Philosophy and the Art of Parenting: Sheb Varghese interviews Philosophy for Parents

Today’s post is a ‘Q and A’ session with one of my readers, Sheb Varghese.  He’s asked if I would answer some questions for his blog, Faith Colloquium, and I’m excited to publish our discussion here on Philosophy for Parents as well.

SV:  As someone who was in graduate school, while also starting a family, could you tell us what that experience was like and any advice you might give to someone who is in school or considering going into school while also raising children?

HHB:  Honestly, it was really, really hard. I’ve spoken a bit about my experience in a few of my posts.   Looking back on it now, I think I probably suffered from something like post-natal depression. But I think my difficulties came, too, because I struggled with how to balance looking after a baby/toddler, and also pursuing my studies. I felt a lot of pressure to make progress on my thesis, and then found myself feeling frustrated by the time-consuming demands of parenting, especially the parenting of small children. I would want my daughter to sleep so I could work, but she wouldn’t sleep. Or I would put her on the floor to play while I worked, but that would only last for 15 minutes or so before she needed my attention, and so forth.

Of course I knew it was important to take care of her, but the panicky thought kept coming to me that it was more important to work on my thesis. So I would resent the interruptions my daughter would make to my work, rather than just let myself enjoy her during that special time.

Yet, through all that frustration, something creative and productive started to happen. I started to see with new eyes not only the demands of parenting, but also how as a society we take parenting efforts completely for granted. I realized I was taking my own parenting for granted, and that explained, at least partly, my view that my academic work was more important than my parenting. Parenting was supposed to be easy, something anyone could do, something that just happened ‘on the side’, but academics was a serious career that needed time, thought and investment. And yet, caring for my child was one of the hardest things I had ever done. Mind you, it wasn’t one of the hardest intellectual things I had ever done, but it was one of the hardest things I had ever done that involved my whole soul – my mind and my emotions – my character, I suppose. Through a lot of soul searching and prayer, I came to see that it wasn’t caring for my child that was the problem; rather, it was the message from society – which I had internalized – that caring for a family is not an important way to spend one’s time, particularly if you are woman.

OK –so let me link this back more directly to your question! Starting a family in graduate school was very hard, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be if you have the right mindset.   Children are not a burden, they are a blessing. However, they may slow you down in your graduate work. I went to a career seminar for academics once where the presenter was saying that because he had children – and he only had 2 – he would never be at the top of his field because he wanted to be home for dinner every once in a while. And he wasn’t even the primary caregiver!

To my mind, this is all very tragic. Children are a lot of work, but being a parent opens your eyes to so many things that you just didn’t see before. Do we really want the majority of our top academics – our thought leaders and researchers – to be childless, or uninvolved parents? I remember going to a professional dinner once where I was the only parent at my table, and I had a much different perspective on government policy and current political ideas than my childless colleagues.

So, my advice to someone who is in school whilst also raising children is to go for it, we need your perspective! Yet, you must also be prepared to go slower than others around you. Having said that, don’t let the demands of parenting frustrate you. Rather, be assured that your parenting experiences will give you a depth of character that will serve you well in your work.

SV:  Some of us may not immediately see a direct link between Plato or Aristotle and parenting. Could you explain what the connection is, and why philosophers/philosophy is important in raising children?

HHB:  I think there are several different ‘links’ between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and parenting. For me, the main relevance of these philosophies comes down to the interest that both Plato and Aristotle had, in their different ways, in the concept of the ‘human good’. In its simplest terms, the idea of the human good means that there are certain ways of being that are better for humans than other ways. For Aristotle, especially, the human good means that there is such a thing as a human nature. To achieve the human good is to ‘flourish’ as a human being, and this can only be done when one lives in accordance with one’s human nature. Aristotle thought that man’s nature was defined by his ability to be rational, and this rational ability enabled man to be moral. So, living in accordance with human nature means, among other things, to develop one’s capacity to reason about, and to understand, what is right and what is wrong.

Plato and Aristotle were also very interested in the concept of the human soul. Both saw a kind of division in the soul between the rational and the irrational parts of the soul –that is, between our reason and our passions. Both stressed in their own way the need to control or govern our passions with our reason. So, on this model, the human being has thoughts or feelings that might not always be ‘right’; we can be deceived by our desires, or let our passions rule over our reason in a way that we don’t think clearly about the concepts of right, wrong, good and bad.

Now, as a parent, I find this all very fascinating, because I’m in the trenches, raising some little human beings, and I like to think about just what it is I am trying to do here. What exactly am I trying to achieve with these little ones? What kind of potential do they have as human beings? Also, and very importantly, how do you raise a human being to be good? How do you raise a human being to be happy? I think Aristotle is good to ‘think with’ on these kinds of questions. We don’t have to agree with him, but he can offer us some important insights that will at least help us think more deeply our roles as parents.

But it’s not just Aristotle that is good to ‘think with’ – other philosophers take up this idea of the human good in one way or another. Many philosophers, especially modern philosophers, have rejected the idea of the human good. Many have rejected the idea of a ‘human nature’. This kind of philosophical skepticism has huge implications for us as parents, because we have to raise our children in a world that often tells us there is no meaning behind ‘being human’ beyond the meaning that we choose to give it ourselves. I disagree with that idea. But it’s important to understand the philosophical background to that kind of skepticism, if only to realize how it might be influencing us as parents.

SV:  What do you think are some of the greatest challenges/obstacles are for parents raising children today, particularly for parents coming from faith traditions? How might we overcome these challenges?

HHB:  Where do I start?

First, I think as a society we are developing a rather distorted view of freedom, which is impacting parents significantly, most especially parents from faith traditions. This is a radical concept of freedom where the most important value seems to be ‘choice’, and it is choice itself that makes an action right. The problem is that this radical concept of choice does not sit well with other philosophies which do not exalt choice as the highest value. Take abortion as an example. The pro-abortion argument is a pro-choice argument – a woman should have the right to choose what to do with her body. But for someone who is pro-life, the question of when it is morally right to take a human life is a more important consideration than the concept of ‘choice’. Euthansia is another example – should someone be able to ‘choose’ when they die, or is it morally wrong to take one’s life? The proponents of choice say that one should be able to do with one’s body as one sees fit; but there are others that think the sanctity of life is more important than individual choice. Transgender issues are another example – should you be able to choose whether you are a man or a woman?

In all these cases, when choice is the highest value, it becomes the cuckoo in the nest that drives out all other values, all other considerations. And often, the person who suggests that there are other values besides choice is seen as a hateful, backward person who wants to implement some kind of tyranny. Thus, you declare a ‘war on women’ if you are pro-life; you are heartless and cruel if you do not think people should be able to choose when to end their own lives, or choose their own gender.

The problem is that there are other values in that nest with the cuckoo of choice – indeed, those values are what should inform choice. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton puts it: ‘Freedom is of no use to a being who lacks the concepts with which to value things, who lives in a solipsistic vacuum, idly willing now this and now that, but with no conception of an objective order that would be affected by his choice. We cannot derive the ends of conduct from the idea of choice alone.

Because politically we want to protect choice, we often do not speak publically of good choices and bad choices. But as parents, we are the ones who teach our children what kinds of reasons and values need to guide their choices. We are the ones who teach the difference between a good choice and a bad choice.

This is our right, and our duty, as parents, but there are times when I feel this right is slipping away. Just recently there was a story in the news about a teenage boy who wanted to become a transgendered girl, but his parents were Christians and tried to dissuade him. He committed suicide, which caused an outcry in the transgender community against his parents’ efforts to help him accept himself as a boy. Yet, the parents had a right to teach him Christian values, which assert the sanctity of the body, and the importance of the body for one’s identity.

Coming from a faith tradition myself, I am particularly concerned with the increasing hostility toward religion in western society. This hostility seems to be linked to the idea that religions do indeed have a concept of the human good which therefore constrains individual choice. Sadly, it is this hostility which is leading to an increasing suspicion of parents who want to raise their children in a religious way.

Another challenge, of course, is social media. Social media can be wonderful and indeed it has revolutionized the way we do things. I do think it presents a challenge, however, in that our children can spend much, much more time with their peers ‘virtually’ than we ever did in the flesh. It is true that you become like the people you spend time with, so the problem with social media is that if your child is on it all the time – and I do mean all the time – then you really have no idea who they are socializing with, what they are saying, or what is being said to them.

It comes down to a question of influence, I think. As parents we have less of an opportunity to influence our children if we let our families get sucked into the never-ending world of social media. Thankfully I think it is a challenge that can be successfully met if you set limits on when and where your child can have access to the internet, etc., but prepare yourself for an on-going battle, particularly through the teenage years.

Another challenge I must mention is the rise of pornography. I see this as another area in which parents are not only losing influence, but also are being shouted down by those who see no problem with pornography. Ten years ago we were all up in arms about how to protect our kids from internet porn; now, we have government ministers suggesting that kids can turn to porn to learn about sex.

I’ve written about porn in the past; my wholehearted disapproval of it is no secret. I think it gives all the wrong messages and teaches all the wrong lessons about sexual behavior. It trains our passions to desire a certain kind of sexual experience which is selfish, violent, and ultimately lonely; it teaches us to treat the ‘other’ as an object, not a person. It is incredibly addictive and trains us to need new images in order to get aroused, thus making it much harder to sustain fidelity in a committed relationship like marriage. It completely desecrates the sacred union between a man and a woman, and is thus of special concern to parents from faith traditions. Exposure to porn at a young age literally hijacks a child’s sexuality and passions. Yet, the ‘freedom culture’ tells parents they are controlling and backward if they try to protect their children from encountering these monstrous images.

SV:  Given our culture’s emphasis on individualism and personal freedom, and more parents being out of the home so often, could you talk about the importance for parents spending consistent and quality time with their children (e.g. family dinners, family prayer)?

HHB:  These questions all go together so well! I was just talking in the last question about our society’s concept of radical, personal freedom, and also about the notion of a parent’s influence on a child, and those two themes seem to be a part of an answer to this question, too.

Yes, we certainly do emphasize individualism in our culture, as well as a kind of personal freedom that brings with it a kind of unrealistic idea that we are independent from others, particularly our families. That individualism, however, can be very closely tied to an isolated loneliness, especially in the teenage years (just look at the recent growth in self-harming among teenagers), if it isn’t tempered with a good dose of family connectedness.

And how does a family feel connected? Time spent together is an absolutely essential part of it. But it doesn’t have to be ‘perfect time’. In fact, I’m a big believer in the imperfectness of families. One session at our family dinner table can go from laughing to fighting to complaining to scolding to edifying in about 5 minutes, and then repeat the cycle for the rest of the dinner. So parents spending time with their children is not about some kind of perfect world where the child never misbehaves and the parent is never grumpy.   But it is in the acts of eating together, praying together, working together, reading together (I’m a big believer in bedtime stories as well) that those bonds are formed, no matter how clumsy we are in doing them.

What is miraculous is just how important those family bonds are. There is a very high chance they will save a kid from depression, drugs, self-harm, suicide attempts, teenage pregnancy – you name it. And even if a child does get involved in those things, he or she will get out faster and recover quicker if he comes from a strong, close family. So don’t give up on those family dinners and bedtime stories, no matter how chaotic!

SV:  You’ve written about pop music and celebrities in our contemporary culture, and the impact they have on children, particularly teens. Could you talk more about this, specifically the role art and aesthetics play in raising children to be people of virtue? And when and why did this go by way the wayside for parents in our culture? How can we recover the role of art in raising children?

HHB:  I wrote about the influence of celebrities on our children in the context of Plato’s cave, and I still think that is a good analogy. Children are in a kind of ‘cave’ in the sense that they really do not understand, or are aware of, many things around them. So when they encounter celebrities, either in pictures or videos or whatever, those celebrities are presented in such a way that they seem to be so much more beautiful, so much more interesting and so much more successful than ordinary people, or say, one’s parents. I think this is so harmful, first of all because it is false that celebrities are necessarily any of those things (indeed, define ‘beauty’, ‘interesting’ and ‘success’), and second of all because idolizing celebrities stops children from understanding what is of value in their own lives – indeed, what is of value, in itself. In fact, celebrity culture seems to thrive on our weaknesses as humans – our tendencies toward jealousy, vanity, selfishness, and popularity.

Art definitely has an essential role in helping us all – not just children – to become ‘people of virtue’. Speaking for myself, I know when I came out of watching, say, Les Miserables, I was a better person, with a greater determination to love and appreciate those around me, and to live closer to God. I didn’t have a similar determination, however, after I saw Shrek on the West End. Nothing was wrong with Shrek, but it wasn’t ennobling, either. It seems to me that many of us have somehow lost the expectation that art should ennoble us somehow. We expect art to entertain us, but not necessarily to make us better people. On the flip side, many artists these days seem to be more interested in art as a form of self-expression, rather than in art as a way to uplift and inspire. So we spend a lot of time watching and listening to things that are substandard and rather mindless, or that do nothing to inspire the virtues.

How can we recover the role of art in raising children? That’s an excellent question, and like most questions that have to do with raising children, I suspect it doesn’t require a hugely complicated answer. Essentially, I would say we have to use the time we have together to explore art that does inspire virtue. Listening to classical music is a great place to start. Read inspiring books together – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Garden, Heidi, The Giver (my kids loved that book!), and so forth, on a daily basis. Get on google images and look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, etc. Take your children to Shakespeare plays, museums, historical sites and classical music concerts, from a young age. If you can’t afford those sorts of things, then go to YouTube and watch a concert, or get art books or Shakespeare from your library. Indeed, one of my resolutions this year is to memorize passages from Shakespeare with my children. It may seem like a drop in the ocean against the art out there which leads our children away from virtue, but the investment will pay off, and your children will develop a love of good art, even though it might not seem like it for a while.

SV:  For those parents who are interested in more in philosophy, particularly how it relates to parenting, who might you recommend for further reading?

HHB:  That’s a bit of a tricky question, because although I think many philosophical discussions are hugely relevant for parents, the problem is that those discussions are very rarely aimed at parents. So it is often hard for the typical parent who is not trained in philosophy to see what relevance philosophy might have for them in their parenting challenges. Another problem is that many of our major thinkers in Western philosophy were not parents themselves, so although they write about issues that are important for parents, one wonders how their philosophy might have been different if they had had that experience.

Indeed, these problems are among the very things that motivated me to start Philosophy for Parents in the first place! What I try to do in Philosophy for Parents is to write about philosophical concepts that I think can be of help to parents in their everyday interactions with their children. I approach, and write about, philosophy as a parent, whereas perhaps many other philosophers approach philosophy as philosophers. In the future I hope to turn my blog into a book, so that parents will have something to turn to if they want to use philosophy to help them in their parenting.

Having said all that, philosophy is relevant to parents in the sense that it is relevant for all of us: it provides a discussion about what it means to be a good human being, or live a meaningful human life. With that in mind, ancient Greek philosophy is an excellent place to start. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a must. In Plato’s Republic you will find fascinating discussions about why we should be moral, how to educate the young to be virtuous, and the ideal state. I’ve written about Stoicism before – I think it is an especially applicable philosophy for parents, so I also recommend The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I’m fascinated by Thomas Aquinas’s theory of natural law as a way of thinking about our human nature, and that can be found in his Summa Theologica, IaIIae, questions 90-95. Rousseau’s Emile and John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education provide food for thought on education and human development. Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is a less accessible, but profoundly important work on what it means to be moral.  John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism was a significant philosophical work in the 19th century, and continues to be influential on our moral philosophy today; it contains, among other things, thought-provoking discussions on happiness, morality and justice.

If you can’t bear the thought of primary sources, then as an introduction to philosophy try A Short History of Ethics, by Alasdair MacIntyre.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Reflections of a Failed Tiger Mother: What is a Good Parent?

A year and a half ago, I sat in a room with the deputy head of my child’s school.  We discussed my child’s academic difficulties, and my frustrations.  ‘Whatever I do, I can’t get my child motivated to work hard in school,’  I said. ‘If I insist that she do her homework – and do it to a high standard – she ignores me until I annoy her so much with my nagging that she throws a huge tantrum.  Then she spends the rest of the evening recovering from the tantrum, instead of doing her homework.   I want her to do well in school and reach her potential, but she thinks I’m pushy and not allowing her space to “be herself”.  But I don’t know how to encourage her without coming across as domineering and bossy.’

Finally I said, ‘I just feel like I have to change my whole personality in order to be a good parent.’

Have you ever felt that there was something about you that simply wasn’t up to the challenges of parenting?  Just what kind of a person do you have to be if you are to be a good parent?

I could give here a whole list of qualities which I think define a good parent.  However, a more philosophical approach to this question is to look at what we think the purpose of parenting might be.  Taking inspiration from Aristotle, we can argue that what we are trying to achieve with our parenting is what dictates the kind of person we need to be in our parenting.

Confessions of a Failed Tiger Mother

In January 2011, Amy Chua published her controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which soon became a bestseller (and she and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, have just published another book, The Triple Package, which looks at why certain groups in society excel more than others).  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother details her struggles to raise her two girls in a way similar to the way she was raised by her Chinese immigrant parents.  Chua’s parents were very strict – they allowed no A minuses, demanded music and math drills every day, forbade their girls to have sleepovers or boyfriends, and so forth.  When Chua tried to follow something like this same pattern with her own children, fierce rebellion ensued, forcing Chua to resort at times to rather extreme methods to get her children to obey.

Chua was roundly criticized for being too harsh and demanding as a mother.  Yet, her methods paid off:  one of her girls now attends Harvard, and the other attends Yale.

If Amy Chua is a tiger mother, then I’m a failed tiger mother.   This means that I set the strict rules, communicated the high expectations, insisted on the good work ethic, and endured the screaming matches, but didn’t achieve the desired outcomes.  Instead of resulting in a stellar candidate for an elite college, these methods seemed to create only anger and defiance in my oldest child.

I’m not saying that these methods are bad; indeed, in general I still try to parent this way (except for the screaming matches).  But I’ve had to change my perspective concerning the outcome I am trying to achieve with these methods.  And because I now see myself trying to achieve a different outcome, I have also come to change my perspective on of the kind of person I need to be to as a parent.

The Drill Sergeant = Good Parent?

When my oldest child was small, she impressed people with her charm, insight, boundless energy, and prodigious conversation skills.  Everyone who knew her was sure she had great academic potential.  Yet, when she started school, she somehow failed kindergarten (?!!).  My husband and I thought this was surely a mistake.  But in the next year, she had difficulties, and then the year after that.  She started to hate going to school, complaining every day that she felt sick so that she wouldn’t have to go.

By this time I was tearing my hair out, looking for anything I could find to help her in school.  She was diagnosed with ADHD, but I was sure she still had great potential.  I just had to unlock it.  I decided the best way to do this was through math and reading drills, and lots of them.  Thus began a ten year journey in which I insisted she do extra work every day so that she could keep up in school.   Music practice was also an important way to develop the brain, so daily practice was required as well.   The problem, of course, was that she didn’t want to do this extra work.  So, the conflict started.

The thing about conflict is that it tends to escalate.   I found myself turning into some kind of hard-nosed drill sergeant in order to get her to do her school work and practicing.  I was intolerant of laziness and unsympathetic to any complaints about how much she hated her work.  I was there to help her achieve.  But the more I stood my ground, the more she pushed back, and eventually our relationship started to suffer.

Now here I was, a miserable drill sergeant with a miserable subordinate, and I started to wonder:  what was the end goal here?  Was it to do well in school?  To what end?  So that she could get into a good college?  Was that the whole of my purpose as a parent?  Of course, I knew that it wasn’t, and yet, I was acting like it was.  As a result, those parts of my personality that I needed to achieve that purpose – things like focus, determination, inflexibility, industriousness, etc – were becoming the dominant ones.  And important as these qualities are, you need more than these to build a family.  I decided I needed to change.

What is the Purpose of a Parent?

As I reflected on the kind of person I wanted to be as parent, I was reminded of a question that Aristotle posed in his book, The Politics.  He asks whether the ‘goodness’ of a good citizen and the ‘goodness’ of a good man are the same thing.  In order to answer this question, he says we first have to define what it means to be a good citizen.  A good citizen, he argues, is one who fulfills his ‘task’, or purpose, which is to preserve the regime in which he lives, by doing his job well within the regime, obeying the laws and etc.  Now, there are different kinds of regimes with different kinds of laws, and some regimes have laws that do not encourage virtuous behavior.  Since a good man is defined as the virtuous man – that is, as the man who understands the moral concept of what is ‘good’ and lives according to it – it is therefore not the case that the good citizen will always be the same as a good man.   The ‘goodness’ of the citizen is defined by his purpose, which may or may not require him to also be a good person.

In the same way, we can ask if the goodness of a good parent is the same as the goodness of a good person.  And I think Aristotle’s insight is useful here:  a ‘good’ parent is defined by his purpose.  The problem is that different people have different views on the purpose of a parent.  And some of those purposes might not, in and of themselves, be moral or virtuous ones.  For instance, if the purpose of a parent is to, say, ensure the child becomes a professional tennis player, then the parent doesn’t necessarily have to be a virtuous person in order to fulfill this purpose.  They do have to be focused, determined, hardworking (to pay for all those tennis lessons!), and so forth, but these qualities by themselves do not make a person bad or good, since they can be used to accomplish bad or good ends.

By Aristotle’s reasoning, then, the goodness of a good parent is the same as the goodness of a good person when the parent sees herself as having a moral purpose.  For me, the point is not just to raise a child to be a concert pianist, or an Olympic diver, or a Harvard graduate.  It is to raise children who want to be good.  It is to raise children who love God, and who understand the difference between right and wrong.  It is to raise children who want to reach out and help others, who have the self-confidence and moral vision to form meaningful relationships, cope with difficulties, and live purposeful lives.  It is to raise children who have the capacity to love.

So, if this is my purpose as a parent, I have to try – sometimes really hard – to be a good person.  I can’t lead my children toward these ends if I’m not trying to reach them myself.  The ‘drill sergeant’ qualities can be useful, but they aren’t sufficient.   And the quality I need most to be a good person, and to help my kids be good, is total, unconditional love.

The Mom versus the Drill Sergeant   

At 6:00am this morning, our house was permeated with a strong smell.  It took me a while to figure it out, and then I realized that it was the smell of some essential oils that are supposed to facilitate mental focus and concentration.  Then I remembered that my oldest child had some very important tests she had to take today.  These are tests which everyone in the state of California has to take in order to graduate from high school.  ‘Everyone says they’re really easy, mom,’ she told me.  ‘But watch me be the first person to fail them.’

My heart went out to her this morning as I realized how worried she must have been to put on all those oils.  And that’s when I realized how far I’ve come as a parent.  A few years ago, I probably would have worried a lot about her test scores.  But today, all I worried about was her.

She’ll come home tonight, and I’ll ask her how her tests went.  If she tells me they went badly, I can say with confidence that I won’t freak out.  I’ll give her a hug, and I’ll tell her how proud I am of her for trying her best.  We’ll sit on her bed and talk about how she can always take it again next year.   I’ll tell her that everything will work out.

My purpose as a parent is much broader and deeper than to ensure my child’s academic success.  It is to raise a good human being.  I can feel myself becoming a better human being as I try to do that.  Really, that’s what being a good parent is all about.

Could Parenting Be More Important Than Politics?

Since my blog started  two months ago, I have had two commentators cite the following quote by C. S. Lewis:

‘I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman).  But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world.  What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc. exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes?  As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor” … We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it.  So your job is the one for which all others exist.’

I love this quote.  I live my life by this quote.  But I think it needs some discussion.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Was C. S. Lewis Right?

I did my undergraduate work at Wellesley College, which is a highly competitive all-women’s school.  For some reason, when I reflect on Lewis’s quote, I often think of Wellesley.

Wellesley was full of very ambitious women – who were, I hasten to add, also very lovely (the following is not meant as a criticism of any of them, just an observation).  Most of them had plans to become lawyers, judges, politicians, high powered business women, doctors, journalists, etc.  Yet, I don’t think they saw their future careers as somehow existing for the sake of happy homes in the wider world.  Were they undertaking all that education just to be part of a support network that ultimately focused on enabling families to function well and be happy?

That certainly didn’t seem to be the dominant thinking among our professors and college administrators, either.    Our studies were not for the purpose of generating happy homes in society, were they?  And if they were, then what about the happiness in our own future homes?  It was not a secret that the careers we were going into were grueling and would require everything we had to succeed.  Wellesley was there to prepare us for that success, not so much for success in the home.  And perhaps it was an open secret that if we wanted to be successful professionally, there would be some unavoidable conflicts with success in the home.  (I say it was an open secret, because this conflict always seemed to me to be swept under the carpet).

When successful Wellesley alums came to speak to us, they were always invited to campus because of their success in their profession, not because of their success in the home.  Bankers, lawyers, politicians, academics, activists were all invited to speak.  I never heard them speak of their home lives.

So, my point is that if Lewis is right, then why was my experience at Wellesley the way it was?  If the job we have in our homes, with our families, is the job for which all other jobs exist, then why do we spend nearly all our time preparing for, working at, analyzing, applauding, and rewarding all those other jobs?

I don’t have a neat answer to these questions, but at the same time I don’t want to abandon Lewis’s insight.  Instead, I want to look at it from a different perspective, by considering it in light of some thoughts from Aristotle.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Is it Politics?

Aristotle, too, considered the concept of a ‘job for which all other jobs exist’.   He discussed this concept, though, by using terms like ‘master art’ and ‘highest science’.  The highest science was defined as the science for which all other arts and sciences existed.  Aristotle thought this highest science was politics.

Now, that sounds a little more plausible than Lewis’s view.  Power over millions of people, global fame, the opportunity to practice state craft, change the course of history, influence world events – you know, that sort of thing – surely Aristotle was not far off the mark when he argued that politics was the highest of all the sciences.

Yet, let us consider his reason why politics is the highest science.  In an earlier entry, I explained that Aristotle thinks that everything we do in life aims at some ‘end’, or ‘good’, and that there is a ‘chief good’ in life – the highest end for which all of our other actions are done – which is happiness.  Now, not only is Aristotle interested in what the highest end is for a human life, but he also wants to show which of the disciplines have this highest end as their object.  Surely, whatever discipline studies how to achieve this chief good would be the most authoritative of all the arts and sciences – it would be the ‘master art. ’

Aristotle argues that politics is the discipline which has this good as it’s object.  Politics is the master art because it’s purpose is to achieve the ‘good for man’ – the highest good which all other disciplines are used to achieve.  It is politics that legislates what we should do and what we should not do; in this way, it has a certain conception of what a human life should look like.  Aristotle thinks that the function of the law is to guide us toward our highest ‘end’ of happiness.   Remember that for Aristotle, the happy man is the virtuous man, and the virtuous man is the one who is fulfilling his potential as a human being to be a moral agent.  So, the law is there to help us develop good, virtuous habits, which will make all the difference to the kind of person that we become.

Now, there is a problem here.  To modern ears, the idea that politics is there to direct man toward his ‘highest good’ sounds foreign, even dangerous.  Nowadays, we regard the function of politics to be that of protecting and defending our freedoms, not directing our actions toward some ‘end’.  We value our freedom to direct ourselves – and our families – toward what we understand to be our ‘good’.

This modern conception of politics, indeed, was (and continues to be) the project of the philosophy of liberalism.  As I have mentioned before, liberalism espouses the importance of individual rights and individual liberty, and is considered by most people to be the philosophy upon which our western, democratic society is built.  Although liberalism has a rich heritage incorporating many thinkers, one definitive version of it can be found in the work of the philosopher John Rawls, who wrote A Theory of Justice in 1971.

One basic premise of Rawlsian liberalism is that the freedoms, or rights, that we have in our society should not be based upon any particular conception of the ‘good life’ for human beings.  In other words, governments should remain neutral as much as possible on questions concerning what is a ‘good’ human life or a ‘bad’ human life.  After all, people often disagree on what it means for a human being to be good or bad, or even on the nature of happiness (remember that for Aristotle these are the same thing – a good life is a happy life).  If a government were to have its own conception of what human happiness or goodness was, and then were to police its citizens to live according to that conception, it would deny a certain portion of society the freedom to live their own conceptions.  The state, then, must remain silent on the moral content of what we as citizens try to achieve in our lives, and limit itself to protecting our rights to live as we choose, as long as it is in a peaceful way.

Parenting as the Master Art

Now, maybe you agree with this aim of liberalism, or maybe you don’t.  Whatever your view, I think it is fair to say that something like this version of liberalism has had a very great influence upon our Western democracies.  And if that is the case, then politics can no longer be considered the ‘master art’ under Aristotle’s criteria.  Indeed, if questions of the good life are no longer the concern of politics, but instead have been recognized as an issue of private concern, then surely it is parenting that becomes a prime candidate to replace politics as the master art.

It is in parenting that the question of what it means to be human is at its most urgent.  It is parents who give their children a conception of what a ‘good’ life and a ‘bad’ life for humans might be.  It is parents who develop their children’s moral reasoning, directing them toward a ‘good’ life.  And the strong emotional bond that exists between parent and child means that moral values are transmitted from one generation to the next powerfully, not only by words, but also by feelings.   That is why politics, though clearly important – and here is where Aristotle and I part company – simply cannot achieve for human beings what good parenting can achieve for them.  Parenting is a practice that passes on humanity like no other, and in that sense, it has to be the master art.

I hope C. S. Lewis would agree.

Impeding the Development of Our Children’s Moral Reasoning: The Case of Porn

In philosophy, moral reasoning is the reasoning process by which we identify what is good and what is bad.  I think that as parents, one of our primary responsibilities is to develop this moral reasoning in our children.

Just how we as parents are supposed to do this is a rather big question, but here’s a way in:  Aristotle points out that when we reason about what is ‘good’, this process involves not only the mind, but also the passions.  Our passions affect our moral reasoning, no matter who we are.  If we have learned to control our passions, then we reason well about what is good and what is bad.  If we have not learned to control our passions, then we do not reason well about these things.

Unhealthy, Uncontrolled Passion

Now, if Aristotle’s idea that our passions affect our moral reasoning is at all true, then we as parents have a mighty challenge on our hands.  This is because, more and more, we live in a world that does not encourage people to control their passions.

There are lots of examples of this, but perhaps the most obvious one is the explosion of the porn industry.

Please allow me a ‘mother bear’ moment.  Do you know how many porn sites there are on the internet?  A recent GQ article by Scott Christian (http://www.gq.com/blogs/the-feed/2013/11/10-reasons-why-you-should-quit-watching-porn.html) estimated it at 420 million.  Porn is everywhere, and more children and teens are watching porn regularly than ever before.  According to Christian, in a survey of porn users, 53% said they developed a porn habit between the ages of 12-14, and 16% started watching before they were 12.  That means that almost 70% of porn users started viewing porn by age 14.  Porn is, if anything, a parenting issue.

The problem is that porn is not some harmless pastime.  Scientific studies have shown that a porn addict’s brain looks exactly like a drug addict’s brain.  As the website Fight the New Drug (http://www.fightthenewdrug.org/get-the-facts) explains, this is because, like drugs, exposure to porn releases unnaturally high levels of the chemical dopamine, which goes straight to the reward center of the brain and causes a ‘high’.  As a porn user gets addicted to that high, physical changes happen in his brain such that he needs more and more exposure to porn to get the same kind of high as before, just like a drug addict needs more and more drugs to get high.

But that need for ‘more exposure’ to porn is devastating. What it means is that the porn user needs ‘constant newness’ in order to get sexually aroused.  According to Christian, those porn addicts who were surveyed experienced a decline in arousal with the same mate, while those who ‘regularly found different mates were able to continue their arousal’.  No surprise, then, that regular porn users report an increasing disinterest in sex with their partner.

The need for ‘constant newness’, however, goes further – so often regular porn users are driven to seek more deviant forms of porn in order to get aroused.  These more deviant forms portray violence and humiliating, abusive behavior as sexually exciting.

However, a warning:  before we start feeling relieved that our kids have never seen the more extreme kind of porn,   Fight the New Drug argues that violence in porn is not just relegated to the more deviant kind.  A few years ago a study was done of the 50 most popular porn films, and it was found that of the 304 scenes the movies contained, 88% of them contained physical violence.  To make matters worse, in 95% of these violent scenes, the target of this violence – which in the vast majority of scenes was a woman – had either a neutral response to the violence, or responded with pleasure!

In effect, porn is training the appetites of a whole generation of people to be oriented toward violent sex.

Not only does porn give the user an appetite for unhealthy sex, it also distorts the user’s view of relationships.  Porn portrays an unrealistic world in which digitally doctored images of people ‘enjoy’ dangerous sex acts.  Fight the New Drug reports that studies show that porn users are more critical of and dissatisfied with their partner’s appearance, sexual curiosity and sexual performance.  They also report being less in love with their partner, and are cynical about romantic love and marriage.  Porn trains the user to see sex as a performance with objects, instead of understanding it as something that happens with a real person, who has thoughts and feelings and an imperfect body.  Frankly, as Fight the New Drug so aptly puts it, porn kills love.

Passion and Moral Reasoning  

Fortunately, there is an increasing amount of scientific evidence informing us of these harmful effects of porn, particularly that porn leads a person to have a warped perspective on what is ‘good’ in key life issues like committed relationships.  Yet, philosophy, too, can play a role in illuminating why porn might be damaging to a person in this way.  Of course, there are some philosophical theories which support porn.  But I’m going to discuss here Aristotle’s theory of moral reasoning, which holds that any passion, if it has not been trained to be expressed in the right way, can seriously alter a person’s perspective on what the ‘good life’ is for humans.

I’ve been writing lately about Aristotle’s concept of the virtuous person, and about how he suggests we teach human beings to be virtuous.  Those ideas are all relevant here, because for Aristotle, the defining characteristic of the virtuous person is that he excels at moral reasoning.

So, if we know how to teach virtue, then we know how to teach moral reasoning.  I mentioned in a previous entry that for Aristotle, we learn to be virtuous in a two-part process.   The first part of the process is where we learn to love the good, by repeating good actions over and over again, which trains our passions to love acting in the right way.  The second part of the process comes later, where we learn, through rational explanation, to understand the good.

Let’s look more closely at what Aristotle thinks happens in each part of the process.

The first part is a process of what we can call ‘pre-rational habituation’.  This is where a person is taught to develop habits before they are sufficiently rational to understand why those habits are good.  So, for instance, from the time your child is very young, you develop in him the habit of helping other people.  You take him to visit old people who are housebound.  You ensure that he helps you make a meal for a sick neighbor, or look after your friend’s children, and so forth.  You might talk to your child while you do these things about how it is good to think about other people; you might even explain that your family is part of a community and has a responsibility to help those who are having a hard time.  Yet, the child doesn’t really understand the concepts of unselfishness or community; but his passions are becoming trained to identify helping others as ‘good’.

The second phase of becoming virtuous happens when the child is older, when he is ready to understand rational arguments about what is good.  One characteristic of the virtuous person is that she understands not only ‘that’ something is good, but also what Aristotle calls the ‘why’: she has a mature understanding of why something is good.

So, this second phase is about focusing more specifically on the young person’s ability to reason about what is good.  It is done by getting him to think upon what is good for human beings, so that he develops a reflective understanding of that good. And yet, even though this phase focuses on engaging the reason, Aristotle thinks this rational reflection upon the good involves both the mind and the passions.  That is, if our passions have been trained to love what is good, then – and only then – are we in a state of mind where we are able to identify and understand what is good.

For instance, continuing the example above, during this phase you can have mature, meaningful discussions with your child about the concepts of compassion, unselfishness, and the importance of community.  Because he has had positive experiences with these values, he will be able to reflect on, and understand, why these things are good.

I can’t stress enough Aristotle’s point of how our passions have a profound effect upon our understanding of what is good.  For him it is so important that he thinks that someone whose passions have been trained to love what is not good will be unable to take on a true conception what is good when someone tries to explain it to him.  In other words, moral teaching cannot be done with someone who has not been taught to love the good.  They love the wrong things, and are therefore ‘blinded’ by their passions, such that their concept of the ‘good life’ for humans is far removed from what is really good for humans.

The Effect of Porn Upon Our Children’s Moral Reasoning 

Of course Aristotle could be wrong about how our passions influence our reasoning about what is right and good.  But I think he has made some rather astute observations of human nature here.  And those observations are helpful in showing why we need to fight with everything we have to protect our kids from porn.

Exposure to porn trains a person’s passions to love unhealthy things.  And this would be especially true of children, since childhood is the time where our passions are first trained.  Childhood is so important that, although in later life we may be able to ‘retrain’ our passions, what we learn during that time stays with us forever.

So, make no mistake, if our children view porn, that will be not only their sex education, but also a large part of their relationship education.  And when we come to discuss with them what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about sex and relationships, their passions – trained by porn – will affect their ability to rationally reflect about what a good, loving relationship might be.

Consider these points:  If porn trains them to love ‘constant newness’ in sexual experiences, then it will affect their understanding of the idea that it is ‘good’ to be faithful to one’s partner.

If it trains them to love digitally doctored images, then it will affect their understanding of the ‘good’ of the whole person – warts and all – in a sexual relationship (especially when childbirth, breastfeeding, and the aging process will make that digitally perfect body yet even more elusive for us mere mortals).

If it trains them to love sexual violence, then it will affect their understanding that rape is ‘bad’, that verbal and physical abuse is ‘bad’, and that a relationship where people gently kiss, cuddle and speak respectfully and lovingly to each other is ‘good’.

If it trains them to perceive and ‘love’ sex as a one-way digital experience, then it will affect their understanding of the ‘good’ of building a life partnership with a real person, where that person is not a mere object, but someone who has opinions and feelings that matter.

The Effect of Us Upon Our Children’s Moral Reasoning

However, I see a silver lining here.

If there is some truth to the idea that what we love has an impact on our moral reasoning, then we as parents have a challenge, but we also have an opportunity.

Instead of waiting for what seems to be the inevitable seduction of our children by the porn industry, we can use Aristotle’s insight to empower our children against it.  We can train their passions to love the antidotes to porn:  faithfulness, openness, honesty, kindness, compassion, respect, equality, gentleness, unselfishness, and love.  When they are young, they may not understand why these values are good, but they will feel that they are good.  When they are older, we can employ the love they have for these values to help them rationally reflect on the ‘why’ – on why they are a constituent part of the good life, and on why porn is antithetical to them.

That way, when the time comes that they are exposed to porn, they have a fighting chance to use their well-grounded moral reasoning to see it for what it is:  bad for human beings.

Addendum:

How do you think we can train children to love the ‘antidotes’ to porn?  Over to you …