Fighting Children, and Happy Families

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Baby-Induced Depression, Aristotle and Me: A Reply to Amy Glass

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ – Marcel Proust

     There’s an article that’s been sweeping the net for the past month or so by a woman named Amy Glass, called ‘I Look Down on Women with Husbands and Children and I’m Not Sorry’ (I’ve provided the link at the bottom of this post).  Here are some of her arguments:

‘Do people really think that a stay at home mom is really on equal footing with a woman who works and takes care of herself? There’s no way those two things are the same.’

‘These aren’t accomplishments, they are actually super easy tasks, literally anyone can do them. They are the most common thing, ever, in the history of the world. They are, by definition, average. And here’s the thing, why on earth are we settling for average?’

‘If women can do anything, why are we still content with applauding them for doing nothing?’   

‘You will never have the time, energy, freedom or mobility to be exceptional if you have a husband and kids.’

In one way, these provocative comments aren’t worth our attention.  On the other hand, I still think it’s important for parents to defend themselves against this kind of criticism.

Frankly, Ms. Glass has articulated a view that is shared by many in our society:  looking after children is ‘nothing’.  Or, it’s ‘something’, but not a very valuable ‘something’.

Sadly, this is a view which even I myself have had in the past.  It took a good, prolonged case of post-natal depression after my first child was born for me to understand that I did not value the huge effort it was taking to raise my child.

The key to overcoming that depression was to change my whole mindset about what was important and what was not.  As I tried to do that, I started to see our culture in a way I had not seen it before.  The idea that looking after children was ‘nothing’ was much more prevalent than I had noticed previously.   In fact, I started to realize that it was implicit even in some of the great philosophies upon which our modern, western societies have been built.

The best way to explain more about how I came to this realization – that some of our society’s formative philosophies do not value parenthood – is to tell the story of what happened to me, both emotionally and intellectually, when I became a mother.

Before I had children, my husband and I were students at the University of Cambridge.  When I got pregnant half-way through my PhD studies, I believed deep down that bringing a child into the world was going to be ‘nothing’.  So many people do it, how hard could it be?   I would be able to carry on with my life pursuits in pretty much the same way after the baby was born.  And I got the impression from my fellow academics that they thought along these lines as well:  having a baby was OK, as long as it didn’t change anything –that is, as long as it was ‘nothing’.

During my pre-baby PhD studies, I especially loved political philosophy.  In Cambridge at that time there were a group of scholars who were interested in the origins of what is known as ‘liberalism’.  Liberalism (not to be confused with the way we use the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ to describe our current day political ideologies) is a political philosophy which espouses the importance of individual rights and individual liberty. It is considered by many to have its origins in the 17th century philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  It has different varieties, but a concept that is common among many of them is the idea that human beings are ‘prior’ to the state.  Humans possess certain ‘natural rights’ which they have simply in virtue of being human, independently of the state.  These rights include (depending on the philosopher) things like the right to live, the right to liberty, and the right to acquire property.

One implication of such an idea is that the primary purpose of the state is to protect these rights.  Liberal theorists argue that human beings, using their powers of reason, came together and consented with one another to form the state, because they could see that they would be better able to exercise their rights and freedom within the protective framework of the law.

I was passionate about freedom and rights, and I was fascinated by how these ideas developed in our culture.  I spent my time going to lectures, and thinking and writing deep thoughts in a very big library about what it meant for a human being to have a ‘right’,  to be ‘free’, to have ‘reason’, and what it meant to create a state by ‘consent’.  I felt free, and it was bliss.

When my daughter was born, I went into what could best be described as a state of shock.  I simply hadn’t understood how radically my life would change with parenthood.  I had lost my time, energy, mobility, and most importantly, my freedom.  I started to slip into depression.

The flip side of depression is anger, and indeed, at this time I also started to feel very angry.  I wasn’t angry at my baby – I was angry at the message that raising a child was ‘nothing’, that motherhood was an inferior role taken on by inferior people, that it was OK to be a mother only if you could do it without having to sacrifice anything.  If this was nothing, then why was it the most challenging thing I had ever done?

My thought process went something like this: ‘Why is having a child only OK if it affects nothing else in one’s life?  I have a human being here.  Losing my time, energy, mobility and freedom are the sacrifices required to raise a human being.  If I don’t raise this human being, I will have to pay someone else to do it for me.  But why should I value their efforts toward my child, when I don’t value my own?  What is valuable about raising this person?  What is valuable about raising any person?’

I didn’t have time to attend many lectures anymore, or even to sit in the library for hours on end.  Those were luxuries I could afford now only in very small amounts.

When I did attend lectures, however, they didn’t seem relevant to me in the same way as before.  I would sit and listen to graduate students and academics who I knew didn’t have any children talk about freedom and rights.  Yet, now that I had been inducted into parenthood, I started to view human beings with different eyes.  It started to seem like something was missing from these academic discussions.  It’s important to talk about freedom and rights for human beings, but did any of these people know how much work it was to raise a human being?  Surely freedom becomes meaningful when we can choose a certain way of life, and we can only exercise our choice when we are rational enough to have a conception of what is good in life.  Yet, we don’t automatically develop our reasoning about what is good.  We are taught to develop this reasoning by those who raise us, and that takes a lot of sweat and tears.  But there was no mention in these political philosophy lectures of family or parenthood.

In the same way, I found that something was missing from the great liberal texts that I once enjoyed reading.  They didn’t seem to be talking to me anymore.  They were talking to ‘man’ – a single entity who thought and acted only for himself, a human being who had no life-altering commitments to another human being.   I wanted the liberal texts to tell me how important my new, all-consuming job as a parent was – but it wasn’t there.  Suddenly as a parent I felt shut out of these political discussions of freedom and rights – like I was on the outside, looking in.  The focus in liberalism was all on the freedom that the individual enjoys as a rational, fully developed adult.  There was no mention of how the individual comes develop his rationality.  That part, and this is extremely important, was taken for granted.

That’s when it began to dawn on me:   In our society, we value ‘the individual’.  We value individual rights and individual freedom.  Yet, we do not seem to value the process of raising ‘the individual’.  We seem to think that will happen naturally, without much thought or effort on the part of anyone.  So, we do not value ‘the individuals’ who raise ‘the individual’.  Those of us who raise ‘the individual’ are invisible, unimportant.  This is what I call the ‘liberal paradox’.

All this happened nearly 16 years ago.  I’ve studied a lot more philosophy since then, and I am happy to say that it’s not all bad – there are philosophers who do not take for granted the process of raising a child.  For me, Aristotle stands out as one of these philosophers.  The more I read Aristotle as a parent, the more I appreciate him.  Liberalism focuses on the freedom that human beings should have to pursue what they want, but Aristotle focuses on what is good for human beings to pursue.  He is interested in how human beings become rational enough to know what is good.  And he believes that how a person is raised makes all the difference to her ability to reason about what is good and what is bad.  For Aristotle, childhood matters.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am still passionate about freedom and rights, and in that way I am sympathetic to liberalism.  But I am vexed by the ‘liberal paradox’.  I think we’re deluding ourselves if we emphasize the importance of freedom, rights, consent, etc. and then ignore or belittle the importance of parenting.  The law may give us political freedom, but our ability to use that freedom and how we will use it is affected hugely by our upbringing.

So, parenting is not ‘nothing’.  On the contrary, the efficacy of our western values of freedom and rights rest upon people who try to do it properly.  So, when women – or men – choose to stay home to do it, we must open our eyes and recognize our indebtedness to them.

http://thoughtcatalog.com/amy-glass/2014/01/i-look-down-on-young-women-with-husbands-and-kids-and-im-not-sorry/

Clever Children vs. Good Children: Parenting With Values

To what end are you trying to raise your child?  Where are you trying to take your child – not physically – but in terms of his character?  What values are you trying to instill in him?  Does it really matter to you if your child becomes a great statesman, or someone who plants a bomb in a government building?  A great scientist who discovers a cure for cancer, or a serial rapist?  The next Mother Teresa, or a drug dealer?  That is, does it matter to you what kind of person your child becomes and what sorts of ends they try to achieve?

I think most parents would answer ‘yes’ to that question, and this is precisely my point.  I think when we become parents we develop strong beliefs about what is good and bad for our children to do, and to become.  In other words, as parents we have values, and we want to guide our children toward those values.  Furthermore, we see at least some of those values as more than just ‘preferences’.  We don’t merely prefer that our children refrain from planting a bomb in a building or raping people – we believe that these are really, truly evil things to do.  In this way, we see at least some of our values as being based in truth.

It may sound bold to suggest that it is possible for there to be truth behind our values, but it is an ancient idea.   One of Aristotle’s main purposes in his Nicomachean Ethics is to argue that in order for us to achieve the human good, it is essential that we identify the right ends to pursue.  I have explained previously that Aristotle believes that reason enables us to act for an end, so that we can plan our actions such that we live in accordance with our values.  However, what matters a great deal more than this is what our values actually are.

Planning for an End, or Planning for the Right End?

Consider the following example:

Imagine that your 9-year-old son has a tendency to become obsessive about violent computer games, especially the Call of Duty series.  You have never let him play Call of Duty because you think violent computer games are wrong, and you do not have a copy in your house.  Yet, he has developed an obsession with this computer game because he has played it in his friend’s home.  Let’s say this friend’s name is Johnny.

Johnny’s parents do not have the same values as you.  They are nice enough, but they do not see the problem with letting their son play excessively violent computer games.  They do not monitor Johnny’s activity or time on the computer, so when your son goes to his house, you know that he’s doing nothing but playing unsuitable computer games for hours on end.

All your son ever wants to do – all he ever talks about – is going over to Johnny’s house.  You become concerned enough that you decide that your son cannot go over to Johnny’s house anymore.

Then one day, out of the blue, your son asks you if he can go to another friend’s house, let’s call him Oliver.  Oliver is a son of some people who share your values about computer games.  You didn’t realize that your son was friendly enough with Oliver to go over to his house, but you are delighted that he wants to go.  Since they live very close, he asks you if he can walk over by himself.

He’s gone for several hours.  You call Oliver’s house to tell him it’s time to come home, but Oliver’s mom tells you that he hasn’t been there.  You then realize your mistake – he has been at Johnny’s all along.

Now, if acting according to reason is about planning your actions to reach an end, then you could argue that the child in this example acted according to reason perfectly well. He identified his end, or his value:  to play violent computer games for hours on end.  He identified what obstacles were in his way to accomplish this end:  the parents.  And then he identified how to get around that obstacle:  make the parents think that he was spending time with someone they could trust.

Yet, this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Aristotle means when he says we must live according to reason.  In order to get a better understanding of what Aristotle means by ‘acting according to reason’, we must make some clarifications about what it is reason actually does.  Aristotle believes that there are two basic ‘jobs’ that a person’s reason performs when he decides how to act.

One job is to decide how to accomplish a goal.  So, for instance, say that my goal is to protect my children from viewing online pornography.  I would research different ‘parental control’ programs to see which one is the most effective.  I would deliberate about the best place in the house to put the family computer.  I would also deliberate about what sorts of rules to put in place which dictate when and where the children can go online on their other devices in the house, so that I minimize the amount of time they spend online unsupervised.  When reason operates in this way, the goal, or the ‘end’, is already given; what reason concerns itself with here is the means to achieve that end.  So, this is called means-end reasoning, or sometimes, instrumental reasoning.

The second function of practical reason is to determine the goal, or end we want to achieve.  My end is to protect my children from viewing online pornography, but why?  Here is where we can see that our ‘ends’ are, ultimately, synonymous with our values.  Why do I value the protection of my children from pornography?  Well, first, I believe that sexual activity is for adults, not children.  I also believe that sex is a private matter and not something for public display.  But beyond that, I believe pornography portrays sex in a very harmful, perverted way.  The connection between love and sex is severed completely, and sex becomes all about gratification and women, especially, become objects of gratification.  Pornography also tends to be very violent, which is again a perversion of a loving sexual relationship.  I don’t want my children exposed to pornography because I don’t want them to grow up thinking that loveless, selfish, violent sex is part of a healthy relationship.  So, I have identified the protection of my children from pornography as a good, or a value, or an end (all these terms are interchangeable in philosophy).  According to Aristotle, I have identified this end with my reason.

So, going back to the example of the 9-year-old boy, he employed his means/end reasoning very well.  But he did not reason well about which end he should accomplish, because he identified the wrong end to pursue.  Aristotle says that when we use our reasoning to accomplish a good end, we are using good reason, or what he calls ‘practical wisdom’.  But when we use our reasoning to accomplish a bad end, our reason is no more than what is called ‘cleverness’.

Are There ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ Ends?

So, according to Aristotle, in order to achieve the human good, we must use our reason to identify and pursue the right ends.  But this begs the question:  are there even right and wrong ends to pursue in the first place? Say a child uses his reason to plan out how to obtain a weapon and accomplish a school shooting (an event that is happening with an alarming frequency here in the US!).  Surely we could all agree that the ‘end’ of accomplishing a school shooting is a bad end.  But what about the ‘end’ of a child playing excessively violent computer games?  Or the ‘end’ of teenage sex?

We live in a society where we often do not agree on which ends are right or wrong to pursue; in other words, we often disagree about values.  But is this disagreement an indication that the values we hold have no truth behind them?  Do we have to be skeptics about the possibility that there really are good and bad things for human beings to do?

In my opinion, Aristotle would say ‘no’.  The key to Aristotle’s ‘non-skepticism’ about the possibility of the human good is in his idea that reason sets the goals, or ends that we pursue.  Now, this is very important, because influential philosophers who came after Aristotle disagreed with him on this idea that reason sets the ends.  In particular, British philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and David Hume argued that reason could only determine how an end was to be achieved – that is, they believed that reason could only perform means/end reasoning.   For them, reason was not able to identify the end, or what should be achieved.  Instead, they believed that we decided upon our ends based on our desires. This led them to be skeptical about the possibility that there was any truth behind our values.

For instance, they would say that my ‘end’ of protecting my children from pornography comes from the fact that I happen to find pornography distasteful.  I don’t like it.  But my desire to protect my children from it is not based in any truth about the harmfulness of pornography.   Let me try to explain a bit more about the difference between these two philosophical positions.

In ancient and modern philosophy, reason is often associated with a kind of objectivity.  Reason is the faculty that we use to understand facts about the world.  We observe the world around us, and through our reason we are able to make sense of these observations by using logical deductions to explain what and why things are.  In this sense, reason is the faculty we use to understand what is true and what is false.  This kind of reason, as I mentioned in a previous entry, is what many philosophers call theoretical reason.

Practical reason, on the other hand, is what helps us to understand how we should act.  Aristotle is quick to point out that understanding how to act is not the same as understanding the hard and fast laws of mathematics; yet, the fact that reason, for Aristotle, is what guides action shows us that Aristotle sees a kind of objectivity about our actions – that is, he believes there are good ways and bad ways of acting. As he puts it, what is ‘true’ in the realm of theoretical reason is analogous to what is ‘good’ in the realm of practical reason.  So, just as reason enables us to understand what is ‘true’, it also enables us to understand what is ‘good’, and this good that reason enables us to comprehend is what is ‘truly good’ for us.

This is very significant, for a few reasons.  First, it means that Aristotle believes that there is such a thing as human nature, because there are certain things that are good for us as human beings, and certain things that are bad for us as human beings.  Second, it means that Aristotle is not a skeptic when it comes to our ability to figure out just what our human goods are.  If our reason is operating properly, we will be able to identify what sorts of things we should value.  When he says that in order to achieve the human good, we must live according to reason, this is precisely because reason is the faculty we use to understand what is good for us, and therefore how to live rightly.

In philosophical terms, Aristotle believes that our reason can help us comprehend substantive goods, which are goods that are morally right for all of us as human beings to attain.

Now, of course, it is possible for us to use our reason wrongly.  We use our reason in the wrong way when we identify bad ends to pursue.  But the possibility of the wrong use of reason should not lead us to the conclusion that reason is incapable of comprehending what is truly good.  Reason can comprehend the good, but only if it has been developed properly.

So, if we go back to the view that reason can decide how to achieve an end, but not what end to achieve, we can see that this is a theory which denies that reason is able to identify what is good for human beings.  People who hold this view promote skepticism about values, by arguing that there is no way we can truly know what is good and bad for human beings.  Sometimes people who hold this view are called subjectivists.  This means that they hold that moral values are subjective, similar to the way our tastes, or preferences, are subjective.

Parenting Toward the Right Ends

As I noted earlier, we live in a society where there is much disagreement on moral values.  We are free to determine our own values and set our own ends.  Now, I value few things more than my freedom, and I count it of the utmost importance that I am free to teach my children the values that I believe are right.  Yet, I also think that this freedom presents a certain dilemma to parents.  It presents a dilemma because the message we can get from political freedom is that it doesn’t matter what sorts of values you teach your children, as long as those values don’t bring harm to anyone.

Of course, in our society parents are expected to teach their children values, but the message is mixed:  Since we are free to determine our own values, it’s unclear how society gauges the relative worth of the values that we choose to teach.

I think Aristotle shows parents an alternative path – a way out of the moral thanklessness to which we are sometimes subject in our society.  In our free society, he stands as a reminder that we can’t confuse the freedom that we have to choose our values with the idea that all values are equal in goodness.  He invites us to ponder what it means to be a human being, which, for parents, is about what it means to raise a human being.  Aristotle thinks that human beings have a nature, and therefore they have substantive goods which they need to achieve in order to be happy.   If you like Aristotle, then as a parent your task is clear:  to raise your children toward these substantive ends.  Nothing could be more important.