Saturday, September 08, 2007

Parents, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Wall Street Journal Editors

In the Department of Counting Your Blessings, here's a good one: Nobody has perfect parents, or is a perfect parent, but unless you happen to be four boys with the last name Woodlief and a father whose first name is Tony, your fortunes are not as dire as they could be:

Another school year has sprung itself upon us, which is always an occasion for my wife, a former Detroit public-school teacher, and me to remind ourselves why we home-school. Part of the reason, in addition to my wife's expertise in this area, can be found in Thomas Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions," published 20 years ago. Mr. Sowell contrasted the "unconstrained vision" of utopians, who want to radically improve humankind, with the "constrained vision" of realists, who begin with the proposition that man is inherently self-interested, and not moldable into whatever form the high-minded types have in store for us once they get their itchy fingers on the levers of power. Mr. Sowell's book has been influential among conservatives for its compelling explanation of the divide between people who want to reshape us--often via large intrusions on liberty--and those who believe that the purpose of government is to protect institutions (like markets and families) that channel our inherent selfishness into productive behavior. It is also a handy guide for parenting.

While some mothers and fathers stubbornly cling to the utopian beliefs of their childless years, the vision of humans as inherently sinful and selfish resonates with many of us who are parents. Nobody who's stood between a toddler and the last cookie should still harbor a belief in the inherent virtue of mankind. An afternoon at the playground is apt to make one toss out the idealist Rousseau ("man is a compassionate and sensible being") in favor of the more realistic Hobbes ("all mankind [is in] a perpetual and restless desire for power"). As a father of four sons, I've signed on to Mr. Sowell's summation of a parent's duty: "Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late."
The constrained vision indicates that world harmony and universal satisfaction are mirages. People are innately selfish, and they'll always desire more goodies. This means that tradeoffs between competing wants are inevitable. My wife and I therefore forbid our children to use the word "fair." Parents still in the thrall of the unconstrained worldview are prone to manipulation by their kids, who like little human-rights lawyers insist on fairness as an imperative. And don't get me started on the damage that an exaggerated sense of fairness and entitlement has done to public schools. In our house things are much simpler: That last piece of cake had to be divided somehow, and in this imperfect world your brother got the extra frosting. Deal with it.
Many parents in the unconstrained camp adhere to Rousseau's sentiment: "Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains." They not only fail to punish bad behavior but snarl at anyone who rebukes their precious darlings. In our house we have reversed Rousseau's theory: You are born in bondage and should be darn grateful for the free room and board. Besides, if you want to talk about restrictions on liberty you can take it up with your mother, who hasn't had an uninterrupted trip to the bathroom since 2001.
I sometimes speak to groups of high-school and college students, and I have taken to disabusing them of the feel-good notion that they can do anything they want so long as they are passionate about it. Intentions, as Mr. Sowell observes, mean very little in the constrained worldview--and, besides, individuals are neither equal nor perfectible. This means that some of us will dig ditches for a living, especially if those certain someones, who know full well who I'm talking about, don't stop shooting spitballs at their brothers and get back to their math workbooks. Firmly in the constrained camp, I'm less concerned that my children self-actualize at an early age than that they learn a trade and get out of the house.

There are at least half a dozen logical fallacies, dishonest debating tactics, and distortions of progressive parenting principles in this piece, but I'm just not in the mood right now. So I'll just say this:

My daughter was not taught to run out into the street in front of oncoming traffic, but she was given reasonable, age-appropriate choices (so she would learn how to make them when her dad and I were no longer around to make them for her). She was not taught to argue endlessly about her bedtime, or about her inherent right to stand up in a moving shopping cart, but she was taught to form her own opinions and to speak up for them intelligently (so, as an adult, she would not fall for any idea that came down the pike simply because it came from an authority figure). She was not taught to defy her parents or speak disrespectfully, but she was taught to be an independent thinker (so, as an adult, she would be able to survive, and even thrive, in the typical present-day workplace, where resourcefulness, initiative, innovativeness, and leadership abilities are valued much more highly than obedience, following the rules, or waiting to be told what to do or how to do it). She was not taught that everything in this life is going to be the way she wants it to be, or that she will get everything she wants, or that she will never be treated unfairly -- but she was taught to treat others fairly, and to believe that part of our responsibility as humans in an imperfect, unjust world is to imagine what a world of perfect justice would look like, and then to do whatever we can to bring that imagined world in closer line with the real world. (Even while knowing the job will never be done: We are not required to complete the work of perfecting the world, but neither are we free to abandon it.)

My daughter is now 17 and a freshman at Barnard College in New York City. It was her first choice. The "unconstrained vision" appears to have worked out just fine.

No comments: