. ‘Reason’ emphasizes the way we think about solving problems, and words like ‘insight’ and ‘sensitivity’ emphasize emotional capacities.

For Aristotle, however, practical reason is a combination of our reasoning ability and our emotional capacities – or, what he would call our passions. Indeed, as I have discussed before, our reasoning ability about how to act is influenced heavily by the state of our passions.   This means, for Aristotle, that in order to know the right thing to do, our passions have to be oriented toward good things.

We certainly don’t have to agree with Aristotle’s idea of practical reason.  But I think he has some insights that can help us be more self-aware as parents.

Aristotle thinks that a virtuous person will see things differently, and will have better solutions to particular problems, than a non-virtuous person. This means that as parents, in order parent well, we have to be in a ‘good place’, so to speak, emotionally.

In one way, that’s obvious. For instance, if we have a problem with anger, or with other kinds of self-control, or are excessively prone to fear or anxiety, or have a jealous or selfish temperament, these character issues will have a negative impact on how we ‘see’ our parenting dilemmas, and how we reason about how to solve them.

Yet, when you think about it, it’s a rather tall order for a parent. Who is always in a ‘good place’, emotionally? Who has no vices?

I didn’t bring out Aristotle so that we parents can all beat ourselves up. Rather, what I want to stress is that good parenting requires virtue. Not perfection, but virtue. And I say that not to make us feel inadequate, but to empower us by emphasizing the importance of what we are doing as parents.

Good parenting doesn’t just ‘happen’. There is real effort involved. We get frustrated, we weep, we feel lost, we struggle. Our instincts and reactions as parents may be well meant, but misguided, and we make mistakes. We suffer because of our imperfections. But all this is a learning process which is bringing us closer toward virtue.

If we keep trying, we find that we change.  Virtue takes root.  Our parenting experiences shape us into better people, and our perspective on our children changes.  We start to make better decisions regarding the ‘how’ of parenting.

Yet, note that the calm comes after the storm. When you see good parenting, either in others, or yourself, don’t take it for granted. It is a skill and an art that is hard-won. The tragedy is that it is considered commonplace and ‘natural’, and therefore un-noteworthy. Nothing could be farther from the truth.


Talking to Your Kids About Money (and Life) – the Stoic Way

One morning recently, I went in to wake my 13 year old daughter for school.  She slowly sat up and said ‘I had the worst dream!  I dreamed that we didn’t have enough money to pay our mortgage, so we had to move in with Grandma and Grandpa.  Only, their house in my dream wasn’t as it is in real life; it was all run down and horrible.’

This daughter has always been very aware of money and possessions, even when she was little.  One could argue that it is good that she worry about money; it shows that she doesn’t take money for granted, and understands its value.

However, consider this:  a few months ago, we were talking as a family about two teenage sisters we knew who had lost their mother to a terminal illness.  We were expressing sadness at the tragedy that had happened to this family.  Then my daughter said ‘Well, at least they’re rich.’ 

‘What?!’  I cried.  ‘What does that have to do with it?  Having money can’t replace their mother!’

‘Yea, I know they’re miserable,’ she said.  ‘But I’m just saying that it’s better to be miserable and rich than miserable and poor.’

What’s that line from Apollo 13?  ‘Houston, we have a problem.’

Materialism and Happiness

In my opinion, my daughter’s comments show an unhealthy attitude toward money.  On the surface, this attitude is characterized, among other things, by a fear of a ‘reversal of fortune’ – which is natural, and understandable. Yet, this fear seems to be based upon a deeper belief that financial status and material possessions (such as the kind of house one has) are an essential part of one’s happiness, or even one’s self-worth.

If I have diagnosed her attitude correctly, then one thing I can say in her defense is that she is certainly not alone.  The belief that the money we earn and what we own gives us happiness and value as human beings not only pervades our western culture – it seems to define it.  We do have opinion makers telling us from time to time that we have too much ‘stuff’.  Yet, that doesn’t stop us from centering our lives around acquiring more.

But beyond that, we live in a society where we honor, and even reverence people based on wealth.  People are paid in our economy based on what the market deems to be the worth of their job to society.  So, your ‘value’ is, quite literally, tied to your salary.  The banker and the lawyer are somehow much more important to society than the teacher – or indeed, the parent (who gets paid nothing as a parent).

The association of money with esteem and happiness is not some abstract philosophy that seems remote from the here and now; on the contrary – speaking for my own family at least – it affects us deeply.  It seeps into our daily lives and colors my children’s judgments of ourselves and others. 

For instance, recently my husband and I bought our first home.  We loved it the moment we saw it, and our children loved it as well.  We were grateful and happy.  Then, some new friends invited us to their house – which was much bigger.  All of a sudden, our house was no longer an object of adoration.  Indeed, our children now felt somewhat ashamed of our house, and ashamed of us as parents that we could not afford something bigger and better.  The family with the bigger house was ‘good’, and we were not as good.

Stoicism:  the Antidote to Materialism, and to Modern Life 

If you have suffered similar condemnations by your children, the good news is that philosophy can offer some real help is countering this materialism.  In particular, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism gives a comforting perspective on the proper place of money and possessions in our lives. 

Stoicism, however, isn’t just a philosophy about money.  Really, it’s a philosophy about happiness.

The Stoics taught that happiness cannot be found in ‘external’ things.  External things include wealth and possessions, but also things like health, reputation, fame, position in life, etc.  These things are all changeable, but beyond that, they are not entirely within our control.  And for the Stoics, happiness is achieved only when we focus on things that are within our control. 

As it turns out, the things we can control are quite few in number. According to the philosopher Epictetus, these things are our perspective on life, our opinions, our desires, and our actions.  These are things that are ‘free’ for us, precisely because we have control over them.  However, external things not ‘free’ for us, and if we try to pursue them as if we have total control over them, then we will be frustrated, depressed, and we will blame other people for what happens to us.

Because our thoughts and our actions are the only things we can really control, it is in these things that moral value is found.  We are not ‘good’ if we are rich or famous or well-liked or experience pleasure.  We are good when we control our passions and our actions according to reason – in other words, when we think, say and do the right thing.

For the Stoics, as for Aristotle, reason is what characterizes human beings as distinct from other living things.  The Stoics, however, stressed that reason is the ‘divine’ element in man: that is what we have in common with the gods – not our possessions.  Therefore, the aim in life is to follow reason ‘seriously, vigorously, calmly’, without being distracted by things of a lesser value.  The stoic Marcus Aurelius taught that if we do nothing ‘contrary to justice’, and if we express ‘heroic truth in every word and sound’ which we utter, then we will be happy.

Thus, since happiness lies in being good and doing good, our lives should be simple, rather than characterized by a pursuit of the unnecessary, which makes us stressed.

The Stoics had a humble realism at the core of their philosophy.  Along with arguing that there are very few things within our control, they also argued that we should accept all things that happen to us willingly and peacefully.  Human life is short, everyone’s corner of the world is small, and human things are ‘ephemeral and worthless’.  Yet, as rational beings, we are not worthless.  Our thoughts and actions matter.  So, we must embrace what comes, and live our lives each day to the best of our ability.

Stoicism and Parenting

Stoicism seems to me to be an imminently workable philosophy for family life.  People are important and our actions are important.  What we have, what positions we achieve in school or work, and what happens to us, are less important.  Our crazy schedules, material insecurities, and insatiable desires can be tempered, or even jettisoned, with this perspective. However, once again, you will be a countercultural parent if you can achieve and live by this perspective.

Ironically, as I write this post from where we live in San Diego, fires are burning all over San Diego county.  School has been cancelled (California’s version of a ‘snow day’), and evacuation from our home is enough of a possibility that we are packing our bags, just in case.  My children are unsettled and nervous, despite my reassurances.  ‘What if our house burns down?’  ‘What about my stuff?’

Admittedly, worrying about the disaster of having one’s house burn down cannot be compared fairly to the vice of materialism. I understand their fears.  But this does seem to be an opportunity to teach that whatever happens – whatever we lose – we still have what matters.  We have our faith, our hope and our love.  We have our capacity to be good, and to do good.  That’s enough for true happiness.