Is Good Parenting a Problem for Society?

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.

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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.