Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Raising Princes, not Dauphins

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? (Aristotle, Ethics)

Leonie's good things about kids is nice to read along with The Thinking Mother's thoughts on Kindergarchy. I had a bit of a bad reaction to reading the Joseph Epstein article on the kid-centered society, and it was summed up by vere loqui's brief comment on the article. that, "he does not critically examine some of the potential drawbacks of his own parents child-rearing philosophy".

In general, I dislike those either/or scenarios. The alternative to the rule of the child, it appears from reading Epstein's article, is to basically go on with one's own adult life and let your kids alone. Really? Is that the best we can do? Epstein writes:

Born into the middle class in the Middle West, growing up I did not know any married woman who worked. So the mothers I am talking about here did not put a five- or six-year separation between the birth of their kids for economic reasons, or because it gave them more time to devote to their first-born children, or any other reason I can think of other than their own damn convenience. They did it because--insensitive, selfish, appalling really to contemplate--it was easier not to have two children under four years old to worry about at once; it made more sense to them not to have to deal with two or more needy greedy little children simultaneously. Let one go off to school, then we shall think of having another--much easier for everyone all around. Or so I believe thinking on the matter went.
He goes on to describe in more detail the milieu in which he grew up, in a basically similar vein. His point seems to be that the children were actually better off under this sort of regime, selfish as it was; that serious adults don't lock themselves in a primary colored Sesame-Street world; that child-centric parenting ironically does a disservice to the children themselves. OK, I can see that. The children who grew up knowing that they were not the center of the universe were better off, because they didn't have to learn the hard way when they grew up that everyone has an equal claim to "center of the universe" or worse, never learn it at all.

Epstein writes of his encounter with the grown kindergarchs in the university:

Despite what their parents had been telling them from the very outset of their lives, they were not significant. Significance has to be earned, and it is earned only through achievement. Besides, one of the first things that people who really are significant seem to know is that, in the grander scheme, they are themselves really quite insignificant.

I think my problem with this is that he is stating a condition of human development as a philosophical conclusion. The nature of a human is to thrive not in isolation, like Narcissus, but with respect to his duties to other people. True enough. But if a child grows up to think that human "significance" is measured by achievement, well, then, we are likely to end up back in the same kindergarchic state in a generation or two.

The reason for that is that children are not incidental to society or to a family, however indirectly helpful it might be to raise them that way. Imagine a perfect society. Now imagine it with no kids. Perfect or not, it is dead. The perfection of a society depends on transmission.

The kindergarchic parents nowadays seem to recognize, to their credit, that "achievement" is meaningless if it does not include and in fact prioritize transmission. How can you possibly define "achievement" where children are incidental accessories? In success in playing bridge? Success in the workplace? Success in a transformative medical breakthrough? All sterile, in themselves. See Aristotle's words, at the top. These are means, not ends.

Where the kindergarchic parents go wrong is that "child-raising" becomes the new achievement. The standards and techniques used in bridge-playing and in the workplace are applied to young Johny, whose upbringing is researched, maneuvered, manipulated, hedged. Johny becomes a product, sufficient unto himself. Society is his playground and feeding territory.

The solution, though, is not to relegate children to the place of a purse or decoration in the adult life, or to stake an exclusive claim to narcissism as adult territory, a luxury to be afforded only to those who have delayed their gratification for a few years or staked their "achievement" bet and are now getting their payoff.

Children ARE significant, and human significance does not depend upon achievement. It does not even depend upon potential for achievement. If you walk through a pediatric hospital floor you see that it is so. Once I saw a businessman, obviously prosperous, berating nurses at the top of his voice, spilling out ugliness in all directions. Another time I saw a child, unable to walk or speak, but with a human soul shining unmistakably in her enormous sky blue eyes. You would have to redefine significance as correlated with achievement very radically in order to make proper sense of those two scenes.

The secret of raising children is the same as the secret for perfecting oneself.

that the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue. (Aristotle, Ethics)
This comprehends Epstein's point that "significance" is dependent upon exercise in conformity with excellence, without putting the burden solely on children, tying excellence in with some contingent definition of achievement, or exempting adults from their duty to nurture and transmit what Chesterton called "the soul of the society" through education and formation in virtue.

Epstein's subtitle was "raising children as dauphins" -- very nice description of the ultimate wrongheadedness of raising little rulers that enjoy royal prerogatives but aren't really expected to rule anything, least of all themselves. I would suggest that we are to raise our children as apprentice "kings", through brotherhood with Him who became one of us, and that this is a strenuous calling but precisely because it involves such inherently high significance; not because children are insignificant.


momof3feistykids said...

My reaction to these snippets from his article is the same as yours -- he raises some valid points but without *balance* it becomes meaningless. None of us wants to raise kids who think the universe revolves around them and who are not willing to *earn* recognition. They would not survive long in the workplace or in any aspect of "real life."

On the other hand, as you pointed out, it is wrong to value human worth through achievement. That is not far from a eugenics-driven world in which people with severe disabilities are deemed unworthy to live. And who decides what is an important achievement? If you bring joy to one person is that "worth" less than earning $100,000 or writing a book? Who can say? Does anyone want to live in a society where a person's value is determined by what he produces?

Obviously, I have incredibly strong feelings about this. :-) Thank you for being such a thoughtful and thought-provoking blogger. By the way, I LOVE the Aristotle quote.

Faith said...

Excellent post, Willa!

Beate said...

Now that was a sure way to raise my bp this am ;-) I'd like to ask Epstein if he's walked among ordinary children these days. They are more likely suffering from absentee parenting than over-indulgence. Yes, they will be over-indulged, generally as a result of the parents' guilt over not being there when it really counts!

Willa said...

You're right, Beate. People manage to do both at the same time -- neglect AND overproduce. I think probably Elkind's Hurried Child says something about that, though it's been years since I read it.