The flexibly directive parent also contrasts with the “steward” or “fiduciary” parent. In this understanding of parenthood’s aim, a parent is like a steward managing property for a landowner during a temporary absence, to use a metaphor suggested by the philosopher William Irvine in his book Doing Right by Children. The job of parents is to manage their young children on behalf of the adult children they will one day become. Much like a steward safeguards the property so that the owner has maximum freedom to develop it upon return, the idea is that we should leave as much as we can to our child’s future self to decide. The steward parent is deeply opposed to thinking of her child as any sort of extension of herself.
A totally neutral steward would be a problematic parent, I think. She may very well produce adult children who lack the skills to succeed at music, sports, getting into college, or anything else that takes preparation in childhood. While a child could, in principle, choose football or the violin at the age of eighteen, sports programs and music departments won’t choose them. Childhood training is not only traditional, but necessary for the highest levels of expertise.
What is more, growing up in the care of a neutral parent doesn’t give children a chance to develop attitudes that will help them succeed—long-term dedication, persistence, commitment, passion. To wind up with these attitudes, it pays to be apprenticed to some full-blooded way of life—inevitably, in large part, the parent’s life. This is for the best as long as the parent isn’t the opposite of a steward—a tyrant. The child is better off as an apprentice as long as he is permitted to contribute to his future and resist the parent’s plans, if it turns out they don’t suit him.
Brighouse and Swift also have more or less a stewardship conception of parenthood (they prefer the term “fiduciary”), but soften it: they think a parent-child relationship ought to be close and intimate, which means a parent has more freedom to share his or her enthusiasms. The warm fiduciary parent and the flexibly directive parent will do many of the same things, but nevertheless diverge at points. My conception of the parent-child relationship explains why we may confer advantage and pass on our values in a different way than theirs does. The basic structure of the relationship makes this par for the course—to be expected and normally unproblematic. Brighouse and Swift, by contrast, see advantage-conferring and values-sharing as needing justification on a case-by-case basis. Again, it’s okay when it’s necessary for creating intimacy, but not otherwise.
To my mind, I can pass on my love of music to my kids even knowing—because I see it in my crystal ball—that doing so will make them retreat into their iPhones constantly as teenagers and run off to live music performances. I can do this without being able to say that any match between my music-loving and my children’s will ever provide them with the good feeling of being close to me. What will inhibit the flexibly directive parent is just the child’s reactions. It’s one thing to try to share our values, but another to impose them on a resistant child with other ideas about what’s interesting and important.
The stewardship model of parenthood is sometimes associated with the late philosopher Joel Feinberg, whose 1980 article "A Child’s Right to an Open Future” has been enormously influential. The right he postulated is the right of children to have certain choices reserved for their later, adult selves. Out of respect for that right, Feinberg thought we shouldn’t, for example, deny our children a basic education because we expect them to grow up and become menial laborers on the family farm. Advocates of the stewardship model take that basic idea and enlarge upon it, saying a parent’s role is essentially to make sure the child’s future is as open as possible, so that she can shape her own life.
We’ve already encountered one problem with that idea. If parents try to preserve every future as a possibility for their children, they will actually prepare their children for nothing and inadvertently narrow their possibilities. Another problem with invoking the right to an open future is that it’s more important for our futures to be open in some ways than in others. By having me get braces as a teenager, my parents closed off the option of my ever being an adult with crooked teeth. I was also prevented from ever choosing straight teeth, or choosing crooked teeth—my smile is thus not my own doing. None of this seems bad at all, for two reasons: the road blocked off is not worth taking; and choice is not important in this area. It’s not important for a person’s dental situation to be their own doing.
And there’s one last problem with parents continually limiting their influence based on a child’s right to an open future. It would be odd if parents had to step aside in all things, considering that this would often clear the way not for the child’s total freedom, but for other influences to have more power. Obviously, the surrounding culture has a huge impact on our futures, making anyone’s future semiopen at best. Living in twenty-first-century America, my child will never be a knight, a serf, a chimney sweep, or a eunuch (thank God), because those social positions have been abandoned. But peers and cultural trends also make a huge difference. In the influential book The Nurture Assumption, psychologist Judith Rich Harris argued that we imagine parents making a bigger difference in kids’ lives than they usually do. In reality, children are hugely shaped by their peers. Thus, if parents stepped aside constantly to honor a child’s right to an open future, they would just be giving peers even more influence.
I don’t think a parent must be constantly stepping back, in all areas of a child’s life, but at times it’s certainly important to step back. Roughly, parents ought to step back when there are multiple good options and the particular choice is one that there is good reason for the child to make for herself, whether or not other influences will play a role. Parents shouldn’t be in control when an eighteen-year- old is choosing who to vote for, or, later, when that child chooses whether to marry and whom to marry, or which career to pursue. A doctor who puts great pressure on his child to become another doctor is giving too much weight to the child being a second self and not enough weight to the child being a second self—separate. That sort of excessive parental influence is worse than garden-variety peer and cultural influencing, because when parents have excessive control, they act as their child’s puppeteer, and there is no comparable manipulator when lots of different forces blindly shape a child’s trajectory.
When we think about narrowing a child’s future possibilities, there are many things to think about. Are we excluding possibilities or only making them more remote? Is the future we are trying to prescribe for our child just arguably better, or obviously and objectively better (like straight teeth)? Is preserving choice in that area important, or is it just as well for parents to preempt later autonomous decision-making in that area? Reflecting on all these issues will hold us back from being tyrants, but will not turn us into mere stewards.
As I have argued, a child is like another self to us, her parents, which means we have far more freedom to transmit our lifestyle and values than we would otherwise have. That’s a freeing conception, giving us the prerogative to go on with our lives, after becoming parents, and share our values, attitudes, and way of life. But a child is also a separate person, which means having to step back and adopt a more objective stance. We have to be at least ready to ask what is good for our child—what will give the child a good life not only in the future, but also now, during childhood. We have to be ready to take in evidence that our child needs something different, in order to grow and thrive, or needs to make her own decision, in order to have an age- appropriate level of autonomy. We also have to be ready to be the people influenced by a child, and not always the influencers.
So much for generalities. We now turn to some philosophically interesting moments in the lives of parents. As we are going to see, it does sometime help to bear in mind Aristotle’s dictum that children are "second selves, but separate”—but there is more to being a philosophical parent than just having that thought. We will need that insight, but others as well, and also factual background, when we have to decide whether to circumcise a boy, how to deal with gender issues, whether to vaccinate, when to lie to our children and when we must be truthful, and whether to pass on our religious beliefs and customs. Onward, then, to one of the first decisions new parents have to make.