ANOTHER SELF

Many of the people who come into contact with children— teachers, babysitters, clergy, and so on—try to help them live good lives. What’s distinctive about a parent is that for the parent and not others, the child has a special status: my child is a part of my wider identity and not part of his babysitter’s wider identity. This makes certain decisions easier. Your child will presumably come home with you and share your lifestyle. If you live in the woods, off the grid, your child will live in the woods, off the grid, even if by some objective standard it’s better for kids to live in a town or a city. Ifyou live in an urban area, your child will live an urban life, not a country life. If you live on a boat, your child will live on a boat. Parents don’t have to study up on the best place to raise a child and immediately relocate to wherever that place may be.

Another thing that makes parents different is that parents simply do much more for their children than for others. Like we prioritize our own selves over others, we prioritize our children over others. We are advocates for our own children more than for other people’s children. What does this preferential stance come to? May we do so much for our children that they wind up at an advantage, compared to their peers?

The average parent thinks the answer is "Of course.” If you play soccer with your child every day after school, and she therefore thrives on her soccer team, you’re to be commended, not criticized. Likewise if you maintain especially good discipline at home, so your child completes her homework on time and receives good grades. The second-self account offers an explanation for why parents may give their kids a competitive edge: doing so is just like having the prerogative to work hard at soccer and maintain work discipline ourselves, with resulting personal payoffs.

If you don’t see children as part of their parents’ extended identity, then you may have to depart from the standard view and not help with homework and soccer. While it’s obvious that we can pursue our own advantage, and can pursue our kids’ advantage if they’re quasi-selves, it’s not so obvious we can be boosters for entirely "other” people in the various competitive domains of life. Why should kids who are backed by more effective parents be at an advantage over other kids? In Family Values, Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift urge us to back off, so that all kids have equal opportunity, but not to back too far off. One of the key benefits children get out of being raised in families, according to these two philosophers, is a close, intimate relationship with their parents. Parenting activities can foreseeably confer advantage, but still be justifiable (Brighouse and Swift argue) when they are needed to create closeness. The bottom line is this, they say: if you’re playing soccer with your kid just to help him make the team, stop. But if playing soccer is one of your only means of spending close, quality time with your child, then don’t stop. Seeing your child as part of your extended identity (a notion the authors reject) gives you a greener green light.

It becomes very simple to say we can help our children compete, if we think we ourselves are free to compete, and we regard our children as self-like.

Once again, without seeing kids as part of a parent’s extended identity, it’s harder to see why parents have so much freedom to share their values. Why may we cultivate the love of art, music, sports, pacifism, or whatever it might be, in tender, impressionable youngsters? Without assuming a deep connection between parent and child, doing so looks overbearing—like parents are taking advantage of their power over their captive wards. As before, when conferring advantage was the issue, Brighouse and Swift sort things out in terms of family closeness. They think values can be shared when, and only when, the sharing is needed for intimacy. Then again, they think this is often the case. Children may very well have the best chance of enjoying family closeness when parents do allow themselves to pass on their values and interests. There is a problem with sharing values, according to Brighouse and Swift, when sharing values isn’t needed for closeness or when sharing makes families more distant. Example (mine, not theirs): sending your daughter to a distant art camp for six weeks over the summer might reflect your values, but make her no closer to you, or possibly even more distant. Now there’s no answer to the charge that sharing values is overbearing, on their view.

I’m inclined to think that sharing values with children is par for the course, and doesn’t need to be justified in terms of an intimacy payoff. It’s fine to pass on enthusiasm for art or sports or music even if you suspect this may not bring you any closer to your child. You can do so because the child isn’t your student or someone you’re babysitting for, but a part of your wider identity. Sport-loving parents are permitted to introduce their kids to Little League. Music- loving parents are permitted to make their kids practice the violin.

You can restrict your children to a vegetarian diet, teaching them that it is wrong to kill animals for food. You can teach them how to hunt, telling them that animals may be killed for food. Kids can be brought along to pro-choice rallies and to pro-life rallies. Parents don’t have to emulate the professional educator who maintains neutrality or tries to strike a balance.

Understanding our children as second selves easily accounts for our freedom to operate out of our own values, passing those values on to them, but it’s complicated. We have to come back constantly to the child’s separateness, too. It may turn out that Little League makes my kid as happy as sports make me, but maybe not. Violin lessons may inculcate my values in my child, but she might hate them. Our initial plans for our children can legitimately be just the ones we would want for ourselves, but we must be willing to bend if these plans manifestly make our children’s lives worse, not better. And we must bend all the more because autonomy is one of the necessary ingredients for a good life.

There’s another way to bend besides ceasing and desisting so kids can do their own thing. If what I really want is a self-to-self relationship with my child, I can foster that by sharing my values with her or by letting her share her values with me. Philosophers often overlook this symmetry when they criticize the picture of the parent-child relationship that I’m advocating. It’s easy, but wrongheaded, to quickly assume that having a second self is a lot like owning a piece of property, so that it’s necessarily always the parent’s values that get transmitted to the child.

In fact, at first transmission of values is one-directional, but over time this is less and less true. When my son was seven or eight, I liked the Captain Underpants series of children’s books because he liked them so much. By the time he was fifteen, I started liking the music of Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Eminem because that’s what he was listening to. More serious sharing has taken place over the years as well. I have become a little more liberal on some issues because my son has pushed me to be. And the same goes for transmission from my daughter—I do and like things now that I wouldn’t do or like if it weren’t for her. It’s true that because kids need guidance, much of the influence will run parent-to-child, but not true that this has to be the case, or that it will always be the case over the whole duration of the parent-child relationship.

 
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