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.


To Edit, or Not to Edit, Your Child’s Playlist: That is the Question

I spend a lot of time, it seems, in the car with my children. My teenagers especially get lots of car time. I try to use this time well – you know, talking about the meaning of life, encouraging them to talk about their experiences and feelings, exhorting them to goodness, and so forth. But after about 3 minutes of parent/child quality time, inevitably one of the teenagers turns on the radio.

Then we are treated to what is apparently some of the very best music that contemporary Western culture has to offer. And there is no getting away from it, since every station plays the same stuff. So inspirational is this art form of pop music that I break out into a kind of sullen monologue every time I hear it. The monologue varies slightly from day to day, but runs pretty much like this:

‘This song is about getting high. Change it please. OK, now in this song we have a bunch of young women shouting at us “I don’t care, I love it, I love it” over and over again. What kind of a song is that? Let’s change it. What? Here’s another young woman shouting in a different song that she really doesn’t care. This is all really rather mindless. I’ll change it, shall it? Ahh, more shouty music on this station, with no discernable tune. Someone is shouting something like “turn down for what”. Can’t even listen to it – neither the words or the music make any sense. You know what? Let’s just turn it off. Did you know that was an option?’

OK – I’ll admit it: I have high standards when it comes to music. My opinion is that classical music, opera and musical theatre are superior art forms to pop and rock music. But you don’t have to share that opinion – as indeed my husband does not – in order to appreciate that pop music seems to be more or less the only form of music which our society makes accessible to children. The teenage culture filters down to the younger ones, and basically as soon as a child starts watching TV, movies and playing computer games, pop music becomes a huge part of their lives. Pop music is played routinely in stores, theme parks, swimming pools, and at school assemblies and community events. TV shows like The X-Factor or Teen Idol of course exalt the pop music culture further, spreading the myth among the rising generation that being a pop star is the apex of musical achievement.

There are a few problems with this ubiquitousness of pop music. One is that it is really very confining. We think we have lots of choices in our ‘free market’, but the truth is that we are confined by what is on offer. And we start to think that what is on offer is all there is, unless we are educated otherwise.

For instance, a few years ago, I went to a talent show at my children’s elementary school. With the exception of two or three performances out of about twenty-five, the talent on offer consisted of one child after another ‘singing’ current pop music to a pre-recorded track.

I don’t blame the children, and I don’t even blame the parents. It’s just a reflection of the utter lack of musical education in huge parts of our society. It’s also a reflection of the way the market thrusts its own kind of education upon us – and more to the point, our children – if we aren’t discriminating consumers.

This leads to the second problem regarding the ubiquitousness of pop music. It seems to suggest the idea that we don’t need to be discriminating consumers. Pop music is fun, it is catchy. Above all, it is entertainment. And what’s wrong with entertainment?

Actually, the idea that music is purely for entertainment is a modern idea. Ancient thinkers had a much different conception of music, where they understood it to have a significant impact on human beings, and therefore, upon their communities. The philosopher Plato gives us a provocative discussion of the influence of music in his Republic, a work which discusses the conditions necessary for the ideal state.

Plato argues that the ideal state needs to be governed by guardians, a class of people who would be bred and selected for their tendency for unselfishness and a love of wisdom, as opposed to a love of power. These guardians must be carefully educated from their birth, and exposed only to art forms which would encourage them to temperance, bravery, wisdom, piety, virtue and so forth.

Music, Plato argues, is ‘more potent’ than other types of art, ‘because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten’. Therefore, the guardians must not be allowed to listen to certain kinds of music:   harmonies which encourage ‘drunkenness and softness and indolence’, and rhythms which encourage ‘meanness, insolence and fury’. Plato goes so far as to list the specific harmonies and cords which should be banished from the state, and then argues that instruments should be made in such a way that those harmonies could not be played. On the flip side, the guardians should listen to the harmonies and rhythms which inspire them to courageous acts in battle, pious moments, self-control, moderation and wisdom.

To modern ears, Plato’s views on music seem completely alien. But, in a way, that’s what makes him so important. Now, of couse, Plato has some rather draconian and totalitarian recommendations, and his total disregard for freedom of expression – outlawing certain harmonies, for instance – offends our modern sensibilities. But he is motivated by a truth that as a society we have lost: the truth that music has a serious effect upon our minds, and our emotions. In short, it affects our souls, if you believe, as I do, that there is such a thing as the soul.

One could argue that in our modern world we do still have a conception of art, and especially music, as a serious communication of important ideas. But I would argue that while this is true, we moderns are also unwilling to acknowledge that art can have a significant negative affect upon us, to the point that we should avoid it.

For instance, if I stop my children from being exposed to certain types of music, by say, turning off the radio or editing my teenager’s play list, then I am a controlling parent. (And indeed, I certainly felt like a controlling parent when my 12 year old stomped, screamed and slammed multiple doors when my husband and I deleted Katie Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ from her playlist).

Even worse, I am working against the noble ideals of free speech and freedom of expression. I may not like it, but I shouldn’t stop it, even in my own home. So our children listen to the music of pop culture, unchecked. The vast majority of teenagers, and even pre-teens, are plugged constantly into their playlists, receiving a steady stream of music that is either mindless and trivial, or centered around themes of sex, drugs, alcohol, defiance, unhealthy relationships, and anger.

Our liberal world demands that we hold up freedom as the highest value. Yet, in order to do this, we often have to convince ourselves that nothing resulting from our culture of free expression affects us, or our children – not very much, anyway – and that we can handle anything.

In my view, free expression is a necessary, noble thing. But, as parents, we have to understand that this freedom must be tempered by a different kind of freedom: the freedom that comes from understanding our human condition. As human beings we are affected profoundly by our culture and our environment. The messages from what we see and what we hear have a huge influence on how we live our lives. Even though we live in a free society, our culture can be almost oppressive at times in its ubiquitousness.  Yet, we always have the choice to ask our children extricate themselves from their headphones, or turn off the TV, and look together for alternatives to what our narrow, overly-commercialized, spiritually deficient, pop culture has to offer our children.

This is what I would suggest.  Because believe it or not, your children will thank you one day for showing them a different way.  I’m off to put Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven on my teenager’s playlist.  (Good luck with that).