A year and a half ago, I sat in a room with the deputy head of my child’s school. We discussed my child’s academic difficulties, and my frustrations. “Whatever I do, I can’t get my child motivated to work hard in school,” I said. “If I insist that she do her homework – and do it to a high standard – she ignores me until I annoy her so much with my nagging that she throws a huge tantrum. Then she spends the rest of the evening recovering from the tantrum, instead of doing her homework. I want her to do well in school and reach her potential, but she thinks I’m pushy and not allowing her space to ‘be herself’. But I don’t know how to encourage her without coming across as domineering and bossy.”
Finally I said, “I just feel like I have to change my whole personality in order to be a good parent.”
Have you ever felt that there was something about you that simply wasn’t up to the challenges of parenting? Just what kind of a person do you have to be if you are to be a good parent?
I could give here a whole list of qualities which I think define a good parent. However, a more philosophical approach to this question is to look at what we think the purpose of parenting might be. Taking inspiration from Aristotle, we can argue that what we are trying to achieve with our parenting is what dictates the kind of person we need to be in our parenting.
Confessions of a failed Tiger Mother
In January 2011, Amy Chua published her controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which soon became a bestseller (and she and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, have just published another book, The Triple Package, which looks at why certain groups in society excel more than others). Battle Hymn details her struggles to raise her two girls in a way similar to the way she was raised by her Chinese immigrant parents. Chua’s parents were very strict – they allowed no A minuses, demanded music and math drills every day, forbade their girls to have sleepovers or boyfriends, and so forth. When Chua tried to follow something like this same pattern with her own children, fierce rebellion ensued, forcing Chua to resort at times to rather extreme methods to get her children to obey.
Chua was roundly criticized for being too harsh and demanding as a mother. Yet, her methods paid off: one of her girls now attends Harvard, and the other attends Yale.
If Amy Chua is a tiger mother, then I’m a failed tiger mother. This means that I set the strict rules, communicated the high expectations, insisted on the good work ethic, and endured the screaming matches, but didn’t achieve the desired outcomes. Instead of resulting in a stellar candidate for an elite college, these methods seemed to create only anger and defiance in my oldest child.
I’m not saying that these methods are bad; indeed, in general I still try to parent this way (except for the screaming matches). But I’ve had to change my perspective concerning the outcome I am trying to achieve with these methods. And because I now see myself trying to achieve a different outcome, I have also come to change my perspective on of the kind of person I need to be to as a parent.
The drill sergeant = good parent?
When my oldest child was small, she impressed people with her charm, insight, boundless energy, and prodigious conversation skills. Everyone who knew her was sure she had great academic potential. Yet, when she started school, she somehow failed kindergarten (?!!). My husband and I thought this was surely a mistake. But in the next year, she had difficulties, and then the year after that. She started to hate going to school, complaining every day that she felt sick so that she wouldn’t have to go.
By this time I was tearing my hair out, looking for anything I could find to help her in school. She was diagnosed with ADHD, but I was sure she still had great potential. I just had to unlock it. I decided the best way to do this was through math and reading drills, and lots of them. Thus began a ten year journey in which I insisted she do extra work every day so that she could keep up in school. Music practice was also an important way to develop the brain, so daily practice was required as well. The problem, of course, was that she didn’t want to do this extra work. So, the conflict started.
The thing about conflict is that it tends to escalate. I found myself turning into some kind of hard-nosed drill sergeant in order to get her to do her school work and practicing. I was intolerant of laziness and unsympathetic to any complaints about how much she hated her work. I was there to help her achieve. But the more I stood my ground, the more she pushed back, and eventually our relationship started to suffer.
Now here I was, a miserable drill sergeant with a miserable subordinate, and I started to wonder: what was the end goal here? Was it to do well in school? To what end? So that she could get into a good college? Was that the whole of my purpose as a parent? Of course, I knew that it wasn’t, and yet, I was acting like it was. As a result, those parts of my personality that I needed to achieve that purpose – things like focus, determination, inflexibility, industriousness – were becoming the dominant ones. And, important as these qualities are, you need more than these to build a family. I decided I needed to change.
What is the purpose of a parent?
As I reflected on the kind of person I wanted to be as parent, I was reminded of a question that Aristotle posed in his book, The Politics. He asks whether the “goodness” of a good citizen and the “goodness” of a good man are the same thing. In order to answer this question, he says we first have to define what it means to be a good citizen. A good citizen, he argues, is one who fulfills his “task”, or purpose, which is to preserve the regime in which he lives, by doing his job well within the regime, obeying the laws and so on. Now, there are different kinds of regimes with different kinds of laws, and some regimes have laws that do not encourage virtuous behavior. Since a good man is defined as the virtuous man – that is, as the man who understands the moral concept of what is “good” and lives according to it – it is therefore not the case that the good citizen will always be the same as a good man. The goodness of the citizen is defined by his purpose, which may or may not require him to also be a good person.
In the same way, we can ask if the goodness of a good parent is the same as the goodness of a good person. And I think Aristotle’s insight is useful here: a good parent is defined by his purpose. The problem is that different people have different views on the purpose of a parent. And some of those purposes might not, in and of themselves, be moral or virtuous ones. For instance, if the purpose of a parent is to, say, ensure the child becomes a professional tennis player, then the parent doesn’t necessarily have to be a virtuous person in order to fulfill this purpose. They do have to be focused, determined, hardworking (to pay for all those tennis lessons!), and so forth, but these qualities by themselves do not make a person bad or good, since they can be used to accomplish bad or good ends.
By Aristotle’s reasoning, then, the goodness of a good parent is the same as the goodness of a good person when the parent sees herself as having a moral purpose. For me, the point is not just to raise a child to be a concert pianist, or an Olympic diver, or a Harvard graduate. It is to raise children who want to be good. It is to raise children who love God, and who understand the difference between right and wrong. It is to raise children who want to reach out and help others, who have the self-confidence and moral vision to form meaningful relationships, cope with difficulties, and live purposeful lives. It is to raise children who have the capacity to love.
So, if this is my purpose as a parent, I have to try – sometimes really hard – to be a good person. I can’t lead my children toward these ends if I’m not trying to reach them myself. The drill sergeant qualities can be useful, but they aren’t sufficient. And the quality I need most to be a good person, and to help my kids be good, is total, unconditional love.
The mom versus the drill sergeant
At 6:00 am this morning, our house was permeated with a strong smell. It took me a while to figure it out, and then I realized that it was the smell of some essential oils that are supposed to facilitate mental focus and concentration. Then I remembered that my oldest child had some very important tests she had to take today. These are tests which everyone in the state of California has to take in order to graduate from high school. “Everyone says they’re really easy, mom,” she told me. “But watch me be the first person to fail them.”
My heart went out to her this morning as I realized how worried she must have been to put on all those oils. And that’s when I realized how far I’ve come as a parent. A few years ago, I probably would have worried a lot about her test scores. But today, all I worried about was her.
She’ll come home tonight, and I’ll ask her how her tests went. If she tells me they went badly, I can say with confidence that I won’t freak out. I’ll give her a hug, and I’ll tell her how proud I am of her for trying her best. We’ll sit on her bed and talk about how she can always take it again next year. I’ll tell her that everything will work out.
My purpose as a parent is much broader and deeper than to ensure my child’s academic success. It is to raise a good human being. I can feel myself becoming a better human being as I try to do that. Really, that’s what being a good parent is all about.
Holly Hamilton-Bleakley is a mother of six living in the USA. She holds an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History and Political Thought from the University of Cambridge (England). She blogs at Philosophy for Parents, where this article was first published.