Liberal Parenting II

In this follow up to my post on liberal parenting I’d like look at a response to some of the paradoxes of liberal parenting that is popular among philosophers interested in these kinds of issues, which is to appeal to what I’ll call a liberal paternalism.  It seems to me that this is a rather hopeless idea, and so it’s more interesting to look at why it might seem attractive.  This will lead me eventually to suggest some points of contact between these philosophical issues and trends in actual childrearing and education.

Liberal paternalism is the idea we can respect a person’s autonomy, freedom, and equality while making decisions for them or acting on their behalf, and this in ways that may involve going against their expressed wishes.  There are instances in which this seemingly paradoxical idea is plausible.  Consider, for example, my paying someone to manage my money on my behalf.  Because I choose to enter into this arrangement my autonomy is preserved, and so long as I can reasonably trust those making my financial decisions, my values will be respected in their decisions, even if I may second guess any one of their choices regarding investments and so on.  This is unproblematic, however, precisely because a) the relationship is freely chosen and b) there is little controversy about what it is for someone to manage my money well–my financial values, as it were, are pretty easily discerned.  Hence it is easy enough to judge whether or not my interests are indeed being advanced.

Things are a bit different with children, though this has not discouraged wide acceptance of the idea that the relationship between parents and children can be modeled on fiduciary relationships–specifically, it is common to see parents portrayed as holding their children’s “future” in trust.  I’ll focus here on a crucial disanalogy with genuine fiduciary relationships in respect to point b) above. It is far from clear, I think, that we can give enough content to the idea of a child’s “future” as something that needs protecting now to enable it to constrain parental authority except in some minimal and ultimately not very helpful ways.

The difficulties here are easy to overlook if we keep our attention on easy cases.  Education is one such case, so long as we keep things general.  Come what may, the argument would go, a child will need an education so that as an adult she can fully function as a free and independent person.  So in providing for and, when necessary, compelling a child’s schooling, a parent is safeguarding that aspect of her future–her future freedoms are being furthered by her parents’ current choices on her behalf.  Basic physical health is another easy case.  So far so good.

Things become more complicated however, when we notice two connected things.  First, parents routinely and often have to make decisions for their children in the present which may not have such obvious or any bearing on their futures.  Secondly just what kinds of things need to be counted as necessary for or conducive to a successful future is itself a matter of much controversy.  Regarding the first point, I have in mind those choices parents make not for their child’s sake, but for the sake of others who may be affected by their children’s behavior or activities.  A trivial example would be a parent compelling a child to help pick up the house before a party.  While we may hope that doing household chores may be beneficial to a child in the long run, that need not be a parent’s immediate concern in getting her to pick up her things today.  Moreover, just wanting a child to do her share to be helpful is certainly reason enough ask her to pitch in.  For this reason, trying to evaluate the parent’s actions by considering her duties to safeguard the child’s future is unhelpful here, as the issue here isn’t the child’s well being.  The question is more by what right does a parent enforce own sense of an equitable division of labor within a family in ways that limit a child’s freedom?

To see my second point, consider the matter of providing a child a substantial religious education.  Is a parent who insists on a rigid religious education doing well if her job is to safeguard her child’s future?  If adherence to that particular faith is essential to her future well being–and the parent may very well sincerely believe it is–then compelling her to attend a sectarian private school is well justified.  If, as others would argue, such an education is damaging  to her future capacities to make her own choices, the parent is failing in her duties as guardian, whatever her intentions.  My point, again, is that simply pointing to supposed fiduciary duties is itself unhelpful here.  To give that idea content we would have to take sides in contentious debates about just what is and is not good for us.  To use our controversial answers to those questions in making decisions about children is to impose  our own ideas of what children need–at this point liberal paternalism has collapsed into plain old paternalism.

In a subsequent post I’ll consider some moves available to those who would defend liberal paternalism.  In particular, I’ll look at some ways in which it’s been suggested we can act more directly on behalf of children by counterfactually considering their own preferences.

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