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Philosophy & Children

What Would Socrates Say To Mrs Smith?

Susan Gardner gets some childcare tips from the wisest man in ancient Athens.

What is Mrs Smith to do? Eight-year-old Johnny has not budged from in front of the television since she told him it was time for bed twenty minutes ago.

“Make it happen” will certainly be the response of those of you who place a high priority on compliance. “Every child,” so this reasoning goes, “must be integrated into an interdependent social system populated with other people who have needs, wants and responsibilities of their own. Having a non-compliant child in any social unit can wreak utter havoc.”

This view, sometimes referred to as an ‘authoritarian’ approach to parenting, has much merit. Who among us has not experienced the frustration of trying to deal with a willful child disobeying ‘just because’, or having a temper tantrum when what’s wanted doesn’t instantaneously appear? Who among us has not witnessed the despair of parents whose rebellious child refuses to embrace even the most minimal demands of home or school, and treats his or her parents with a furious disdain?

This picture of a furiously disdainful child also prompts an alternative response. “Just let him be,” some may respond. “After all, it is not as if there’s a bedtime God who dictates precisely what time children ought to retire. Who really cares if Johnny watches one more TV programme? Surely there’s little point in wreaking havoc over something so trivial? Besides, a happy child often tends to be a more compliant child, so if it’s compliance you want, go after it indirectly rather than using a heavy hand. Surely it’s far better to be a friend to your child so that you keep open the lines of parent-child communication?”

Of course, authoritarian parents disagree utterly with this ‘parents as friends’ strategy. They believe that compliance fuels happiness, not the other way around. They believe that a child who functions seamlessly at home, at school, and in the community, will elicit the most positive responses, which in turn will result in far greater contentment than just going directly for increasing the happiness quotient. From these parents’ point of view, the job of a parent is to parent – with ‘parenting’ being defined as having the responsibility to set a matrix of explicit and well-defined rules, and to ensure that the rules are followed.

So which is it? Dictator or pal; authority or friend?

Philosophy suggests that the answer is neither – and that the primary responsibility of a parent is to help children acquire the tools to figure out for themselves what paths to take in any of the infinitely diverse situations that they will find themselves in in their journey through life. In other words, philosophy suggests that the primary responsibility of a parent is to help children learn how to reason.

After only a little reflection, it is hard to imagine how anyone could believe otherwise. After all, the capacity to reason is widely accepted as the characteristic which uniquely defines humans as different from other animals. How then is it possible that enhancing a child’s reasoning power is often not perceived as near the top of the parental responsibility list? And worse, how is it possible that the capacity to reason is sometimes actively sabotaged by parents? Why should this be?

Why indeed. “Why should I have to go bed? Why should I share my toys with my sister? Why can’t I have that new computer game? Why shouldn’t I swear? Why do I have to go church? Why can’t I eat the whole bag of candy? Why do I have to clean my room? Why do I have to do homework? Why do I have to play the piano? Why shouldn’t I sleep around? Why shouldn’t I smoke or take drugs?” The list of ‘whys’ is endless, and so therefore are the reasons why parents often try mightily to keep a lid on Pandora’s reasoning box. Since it is infinitely easier to bring up a puppy that never asks ‘why?’, why not bring up a human as if it were a puppy? Why not either set few or no limits to behavior so the whys never surface, or firm non-negotiable limits in a sufficiently authoritative manner so that one’s offspring feel either too intimidated or too stupid to let a ‘why?’ pop up. Let’s bring up our children like puppies: either happy and carefree, or well-trained and obedient.

The problem with both these strategies is that they often work. They tend to result in ‘why-less’ children who are either completely deaf to the prudential and ethical whys that their intended actions scream out, or else who firmly believe that since those in the know already know why, attempting to respond to these silently screamed queries is beyond the limits of their responsibility and/or capacity.

Indeed, if we could keep our children sheltered like we do our puppies, in unchanging and relatively undemanding environments, then producing reasonless children might be a reasonable option. The difficulty is that because of the extremely fast-changing global village into which children are now born, young humans, unlike puppies, will inevitably be exposed to an incalculable number of choices and conflicting demands from an enormous number of influential groups. In the face of such schizophrenic plenty, happy-go-lucky children can be expected to act like kids in a candy shop, and choose whatever they think will make them feel good, often to the severe detriment of others, as well as of their own long-term best interests. On the other hand, obedient kids will continue to be obedient, although of course those to whom they are obedient will change as a function of what they deem most relevant to their lives – again often to the detriment of others as well as their own long-term interests. But surely maximizing a child’s long-term interests is the whole point parenting, is it not? How could any parent lose sight of that fact?

At least part of the answer is that parents themselves tend to have a short-term view. They believe that both their duties as parents and the measure of the success of those duties take place primarily while they are actively parenting. In other words, they believe that a happy and/or smoothly-functioning household is all the evidence they need to show that their parenting style is successful. Indeed, this narrow focus on household serenity is so insidious that some parents even believe that any outside influence which has the potential to create waves in the tranquil waters of home ought to be extinguished forthwith.

Of course, wanting a harmonious household is not in itself a bad goal, as long as it doesn’t eclipse the parents’ primary responsibility, which is to engage in the much more arduous task of equipping their children with the capacity to reasonably negotiate the challenges that spring up to meet them. And the way to do that is to insist that reason rules in the household – despite the fact that in so doing, both parental authority and the short-term happiness quotient will frequently be undermined.

What Does A House Where Reason Rules Look Like?

The primary characteristic of a house where reason rules is that all agree that the best reason always wins.

One of the major offshoots of this practice is, ironically, that the whys start going the other way. That is, in a house where reason rules, the first parental response to children who suggest an alternate course of action will always be “Why?” And the result of this practice will be that children will quickly learn that the only way they ever get to do what they want to do, is by coming up with a reason that is better than all other reasonable alternatives. But for this to really take, parents must play by the same rules: parents, too, must be prepared to give reasons why children ought to act in the ways the parents prescribe.

The suggestion that parents ought not to command what they cannot reason will be anathema to many. This will hardly be surprising. After all, a lot of parents were themselves brought up in reasonless households, with the result that their own parenting strategy is fuelled by intuitions for which they indeed have no reasons. So how can they offer what they do not have?

The answer is, happily, that although like any other talent reasoning gets rusty with neglect, like any other talent, with extended and consistent practice, reason also plumps back into shape. In other words, it really is the case that for reasoning beings, reasoning is on our side. In still other words, it really is the case that the ordinary reasoning of ordinary individuals about ordinary situations can make an extraordinary difference. This is precisely the message that Socrates paid such a heavy price to have you hear.

Socrates believed passionately that people reasoning together can make genuine progress in moving toward truth in landscapes that are forever changing, precisely because, in reasoning together, individuals can help one another ferret out sloppy thinking and insidious biases. This brings us to the second characteristic of a house where reason rules: that there is a whole lot of dialogue going on about issues of real relevance.

This second rule, that both parents and children consistently engage in reason-seeking dialogue, can be very unnerving to many parents, particularly those who are wedded to a specific recipe which they think is critical for cooking up a good life. Dialogue with children can be unnerving because, if it’s sincerely reason-seeking, as opposed to speaking in order to convince, then one can never know in advance where it will in fact lead.

This fear of potentially moving off paths which parents have come to hold dear is one of the prime reasons why parents are reluctant to invite reason into their homes. Children pay an enormous price for this reticence because, if children don’t learn practical reasoning at home, concerning how they ought and ought not to act, there is a very good chance that they will not learn it anywhere. Schools certainly cannot be expected to pick up the slack, as their agendas are already preoccupied with the needs of theoretical reason and the kinds of skills necessary to make a good living. And then we wonder why self-indulgence, entitlement, crowd-pleasing conformity, and unreflectively focusing on short-term pleasures are so often apt descriptions of youth. But, honestly, what else can we expect? After all, only reason can dull the seduction of self-indulgence. Only reason can lay bare the possibility that we owe more to others than they to us. Only reason can show the dangerous fallacy of the appeal of the crowd. Only reason can make the case that your long-term best interests are best served when you forego short-term pleasures.

Socrates Reasons With Mrs Smith

So the answer to the title of this article is that Socrates would say to Mrs Smith, “As a reasonable individual, you owe it to yourself and to your offspring that you ensure that reason rules in your household. In such a household, together you will create rules that maximize the well-being of all. It is reasonable for reasonable people both to respect those rules and to assume that others do likewise – unless those who wish to be exempt can make a reasonable case in favor of such an exception.”

“Ah,” replies Mrs Smith, “that’s so typical of an academic, to suggest what ought to be done among fully rational people. But unhappily, Mr Socrates, in most households, most people are less than fully reasonable, and this is particularly so with regard to my Johnny, who, at eight years old, is only just growing into his powers of reason.”

“But that,” Socrates would reply, “is all the more reason to maintain a reasonable approach in dealing with Johnny. How else can Johnny learn to deal reasonably with real-life situations unless his powers of reason are called upon in real-life situations? So, with regard to this TV-bedtime tug-of-war,” Socrates would continue, “for sure, the situation ought to have been preceded by genuine dialogue – which presumably would have included your concerns about the importance of sleep for health and mental alertness, as well as Johnny’s input as to why he is reluctant at times to go to bed. And if such a reasonable dialogue had indeed taken place, then Johnny will already know that the onus now rests on him to articulate why he believes that tonight is a reasonable exception to what has already been established as a reasonable rule.”

“But dialoguing with children in this way is ridiculous,” Mrs Smith persists, “because it would result in silly rules, such as ‘never being required to eat greens’, or ridiculous exceptions such as ‘being allowed to stay up for every reality show’ – which would mean staying up practically every other night long past bedtime.”

“But Madame,” Socrates will respond – perhaps this time losing some patience, since even maximally-reasonable individuals lose patience – “you need not worry about silly rules and ridiculous exceptions, because the first rule in a reasonable household is that the best reason – I mean, the one that is least weakened by counterexamples – always wins. So if Johnny can come up with the best reason for making an exception, then, by definition, it is not silly. For a reasonable being, Madame, you have shockingly little faith in the efficacy of following reason wherever it leads. My advice to you, Mrs Smith, is try it. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. And Johnny will forever thank you for it.” And Socrates, reincarnated in modern garb, might add, “And you might also investigate, Mrs Smith, whether his school runs a Philosophy for Children program which Johnny might be able to join. You yourself might also consider taking a practical reasoning course – although this would just be the icing on the cake, the major ingredients of the cake being what you bring to the table through your innate powers of reasoning.”

Mrs Smith may yet respond, “This seems like a lot of trouble to go to, when all I need to do is march in there and switch off the TV.”

“But Mrs Smith,” Socrates would most definitely respond, “you won’t always know even where Johnny is, let alone have the power to make him do whatever it is you want him to do. And when that day comes, which it surely will, you will be grateful indeed if he has learned to get his biases and preconceptions out of the way and follow reason wherever it leads. And although reason will certainly ask much of him, I can assure you that reason will never let him down. So, Mrs Smith, do Johnny a favor. Introduce him to his new best friend, reason – and in so doing, be the best of all possible parents.”

© Prof. Susan T. Gardner 2011

Susan Gardner is a Professor of Philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, and the director of the Vancouver Institute of Philosophy for Children. Her critical thinking text, Thinking Your Way to Freedom: A Guide to Owning Your Own Practical Reasoning, was published by Temple University Press in 2009.

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