Fighting Children, and Happy Families

Yesterday, we were driving home from the swimming pool. ‘Ok’, I said to the children, ‘we have a busy evening ahead of us, and the first thing we need to do when we get home is have showers.’

They responded almost in unison. ‘I bagsy the shower first!’ said the 11-year-old. ‘No, I’m first!’ said the seven-year-old. ‘I’ll be first!’ said the nine-year-old. The five-year-old was silent because she hates showers.

It’s the summer (still – but be assured that I am still smiling, mostly), and with the opportunity to spend long days together, I have noticed a lot of competition among my children. However, ‘competition’ might be putting it nicely. Basically, they seem to fight a lot.

They fight over what movie to watch on family movie night. They fight over computer time. They fight over who does what household job, when they get to practice their instruments, who gets what cereal in the morning, what cookie, the last drop of milk, etc. They fight over who made what messes (and therefore who should have to clean up said messes), who stole from who, who bullied who. And I, unhappily, take on the role of the policeman, who reigns in the inertia towards mutual destruction.

Thinking with Hobbes About Why Children Fight

In observing these distressing tendencies of my children, I am reminded of what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as the ‘natural condition of mankind’. He famously declared that when humans live without a common power ‘to keep them all in awe’, life for man is ‘nasty, brutish and short.’

Although I hope our family life is better than that, I do sometimes wonder what would happen to my children if I wasn’t there to keep them all in awe by reminding them that I, indeed, am in charge. I don’t think things would get as bad as they do in, say, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, it is a very rare thing indeed to see my children de-escalate a conflict without my (usually exasperated and rather unsympathetic) assistance.

So, why the natural tendency toward conflict? We could look at a myriad of philosophical and theological discussions on this question, but at the moment I want to focus on Hobbes. He argued that nature has made human beings more or less equal to one another in their abilities, both regarding physical strength and intelligence. Of course, some people are stronger or cleverer than others. But Hobbes thinks that when all is ‘reckoned together’, the differences between humans are small enough that, when one man ‘claims to himself any benefit’, another man can ‘pretend’ to that benefit as well.

In other words, our natural equality leads us to see ourselves as having an equal claim regarding whatever we need, and whatever we want. When resources are finite – which they always are – and two people aim to obtain something which they both cannot have, they become enemies. Thus, rather than engendering feelings of cooperation and respect for one another, this equality among humans instead leads to strife.

This strife is so endemic of the human condition, that Hobbes argues that when men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in ‘that condition which is called WAR.’

Human Beings and the Natural Tendency Toward Conflict

Now, I should note that Hobbes is talking about humans in society generally, rather than about family life. Yet, I have found him to be an interesting starting point in thinking about the contention among my children.

Hobbes’s bold, provocative statements about human beings get me thinking about what is ‘natural’. Hobbes stresses that we have a ‘natural’ tendency toward conflict with others, but what does that mean for our families? How are we supposed to keep our families together if by nature we are disposed to act in ways that drive each other away?

Also, if I look at my children from an Hobbesian point of view, I find myself thinking, ‘What is the point of all of this effort? I don’t want to spend my day policing my children, settling their squabbles, only to wake up again the next morning, and the next, and the next, and have to do it all again. Why have children if nature has made human beings so disagreeable?’

Now, of course one can argue that our nature isn’t all bad. We ‘naturally’ have other tendencies, like the tendency to love and to care. We may have anti-social tendencies, but we have social tendencies, too. By nature we seek out the company of other humans. Indeed, as Aristotle and many other philosophers have argued, we are social creatures.

What Does it Mean for Something to be ‘Natural’?

But I want to think for a minute about a different sense of ‘nature’. We have been talking about ‘nature’ in the sense of having a natural tendency toward something. But what is natural for us can also be what is necessary for us to develop and fulfill our human potential. For instance, when Aristotle argued that humans are by nature social, he didn’t mean that social life for humans would ‘come naturally’ to them, in the sense that it would always be harmonious and free from contention. What he meant was that humans have a nature which needs a social environment in order to thrive.

If I think of nature in this way, then I start to look at my children’s fighting differently. Humans are by nature social, and the family unit is a fundamental part of that sociability. In this sense, humans need to be a part of a family in order to thrive and fully develop their human nature. Family contention, though distressing, is not a sign that families are bad for us, or indeed that it will always be thus. It just means that some of the most important, ‘natural’ aspects of our human existence do not always come naturally. Rather, they take practice and effort. In our case, lots of it.

Parenting: Working to Create What is Natural

Recently I went to the grocery store with my oldest daughter, who is 16. As she pushed the cart around the store, she suddenly said to me, ‘I have a feeling this is what it’s going to be like in 40 years from now.’ ‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘You know, going shopping with you, leading you around the store because you’ve got Alzheimer’s or something, pushing your cart, wiping your drool ….’

‘Well, it will be pay-back time,’ I said. I laughed, but soon I felt myself welling up inside. It wasn’t because I was afraid of the prospect of getting Alzheimer’s or growing old. Rather, I was welling up because even though we were laughing, I knew she was serious, and I was overwhelmed by her willingness to be there for me. And in a moment of sudden clarity, I realized that despite all the conflict and strife, something somewhere in our family had gone right. Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, my daughter had developed into an incredible human being who understood the importance of family.

Some days, my parenting feels like nothing more than a futile exercise to keep in check my children’s natural tendency to compete and fight. But I can see now that my efforts have not been in vain. By not giving up on the goal of a happy, loving home, we are all learning together how to create this most natural of human institutions.

 

 

 

 

 

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Is Parenting a Political Activity?

The best way to describe how I felt when I first became a mother is invisible. I went from going to meetings, lectures and libraries, where people would show interest in me and my work, to being stuck in our apartment with round the clock feedings and baby care. I didn’t see many people, and, more to the point, not many people saw me.

But it wasn’t just that kind of invisible. It was that no one was in the least bit interested in the fact that I had a baby. In a way, this was a good thing. Families are a private affair, and I was free to have one. And yet, it was this freedom, I felt, which also made me invisible. I was free to raise my child as I saw fit. The flip side was that no one cared. They cared about my academic work. But they didn’t care about this work.

And yet, I thought that they should care. Not in a busy-body, ‘I’m going to call the social worker if I’m concerned about your parenting’ sort of way, but in a ‘Thank you for raising a future citizen’ sort of way. I had always been interested in politics, but now being a mother with a baby seemed about as far away from politics as I could get. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that in some way, raising her was a political activity. It was political in the sense that what I did in my home – how I treated her, and the values I taught her – would have an impact upon her. And she, in turn, would one day have an impact on those around her in wider society.

Parenting, Politics, and the Public/Private Distinction

Is parenting a political activity?

To consider this question, I want to point to a previous blog post in which I asked a related question: Could parenting be more important than politics? There I argued that, in some versions of liberalism, the role of the state is limited to protecting our freedoms to live as we choose, as long as we do not bring harm to others. It must remain neutral as much as possible on moral questions regarding a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ human life. By contrast, an essential aspect of parenting is teaching our children the moral concept of what it means to live a good human life.

On this liberal view, there is a distinction between the public sphere of the state, and the private sphere of society, which includes the family. The private sphere is defined by our rights, which are fundamentally rights against the state – things like our right to private property, free speech, free assembly, religious freedom, and so forth. These rights defend us against political authorities seizing control of every aspect of our lives. They set up a ‘non-political’ space, in which (theoretically at least) we can pursue the good, without the state dictating to us what is good.

Parenting, I would argue, is one of the most important activities of the private sphere. This is especially true if we view parenting as an exercise in leading our children toward the good. Thus, if we accept the sharp distinction drawn by liberalism between the state and the private sphere, then parenting cannot be considered a political activity.

Rights-Bearing Citizens vs. Virtuous Citizens

Now, fond as I am of the public/private distinction, it is also problematic. Let’s consider the private realm more closely. I have just explained that the private sphere is a space of freedom defined by our rights. Yet, what this also means is that the state regards its citizens within the private sphere only as rights-bearing individuals. As far as the state is concerned, our personal characteristics – indeed, our virtues or vices, our aspirations, our relationships – are not matters of consideration, as long as we keep the law.

For instance, it doesn’t matter if I volunteer at the local hospital, or sit at home watching porn for hours on end. In the liberal state, the political realm treats these private activities as though they were equal in value. This is precisely because it does not make value judgements regarding the good life. And yet, the first activity requires – and generates – virtues such as compassion, generosity, and patience, while the second activity requires – and generates – no virtues.

So, it seems to me that the public/private distinction, although essential for freedom, at the same time cuts itself off from acknowledging, or valuing, the vital role which private virtue plays in our society. What if none of us were compassionate, generous or patient? What kind of world would that be? It is clear that our public sphere depends upon citizens to be virtuous in their private lives. Yet, liberalism can only respect us as rights-bearing individuals; it cannot ask us to be – or value us as – virtuous individuals.

The Political Need for Virtue – Especially in Parenting

Now, nowhere is the need for virtue more prominent than in parenting. I can’t think of anything in my pre-parent life that required even half as much patience, resilience, self-control, kindness, forgiveness (for myself, mostly), courage, sheer determination and unconditional love as parenting does. And that’s just for ‘getting-through-the-day’ parenting.

Virtue, really, if we think of it in an Aristotelian sense, is what enables us to align our lives with the good. If we believe that parenting is essentially a moral pursuit in which we lead our children toward the good, then virtue is indispensable to good parenting. But if the state remains silent on the good, then it also stays silent on the importance of virtue – even in parenting.

In my experience, this silence has been deafening. It is as if, because we cannot require people to have virtue – and because often we cannot agree on what virtue is – we therefore cannot be honest about how much we need it, especially in parents. Clearly, our characters as parents matter for society, and therefore, for politics. Indeed, they define how we interact with our children, which in turn influences their actions and characters. And their characters, in turn, will shape our future society.

When we think of politics, we think of politicians. They make laws which affect us, to be sure. But I would argue that parenting practices have a far greater impact upon society than laws. Society is shaped continually, in one way or another, from the ground up, and it is parents who are in the trenches. Politicians may go on about the social ills of inequality, poverty, substance abuse, family breakdown, etc., but the truth is that politics will always be an ineffective way to solve these problems. Solving them revolves firstly around parents, and only secondly around politicians.

Parents aren’t politicians. But make no mistake, parents have an essential political role. Raising a family has profound political consequences, whether for good or ill. I’ll say what I wish someone would have said to me 16 years ago:

Your efforts as a parent –  

midnight feedings, cleaning, cooking, pushing through exhaustion, budgeting, going without, discipline struggles, rule-making, weeping, teaching, chasing, more cleaning, more cooking, more rule-making, more weeping, searching, reading, playing, working, cold-dinner eating, unconditionally loving –  

and the virtues that results from all of that,

matter for us all,

even though no one wants to say so.

Because one day, even though you can’t see it now, your kids are going to be awesome people, who will change their corner of the world.

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Summer Notice: Your Child is a Social Animal, Not a Virtual One

A few weeks ago I attended a truly radical event: a street party.

We moved into this neighbourhood just over four months ago. It’s a quiet, safe area, which is great.  No anti-social behaviour.

Yet, there isn’t a lot of social behaviour, either. After four months, I had only met a few neighbours , and let me be clear that this is as much my fault as anyone else’s.  So, imagine my surprise when I went to the street party and found out that there are actually many people who live near us.  And they are friendly, helpful, interesting and generous.

What struck me the most was the number of children we have in our neighbourhood. I had never seen most of these children.  Certainly they don’t play out in the neighbourhood.  My son is 11, and it turns out that there are several other boys his age who live a stone’s throw away from our house.

As I spoke with the parents of these boys, we discovered that we all have the same problem:   our boys want to stay indoors – rain or shine – and play computer games.  We all have to encourage them strongly (forcefully?) to turn off the computer, X-box, or whatever and do something else.  Now that we parents know we are all in the same predicament, we can insist that our boys go find each other and play – properly, face to face, in the real world, as opposed to a virtual one.

Screens and Socialization

I’ve written before about my concerns with children and ‘screens’. They are many.  Yet, what concerns me on a more fundamental level is the way screens are changing the way that we interact with our environment, and with one another.  Translation:  it’s hard to get our kids to play outside, and it’s hard to get them to play with each other.  I write with particular urgency as summer vacation is now upon us.  I am bracing myself for all the arguments which will inevitably ensue whenever I utter the words ‘Go find someone to play with’, and ‘No, you cannot go on the computer, ipod, ipad, etc., or watch a movie.’

An increasingly typical scene in an American home – one I have seen in both my home and other homes – is each sibling, in the middle of the day, engaged with his or her own screen, not talking to one another. Our children are growing up, battery-reared and staring at a screen, rather than ‘free-range’ and enjoying the company of human beings in the flesh.  Sue Palmer, in her book Detoxifying Childhood, reports that UK researchers found that the majority of ‘6 to 8 year olds now prefer to look at a blank screen than a human face.

Technology is certainly changing the way that we socialize. My question is:  it affecting our ability to socialize?

Humans As Social Beings

Most philosophers have argued that as humans we have a social nature. Often they disagree with one another as to what kind of society we should create once we get together.  Yet, these discussions on different kinds of society do not override the widespread agreement among philosophers that as humans, we need each other in some way.

Aristotle argued that both the home, and the wider association of the ‘city’, are natural organizations for human beings.   The home is established because men and women have a ‘natural striving’ to reproduce, and need each other to do so.  Aristotle calls the home a kind of ‘partnership’.  Characterized by the familial affection between spouses and their children, it is certainly a place which fills our social needs to an extent.  However, Aristotle argued that there are further partnerships beyond this familial affection, which humans seek to fulfil their material needs.  The polis, or city, comes into being as families reach out to form associations with others beyond themselves.  This wider association allows us as humans to benefit from one another’s knowledge and skills regarding how to live.

Thus, for Aristotle, it is natural for man to live with others in society. Although he thinks that men come together initially to better fulfil their material needs – that is, for the ‘sake of living’ – he believes that society exists ‘for the sake of living well.’  ‘Living well’ for Aristotle means living a specifically human life, one that, according to him, means living according to reason.  Reason is our capacity which enables us to understand right and wrong, and thus live a moral life.  So, on this Aristotelian view, living in society enables us to develop and use our human capacity to be moral to a greater extent, and to greater effect, than we could if we lived in isolation.     

Now, there are many ways in which this Aristotelian notion of society is compatible with our advances in technology. Indeed, the internet provides us with an incredible kind of society where we can associate instantly with people far away, or with people we have never met.  It gives us a very powerful way of exchanging knowledge and sharing skills regarding our material needs, and our moral needs.

Virtual Socializing vs. Real Socializing

Yet, there are also ways in which technology has the potential to undermine society. It can do this by undermining our sociability among those people with whom we are physically present.

Our virtual communities often seem to take precedence over our physical communities. This is true of both the physical ‘community’ of our families, as well as our wider physical communities, like our neighbourhoods and towns.  My teenagers can go days without speaking to anyone in the house, yet they have communicated with hundreds of people on social media.  I went months without meeting my new neighbours, although I ‘met’ many new people on Twitter.

To my mind, the problem with this is that the ability to socialize with people ‘in the flesh’ is a skill. As such, it needs to be developed.  It doesn’t just happen.  And virtual socializing, for all its benefits, often seems to stop the development of these ‘real’ social skills.

Technology and Socializing in the Home

Technology’s undermining of social skills starts in the home. The home is the first place we learn about sociability.  It is there that we learn to communicate, and how to treat others.  Yet, technology stops communication and interaction in the home.  If my son is explaining to me the finer points of the military operations of some imaginary Lord of the Rings/Star Wars universe he’s created in his head, all I have to do to get him to stop talking is to give him my phone. If my children are fighting, one sure fire way to get them to stop is to hand out the i-pods.  Then, all is quiet.  No fighting, but also no talking.  No need for each other, but also no interest in each other.  In a word, no sociability.

If we aren’t interacting much in the home, that means we aren’t practicing how to be social. For Aristotle, one of the biggest indicators of our social nature is our ability to communicate through speech.  It is through speech that we communicate not only our needs and our wants, but also our concepts of right and wrong.  Although Aristotle thinks that the city is the place of deliberation and discussion on moral matters, he says that the home, too, is characterized by a sense of morality. So in the home, we practice.  We practice our moral reasoning, and our problem solving.  But we can’t do that if we don’t talk to each other.  

Yet, social skills are not only undermined by reducing our interactions. They are also undermined if we stop interacting in a certain way.

Physical communication demands that we give our attention to one person at a time. It takes place in ‘real time’, so it demands that we slow down.  And the most effective physical communication incorporates eye contact – that is, looking at a human face.  Virtual communication doesn’t sit well with these demands.  It enables us to communicate with many different people – with whomever we choose – all at the same time. Yet, it competes with our physical communication, and suddenly we are no longer able to look someone in the eye and give them our attention, without being distracted by the texts or notifications that 50 other people are sending us every couple of minutes.  We’re more easily distracted, and less able to focus on the people around us and their needs.  What kind of community (family, neighbourhood, or town) can we build if we can’t pay attention to what is happening right in front of us?

Technology marches on, but we can’t let it march on us. Fact:  we have a social nature which cannot be fully fulfilled, or fully expressed, in a virtual community.  Our physical communities, and the social skills which they require, still form the foundation upon which our virtual communities exist.  It’s not the other way around:  we cannot pour all of our energies into the virtual world, and expect our physical communities to flourish, as if by magic.  This is true, first and foremost, of our families.

So, it’s the summer.  Turn off the i-phone, i-pad, computer game, or the movie.  Look into your children’s eyes, and have a conversation. The future of society depends upon it.

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.

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.

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.