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.