BEYOND STEWARDSHIP

Dawkins thinks we must be merely stewards for our kids. We should teach them how to think for themselves; and we should instill whatever notions we think they’ll be glad for, once they’re old enough to have preferences. But steward-parents will give children an inadequate education, as I argued in chapter 9. Many beliefs probably have to be instilled early on, if they’re going to "take.” Kids need to hear early messages about honesty and respect, not just acquire the tools to philosophize about honesty and respect. Otherwise they may not develop the deep-rooted thoughts and emotions that are needed for virtues to become habitual.

Another problem is that parental restraint gives the surrounding culture more power to fill children’s heads with whatever the majority believes or whatever is fashionable. Being a neutral steward in San Francisco is different from being a neutral steward in a small town in West Texas. Depending on where I live, if I imagine a child twenty years hence having been shaped more by the surrounding culture than by me, the answer to "What will my future child be glad she has been taught?” may be downright unacceptable to me.

Generally speaking, the steward model doesn’t capture the real relationship that exists between parents and children. Parents and children are self-like to each other, and want to preserve that continuity. At first, the direction of influence is inevitably parent-to- child. Because his children are self-like to him, it’s not wrong for Richard Dawkins to deliberately prepare them for a highly educated, Western, affluent type of life instead of trying to maintain neutrality, leaving equally open the paths to becoming an Oxford student, a shepherd, or a mechanic. We each try to give our child the life we see as desirable and the core beliefs we see as correct. At least, that’s a reasonable starting point, barring special reasons we may have not to share our own lives with our children.

As avid readers and music lovers, my husband and I wanted our kids to be avid readers and music lovers—and they are. My husband wanted our kids to grow up with a sense of being British, because he is British; hence, our kids have had many trips to England and feel semi-British. We wanted them to feel connected to social justice causes and to liberal politics, so we brought them along to rallies and the like. They are liberals now, though of course that could change some day. We are vegetarians and they are vegetarians. If all that sharing is innocent, there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently worse about sharing the sense of being Jewish.

It can seem to be a matter of asymmetrical dominance for parents to treat kids as second selves, but it doesn’t have to be. As I said in chapter 9, the influence can go both ways. Even when kids are very young, parents are constantly altering themselves in order to stay connected to them. Surely I would never have been fond of Thomas the Tank Engine’s world if my kids didn’t love it so much. And I would have loved The Muppets if my kids had loved them (they didn’t). There are limits, of course (nothing’s going to make me fond of the Yu-Gi-Oh card game!), but it’s through mutual accommodation that the bond between parent and child is sustained.

Later on, it can turn out that the only way to preserve a self- to-self connection is for parents to let themselves be influenced by their children. A religious, antigay parent who winds up having a gay atheist child can either open up to being influenced or feel estranged. I believe many a parent would rather be influenced than estranged. A Jewish friend whose son became a fervent Christian certainly remained Jewish, but seemed more open to seeing the commonalities between the two religions.

When kids are very young, the direction of influence on complicated matters like religion and politics will mostly be parent-to- child, but that can change with time. All things considered, the hope of passing on Jewishness seems fine, despite what Dawkins claims. But what about having children formally educated in Jewish beliefs and customs as a means of passing on that identity? Dawkins’s doubts about this are multiple.

 
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