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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Congratulations, Good Parents: We Will Ignore You

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

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

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

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

Our Unease with Parenting

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

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

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

Parenting with Values – But Which Values?

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

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

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

Liberalism and the Rights of Parents

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

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

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

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

Can a Free Society Ever Really Value Parents?

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

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

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

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

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