Philosophy and the Art of Parenting: Sheb Varghese interviews Philosophy for Parents

Today’s post is a ‘Q and A’ session with one of my readers, Sheb Varghese.  He’s asked if I would answer some questions for his blog, Faith Colloquium, and I’m excited to publish our discussion here on Philosophy for Parents as well.

SV:  As someone who was in graduate school, while also starting a family, could you tell us what that experience was like and any advice you might give to someone who is in school or considering going into school while also raising children?

HHB:  Honestly, it was really, really hard. I’ve spoken a bit about my experience in a few of my posts.   Looking back on it now, I think I probably suffered from something like post-natal depression. But I think my difficulties came, too, because I struggled with how to balance looking after a baby/toddler, and also pursuing my studies. I felt a lot of pressure to make progress on my thesis, and then found myself feeling frustrated by the time-consuming demands of parenting, especially the parenting of small children. I would want my daughter to sleep so I could work, but she wouldn’t sleep. Or I would put her on the floor to play while I worked, but that would only last for 15 minutes or so before she needed my attention, and so forth.

Of course I knew it was important to take care of her, but the panicky thought kept coming to me that it was more important to work on my thesis. So I would resent the interruptions my daughter would make to my work, rather than just let myself enjoy her during that special time.

Yet, through all that frustration, something creative and productive started to happen. I started to see with new eyes not only the demands of parenting, but also how as a society we take parenting efforts completely for granted. I realized I was taking my own parenting for granted, and that explained, at least partly, my view that my academic work was more important than my parenting. Parenting was supposed to be easy, something anyone could do, something that just happened ‘on the side’, but academics was a serious career that needed time, thought and investment. And yet, caring for my child was one of the hardest things I had ever done. Mind you, it wasn’t one of the hardest intellectual things I had ever done, but it was one of the hardest things I had ever done that involved my whole soul – my mind and my emotions – my character, I suppose. Through a lot of soul searching and prayer, I came to see that it wasn’t caring for my child that was the problem; rather, it was the message from society – which I had internalized – that caring for a family is not an important way to spend one’s time, particularly if you are woman.

OK –so let me link this back more directly to your question! Starting a family in graduate school was very hard, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be if you have the right mindset.   Children are not a burden, they are a blessing. However, they may slow you down in your graduate work. I went to a career seminar for academics once where the presenter was saying that because he had children – and he only had 2 – he would never be at the top of his field because he wanted to be home for dinner every once in a while. And he wasn’t even the primary caregiver!

To my mind, this is all very tragic. Children are a lot of work, but being a parent opens your eyes to so many things that you just didn’t see before. Do we really want the majority of our top academics – our thought leaders and researchers – to be childless, or uninvolved parents? I remember going to a professional dinner once where I was the only parent at my table, and I had a much different perspective on government policy and current political ideas than my childless colleagues.

So, my advice to someone who is in school whilst also raising children is to go for it, we need your perspective! Yet, you must also be prepared to go slower than others around you. Having said that, don’t let the demands of parenting frustrate you. Rather, be assured that your parenting experiences will give you a depth of character that will serve you well in your work.

SV:  Some of us may not immediately see a direct link between Plato or Aristotle and parenting. Could you explain what the connection is, and why philosophers/philosophy is important in raising children?

HHB:  I think there are several different ‘links’ between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and parenting. For me, the main relevance of these philosophies comes down to the interest that both Plato and Aristotle had, in their different ways, in the concept of the ‘human good’. In its simplest terms, the idea of the human good means that there are certain ways of being that are better for humans than other ways. For Aristotle, especially, the human good means that there is such a thing as a human nature. To achieve the human good is to ‘flourish’ as a human being, and this can only be done when one lives in accordance with one’s human nature. Aristotle thought that man’s nature was defined by his ability to be rational, and this rational ability enabled man to be moral. So, living in accordance with human nature means, among other things, to develop one’s capacity to reason about, and to understand, what is right and what is wrong.

Plato and Aristotle were also very interested in the concept of the human soul. Both saw a kind of division in the soul between the rational and the irrational parts of the soul –that is, between our reason and our passions. Both stressed in their own way the need to control or govern our passions with our reason. So, on this model, the human being has thoughts or feelings that might not always be ‘right’; we can be deceived by our desires, or let our passions rule over our reason in a way that we don’t think clearly about the concepts of right, wrong, good and bad.

Now, as a parent, I find this all very fascinating, because I’m in the trenches, raising some little human beings, and I like to think about just what it is I am trying to do here. What exactly am I trying to achieve with these little ones? What kind of potential do they have as human beings? Also, and very importantly, how do you raise a human being to be good? How do you raise a human being to be happy? I think Aristotle is good to ‘think with’ on these kinds of questions. We don’t have to agree with him, but he can offer us some important insights that will at least help us think more deeply our roles as parents.

But it’s not just Aristotle that is good to ‘think with’ – other philosophers take up this idea of the human good in one way or another. Many philosophers, especially modern philosophers, have rejected the idea of the human good. Many have rejected the idea of a ‘human nature’. This kind of philosophical skepticism has huge implications for us as parents, because we have to raise our children in a world that often tells us there is no meaning behind ‘being human’ beyond the meaning that we choose to give it ourselves. I disagree with that idea. But it’s important to understand the philosophical background to that kind of skepticism, if only to realize how it might be influencing us as parents.

SV:  What do you think are some of the greatest challenges/obstacles are for parents raising children today, particularly for parents coming from faith traditions? How might we overcome these challenges?

HHB:  Where do I start?

First, I think as a society we are developing a rather distorted view of freedom, which is impacting parents significantly, most especially parents from faith traditions. This is a radical concept of freedom where the most important value seems to be ‘choice’, and it is choice itself that makes an action right. The problem is that this radical concept of choice does not sit well with other philosophies which do not exalt choice as the highest value. Take abortion as an example. The pro-abortion argument is a pro-choice argument – a woman should have the right to choose what to do with her body. But for someone who is pro-life, the question of when it is morally right to take a human life is a more important consideration than the concept of ‘choice’. Euthansia is another example – should someone be able to ‘choose’ when they die, or is it morally wrong to take one’s life? The proponents of choice say that one should be able to do with one’s body as one sees fit; but there are others that think the sanctity of life is more important than individual choice. Transgender issues are another example – should you be able to choose whether you are a man or a woman?

In all these cases, when choice is the highest value, it becomes the cuckoo in the nest that drives out all other values, all other considerations. And often, the person who suggests that there are other values besides choice is seen as a hateful, backward person who wants to implement some kind of tyranny. Thus, you declare a ‘war on women’ if you are pro-life; you are heartless and cruel if you do not think people should be able to choose when to end their own lives, or choose their own gender.

The problem is that there are other values in that nest with the cuckoo of choice – indeed, those values are what should inform choice. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton puts it: ‘Freedom is of no use to a being who lacks the concepts with which to value things, who lives in a solipsistic vacuum, idly willing now this and now that, but with no conception of an objective order that would be affected by his choice. We cannot derive the ends of conduct from the idea of choice alone.

Because politically we want to protect choice, we often do not speak publically of good choices and bad choices. But as parents, we are the ones who teach our children what kinds of reasons and values need to guide their choices. We are the ones who teach the difference between a good choice and a bad choice.

This is our right, and our duty, as parents, but there are times when I feel this right is slipping away. Just recently there was a story in the news about a teenage boy who wanted to become a transgendered girl, but his parents were Christians and tried to dissuade him. He committed suicide, which caused an outcry in the transgender community against his parents’ efforts to help him accept himself as a boy. Yet, the parents had a right to teach him Christian values, which assert the sanctity of the body, and the importance of the body for one’s identity.

Coming from a faith tradition myself, I am particularly concerned with the increasing hostility toward religion in western society. This hostility seems to be linked to the idea that religions do indeed have a concept of the human good which therefore constrains individual choice. Sadly, it is this hostility which is leading to an increasing suspicion of parents who want to raise their children in a religious way.

Another challenge, of course, is social media. Social media can be wonderful and indeed it has revolutionized the way we do things. I do think it presents a challenge, however, in that our children can spend much, much more time with their peers ‘virtually’ than we ever did in the flesh. It is true that you become like the people you spend time with, so the problem with social media is that if your child is on it all the time – and I do mean all the time – then you really have no idea who they are socializing with, what they are saying, or what is being said to them.

It comes down to a question of influence, I think. As parents we have less of an opportunity to influence our children if we let our families get sucked into the never-ending world of social media. Thankfully I think it is a challenge that can be successfully met if you set limits on when and where your child can have access to the internet, etc., but prepare yourself for an on-going battle, particularly through the teenage years.

Another challenge I must mention is the rise of pornography. I see this as another area in which parents are not only losing influence, but also are being shouted down by those who see no problem with pornography. Ten years ago we were all up in arms about how to protect our kids from internet porn; now, we have government ministers suggesting that kids can turn to porn to learn about sex.

I’ve written about porn in the past; my wholehearted disapproval of it is no secret. I think it gives all the wrong messages and teaches all the wrong lessons about sexual behavior. It trains our passions to desire a certain kind of sexual experience which is selfish, violent, and ultimately lonely; it teaches us to treat the ‘other’ as an object, not a person. It is incredibly addictive and trains us to need new images in order to get aroused, thus making it much harder to sustain fidelity in a committed relationship like marriage. It completely desecrates the sacred union between a man and a woman, and is thus of special concern to parents from faith traditions. Exposure to porn at a young age literally hijacks a child’s sexuality and passions. Yet, the ‘freedom culture’ tells parents they are controlling and backward if they try to protect their children from encountering these monstrous images.

SV:  Given our culture’s emphasis on individualism and personal freedom, and more parents being out of the home so often, could you talk about the importance for parents spending consistent and quality time with their children (e.g. family dinners, family prayer)?

HHB:  These questions all go together so well! I was just talking in the last question about our society’s concept of radical, personal freedom, and also about the notion of a parent’s influence on a child, and those two themes seem to be a part of an answer to this question, too.

Yes, we certainly do emphasize individualism in our culture, as well as a kind of personal freedom that brings with it a kind of unrealistic idea that we are independent from others, particularly our families. That individualism, however, can be very closely tied to an isolated loneliness, especially in the teenage years (just look at the recent growth in self-harming among teenagers), if it isn’t tempered with a good dose of family connectedness.

And how does a family feel connected? Time spent together is an absolutely essential part of it. But it doesn’t have to be ‘perfect time’. In fact, I’m a big believer in the imperfectness of families. One session at our family dinner table can go from laughing to fighting to complaining to scolding to edifying in about 5 minutes, and then repeat the cycle for the rest of the dinner. So parents spending time with their children is not about some kind of perfect world where the child never misbehaves and the parent is never grumpy.   But it is in the acts of eating together, praying together, working together, reading together (I’m a big believer in bedtime stories as well) that those bonds are formed, no matter how clumsy we are in doing them.

What is miraculous is just how important those family bonds are. There is a very high chance they will save a kid from depression, drugs, self-harm, suicide attempts, teenage pregnancy – you name it. And even if a child does get involved in those things, he or she will get out faster and recover quicker if he comes from a strong, close family. So don’t give up on those family dinners and bedtime stories, no matter how chaotic!

SV:  You’ve written about pop music and celebrities in our contemporary culture, and the impact they have on children, particularly teens. Could you talk more about this, specifically the role art and aesthetics play in raising children to be people of virtue? And when and why did this go by way the wayside for parents in our culture? How can we recover the role of art in raising children?

HHB:  I wrote about the influence of celebrities on our children in the context of Plato’s cave, and I still think that is a good analogy. Children are in a kind of ‘cave’ in the sense that they really do not understand, or are aware of, many things around them. So when they encounter celebrities, either in pictures or videos or whatever, those celebrities are presented in such a way that they seem to be so much more beautiful, so much more interesting and so much more successful than ordinary people, or say, one’s parents. I think this is so harmful, first of all because it is false that celebrities are necessarily any of those things (indeed, define ‘beauty’, ‘interesting’ and ‘success’), and second of all because idolizing celebrities stops children from understanding what is of value in their own lives – indeed, what is of value, in itself. In fact, celebrity culture seems to thrive on our weaknesses as humans – our tendencies toward jealousy, vanity, selfishness, and popularity.

Art definitely has an essential role in helping us all – not just children – to become ‘people of virtue’. Speaking for myself, I know when I came out of watching, say, Les Miserables, I was a better person, with a greater determination to love and appreciate those around me, and to live closer to God. I didn’t have a similar determination, however, after I saw Shrek on the West End. Nothing was wrong with Shrek, but it wasn’t ennobling, either. It seems to me that many of us have somehow lost the expectation that art should ennoble us somehow. We expect art to entertain us, but not necessarily to make us better people. On the flip side, many artists these days seem to be more interested in art as a form of self-expression, rather than in art as a way to uplift and inspire. So we spend a lot of time watching and listening to things that are substandard and rather mindless, or that do nothing to inspire the virtues.

How can we recover the role of art in raising children? That’s an excellent question, and like most questions that have to do with raising children, I suspect it doesn’t require a hugely complicated answer. Essentially, I would say we have to use the time we have together to explore art that does inspire virtue. Listening to classical music is a great place to start. Read inspiring books together – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Garden, Heidi, The Giver (my kids loved that book!), and so forth, on a daily basis. Get on google images and look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, etc. Take your children to Shakespeare plays, museums, historical sites and classical music concerts, from a young age. If you can’t afford those sorts of things, then go to YouTube and watch a concert, or get art books or Shakespeare from your library. Indeed, one of my resolutions this year is to memorize passages from Shakespeare with my children. It may seem like a drop in the ocean against the art out there which leads our children away from virtue, but the investment will pay off, and your children will develop a love of good art, even though it might not seem like it for a while.

SV:  For those parents who are interested in more in philosophy, particularly how it relates to parenting, who might you recommend for further reading?

HHB:  That’s a bit of a tricky question, because although I think many philosophical discussions are hugely relevant for parents, the problem is that those discussions are very rarely aimed at parents. So it is often hard for the typical parent who is not trained in philosophy to see what relevance philosophy might have for them in their parenting challenges. Another problem is that many of our major thinkers in Western philosophy were not parents themselves, so although they write about issues that are important for parents, one wonders how their philosophy might have been different if they had had that experience.

Indeed, these problems are among the very things that motivated me to start Philosophy for Parents in the first place! What I try to do in Philosophy for Parents is to write about philosophical concepts that I think can be of help to parents in their everyday interactions with their children. I approach, and write about, philosophy as a parent, whereas perhaps many other philosophers approach philosophy as philosophers. In the future I hope to turn my blog into a book, so that parents will have something to turn to if they want to use philosophy to help them in their parenting.

Having said all that, philosophy is relevant to parents in the sense that it is relevant for all of us: it provides a discussion about what it means to be a good human being, or live a meaningful human life. With that in mind, ancient Greek philosophy is an excellent place to start. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a must. In Plato’s Republic you will find fascinating discussions about why we should be moral, how to educate the young to be virtuous, and the ideal state. I’ve written about Stoicism before – I think it is an especially applicable philosophy for parents, so I also recommend The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I’m fascinated by Thomas Aquinas’s theory of natural law as a way of thinking about our human nature, and that can be found in his Summa Theologica, IaIIae, questions 90-95. Rousseau’s Emile and John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education provide food for thought on education and human development. Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is a less accessible, but profoundly important work on what it means to be moral.  John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism was a significant philosophical work in the 19th century, and continues to be influential on our moral philosophy today; it contains, among other things, thought-provoking discussions on happiness, morality and justice.

If you can’t bear the thought of primary sources, then as an introduction to philosophy try A Short History of Ethics, by Alasdair MacIntyre.

 

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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.

 

On Creating Virtuous Children Who Love to Do Housework and Other Good Things

     A few months ago, I gathered all my six children around me and tried to have a positive discussion about the concept of honoring one’s parents.

‘So, what do you all think it means to honor your parents?’, I asked.

‘It means we have to do what you say, O holy one,’ the first teenager sullenly remarked.

‘It means we have no rights,’ murmured the second teenager.

      The discussion more or less went downhill from there, as I tried to repackage the concept which my teenagers had so negatively, but nevertheless – to my mind – correctly, expressed.  In essence, I tried to explain very sweetly, but firmly (think smiling whilst talking through clenched teeth), that yes, at this stage in my children’s lives, honoring us as parents does mean doing what we say.  It means understanding that the parents are in charge, not the children.

    The teenagers weren’t very happy after that discussion.  Although as a mother I am instinctually anxious when any of my children are unhappy, I found refuge from their unhappiness in Aristotle’s belief that childhood is an absolutely crucial time for the development of a person’s virtue.   According to Aristotle, children will not grow up to be good people if they are left to their own devices when they are young.  They must be guided by an ‘external reason’ – that is, by people whose reason is fully matured – while their own reason develops.  Thus, the importance of honoring one’s parents.

Aristotle on the Development of Virtue

     Recall that for Aristotle, the virtuous person is the one who can identify what is truly good, and who also desires what is truly good.  The rational and irrational parts of his soul are integrated, because he wants to do what he knows is right.

     Now, it’s fairly easy to explain what virtue is; what is hard is actually becoming virtuous – that is, getting to the point where reason and passion are aligned.  Developing into a virtuous person is a process, and that process includes learning to understand what is good, and learning to love what is good.  However, Aristotle thinks that these two aspects of developing virtue happen at different times.  We must first be taught to love what is good, and the ideal time for this teaching is childhood.  Our understanding of why something is good will then come later, when we are more mature.

     So, how do we teach our children to love what is good?  It is a matter of ‘training’ a child’s desires and passions to be directed toward the right things.  Aristotle sees a close connection between our passions and our actions.  Our passions affect our actions, to be sure.  For instance, if we feel anger, we may shout, say hurtful things, maybe even become violent; if we feel fearful, we may run away, etc.  But there is also a way in which our actions can affect our passions.  If we repeatedly act in a certain way, our passions will eventually become ‘trained’ such that we want to act in that way.

Practice Makes Perfect

     In this way, Aristotle thinks that developing into a virtuous person is one of those things that requires practice.  That is, we have to practice being virtuous before we become virtuous. He often compares developing the virtues to a skill, like playing an instrument or building.  These are things that ‘we have to learn before we can do them,’ but the only way that we can learn them is by doing them.  So, for instance, he says that we become ‘just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts’, and so forth.  As we act in good ways, our passions will become habituated toward these good actions, and this is an essential step in learning how to love doing what is good.

     Although I don’t agree with Aristotle on everything, I have to say that, based on my own parenting experiences, this idea about how to develop good character traits makes sense.  As human beings, we do develop characteristics from acting in a certain way, over and over again, whether for good or for bad.  For instance, from the time my first child was very young, she has always been energetic, fun loving, extremely demanding, and naughty.  Although I could barely cope with these traits when she was a toddler, the older she got, the more difficult it was for me to not lose my temper when she behaved badly.  Whenever I lost my temper, I found that the next time she was naughty, it was harder for me to control my temper.  I soon found that I had developed a habit of responding in anger whenever she misbehaved.

     Of course, that’s an example of me as an adult developing a vice, and I want to discuss here how children develop virtues, but Aristotle’s principle of practice and repetition is exactly the same in both cases.  He says that ‘it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed’, which means that practice can both produce and destroy virtue:  practicing good behavior creates virtue, practicing bad behavior creates vice. 

     So, if we want our children to develop the virtue of responsibility – manifested by understanding that housework is part of contributing to the common good of the family – then they must practice doing housework by doing daily chores, etc.  If we want them to develop the vices of irresponsibility and selfishness, then they must practice shirking work and running away whenever you hand them a broom or a sponge (on reflection, this happens rather frequently in our house).  For Aristotle, our actions determine what kind of person we will become.

     So, says Aristotle, our little developing human beings have need of a teacher, who can help them practice how to act in the right way.  In my view, this is our role as parents.  Of course, other adults in schools, clubs, sports teams, churches etc. can help, but I think that as parents we are the ones primarily responsible for ensuring that our children ‘practice’ being good.

The Development of Virtue:  Aristotle’s Theory, and Reality

     Now, again, it’s one thing to say that parents have the responsibility to help their children practice good behavior, but putting that into action is a completely different thing. As I’ve talked about in several entries in this blog, my experience is that children often are not the willing recipients of parental direction.  They do not necessarily act in the way that a parent shows them how to act.  I find that they usually run circles around me, responding in a whiny and belligerent way whenever I encourage them to do something that will help them develop virtuous habits.   So, how on earth do you train children to become virtuous?

     I can’t turn to Aristotle here, because we have explored the essence of what he says we must do to raise virtuous human beings.  He tells us that we must have them do just acts to become just, but that doesn’t really tell us how we get our willful children to actually do a just act.

     However, consider this example.  Several years ago, my two oldest children started studying violin with a teacher who employed the approach of the Japanese musician and teacher, Shinichi Suzuki.  At the time I had four children and was pregnant with my fifth.  I was always exhausted, always overwhelmed, always feeling like all I could do was cope from day to day.  My children were children, which means they were loud, restless, difficult, and only reluctantly obedient at the best of times.  I tried my best to teach them to do the right thing, but that often involved bribing, and sometimes shouting.

     When I walked into that first Suzuki lesson, I came out a different person, and a better parent.  I had never seen someone deal so positively, yet so effectively with my children.  The teacher seemed to ‘love’ my children into doing what she asked.  During each lesson, she would teach them a new skill or technique, and then praise them for trying to copy her.  When she listened to them play, she always praised them over and over for what they did well.  She always looked for the good in what they did, and built on that, rather than criticize them for what they were doing wrong.  It was as if by ignoring the wrong things they were doing, and praising the right things, she was getting them to focus on and repeat good actions.  They wanted to repeat the things for which she was praising them.  That repetition allowed them to form good habits.

     I loved going to those lessons.  I loved learning from someone else how to help my children develop good habits by handling them with love, at a time when I really wasn’t sure how to do it anymore.    

     So, back to the question of how we train our children’s characters so that they become virtuous:  I don’t have a lot of answers, but my hunch is that it has to be done with love.  Remember that a virtuous person loves the good, and the whole purpose of training a child’s passions is to enable them to get to the point where they love to do the right thing.  But we can’t teach our children to love the good if they do not feel love from us as we try to show them what is good.  Our children have to see that we love both the good, and them, in order for them to respond to our attempts to help them act in virtuous ways.

    

Recipe for Your Child’s Success in Life: Aristotelian Virtue

     How would you describe day-to-day life with children?  Although my children are wonderful and beautiful creatures, I find that most of my day-to-day interactions with them consist of me telling them, rather frantically, either what to do, or what not to do.  For instance, on any given day I can be assured that I will say the following things at least 50 times:   don’t shout, don’t reach at the table, don’t call names, don’t slam doors, don’t tell lies, don’t chase your sister around the house, don’t be sassy, get off your ipod, stop whining, stop making your brother cry, do your chores, do your homework, clean up your mess, brush your teeth, make your bed, tidy your room, turn off the TV, come the first time I call you,  and  so on and so forth.

     It seems that throughout the day I am focused on their actions.  Life with children is hectic, and this usually requires me to employ a ‘parenting moment-to-moment’ mode,  where I’m so busy thinking about whether my children are doing the right things, that sometimes I forget the bigger picture about what sort of person I want them to become.    

     Now, maybe you are saying:  ‘but surely if they are raised doing good things, then that will lead them to become good people’, and that is certainly my hope.  Indeed, Aristotle thinks that when we repeat good actions, that enables us to develop a good character.  However, being a good person is about more than doing the right things.  According to Aristotle, the good person has a certain ‘internal condition’ that not only leads him to act in the right way, but also enables him to be happy while doing it.  Aristotle thinks that this internal condition is virtue.

Doing the Right Thing vs. Wanting to Do the Right Thing

     A few months ago, I had an experience with my son which reminded me that he, indeed, is not yet virtuous.  His younger sister, who had only recently started playing the violin, had a concert one Saturday afternoon.  He and I had a conversation before the concert that went something like this: 

‘What are we doing this afternoon?’

‘We are going to your sister’s violin concert.’

‘What?!  I’m not going.’

‘Yes, you are.  In our family, we support each other.  This is her first concert, and we are going to be there to cheer her on.  Remember, she has gone to all your cello concerts for years now.’

‘Yea, but she only went to my concerts because she wasn’t old enough to think for herself!  I am old enough to think for myself, and I don’t want to go.’

‘But don’t you want to go and support her?’

‘Not really.  I’d rather stay at home.’

‘Son, if you don’t go, I’m taking away all your allowance.’

     So, he went to the concert.   He did the right thing, but he only did it because I threatened him with financial sanctions.  He was pushed by an external force (me) to go; he had no internal motivation to do it. And he certainly was not happy about going.        

Why Virtue?

     Does it really matter if my children grow up to have this internal condition of virtue?  After all, my husband doesn’t really like going to children’s violin concerts, either.   Is raising them with an aim to become virtuous asking too much of a human being?         

     Aristotle thinks that the majority of people will never become virtuous, but that’s only because they haven’t been taught properly how to become virtuous.  And although it’s difficult, he believes that to become a virtuous person is the highest achievement for a human being. 

     As I have mentioned before, Aristotle believes that if a human being is to be happy, he needs to have a certain kind of life, one where he governs his soul, and therefore his actions, according to reason.  

     Now, there are many passions and desires in the human soul.  If a person governs all these parts of his soul according to reason well, that means he is good at doing what is unique to humans.  Aristotle says that we call this man the ‘good man’ because he is good at being human.  This is the man who is virtuous.  The Greek word for virtue is arête, which can also be translated as ‘excellence’.  So, the virtuous person is the person who excels at living the kind of life human beings are meant to live.

     The concept of virtue is at the very heart of the Nicomachean Ethics.  The human good, which up until now we have identified with happiness, turns out to be virtuous action.  So, the virtuous man is the man who achieves happiness.  And if we want to find out what it means to be happy, we need to find out what it means to be virtuous. 

What Is Virtue?      

     So, what does Aristotle think it means to be virtuous?  That question can’t be answered quickly, but a good way to start answering it is to note that Aristotle thinks of a virtue as a habit, or a disposition.  If you have a particular virtue, that virtue inclines you to act in a certain way.  For instance, if you have the virtue of courage, then you are able to do courageous things more easily than someone who does not have courage.  And, with the virtue of courage, not only are you more able to do courageous things, you actually want to do courageous things.

     This, I think, is what is most interesting about Aristotle’s concept of virtue – and what makes it especially relevant for us as parents.  The virtuous person is the one who wants to act as her reason directs.  Consider again Aristotle’s division of the soul into rational and irrational parts:  we have our reason, and we have our passions, desires and impulses.  Now, Aristotle thinks that human action always incorporates both our reason and our desires.  Desire is what ‘moves’ us toward action, but reason is what guides and judges that movement so that we act in the right way.

     The problem is that many people experience conflict between their desires and their reason.  Someone may have a particular desire – say to tell a lie to get out of trouble – and, with her reason, she understands that desire to be bad.  Yet, she still wants to act on that desire.  So, either she struggles to act according to reason, or she just lets her desire overwhelm her reason and tells the lie.  Either way, this person’s irrational side is not inclined to follow her reason.   

     By contrast, the virtuous person has a harmonious relationship between his reason and his passions.  His reason correctly identifies what is truly good, and he also desires what is truly good.  His desires are ‘aligned’ with his reason.    So, doing what is good, for him, is not a struggle.  He has no internal conflict when it comes to doing the right thing.

     In fact, not only does he want to do what is right, he also finds pleasure in it.  By the same token, he feels pain in doing the wrong things.  According to Aristotle, a person finds pleasure in that which they love.  If you love justice, you will find pleasure in just actions; if you love compassion, you will find pleasure in being compassionate.  So, the person who loves virtue in general will find pleasure in doing virtuous acts.

Parenting toward Virtue

     Think of it:  a child who wants to do housework, who finds pleasure in attending a sibling’s concert, who takes great delight in always telling the truth.  These things do happen, but more often, they are the stuff of legend.     

     Actually, according to Aristotle, we cannot expect our children to be virtuous, at least not in the full  sense.  Developing a virtuous character is a process that starts in childhood, but can only culminate in adulthood.  As I will discuss more in subsequent entries, full virtue requires knowledge, experience, and years of practice which children do not have.  So, perhaps it was unrealistic of me to expect my son to come along happily to his sister’s concert.

     Yet, I find that Aristotle’s notion of virtue still plays on my mind as a parent.   The concept of loving justice, compassion, courage, honesty, industry, kindness, unselfishness, respect and all other truly good things seems to me a recipe for success in life.  

    If I think of my children, I can see that what motivates them to action is what they want to do, what they love to do.  If I can teach them to love what is good, then I have given them the most powerful motivator possible to do what is good.