Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift's "Family Values"

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include On Education and School Choice and Social Justice. Adam Swift is professor of political theory at the University of Warwick. His books include Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians and How Not to Be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, and reported the following:
We wrote Family Values because we had both worked on justice in education and argued for strict limits on what parents could legitimately do to purchase advantages for their children (e.g. paying for elite schooling). But we did not object to parents reading bedtime stories or spending time with their children, even though that also creates unfair inequalities. To explain the difference, we needed a general account of parents’ rights, of what parents should and shouldn’t be free to do to, with and for their children. That led us to the fundamental question of why children should be raised in families at all. Why not in communes or state-run childrearing institutions?

The basic answer is that children have an overwhelming interest in being raised in families – in being parented – because that is the best way to meet their needs. Bedtime stories matter because – unlike elite schools – they are a necessary part of the kind of parent-child relationship that is valuable for children. But, we add, adults also have an interest in that kind of relationship: there is, for many, something very special – distinctive and important – about an intimate-but-authoritative relationship in which parents serve their children’s interests. Bedtime stories are different from elite schools for adults too.

We conceive family values in terms of ‘familial relationship goods’ – the good things that parent-child relationships contribute to human lives. For us, governments should be concerned about how those goods are distributed, which has implications for various areas of public policy. While many invoke ‘family values’ to resist egalitarian redistribution, we argue that those who really care about family life should support it.

Page 99 is in the chapter explaining why it’s good for many adults that they get to parent children. Because parents have duties to attend to their children’s interests, it’s tempting to see parenting as an all-consuming task. We offer two reasons why not. The previous paragraph has said that parents are not only parents: as long as they do well enough for their children they can also pursue their own goals. This one makes the more interesting point that children themselves tend to be better served by parents who don’t devote themselves exclusively to promoting their children’s interests.
Further, it is in children’s interests for their parents to have their own, independent, interests and pursuits, and in children’s interests for their relationship with their parents to be one in which their parents are not required always to act with their children’s best interests in mind. Someone who was only a parent—someone for whom “parent” was the entire content of his identity—would not be providing the kind of experience that children need, and the parent-child relationship would surely implode in a kind of self-referential black hole. (Of course, that can happen even when the parent does have other identities and interests—if he fails to get the balance right—but it looks inevitable if he doesn’t.) It is important for children to experience their parents as independent people, with their own lives to lead, not as people whose sole purpose in life is to serve them. So the task of parenting, although indeed extremely demanding, by its very nature allows parents discretionary time and energy: having a life of one’s own is, in fact, part of the job description. The point here is not simply that it’s good for children if parents get some time off for themselves, or good for children that they have a sense of their parent as having independent interests. The parent’s nonparental interests will, and indeed should, manifest themselves, at least sometimes, in the interactions between parent and child. Parents must allow themselves some space, free of self-monitoring, to experience and express to the child their authentic emotions and attitudes. A parent who never said or did anything to or with his child without first asking himself whether it would be in his child’s interests would not be spontaneously sharing himself with his child, there would be a lack of genuine intimacy, and he would thus be failing to provide the kind of relationship that was in his child’s interests. Paradoxically, the kind of parent-child relationship that is good for children is one in which the parent cares about things other than his children, and doesn’t spend all his time thinking about, and then trying to deliver, what would be good for his children.
Learn more about Family Values at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue