Never mind ‘Tiger Mom’, how does one parent ethically?

Unthinkable: Parents have no rule book but they can make better or worse arguments for exercising power

Amy Chua, author of the best-selling ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’

Amy Chua, author of the best-selling ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’

 

Parenting is a tough business, not least because of the plethora of contradictory advice. Should you be a “Tiger mother”, or a “helicopter father”? Or what about a “lawnmower parent”, clearing obstacles out of your loved one’s way?

The primary focus of many parenting books is rearing “successful” children, be it preparing them for the modern jobs market or equipping them for societal challenges. Far less attention is paid to what makes an ethical parent.

Step forward Dr Allyn Fives, a political scientist at NUI Galway attached to the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre and author of Evaluating Parental Power: An exercise in pluralist political theory (Manchester University Press).

His starting point is examining the legitimacy of parents’ power over their children. What gives parents the right to dictate to their children how may hours a week they should study, what religion – if any – to worship, or whether or not they can access social media?

Perhaps comfortingly, he says there are no absolute rules. This goes for parenting dilemmas as much as for other practical problems of everyday life. But he eschews the postmodernist conclusion that anything goes. “The postmodernist assumes . . . that every judgment is an act of symbolic violence, an arbitrary closing off of possibilities,” he writes.

Fives, who is a parent himself, says an important distinction needs to be made between coercion and other forms of power, and for each type, different moral considerations apply. As this week’s Unthinkable guest, he explains that ethical parents have no rule book but “we can make better or worse arguments, arguments that are more or less rationally defensible”.

How can philosophy be applied to parenting?

Allyn Fives: “When we address specific problems in everyday life we may find not only that a variety of moral values are relevant but also that they pull in different directions, demanding different, incompatible things from us. As parents we are familiar with this sort of situation, and philosophers refer to it as a moral dilemma.

“Understandably, many of us want to put some order on these moral values, and in particular to identify a general rule for resolving dilemmas. For example, it is widely assumed that as parents we must always give priority to one moral value: we ought to promote our children’s good.

“However, this is not the only way to think about moral dilemmas. For Isaiah Berlin, we make decisions without having identified a general rule to resolve moral dilemmas. In a moral dilemma, we are simply forced to do something wrong so as to do what is, all things considered, right. And often in promoting our children’s good the wrong that we do is to coerce our children.

“Coercion is just one form of power. It involves the use or threat of sanctions so as to ensure compliance. And coercion may or may not involve physical force. Indeed parenting programmes now strongly recommend the use of non-violent sanctions so as to ensure children’s compliance.

“Why should we understand moral dilemmas in this way? When you threaten someone with sanctions, when you ensure their compliance through fear, you treat them cruelly, for cruelty is – as Judith Shklar argues – the wilful inflicting of physical and/or emotional pain upon a weaker person.

“Even when coercion, and therefore cruelty, is justified, it is still wrong. And if we are aware of the wrong we do when, for example, we coerce others, if we feel the regret we should feel when forced to act in this way, we will be less likely to do so unless it is absolutely necessary and we will be more likely to explore the alternatives that are available.”

Let’s take an example. Are parents entitled to monitor the messages which their children send and receive on social media?

“One neat way to approach this issue is to say that, when children are not yet capable of competent decision-making, we, their parents, are required to act on their behalf and for their good, but when children do become capable of competent decision-making, we lose this power, and children gain their liberty.

“If, as John Stuart Mill says, paternalism is appropriate for those ‘incapable of self-government’, then we should control what our children see and hear for as long as our children are incompetent.

“But this neat solution is problematic on two fronts. On the one hand, as parents we still have certain rights over – as well as duties of care towards – our children even if our children can make competent decisions. For example, a decision may be competently made but still risky for the child. On the other hand, we should remember that we, as adults, make incompetent decisions quite often. We jealously protect our right to do so. And this is a freedom children appreciate as well.

Joint decision making does not make moral conflicts go away, but it may be the best way to deal with many of them

“What we have here is conflicting values. And joint decision-making, when it is based on persuasion rather than other forms of influence, may be the best available process in such cases, both because it is not assumed that any one party – parents, say – is “in authority” but also because it is a context in which to address conflicting values.

“So, joint decision making does not make moral conflicts go away, but it may be the best way to deal with many of them in a competent fashion and without resorting to the unnecessary coercion of children.”

To some this kind of democratic parenting amounts to no parenting. Surely, there are cases of legitimate coercion?

“First it should be noted that even joint decision-making involves the exercise of power, insofar as we as parents in this way do in fact exercise control over our children. And another way in which we can control them is to use coercion, as we have seen. They are both forms of power; it is just that the latter involves the more significant wrongs and therefore is more difficult to justify.”

If we make decisions without having a general rule to resolve conflicts, does it follow that all we have is postmodernism, where there is no truth and no distinction between good and bad forms of power?

“Human life is messy and imperfect. Not only are we faced with conflicts between moral values, but coercion and cruelty seem to be unavoidable features of the human condition. So even when we do what is right, we cannot hope to live without regret, never mind bring about a utopia, an ideal existence where there will be no call for the exercise of power over others.

“But there is, I think, no call for nihilism and despair either. We are faced with moral dilemmas only because the moral values in question have prescriptive force for us. We are bound by these values, and what they require of us is to keep struggling against the worst injustices and the greatest evils.”

*******

Ask a sage

Question: What moral duties have children to their parents?

Confucius replies: “In serving his parents, a son may gently remonstrate with them. When he sees that they are not inclined to him, he should resume an attitude of reverence . . .”

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