Excluding monsters, the worst sort of parents are those who do not raise their children to be capable of being parents themselves. For Kant, the enlightened person is one who is no longer under the thumb of a ‘guardian’–in this case, a parent upon whom he is dependent–but has learned to think for himself and to rely upon his own considered judgment. The best sort of parents perform something of a ‘miracle,’ symbolically ‘killing themselves off’ so that their children have the chance of becoming enlightened adults themselves. In fact, there are three miracles: that of parents doing away with themselves as parents; that of parents not extorting from their children some kind of bad, infinite debt; and that of parents ensuring, somehow or other, that their children do not think to put other guardians in their place. Were all three miracles to be performed, then children maturing into enlightenment would seek to make themselves worthy of adulthood and parents would, though ‘dead’ or rather because ‘dead,’ be worthy of their children’s considered esteem and reverent memory.
Pamela Druckerman has written a short, must-read piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why French Parents Are Superior.” (No, them’s not fighting words; them’s book promoting words.) Druckerman, an American ex-pat living in Paris, has spent the last couple years comparing French parenting styles with American styles. Her investigation has led her to draw some important conclusions about the nature of good parenting in the modern age.
As usual, they might as well have been lifted straight out of Aristotle. Though she calls them “skills” or “abilities,” they are more rightly considered virtues (arete), the cultivation of right habits and dispositions through good exercise, all of which are set deep within French culture. What she observes in French children, as opposed to their American counterparts, are the virtues of patience, self-control, autonomy (the capacity to play by oneself or to play quietly with others), and deference to good authority. The French, she writes, think of good authority in terms of cadre: a frame or scaffolding within which children are able to play and learn and grow. (A cadre would be the limits to a sandbox, the limits to mealtime, the limits to a classroom, and so forth.)
Learning to parent more sensibly will require nothing less than a conceptual re-orientation on the part of American parents. There is a nice scene between Druckerman and her friend Frédérique that underscores this point. Druckerman’s 2-year-old son Leo keeps running about wildly, often with the intent of leaving the playground entirely. Druckerman, chasing after him, is nearly at wits’ end. Frédérique suggests that all this chasing about is making it impossible for them to have a lovely adult chat during the early afternoon.
“That’s true,” I said. “But what can I do?” Frédérique said I should be sterner with Leo. In my mind, spending the afternoon chasing Leo was inevitable. In her mind, it was pas possible.
She discovers, with practice, that it’s not inevitable but pas possible. How much about our own way of life seems inevitable until it is shown to be pas possible?
Andrew Taggart, “On Hovering Parents and Tea-Cup Children”
The following is an excerpt from an email exchange that took place between one conversation partner–I guess I’ve renamed her “S.”–and me from this past weekend. I pick up the thread about education in Tuesday’s post. Till then, A.
There’s a rock on my desk. (A fine opening line!). It’s black. Away from the light and on the desk it’s black still. I turned it over in my hands, thought for a moment of Beckett’s sucking stones, and then put the rock to the light. By this time, it was morning. I brought the rock to the window and held it in my hands and turned it over again. Then… The flowers were like henna, were like bundles of fruits, were like the purple leaves that grew freely in my mother’s garden.
It was a gift, we know this because you told me so, but a gift of a kind that threw light on its being a gift. The gift first lures us, as it were, allowing us to see it as if it were an ordinary object that conforms entirely to our expectations. But then it entreats us to take a second look. When we do, we are surprised that it was other than what we had thought or expected. A good gift humbles us, revealing to us that our ordinary ways of perceiving won’t do it justice, implying also that our ordinary ways of being do life a grave disservice, taking the breath from life.
I think there’s something here about error being inextirpable from being human. Hegel insisted that modern philosophy got off on the wrong foot, with the idea that, since Descartes, doubt must be introduced in order for it to be vanquished and replaced, in turn, by absolute certainty. We think of life certainty as being not just the desideratum but also the default setting and yet, so long as we think this, we err doubly.
We err doubly and, in so doing, fail to learn. Hegel’s approach would be to show us how we started off in error because our conceptions of life and the way that life revealed itself may be discordant. Hegel, ever stern-browed, was on the path to telling a joke. Error in judgment, reason, and conduct must come first (so far, so good) as if we leaned into our perceptions, so that learning may come after, arriving with our whole person acknowledgment of our errors together with the object’s ‘demand’ that we make amends to it and to life.
The troubling implication is that education today, and parenting by extension, presumes that error is anomalous, perfection being a worthy and unquestionable ideal, and that good parenting is about getting along nicely, without any hitch. Perfection, the unfulfillable, external ideal lying beyond all too human existence, throws light on our very human blushes, as if our blushes arrived from elsewhere and could never be our own. Perfection is the fear of error captured as a frieze.
But good parenting is not like that. Parents get angry, they melt down, they yell, they almost lose it; they try one thing and then another; they get nothing from self-help nonsense; they err and err again, thus grasping the pain and release of the gift. The important point, however, is that they “show their errors” to their children, show their strengths as well as their weaknesses, but also that they are able to get the hang of putting their hand–just so–on the back of the neck, of brushing their child’s hair–just right–at the right moment, how–in sum–to set things to right. “Come here, old lady–thank you for putting away my bonnet–kiss me.”
This is the path of wisdom. Error, which must come first, won’t always have the final word; love will, love being (in this context) the strength to make and perceive errors and to make amends during the pianissimo moments. Love of children: a montage–a cat cozying up gingerly, rubbing her head against one’s hand.
My cat is rubbing his head under my chin, after having sat for a while in front of the window sill, where she gazed longingly at the morning doves cooing on my fire escape. I love the sound of those doves because it reminds me of my adolescence in Florida: the heavy humid mornings and swaying Spanish moss…
Children are incredibly forgiving. With them, if a parent is honest and brave enough to acknowledge her errors, amends can be made and love accepted wholeheartedly.
I think there’s so much pressure today surrounding the conceit of being the “perfect” parent. The other day P told me how, years ago, he had received this nasty 16 page letter from a professor somewhere in the Midwest that she had CC’d to 65 people in the company, because they had run an article saying that it was OK for a mother not to breastfeed her child if it wasn’t working out; suggesting that formula was OK as well. The professor accused P of supporting the formula industry. I wonder what she would have said about the anecdote that P told me of the time when he playfully tied his 7 year old to his chair with masking tape after having asked him 20+ times to sit down during dinner. His son giggled and wiggled the whole way through dinner. Would she have called it abuse?
When I first started working on the stone, it wasn’t so black, more of a dark gray, which got darker and darker as I worked on it. At first, I was annoyed, but then I surrendered to it: my hands and the stone clearly had more in mind than my pen. The stone wove its mystery on its own: through me but not without me.
The Ancients Versus the Moderns
The question we ask of power has changed tremendously. For the ancients, the principal question was, “Who rules? Who is fit to rule? What makes someone a wise ruler?” Their assumption was that the wise ruler would (or could) do no harm. You can see in Plato’s fantasy of a philosopher king the final synthesis of Power and Wisdom.
Are we moderns standing on the shoulders of giants, or are we accusing them of being monsters? In either case, we moderns have changed the topic of conversation. For us, concentrated power corrupts the self and destroys the community; we think it cannot do otherwise. History is said to be the story of the ascendancy of power and the vanquishing of the weak. Consequently, we ask, “What are the limits of rule?” By asking this question, we want to know what procedures, instruments, and institutions are in place such that, if the individuals holding power start to misuse it or abuse us, we can throw the bums out.
Over the past couple days, I have been examining the nature of authority and our need for good authority. Yes, our need for good authority. If we are social animals (Aristotle’s first premise) and if, as social animals, we need to cooperate with each other in order to get by and if realizing common good requires some form of coordinated action, then it follows that some figure or figures will have to be making requests, drawing up guidelines, issuing directives, offering counsel, and so on. We are obedient in those cases where we follow directives with “our whole heart.”
Murmuring is the throaty rejection of wholeheartedness. In speaking of murmuring, St. Benedict cues us into the first signs of disobedience. In the first case I mentioned yesterday, I wrote that “The member who is murmuring has not been properly educated. Hence, his murmuring is unfounded and without reason.” In this post, I insist that the ancient question, the “who rules?” question, applies to the case of the murmurer who has no warrant for his murmuring. In the next post, I examine the second and third cases with an eye to making some sense of the modern question of the limits of rule. I take it the second and third cases are concerned with our reasons for throwing the damned bums out–with chucking poor leaders in case 2, corrupt institutions in case 3.
Pascal and Child-Rearing
“[T]hat is my place in the sun!” Here is the beginning and the image of the usurpation of the earth.
Pacal, Pensees, 295
In my addled brain, I imagine Pascal directing this pensee to the quizzical parent and the murmuring child. The philosophical drama I wish to conjure up will be the scene of education.
The child points and says, “That is my place in the sun! That is mine, I possess it, I want it, and I have no intention of sharing it!” (My philosophical child is whiny but eloquent.) Over time, the good parent–good in virtue of embodying good authority–will have to educate the child in the burdens of the self, the claims of the other, and the ways of desire. “The Latin word educare,” I wrote elsewhere, “retains the agrarian sense of ‘rearing,’ ‘bringing up,’ and ‘leading forth.'” In this sense, the good parent is someone who brings up by leading forth.
What must she do to give the child a good moral education?
- Well, she will have to teach the child to distinguish needs from wants. Needs would be that which one cannot do without provided that one aims to survive and flourish whereas wants are like accessories.
- The child will have to learn that others exist and that they make claims upon us. The world is animated; as such, it cannot be put in her mouth and consumed in one gulp.
- The parent will have to teach the child self-possession. (Getting kicked in the teeth is one way the world serves this lesson up for us ready made!)
- The child will have to learn to move from the “lower” to the “higher.” Good desires are refined and civilized; higher concerns and commitments are radiant. E.g., over time, the child’s desire for a tootsie roll is transformed into the desire for dark chocolate. In such cases, when a parent says “no” to junk (trinkets, porn, etc.), she also implicitly says “yes” to nourishment (art, love, etc.). Admonition, in like cases, is the via to encomia and chanting.
Here is the beginning and the image of the love of the earth.
Day 1: “Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.
Day 2: “On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.
Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?
Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.
Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.