About a year after my first child was born, a friend of mine came to visit me. We were both enrolled in PhD programs, so he was aware of my workload. He took one look at me with my baby, and a look of terror came over his face. Although he didn’t have any children, it was as if by simply looking at me he could comprehend how much work it was to look after my child, and how that conflicted with my PhD studies.
He spoke with desperation in his voice. ‘Is your church helping you?’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ he explained, ‘do they provide childcare?’
I knew that he meant well, but I was frustrated that all he could see was how parenthood was a disadvantage to me. What I wanted him to do – indeed, what I needed him to do – was to recognize the good I was doing as a parent. He saw parenthood as problematic, but that wasn’t helpful. I needed him to recognize that parenting was an activity that was worth the massive effort it required.
Is Parenting a Problem?
I have pointed out before that philosophers don’t often speak directly to parents. As I reflect upon this state of affairs, it strikes me that one reason for this may be because many philosophers regard the family – and therefore the activity of parenting – as problematic.
Some see the family as problematic for society in general, others see it as problematic for children, or for women. But whatever criticisms philosophers make about the family, one thing is clear: some thinkers seriously question the ultimate value of what we do as parents.
Questioning the value of the family for society goes back as far as the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. In his Republic, Plato argues that in an ideal state, the ruling class could not be permitted to have families. The rulers, or ‘guardians’ as he calls them, would need to be virtuous, wise and selfless, and have all things in common among themselves. Families allow people to form exclusive attachments, and would therefore hinder the guardians in regarding the good of the group as higher than the good of their family. So, the guardians would ‘mate’ with one another, but when children were born they would be taken away immediately from their mothers and raised communally.
There is speculation among philosophers over whether Plato was serious in making this proposal. But whether he was serious or not, he is among the first in a long line of thinkers to propose that the activity of parenting – with all the love and partiality that it entails – obstructs the goals of the unity and equality of a larger group.
Is Good Parenting Bad for Society?
It’s not common today for philosophers to propose something as radical as Plato’s abolition of the family. In our modern liberal societies, people are free to become parents, and they have rights over their children. Yet, even among philosophers who espouse the importance of freedom and rights regarding the family, there are some who worry about the adverse effects it has upon society.
The great liberal theorist John Rawls argued that the family was a fundamental cause of inequality in society. Certain children, he said, will be born into good families where they are loved and their capacities are developed. Other children will be less fortunate and be less loved. For Rawls, how people fare in life has much to do with their upbringing – particularly if they come from a happy home. Rawls does not argue for the abolition of the family, but he acknowledges that the idea of equal opportunity does ‘incline’ in that direction, if equality is considered to be the most important goal in a society.
Certain feminist philosophers, too, believe that the family causes inequality. Philosopher Susan Muller Okin argued that the family puts women on an unequal footing with men in society, as long as women carry out the role of caregiving. For Okin, caregiving puts serious constraints on a woman’s time and energy, thus denying her ‘equality of opportunity’ in wider society.
Both Rawls and Okin have made points worthy of consideration. It is true that there are good parents and bad parents, and that children with good parents often will be better able to access opportunities than those with bad parents. It is also true that the caregiving aspect of parenting requires just as much time and commitment as any full time job, and therefore those who choose to do it are foregoing certain opportunities outside the home.
Yet, ultimately, Rawls and Okin are questioning the value of parenting for society. Indeed, they have questioned more than that: by raising concerns about the inequality created – among children for Rawls, and among women for Okin – by the love and time that parents give to their children, they have, in effect, questioned the value of good parenting for society.
Truly Supporting Parents
The trouble is that concerns like those of Rawls and Okin about the family are shared by many in our society, particularly among politicians and opinion-makers. We can see this as parents who take the time to actively parent their children are criticized in a variety of ways. On the one hand, they are criticized for not being ambitious enough to ‘lean in’ at work, or for taking a career break and thus failing to use their talents to ‘give something back’ to society. On the other hand, they are portrayed as people who have the ‘luxury’ of looking after their own children, who through sheer luck are in the fortunate position to create a loving and stable home environment which other parents envy but cannot have.
The issue here is that a society which views the activity of parenting as problematic cannot produce policies or even a culture that is truly supportive of parents. Any support that parents feel that they have will be given from a position of contempt for the parent/child relationship, which means ensuring that parents don’t actually get to spend much time at all parenting their children.
In my view, true support for parents can only be given from a position of respect for the parent/child relationship. This means acknowledging that the time and love a parent puts into raising a child are necessary for the child’s well-being – not instruments of oppression for the caregiver, or commodities to be redistributed somehow by the politician.
A parent’s time and effort on a child, however demanding, must not be considered a burden or a waste or an injustice, but rather time and effort well-spent. We mustn’t pity or resent parents. We must respect them as equals in our collective effort to build a good society. That’s all I needed my friend to do.