Paradoxes of Liberal Parenting

Work on Frege cases is coming along pretty slowly, to put it mildly,  In the mean time, here some excerpts from some stuff I wrote awhile back which looks at certain issues in parenting from a philosophical perspective.  I’ll start with what I call (not very originally) the liberal paradox.  I’m using “liberal” here in a broad sense, to refer to the tradition in political and moral thought that emphasizes among autonomy and self-determination.

Put bluntly the problem is this: we are not born the kinds of beings liberalism assumes we should be, and it is doubtful that liberal values and ideas can by themselves illuminate the route from the kind of beings we are born as to the kinds of being liberalism would have us become.  There is nothing controversial about the first point.  We are born helpless dependent infants who must go through an extensive developmental period involving considerable care, socializing, and education before achieving biological, cognitive, emotional, and social maturity.  During this developmental period, we depend enormously on others, and in ways that are easily under-appreciated in a modern, diverse democracy, a typical outcome is that we come to resemble in our beliefs, values, and practices, those around us.  Because we are social beings whose development invariably unfolds under the authority of others, a primary aim and result of our upbringing is induction into a culture marked by traditional, shared, and frequently unquestioned practices.

A source of fundamental tension within liberal thought is the fact we can exercise little choice in of any of this, at least initially.  We do not choose our parents or those who will be rearing us, and neither do we choose the (initial) culture of which we will become members.  This tension takes on the air of paradox when we realize that our membership in modern liberal cultures, and so presumably our embracing of liberal values themselves, is not itself something we choose, but rather something we come to by our having been born and raised in precisely those cultures and with those values.

Moreover, in more than one way the means by which liberal values are instilled are themselves often illiberal.  They can involve, for example, the deliberate exclusion or extinction of competing values, coerced participation in value shaping institutions, and the exercise of various sorts of authority that evidence a variety of unequal social relations.  It turns out that the application of liberal values to childhood—a period of life all of us experience with deep implications for the adults we become—is no simple matter.

There two distinct dimensions to the liberal paradox.  One has to do with what I’ll call the governance of children, a turn of phrase that deliberately suggests a parallel with civic government. At first glance, it might seem that liberal values that we appeal to in thinking about liberal government may apply fairly directly to childrearing and education.  My use of the phrase “governance of children” is a bit ironic, however, as I will be arguing in what follows that the comparison is at best a loose one, and particularly when we are focusing on small children it is more misleading than helpful.  In any case, the paradoxes here revolve around issues of adult authority over children, most particularly in schools and the family.  The problem is that liberal thought would seemingly be compelled to condemn what most people would think are rather mundane aspects of dealing with children on a daily basis.  Consider, for example, the range of adult authority and the often coercive means used to enforce it in the day to day management of children.   Because of the extensive period of development and dependency that defines childhood, parents and other adults must make decisions for children, decision with which children don’t always agree.   Consequently, childrearing, including childrearing in the service of liberal values, typically involve measures that would be judged intolerably restricting and coercive if applied to adults.  Children are routinely live under rules that intrude more deeply into more personal spaces—what they wear, eat, watch on TV, who they spend time with, etc.—than any suffered by adults (with the possible partial exception of those in the military or prison).  The rules governing childhood are enforced, moreover, through a system of shared adult authority that allows parents, neighbors, relatives and often groups like churches, scouts, and sports clubs to exercise powers that go well beyond the more formally defined controls of schools and the juvenile (and often adult) legal system.  Further, various adults, but particularly parents, have recourse to means of enforcing their decisions and edicts regarding children that go well beyond anything faced by adults, including, importantly, the threat of extralegal punishment, often in forms that would be illegal if used against adults by private citizens.  There is, in short, nothing entirely comparable to the various practices and concerns lumped under the rubric of ‘discipline’ in the world of adults, and explaining how efforts by parents and other adults to influence, control, and shape the day to day behavior of children can be defended on liberal grounds presents a sizable challenge.

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