Parenthood's End

What's the job description of a parent?  I've been pondering an answer defended by William Irvine in the book Doing Right by ChildrenThe idea is that adults own themselves, but are essentially incapacitated during the years of childhood, so need parents to serve as their stewards.  In the future adult child's absence, the parent has to make various decisions, just as a land steward would, in the absence of a property owner.  A land steward will try to figure out what the landowner would want, and similarly we should parent as the future adult child would want.  (You have to picture a property owner who's lost in the Himalayas or traveling in space, to make the analogy even begin to work, because stewards can normally talk to landowners, and parents can't communicate with their future children.) 

Now, there's an obvious problem here. While the steward is substituting for a landowner out there somewhere, an owner with fully formed preferences with respect to his land, the adult child lies in the future, and what that individual prefers depends on how the immature child is raised.  If you raise your child with a lot of focus on education, then your future adult child might very well be trying to get into law school, and she will certainly prefer that you make her 8-year-old self do her homework.  Parental stewardship is self-validating in this funny, circular sort of a way. 

To get around that problem, Irvine says steward-parents "must rely on a 'reasonable-man standard' in their parenting: They should raise their child in such a way that he would, if he were a reasonable man with fairly typical values, be satisfied with their efforts. They should raise him 'conservatively' ..." Why is this any better than raising a child with atypical values?  The idea seems to be that children raised with typical values will wind up with more freedom as adults.  Parents should operate so that when a child "'comes back' at age eighteen, he will find not that all the important decisions about his future have been made for him, but that he has before him a nice range of choices about what he can do with the rest of his life."  The adult child who is raised conservatively, with typical values, will be, as it were, a blank slate, all ready to write on himself.  And that's what your future adult child would want ....

Upshot (I guess):  vegans ought to feed their children an omnivore's diet.  Political activists ought to leave their children at home, instead of taking them to rallies. Hardcore backpackers shouldn't bring their kids on trips.  If you care about consummate skill in classical music, fine, but you shouldn't demand musical excellence from your children.

Irvine seems to think adults will be able to choose these extremes for themselves, upon majority, if they're raised to be middle-of-the-road 18 year olds, but kids raised with atypical values will become adults with less freedom.  I doubt this.  However you are raised, by age 18 various roads will be closed.  In fact, the atypical roads will be especially closed, as it takes planning to be able to go down them.  You cannot choose a classical music career, for example, if your parents didn't impose musical discipline on you, as a child.  You won't have a choice among the best colleges, if you weren't raised with unusual emphasis on education.  You're at least less likely to care a lot about political activism or philanthropy, if you didn't grow up focusing on political activism or philanthropy.   A child raised with typical values isn't going to have more freedom as an adult.

So, typical values, bah!  Is there any better way to raise children according to the preferences of their future adult selves?  The whole idea strikes me as hopeless, because of the circularity problem.  Granted, all adults do want certain things, and we should strive to raise children who have access to them (health, love, self-respect, etc.), but we're kidding ourselves if we think we're the servants of future adults.  No--we're forming those adults, so we can't possibly be their servants.

1 comment:

Wayne said...

Raise out children with typical values? Sounds like a great way for us to simply reinforce traditional values, and never challenge the status quo