Is Parenting a Political Activity?

The best way to describe how I felt when I first became a mother is invisible. I went from going to meetings, lectures and libraries, where people would show interest in me and my work, to being stuck in our apartment with round the clock feedings and baby care. I didn’t see many people, and, more to the point, not many people saw me.

But it wasn’t just that kind of invisible. It was that no one was in the least bit interested in the fact that I had a baby. In a way, this was a good thing. Families are a private affair, and I was free to have one. And yet, it was this freedom, I felt, which also made me invisible. I was free to raise my child as I saw fit. The flip side was that no one cared. They cared about my academic work. But they didn’t care about this work.

And yet, I thought that they should care. Not in a busy-body, ‘I’m going to call the social worker if I’m concerned about your parenting’ sort of way, but in a ‘Thank you for raising a future citizen’ sort of way. I had always been interested in politics, but now being a mother with a baby seemed about as far away from politics as I could get. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that in some way, raising her was a political activity. It was political in the sense that what I did in my home – how I treated her, and the values I taught her – would have an impact upon her. And she, in turn, would one day have an impact on those around her in wider society.

Parenting, Politics, and the Public/Private Distinction

Is parenting a political activity?

To consider this question, I want to point to a previous blog post in which I asked a related question: Could parenting be more important than politics? There I argued that, in some versions of liberalism, the role of the state is limited to protecting our freedoms to live as we choose, as long as we do not bring harm to others. It must remain neutral as much as possible on moral questions regarding a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ human life. By contrast, an essential aspect of parenting is teaching our children the moral concept of what it means to live a good human life.

On this liberal view, there is a distinction between the public sphere of the state, and the private sphere of society, which includes the family. The private sphere is defined by our rights, which are fundamentally rights against the state – things like our right to private property, free speech, free assembly, religious freedom, and so forth. These rights defend us against political authorities seizing control of every aspect of our lives. They set up a ‘non-political’ space, in which (theoretically at least) we can pursue the good, without the state dictating to us what is good.

Parenting, I would argue, is one of the most important activities of the private sphere. This is especially true if we view parenting as an exercise in leading our children toward the good. Thus, if we accept the sharp distinction drawn by liberalism between the state and the private sphere, then parenting cannot be considered a political activity.

Rights-Bearing Citizens vs. Virtuous Citizens

Now, fond as I am of the public/private distinction, it is also problematic. Let’s consider the private realm more closely. I have just explained that the private sphere is a space of freedom defined by our rights. Yet, what this also means is that the state regards its citizens within the private sphere only as rights-bearing individuals. As far as the state is concerned, our personal characteristics – indeed, our virtues or vices, our aspirations, our relationships – are not matters of consideration, as long as we keep the law.

For instance, it doesn’t matter if I volunteer at the local hospital, or sit at home watching porn for hours on end. In the liberal state, the political realm treats these private activities as though they were equal in value. This is precisely because it does not make value judgements regarding the good life. And yet, the first activity requires – and generates – virtues such as compassion, generosity, and patience, while the second activity requires – and generates – no virtues.

So, it seems to me that the public/private distinction, although essential for freedom, at the same time cuts itself off from acknowledging, or valuing, the vital role which private virtue plays in our society. What if none of us were compassionate, generous or patient? What kind of world would that be? It is clear that our public sphere depends upon citizens to be virtuous in their private lives. Yet, liberalism can only respect us as rights-bearing individuals; it cannot ask us to be – or value us as – virtuous individuals.

The Political Need for Virtue – Especially in Parenting

Now, nowhere is the need for virtue more prominent than in parenting. I can’t think of anything in my pre-parent life that required even half as much patience, resilience, self-control, kindness, forgiveness (for myself, mostly), courage, sheer determination and unconditional love as parenting does. And that’s just for ‘getting-through-the-day’ parenting.

Virtue, really, if we think of it in an Aristotelian sense, is what enables us to align our lives with the good. If we believe that parenting is essentially a moral pursuit in which we lead our children toward the good, then virtue is indispensable to good parenting. But if the state remains silent on the good, then it also stays silent on the importance of virtue – even in parenting.

In my experience, this silence has been deafening. It is as if, because we cannot require people to have virtue – and because often we cannot agree on what virtue is – we therefore cannot be honest about how much we need it, especially in parents. Clearly, our characters as parents matter for society, and therefore, for politics. Indeed, they define how we interact with our children, which in turn influences their actions and characters. And their characters, in turn, will shape our future society.

When we think of politics, we think of politicians. They make laws which affect us, to be sure. But I would argue that parenting practices have a far greater impact upon society than laws. Society is shaped continually, in one way or another, from the ground up, and it is parents who are in the trenches. Politicians may go on about the social ills of inequality, poverty, substance abuse, family breakdown, etc., but the truth is that politics will always be an ineffective way to solve these problems. Solving them revolves firstly around parents, and only secondly around politicians.

Parents aren’t politicians. But make no mistake, parents have an essential political role. Raising a family has profound political consequences, whether for good or ill. I’ll say what I wish someone would have said to me 16 years ago:

Your efforts as a parent –  

midnight feedings, cleaning, cooking, pushing through exhaustion, budgeting, going without, discipline struggles, rule-making, weeping, teaching, chasing, more cleaning, more cooking, more rule-making, more weeping, searching, reading, playing, working, cold-dinner eating, unconditionally loving –  

and the virtues that results from all of that,

matter for us all,

even though no one wants to say so.

Because one day, even though you can’t see it now, your kids are going to be awesome people, who will change their corner of the world.

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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.

 

Leading Our Children Away From Celebrity Culture

Is anyone else tired of hearing about Miley Cyrus?  Or Justin Bieber, Selina Gomez, Lindsay Lohan, or any other teenage – or not-so-teenage – celebrities?  Their dysfunctional relationships, audacious behavior, drug abuse, sex lives, partying, etc. is paraded constantly before our eyes.  We live in a strange world where emotionally unhealthy people with very little self-control or sense of purpose are held up as icons to be worshipped. Their bad behavior is portrayed by the media as disgusting and tragic, perhaps, but also as exciting and glamorous. So, we keep admiring them, no matter how they act.

The longer I am a parent, the less I understand our fascination with celebrities.  Being a parent, I think, opens your eyes to what is really important in life – things like unconditional love, selflessness and stability.  Yet, the celebrity culture seems to turn everything on its head:  what is essential for a happy life is not valued, while the less important things – such as wealth, fame and beauty – are touted as the only way to happiness.

Recently, the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in the Guardian that we need celebrities because we have a natural tendency to admire people who seem glamorous and successful.  We should ‘anoint’ good celebrities, he argued, so that we can channel our admiration appropriately.

I disagree.  In fact, I think it’s a dangerous idea, because celebrity culture is based upon myths about what it means to live a meaningful human life.  For instance, celebrities are portrayed as skinny – but with big breasts – unbelievably beautiful or handsome, wealthy and famous.  The message we get is that, because of these things, they are therefore of more value than us. And they have more fun, better sex, and more meaningful relationships.  Indeed, the wisdom from celebrity land is that beauty, wealth and fame are the things that give anyone value, and they must be pursued above everything else.  

Now, these may be myths, but they are very powerful myths.  Because celebrity culture is an integral part of our wider culture, these myths can affect us.  Sadly, they can also have a great influence upon our children.

Parents as Leaders

So, how do we help our children understand the myths of the celebrity culture as myths?  I would suggest that how we answer this question has to do with what we perceive our role to be as parents.  Is our role to bring a child into the world and then let that child uncritically absorb whatever ideas happen to be prevalent in society at the time?  Or, is our role to provide leadership to the child regarding the ideas he encounters?

Indeed, are parents leaders?  As a society, do we perceive them as leaders?  I don’t think we do.  When you first became a parent, did the doctor hand you your baby and say ‘Congratulations, what a fabulous leadership position this is for you!’?  Probably not.  It may have been more along the lines of ‘Good luck with that.’

And yet, here is some startling news:  In February, Forbes magazine ran an article by Rob Asghar, in which the job of ‘stay at home parent’ was ranked as the #1 ‘toughest leadership role’, beating such positions as university president, congressman, and CEO!

Why does Asghar consider parenting to be such a challenging leadership role?  Quoting family therapist Joanne Weidman, Asghar argues that ‘the greatest leadership challenge for a parent today is to be countercultural …’  We must be ‘thoughtful, intentional and articulate’ about ‘determining what on the children’s achievement hamster wheel is good for [our] family’.  In the same way, we must also draw ‘boundaries around what is not’ good for our family.

On this view, parents are leaders because they have a vision of what is ‘good’ for their family that is not dependent upon current cultural expectations and norms.  And, it’s interesting that Weidman uses the word ‘countercultural’.  This implies that there is much that is valued in our dominant culture that will not be a part of our vision of the good life.

In other words, when parents are leaders, they don’t worry about ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – or, say, the Jolie-Pitts – in terms of what they buy, how they look, what they do, or what they think.  They parent to the beat of their own drum.

Parental Leadership as Vision

What kind of leadership model is this?  I think the key concept here is vision.  This leadership model involves seeing things that your children can’t see, usually because they do not yet have experience, maturity or wisdom.

For instance, I’ve seen the sadness and emptiness that happens when people – especially women – base their self-worth on their appearance.  Thus, the vision I have for my children is that they learn to value themselves for who they are, and I lead them according to this vision.  I teach them to be healthy, but I tell them to be happy with the body that they have.  At this stage in life, they may believe the ubiquitous cultural message that what you look like determines your worth, but I am trying to lead them away from this false notion.

Interestingly, Plato had a notion of leadership that may provide some insight here.  Plato’s vision of the ideal leader is one who has a true conception of what is ‘good’.  He is called to lead others, however, who do not have this understanding.  Indeed, those who he leads are living in a state of deception regarding the good.  It is the leader’s responsibility to recognize those deceptions and try to govern his followers instead according to the truths which he knows but they do not.

One of Plato’s most famous discussions regarding his idea of leadership as countering deception is what is known as his allegory of the cave.  In this allegory, he invites us to imagine prisoners living in a cave, chained so that they cannot move and can only see in front of them.  Unbeknown to the prisoners, there is a fire in the cave behind them which casts some light against the wall of the cave facing them.  There are also people behind them, who hold up various artificial objects, like figures of men and animals, which project shadows onto the wall by the light of the fire.  Because the prisoners cannot see – and have never seen – anything other than these shadows, they suppose that the shadows are indeed reality.

Plato then asks us to consider what would happen if one of these prisoners was set free and could be ‘healed’ of the ‘unwisdom’ of the cave.  The prisoner would be unchained, forced to turn his head and look at the fire and the objects behind him.  Plato argues that this experience would, at first, be painful and dazzling; the prisoner would be confused and still believe that the familiar shadows on the wall were the ‘real’ objects rather than the objects themselves.  He would experience further trauma if he were forced out of the cave and into the sunlight, where he could experience reality to an even greater extent.

Yet, Plato argues that gradually the freed prisoner would come to understand the difference between the reality of the world above and the deception of the cave.  He would be happy for himself that he had gained wisdom, but sad for his fellow prisoners in the cave when he thought of what they considered to be wisdom.  Thus, he would have a duty to go back down into the cave, to help enlighten his fellow prisoners as much as possible.

The Challenge:  Leading Our Children Away from Plato’s Cave

Now, I’m not saying that Plato’s allegory of the cave is something that we can apply directly to parenting.  For one thing, most parents I know do not consider themselves to be as ‘all-wise’ as Plato’s ideal ruler, or the freed prisoner of the allegory.  Although they have strong values, they continue to learn about the good, even as adults.  So, they refine their idea of the good life on an ongoing basis.  For another thing, although children are lacking in understanding, I would not consider childhood to be a state of deception.  Adults can be deceived as well as children, and indeed, there are times when children can see the reality of a situation far more clearly than adults.

Yet, Plato gives us as parents plenty of food for thought about our culture and what it tells us to believe.  We and our children are surrounded every day by images and messages that do not tell the truth about what is means to be a happy human being, or live a good human life.   

As parents, when we can recognize the falsehood in our society’s messages, no matter how popular these messages are, we have a duty to reason with our children and expose them for the ‘shadows’ that they are.

They may disagree with our reasoning, and think that we are the ones who are deceived, not them.  And, there will probably be other parents who discourage you from having and implementing a vision of the good life for your family.  They will think you are over-protective and domineering, and will want you to ‘go with the flow’.

But of course, this isn’t supposed to be easy.  There must be reasons why parenting is such a tough leadership challenge.

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.

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 …