Don't Suffer the Little Children

TONY WOODLIEF

A father of four explains the realist approach to parenting.

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.

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."


While the unconstrained worldview teaches that traditions and customs are to be distrusted as holdovers from benighted generations, those of us with the constrained view believe it's good to make our children address their elders properly, refrain from belching at the table and wear clothes that actually cover them. Mr. Sowell noted that some benefits from evolved societal rules can't be articulated, because they've developed through trial and error over centuries. This reveals the sublime wisdom in that time-honored parental rejoinder: "Because I said so."

It's not surprising, then, to see Mr. Sowell approvingly cite Edmund Burke's observation that traditions provide "wisdom without reflection." This is lived out in our house by the dictum that parents are to be obeyed first, and politely questioned later. That seems oppressive to parents with the unconstrained worldview, who want to nurture Junior's sense of autonomy and broad-minded reasoning. It's awfully useful, however, when Junior is about to ride his bike into the path of an oncoming car. Obedience may be a dirty word in progressive schools and enlightened parenting circles, but it saves lives.

Mr. Sowell also notes that among those espousing the unconstrained view, intentions are pre-eminent; utopians are cooking up a better tomorrow, after all, and should be excused for breaking a few million eggs while making the human omelet. In our house, however, you are in big trouble if you push your brother into the pool, regardless of the sincerity behind your desire that he learn to swim without his floaties. Hiding an animal trap directly on the path Dad takes to get his morning paper is likewise unacceptable, no matter how badly you want to catch a critter. And while other parents cherish whatever art their little Monets create, we punish activities that incorporate Mom's jewelry and Superglue, no matter how glittery the final product.

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.


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.

As it turns out, this tension between realists and utopians has existed for at least as long as people have been making a buck dispensing wisdom about how other folks should raise their kids. Ann Hulbert's Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about America reveals successive generations of disciplinarians pitted against "gentler Rousseauian" proponents of the inherent goodness of a child's nature. Ms. Hulbert quotes the president of the National Congress of Mothers proclaiming in 1897 that science-based parenting innovations would so change civilization that "those of us who live to see the year 1925 will behold a new world and a new people." Fast forward past two world wars and the global ravages of utopian totalitarianism to 2006, when education expert Stephanie Marshall writes exuberantly that "the fundamental purpose of schooling is to liberate the goodness and genius of children."

Perhaps the fundamental purpose of schooling should be to liberate parents from the necessity of supporting our kids well past our retirement years. But regardless, this notion that humans are inherently angelic, and that it is society that corrupts them, is at the heart of much bad parenting, as well as inept schooling. Rather than help our children develop internal constraints that channel their energy and passion into productive enterprises, we end up teaching them that limits and discipline are for chumps. Ms. Hulbert notes that even Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose advice in his book Baby and Child Care was so often blamed for parental permissiveness, had seen enough of the consequences: "I can hardly bear to be around rude children," he wrote. "I have the impulse to spank them, and to give a lecture to their parents."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Tony Woodlief. "Don't Suffer the Little Children." The Wall Street Journal (September 7, 2007).

Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal and the author, Tony Woodlief.

THE AUTHOR

Tony Woodlief's pamphlet "Raising Wild Boys Into Men: A Modern Dad's Survival Guide" is available from the New Pamphleteer. He also blogs about family and faith at www.tonywoodlief.com.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal



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