Yesterday, we were driving home from the swimming pool. ‘Ok’, I said to the children, ‘we have a busy evening ahead of us, and the first thing we need to do when we get home is have showers.’
They responded almost in unison. ‘I bagsy the shower first!’ said the 11-year-old. ‘No, I’m first!’ said the seven-year-old. ‘I’ll be first!’ said the nine-year-old. The five-year-old was silent because she hates showers.
It’s the summer (still – but be assured that I am still smiling, mostly), and with the opportunity to spend long days together, I have noticed a lot of competition among my children. However, ‘competition’ might be putting it nicely. Basically, they seem to fight a lot.
They fight over what movie to watch on family movie night. They fight over computer time. They fight over who does what household job, when they get to practice their instruments, who gets what cereal in the morning, what cookie, the last drop of milk, etc. They fight over who made what messes (and therefore who should have to clean up said messes), who stole from who, who bullied who. And I, unhappily, take on the role of the policeman, who reigns in the inertia towards mutual destruction.
Thinking with Hobbes About Why Children Fight
In observing these distressing tendencies of my children, I am reminded of what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as the ‘natural condition of mankind’. He famously declared that when humans live without a common power ‘to keep them all in awe’, life for man is ‘nasty, brutish and short.’
Although I hope our family life is better than that, I do sometimes wonder what would happen to my children if I wasn’t there to keep them all in awe by reminding them that I, indeed, am in charge. I don’t think things would get as bad as they do in, say, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, it is a very rare thing indeed to see my children de-escalate a conflict without my (usually exasperated and rather unsympathetic) assistance.
So, why the natural tendency toward conflict? We could look at a myriad of philosophical and theological discussions on this question, but at the moment I want to focus on Hobbes. He argued that nature has made human beings more or less equal to one another in their abilities, both regarding physical strength and intelligence. Of course, some people are stronger or cleverer than others. But Hobbes thinks that when all is ‘reckoned together’, the differences between humans are small enough that, when one man ‘claims to himself any benefit’, another man can ‘pretend’ to that benefit as well.
In other words, our natural equality leads us to see ourselves as having an equal claim regarding whatever we need, and whatever we want. When resources are finite – which they always are – and two people aim to obtain something which they both cannot have, they become enemies. Thus, rather than engendering feelings of cooperation and respect for one another, this equality among humans instead leads to strife.
This strife is so endemic of the human condition, that Hobbes argues that when men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in ‘that condition which is called WAR.’
Human Beings and the Natural Tendency Toward Conflict
Now, I should note that Hobbes is talking about humans in society generally, rather than about family life. Yet, I have found him to be an interesting starting point in thinking about the contention among my children.
Hobbes’s bold, provocative statements about human beings get me thinking about what is ‘natural’. Hobbes stresses that we have a ‘natural’ tendency toward conflict with others, but what does that mean for our families? How are we supposed to keep our families together if by nature we are disposed to act in ways that drive each other away?
Also, if I look at my children from an Hobbesian point of view, I find myself thinking, ‘What is the point of all of this effort? I don’t want to spend my day policing my children, settling their squabbles, only to wake up again the next morning, and the next, and the next, and have to do it all again. Why have children if nature has made human beings so disagreeable?’
Now, of course one can argue that our nature isn’t all bad. We ‘naturally’ have other tendencies, like the tendency to love and to care. We may have anti-social tendencies, but we have social tendencies, too. By nature we seek out the company of other humans. Indeed, as Aristotle and many other philosophers have argued, we are social creatures.
What Does it Mean for Something to be ‘Natural’?
But I want to think for a minute about a different sense of ‘nature’. We have been talking about ‘nature’ in the sense of having a natural tendency toward something. But what is natural for us can also be what is necessary for us to develop and fulfill our human potential. For instance, when Aristotle argued that humans are by nature social, he didn’t mean that social life for humans would ‘come naturally’ to them, in the sense that it would always be harmonious and free from contention. What he meant was that humans have a nature which needs a social environment in order to thrive.
If I think of nature in this way, then I start to look at my children’s fighting differently. Humans are by nature social, and the family unit is a fundamental part of that sociability. In this sense, humans need to be a part of a family in order to thrive and fully develop their human nature. Family contention, though distressing, is not a sign that families are bad for us, or indeed that it will always be thus. It just means that some of the most important, ‘natural’ aspects of our human existence do not always come naturally. Rather, they take practice and effort. In our case, lots of it.
Parenting: Working to Create What is Natural
Recently I went to the grocery store with my oldest daughter, who is 16. As she pushed the cart around the store, she suddenly said to me, ‘I have a feeling this is what it’s going to be like in 40 years from now.’ ‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘You know, going shopping with you, leading you around the store because you’ve got Alzheimer’s or something, pushing your cart, wiping your drool ….’
‘Well, it will be pay-back time,’ I said. I laughed, but soon I felt myself welling up inside. It wasn’t because I was afraid of the prospect of getting Alzheimer’s or growing old. Rather, I was welling up because even though we were laughing, I knew she was serious, and I was overwhelmed by her willingness to be there for me. And in a moment of sudden clarity, I realized that despite all the conflict and strife, something somewhere in our family had gone right. Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, my daughter had developed into an incredible human being who understood the importance of family.
Some days, my parenting feels like nothing more than a futile exercise to keep in check my children’s natural tendency to compete and fight. But I can see now that my efforts have not been in vain. By not giving up on the goal of a happy, loving home, we are all learning together how to create this most natural of human institutions.