Congratulations, Good Parents: We Will Ignore You

A few years ago, I attended an academic conference on religion and freedom. Many of the academics there were sympathetic to the notion of a free society, and so I was surprised when several of them expressed significant unease with the idea that parents had the right to give their children a religious upbringing.

For one thing, they didn’t feel that bringing up a child in a religion gave that child a genuine choice regarding whether he wanted to be religious or not. ‘Parents say that they will raise their children in their religion, and then let them choose whether they will continue the religion when they are older, but it doesn’t seem to work that way,’ they complained.

Secondly, because they didn’t seem thrilled about children continuing in the religion of their families, I can only presume that they were worried about the influence of religious people in a free society. They thought of religious people as having rigid values, which made them difficult and intolerant participants in public discussion about what freedoms people should be allowed to have in society.

For these academics, there was a conflict between the health of a free society on the one hand, and the rights of certain parents to pass on their ideals to their children on the other. So, rather than valuing and appreciating the role of parents in a free society, my colleagues worried about their role.

Our Unease with Parenting

A friend of mine is a foster parent, who presently cares for a four month old boy. Like most foster children, the story of his parents is tragic. His father is in prison, and his mother is a drug addict. Her use of drugs has affected her to the point where she really has neither the mental capacity nor emotional resources to cope with caring for a child. In fact, she was high when she gave birth, in a stranger’s bathtub.

As a society, we respond with abhorrence to this kind of incompetency in parents, to our credit. However, it strikes me that when we see competency in parents, we usually don’t have a correspondingly intense, positive reaction.  

Why is this? Why do we not celebrate and applaud competent parenting? One reason, as I have argued before, is that we take the process of raising a child for granted. But perhaps there is another reason: incompetent parenting may make us angry and horrified, but competent parenting can make us uneasy.   Like my fellow academics, we can see that there is more going on in the good parent/child relationship than keeping a child safe, fed and clean. Indeed, in this relationship, values are planted in deep. We have no control over this process, and yet, because those children are members of society, the process affects us.

Parenting with Values – But Which Values?

Parenting, in its essence, is surely about passing down one’s values – ways of doing, thinking, and living – to one’s posterity. I have written before that one of our responsibilities as parents is to develop ‘moral reasoning’ in our children, which is the reasoning we use to decide what is good and what is bad. I have also argued that the purpose of parenting is to raise good human beings.  

So, on this view, the family is a realm of morality. So far, so good. Surely most people agree that teaching children what is right and what is wrong is a basic responsibility parents have. Yet, there is a problem: what one parent thinks is right and wrong may be different from what another thinks is right and wrong. Indeed, a parent’s values may be at odds with the dominant values society happens to espouse at the moment.

When this happens, there will be people who don’t want parents – at least, certain parents – to teach their values to their children. The somewhat paradoxical situation arises where we as parents we have a responsibility to teach our children right and wrong, and yet people around us may be unhappy about us fulfilling that responsibility. For instance, I consider it my responsibility to teach my children that abortion is wrong, even though it is allowed under the law. Suddenly, the focus shifts from a recognition of the vital role that parents have in the moral upbringing of their children, to a grudging acknowledgement that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit.

Liberalism and the Rights of Parents

The fact that our society reserves the right of parents to impart their values to their children is a result, at least in part, of the philosophy of liberalism. Liberalism argues that people will have differing conceptions of the good, and that they should be free to pursue those conceptions – and teach them to their children – as long as they do not bring harm to others whilst doing so. This means that the liberal state makes laws which ensure that people are treated equally as they live their values, while remaining neutral regarding the question of whether their values are good or bad.

That’s the theory, anyway. The problem is that liberals disagree among themselves as to what it means to have a ‘free’ and ‘equal’ society, and even to what extent liberalism can remain ‘neutral’ regarding different conceptions of the good. These disagreements bear directly on the rights of parents to teach their values to their children.

Political liberals think that a free and equal society is one that is tolerant of diverse cultures among its people, even when those cultures promote values other than freedom and equality, or understand freedom and equality in a different way than liberals might understand them. So, for instance, if parents are religious, they should be free to raise their children in their religion, even if that religion promotes ‘illiberal’ practices and doctrines. These ‘illiberal’ practices could include, say, specifying gender-specific roles within a religion which could be seen as supporting inequality between men and women, or preaching ‘limits’ to freedom by teaching that certain actions are not allowed by God, such as abortion or homosexual behavior.

Comprehensive liberals, on the other hand, think that a liberal society should actively promote a certain kind of freedom and equality among its members, even if it means interfering with the beliefs and practices of various groups within that society. So, for instance, they may demand that all children be taught that homosexual behavior is a practice that should be welcomed and celebrated in order to promote equality in society, even if certain parents have conscientious objections to homosexuality due to their religious convictions. Thus, for comprehensive liberals, there may be cases in which parents should not be ‘free’ to teach certain values to their children, in order to have a truly free society.

Can a Free Society Ever Really Value Parents?

Of the two kinds of liberalism, it seems that political liberalism is more sympathetic to parental rights.   Now, I am very much in favor of parental rights. Yet, I would argue we need more than a healthy respect for parental rights in order to show real support and appreciation for parents. This is because it is possible to respect the rights of parents, while wholeheartedly disapproving of what they are actually doing in exercising those rights. And it’s hard to appreciate or value someone when you disapprove of what they are doing.

But surely this is an intractable problem. Freedom in a liberal society means I am free to teach my children as I please, but I am not free to get your support or appreciation as I teach them. In this sense, can a free society ever really value parents?

In my view, there is not a short or easy answer to this question. But here’s why I think it’s important: Parenting is very demanding. It requires life-altering sacrifices of time, money and energy. Children are immature and taxing, and being around them requires you to strive constantly to be a better person. In fact, I would argue that its demands are so great that parents can get depressed and discouraged if they don’t have a good support network.

So, for me, it’s not good enough to look at parents only as rights-bearing individuals. That implies that the best we can do for them is to force ourselves to ignore them, which also means we force ourselves to ignore the importance of what they doing.  And that is surely not only dishonest, but also unjust.

I think we have a greater chance of giving parents real support if we shift the focus back on their responsibility as moral teachers. We may disagree with what they are teaching, but by emphasizing the responsibilities that go with their rights, we can be more honest about the fact that parents are the very foundation of our society. The truth is that nations depend upon them to fulfill their responsibility as moral teachers. We have to find a way to recognize the tremendous importance of parents, without being threatened by them or wanting to control them.