Parenting for Freedom article series: This is the second in a series of articles that analyzes how freedom-loving people can align their parenting with their political philosophy, and how doing so will allow ideas about personal liberty to carry on to the next generation.
Parenting consists of thousands of interactions between parent and child which, as a whole, influence what the child becomes. These interactions can be random reactions to the actions of the child. But they can also be purposeful, working toward an end.
It is impossible for every single interaction with a child to be replete with purpose. But keeping the long-term goals for their child in mind can help parents do better in the short term.
Someone I know wanted to lose weight. His long-term goal was to lose 30 pounds. His short-term goal was to run every day and stop eating sweets. The short-term goal would help him accomplish the long-term goal. But part of his success was the fulfillment of his daily plan.
Even if the running and the healthier eating were not helping with his weight loss, he was still accomplishing his goal of getting up every day, lacing up his running shoes, and doing what he set out to do. In this way, he had success every day he headed out to run, every time he refused a brownie. His success didn’t hinge on his end goal, though with the proper short-term goals, the long-term goal becomes much more of a sure thing.
So it is with parenting. We all have long-term goals for our children, whether we explicitly state them or unconsciously expect them. The best way to realize these long-term goals is the proper day-to-day raising of the children. But you shouldn’t sacrifice the present for the sake of the future; the ends do not justify the means. So even if the surest way to reach the end goal is to lock your kids in a closet for the first 18 years of their lives, that would not be OK. Luckily, treating children well often leads to the long-term goals one desires.
To be clear, I’m not talking about what should legally be the case, though some of my suggestions have legal precedent. Rather, these are my ideas about how to parent deliberately based on the first principle that parents owe their kids.
Therefore, I propose a test parents should conduct before setting a goal and working toward it. The long-term goals should consider human nature — both biology and psychology. The goals should be fair, meaning parents are within their right to hope for and work toward the outcome. And the means to these ends should also be conscious of human nature (i.e. realistic), logical, and fair to the child in the present.
First and foremost: survival
Human biology gives us the first long-term goal for our children: survival. It is also the first indicator that human parents are in it for the long haul, based on the kind of organism a human is. There is an ecological idea called r/K selection theory, which describes the trade-offs organisms make between growth and reproduction.
Organisms that grow quickly and reproduce at an earlier age are r-selected. They have a shorter lifespan and reproduce only once or a few times in their lives. Although they have many offspring at a time, few survive, as r-selected organisms have low parental involvement. Think insects, mice, or frogs.
But K-selected organisms take a long time to mature and have a much later age of reproduction. They live longer, allowing them to reproduce several times over a longer span of time. They are highly involved with their offspring, allowing most to survive to adulthood. K-selected organisms include whales, elephants, and humans.
The obligation of parents to their children must reflect the biological fact of long parental involvement. Humans grow to adulthood slowly. And because K-selected parents value survival for their children, human parents are going to have to be involved for a long time. That means that much of the parents’ daily action is keeping the child alive; giving him shelter, clothing, and adequate food and drink.
Exactly how long this is necessary is dependent on the culture. But in the United States, there is little opportunity for a child to meet these basic needs on his own. Child labor laws limit the hours a child can work until the age of 16. After that age, parents will have to look at their own children and determine how much financial scaffolding they will need not to starve or freeze.
But parents can’t take this commitment to survival too far. The means to survival must be fair to the child in the present. Therefore, it is not acceptable, say, never to let a child go outside or interact with other children (who might have germs) for the sake of survival.
Applying the test to other goals
What else do parents want for their children? Beyond physical maturity — survival to adulthood — children should reach mental and emotional maturity as well.
One of the best definitions of maturity I have ever heard is having the ability to take care of not only oneself, but others as well. That is really “leveling up” in adulthood: looking beyond one’s own wants and needs to those of others. So I will add this to the list of long-term goals for my kids.
So far, nothing I have said is earth-shattering. I’m sure most people agree that they want their kids to make it to adulthood. They believe it is their duty to provide for them. Most parents also want their children to become independent at some point. They want them to raise their own kids and be able to take care of them when they are old.
But let’s look again at the test above. Many things people expect of their children are either unrealistic or unfair. Other times, the means to the end don’t make sense.
For example, it’s not realistic to want a child to be perfect, or always agree with a parent’s values, or never get sick or injured. And it is beyond a parent’s right to direct a child’s life to ends that are too specific. It is not fair to have a goal that your child grows up to be a doctor, attend your alma mater, or take over the family business. Those goals might be realistic, but to work toward those things is robbing your child of autonomy. They are life choices he should make for himself.
Sometimes the ends are noble, but the means are completely illogical. Parents will say, “She’s going to have to learn how to share” while taking toys out of a child’s hands. Learning to share is a great goal, but stealing a toy from the kid is not the way to achieve it. Or parents will punish a child for screaming, reasoning, “In the real world, he won’t be able to get away with throwing a tantrum!”
Often, these actions come from fear of the future. Parents fear that any childish behavior must stop or it will carry over to adulthood.
But does this logically follow? What if the example were a physical one? Would we stand a two-week-old baby up on his feet and then move away, claiming, “He’s going to have to learn to walk! In the real world, lying on your back all day will be unacceptable!”?
Of course not. We realize that it is ridiculous to expect a physical milestone from a child that is not developmentally ready. We trust that the child isn’t not walking to manipulate us. We know to give the baby time to learn to walk. We don’t (or shouldn’t) start worrying about a failure to do so until the child is well over a year old. So why do we demand adult behavior from children? The end — producing a competent, capable adult — does not justify the unrealistic, illogical, and unfair means.
Freedom: a worthy goal
Here’s one last goal for my kids: I want my children to desire freedom for themselves and others. Is it realistic? Sure. I desire freedom and hold it as a fundamental principle in my interactions with others. So do many Daily Bell readers, I’m sure.
Is it fair? I would say it is completely fair to want this for my kids. I could go down the philosophical rabbit hole trying to explain what I mean by freedom and why it is a good thing. But for my purposes, I see freedom as the ability to do what you want to do unless it keeps someone else from doing what they want to do. This is important because it gives each person control over their own life and no one else’s, allowing each person to shape his life the way he sees fit.
There is something in human nature that drives people to create a life for themselves. This is different from animals, who act solely on instinct. People desire to make judgments and choices with their intellect. The more a person’s freedom is taken away by coercion, the less he is able to exercise this human desire, which gives his life meaning.
And while individual freedom is good for its own sake, there are many benefits for society as well. Greater freedom leads to greater variety in the human population. This promotes innovation, stability, and artistic expression. Children brought up to appreciate freedom as the highest good will likely grow up to respect the rights of others. Thus, there will be an ever-growing population of people who want to do right by their fellow man.
So the end goal of freedom-loving children is manifest in human nature and is a fair thing to want. How do we get there? My next article will list practical short-term actions that will help us arrive at the long-term goal.