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Home arrow Psychology arrow The philosophical parent : asking the hard questions about having and raising children

Parenthood’s Aim

What's a parent for?

As soon as children are born, there are decisions that need to be made. Should the baby be fed breast milk or formula? Should a baby boy be circumcised? Should a girl’s ears be pierced? What about vaccination? Should a baby sleep with his parents or in a separate room? Should we let her cry herself to sleep, or should parents rush to her in the middle of the night?

Our initial prerogatives in the area of parenthood stem from the child being a sort of second self. This comes into play when we’re thinking about why we’re entitled to have children (chapters 1-3), how much quality control we should engage in (chapter 4), and why we’re entitled to bring a child home, even if the child would be better off elsewhere (chapter 7-8). But now that we have established our role as parents (whether biological or adoptive), our focus starts to change. The child is a second self to you, the parent, but also separate from you—a whole human being who is totally dependent on you now, but will grow to full independence in about eighteen to twenty years.

What should we be aiming for, as parents? There’s no particular reason to expect that parenthood has one purpose, or parents have one aim. We’re not looking for "the essence of parenthood” here. The question is a looser one: What is the main thing that parents do for their kids, as parents? What makes a parent a special kind of caregiver, compared to the many other people who will help raise a child? How does the child’s being a second self to a parent enter into the parenthood equation?


It’s so obvious that it’s almost not worth saying: one thing we want, as good parents, is for our children to live good lives. But why not the best lives or the ultimate life? Of course the ultimate life would be terrific, but it’s going too far to make that goal part of a parent’s job description. Many parents don’t have the resources to give their children the best conceivable life. Aiming that high would also inevitably turn the parent into a relentlessly self-sacrificing servant to the child. Our children’s welfare matters a great deal, and their dependence on us makes us feel particularly responsible for them, but why should their welfare always be our paramount concern, and our welfare no concern at all? Surely we can be good enough parents while also carrying on with at least most of our established interests and passions.

It’s a little harder to say what stage of life a parent should be concerned about. Some people think the main job of a parent is to prepare children to live good lives as adults, always assessing various parenting options in terms of their impact on children once they’ve grown up. These parents assess whether day care is a good idea, for example, based on whether it makes a measurable difference to how people turn out as adults if they spent time in day-care centers as children. These parents assess whether breastfeeding or circumcising a child is wise, based entirely on the measurable impact in later adulthood.

Why no concern with the newborn’s current experience, or with the life experience of a two-year-old? Perhaps they think, consciously or unconsciously, that life doesn’t really start "for real” until later on (around age eighteen). Childhood is merely preparation for adulthood, like the time we spend in the womb. Or perhaps they think that the times of our lives that we forget—and we do forget our first years and much of the rest of childhood—don’t really count. Or they think the childhood years are formative, having an impact on the rest of life, and therefore just formative.

But all these patterns of thought are fallacious. There’s no good reason to think that "real life” starts in adulthood. Forgotten hours matter, even if they matter just at the time, and not both at the time and during later moments of remembering. And "formative, therefore just formative” is obviously an illogical inference. Discounting childhood’s significance is especially absurd in light of the fact that childhood is not only 20-25 percent of a person’s life (depending on how you define it), but also the most certain part of life. We know children have lives to live now more certainly than we know they will go on having lives to live at age twenty, forty, or sixty. A parent’s goal should be helping a child have a good life both as a child, and later on as an adult.

What, then, is a good life? Surely we want our children to answer that question for themselves when it comes to the details, but good lives do have some very basic things in common. On the view I favor and explore in a previous book (The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life), the necessary ingredients are multiple. People with good lives have enough happiness, enough of the time. Happiness makes our lives better, unhappiness makes our lives worse. So if we want our children to live good lives, we will want them to be happy.

Arguably, people with good lives also have an identity—a distinct “take” on life and a sense of who they are. "Being someone” makes our lives better; being like “Nowhere Man,” in the Beatles song (“doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to”), makes our lives worse. Identity is another feature of the good life that good parents will help their kids attain.

People with good lives make their own choices, where that is possible and appropriate. Autonomy makes our lives better and enslavement makes them worse. Add that to what parents want (and should want) for their children.

People with good lives interact with others, and have respect and concern for them, as opposed to living like solitary islands. Caring connections make life better and disconnection makes life worse. People with good lives grow over time, becoming more competent, more knowledgeable, more skilled, more wise. I would also say that growth makes life better, and stagnation or devolution makes life worse.

All of the ingredients we need to live good lives as adults are also needed to live good lives as children. Importantly, though, the details differ. Childhood happiness and adult happiness are not exactly alike. There is a kind of uninhibited, unselfconscious cheer that comes naturally to children. Kids are disposed to play, to have fun, to take great pleasure in make-believe games and fictions. A life that is happy enough on the whole seems to me to need childhood- appropriate happiness in the early years and adulthood-appropriate happiness later on. Something is missing in a child with an old soul, and something is missing in an adult who’s as playful as a five-year- old. A good parent, then, will make sure childhood includes enough fun, by not overloading children with chores, schoolwork, labor on the farm, or paid labor outside the home.

We have to make sure our children have opportunities for the right sort of happiness, and also care appropriately about unhappiness. Of course, some suffering is unavoidable at every stage of life, but any that we deliberately impose has to be justified. The pain of a vaccination shot shouldn’t be discounted in any of the usual fallacious ways—"He won’t remember it,” "It’s just childhood,” "Real life begins later”—but can usually be justified nonetheless (see chapter 13). The pain of circumcision can’t be discounted—it matters, even if it’s quickly forgotten. It can be justified only if there’s some important advantage to circumcision (see chapter 10).

Good lives have autonomy as another essential ingredient. When does autonomy start to matter? Very, very early, it would seem. A baby trapped in swaddling clothes is missing the ability to make a very basic choice—whether or not to move her arms and legs! A baby trapped for hours and hours in a playpen can’t make any choices either—like whether to crawl over there or over here. Autonomy matters throughout life, but the types that matter keep changing. For a teenager, it’s not enough to avoid incarceration in a playpen; teenagers need significant mobility within their community.

We need autonomy, but sometimes less is more. Take a child who decides to drop out of school at age fourteen, so he can control what he does with his time. In and of itself, greater self-governance is positive, but in this case the child would have been better off with parents and teachers in charge. He will soon start to feel the negative consequences of not going to school, losing in the long term what he has gained in the near term. An adult stuck in a low-paying job for lack of earlier education will have much less autonomy than he might have had. He may also have less of everything else—happiness and growth, for example. Foreseeing this long-term impact better than a child can, it’s a parent’s duty to step in and make the child go to school.

Children have a sense of self, as adults do, but it’s built out of different elements. It would be strange if a five-year-old’s sense of self was centered on a political standpoint, but not if a fifty-year- old’s was. Likewise, there is a degree of beneficence that makes little sense for kids, but more sense for adults. Kids don’t make huge sacrifices, but adults certainly may.

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