“Parents are in the unsavoury position of on the one hand knowing that having the strength and power to force outcomes over those who are weaker or less powerful does not make it right to do so—while simultaneously acting as if having the strength and power makes it right to force outcomes over those who are weaker or less powerful—their children. The doublethink of this anomaly must be stressful.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
“Why does parenting feel so hard?”
In the light of human creativity and fallibility, the currently prevailing idea of ‘parenting’ looks unnecessarily pessimistic, difficult, complicated, burdensome, unpleasant, infallibilist, at odds with human psychology and reality more generally, and inimical to human creativity, learning and progress. It causes so much unnecessary suffering and strife for parents (let alone their children!) that I want to give them all a hug and free them from the crushing burden they are carrying that is causing them and their beloved children so much unnecessary misery.
The currently prevailing idea of ‘parenting’ is paternalistic: our culture has seen that paternalism is problematic when it comes to women, but not yet with respect to children. Children hate being controlled just like everyone else does; but what may be less obvious is how paternalistic parenting tends to make life miserable for parents too.
Paternalistic parents are burdened with the onerous responsibility of moulding and shaping their children into functional adults, as if the children were lumps of clay amenable to being shaped and controlled from outside. And they must do all this moulding and shaping with love and empathy, never abusively, using the minimum coercion needed, never coercing more than is necessary to achieve the desired shape. And in engaging in this actually impossible task, they must pretend or delude themselves that what they and their children are going through is not happening, or that it is perfectly normal, fine, and not the utter nightmare it is. (What could possibly go wrong?!)
Most parents have had to numb themselves to survive psychologically, because although our culture tells them that it is their absolute duty as a parent to do all this moulding and shaping coercive control of their children, and part of them agrees that it is ‘necessary’ for their children’s future, it still feels wrong to coercively control people, let alone our beloved children. So now they are trying to do all this moulding and shaping with a dearth of empathy for the children they are controlling, and they have to do it with love and the semblance of empathy, which feels bad because it is dishonest, and yet somehow(!) despite all this coercive control and dishonesty that feels so bad to the parent, they must simultaneously create and nurture a good relationship with their child. But not good as in being friends, because that is not being a parent. Oh, and we are now not allowed to call it ‘coercive control’, we have to find ways of sugar-coating it or getting Orwellian with our language so that it doesn’t sound abusive. It does my head in just thinking about what an utter nightmare this burden is for parents. No wonder it feels impossible. It is!
And parents get criticism from all sides. No matter how hard they try, seemingly no matter what they do, there is always someone criticising. Some people frown on them for being too rigid about the shape the parents think their child needs to be moulded into; others frown on them for allowing their child too much leeway; people disagree about which aspects of life warrant coercion, and they frown on the parent both for coercing where they themselves deem it ‘not necessary’, and for not coercing where they themselves deem it ‘necessary’. There is a lot of disagreement and frowning going on. And a lot of misery all round.
The currently prevailing paternalistic approach parents are labouring under makes several assumptions that are entirely out of touch with reality. It assumes that children are like passive lumps of clay amenable to being moulded and shaped by others. No wonder the reality of life with a real life human child comes as such a shock to so many. Before having a child, they had fondly imagined life with a child to be as easy as moulding and shaping a lump of clay—might take a little practice to get the hang of it, but how hard can it be? It’s just a lump of clay!
The trouble is that this little lump of clay is born with a mind of its own and a strong personality and wishes and preferences right from the start. Nothing like the lump of clay envisaged! As fast as you try to mould and shape this little lump, it resists and fights your moulding and shaping every step of the way, almost as if it were a person rather than a lump of clay, almost as if it were a human being—a human being with human creativity and a human will—a human being who no more appreciates being moulded and shaped by you than you yourself would appreciate being moulded and shaped against your will, almost as if it were an individual person like other individuals who view their lives as their own, who have a natural human desire for liberty—to live in freedom, making their own choices for their own lives.
That raises yet another impossible conflict in what paternalist parents are expected to achieve: they must fight the little lump’s resistance to their coercive control and mould the little lump into the correct shape, yet somehow, once the correct adult shape is achieved, the lump must not have lost the ability to resist being coercively controlled. Somehow, the little lump must arrive at the correct shape able to say no to bad people and with a mind of its own. So parents have to disable the little lump’s desire to choose its own shape, but only until it has been moulded and shaped into the correct shape and eighteen years have passed. Do we really believe that people whose first 18 years of life has been lived under the control of another are best prepared for autonomous life?!
Controlling other people against their will assumes that we are infallible, inerrant, omniscient godlike beings while in reality, we are just as fallible as our children. Otherwise how can our coercively controlling our children be justified? If what we are doing to our children against their will is actually mistaken, then we are objectively wronging our children, no matter how well intentioned we are. When two people disagree, either the disagreement can be resolved through reason, or the outcome is decided coercively, in other words it is decided by which of the proponents is stronger. As in Might makes right. But would it be right for someone stronger than you to use his greater might to force his preferred outcome on you against your will? Of course not! We all know that might does not actually make right. Having strength or power does not confer infallibility and omniscience. Yet the paternalistic parenting approach inherently assumes that it does. So parents are in the unsavoury position of having to enact the might makes right theory in their dealings with their children while knowing that might does not make right at all, and that it is actually wrong for people to use their greater strength and power to force outcomes over those who are weaker or less powerful.
And because the paternalistic view of children places a literally impossible burden on parents, parenting experts keep coming up with more and more and more strategies, techniques, methods and things parents need to bear in mind and attend to and do, and the advice parents are getting is ever more complicated and downright impossible to follow.
No wonder being a parent feels so hard. How any paternalistic parents manage to survive this living hell, I have no idea. I feel sick just thinking about what it must be like for most parents to put themselves through this. (To say nothing of how it is for the children on the sharp end of it!)
Luckily, viewing our children through the lens of paternalism is not compulsory. There is another possibility, just like in the days when just about everyone viewed women through the lens of paternalism, there was another possibility, even if at the time, people could not see it.
If you look carefully at what human creativity and fallibility implies, a new view of children and a new style of family life starts to emerge, that I call Taking Children Seriously. Instead of inadvertently fighting reality by acting as if our children are like lumps of clay, and as if our greater strength and position of power over our children confers infallible omniscience, this new style of family life is in the tradition of reason and the Enlightenment, fully embracing the reality of our gloriously creative messy humanity, our creativity and our fallibility, and is thus simpler, more joyful, and fun for all.
- The Taking Children Seriously survey
- What do you mean by ‘paternalism’?
- Which parenting style is Taking Children Seriously? Authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, or uninvolved?