How much freedom will we settle for?

It’s been a long time . . .

Those who have access to my facebook page will see that it says I have been writing again, but they wouldn’t know it from looking at this blog. That is largely due to the fact that my writing, of late, has not been for public consumption . . . at least not yet.

But today I read something and simply couldn’t stay silent any longer. It came from one of my favorite daily reads, someone who seems to be going through a journey very similar to mine – my virtual friend, David Hayward, also known as “Naked Pastor.”

He wrote a post called “Kinds of Choice,” that literally made me almost come out of my chair with joy that someone else gets it . . . truly gets what I feel each and every day. There are so few people with whom I get this feeling . . .

His article, though he may not realize it, takes on a growing notion that has been making the rounds in political circles of late – the notion of “libertarian paternalism.” In the words of eminent legal scholar Cass Sunstein, libertarian paternalism is the notion that “private and public institutions might nudge people in directions that will make their lives go better, without eliminating freedom of choice.” According to Sunstein, “The paternalism consists in the nudge; the libertarianism consists in the insistence on freedom, and on imposing little or no cost on those who seek to go their own way.” Sunstein’s principle paper on the topic, written with behavioral economist Richard H. Thaler, is entitled “Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron.”

With all due respect to Sunstein and Thaler, yes it is . . . and Hayward’s post does an admirable job of explaining why.

Libertarian Paternalism is predicated on the notion that any system or institution will, as a matter of course, “nudge” those within it – either intentionally or unintentionally – in a given direction. Sunstein argues that

because default rules and starting points often matter, institutions can’t avoid nudging people — and hence can’t avoid a kind of paternalism, or at least a nudge. If 0% of take-home pay goes to savings, it isn’t because nature so ordained it.

He uses this logic to argue that, since systems “nudge” people anyway, they might as well deliberately do so in a desirable direction. To wit, “[An] example is the automatic enrollment plan, by which workers are automatically enrolled in a savings plan, but can opt out with no trouble and at no expense if they choose to do so.”

Hayward’s thoughts center on the system of the modern, organized church. Whether he intends it or not, they form a very effective counter-argument to Sunstein and Thaler’s philosophy. Hayward says,

What is being offered to the church today is a multitude of choices . . . we are being told that when we select one of these choices, we are making a free choice. And we feel as though we are free when we make our selection from among the several choices.

This is not perfect freedom . . .

Hayward goes on to distinguish quote the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in distinguishing between “formal freedom” and “actual freedom.” The former, he (Hayward) calls “Reinventing ourselves within the prescribed parameters.” This description perfectly captures what we are encouraged to do in so very many areas of life. Consider:

In education, we are encouraged to consider “school choice,” or even to (in an especially radical notion) homeschool our children [full disclosure: For those who don’t already know, I was homeschooled myself] . . . but only if we do so in a system where we literally turn our home into a school, complete with grades, class schedules, tests, and “approved” curricula.

In (American) politics, we are encouraged to “choose” our preferred candidate – from a pool of two nearly equally distasteful options.

In medicine, we are encouraged to consult a variety of medical experts and get a “second opinion” on what might be wrong with us in a given situation – but heaven forbid that we should do our own homework and self-diagnose a problem that can’t be discovered by an almighty Doctor with a lab coat and stethoscope who deigns to take ten minutes out of his busy day to read our lab charts and choose a diagnosis from a laundry list of possible maladies that roughly correspond to our symptoms.

In news, we are encouraged to read newspapers, listen to network news broadcasts, watch cable news shows, listen to news radio, or even be especially daring and get our news from our favorite network’s website. But far be it from us to bypass the gatekeepers at CNN, or the Associated Press, or the New York Times, and get our news from “alternative sources” . . . even when those alternative sources do a much better job of providing real news analysis (and in some cases, even original news reporting).

In religion, where Hayward concentrates, we are encouraged to seek out any one of an ever-increasing number of formal denominations with which to worship . . . but the one time that these institutions of religion will take a time-out from their interminable squabbles with each other and actually agree on something is when they hold the Bible over their heads and invent out of whole cloth a commandment nowhere found in its pages, demanding that we at least “go to church” somewhere.

These all fall under what Hayward calls “the illusion that this formal freedom is as good as it gets in life.”

And libertarian paternalists would love to convince you that such “formal freedom” is all you need. After all, if, like Hayward, you disdain to pick between equally undesirable choices . . . if you are not content with simply choosing from different options within a system, and would rather leave the system all together, then the likes of Sunstein and Thaler lose any ability whatsoever to control you short of the brute force they claim to wish to avoid.

Herein lies the problem. At the root of it all, a libertarian paternalist – or a teacher, a politician, a doctor, a news reporter, or a pastor – still believes in his or her heart of hearts that they know better than you do what is best for you. And because they know best, they should be allowed to compel you – either through brute force, or through subtle “choice control” – into doing what they already know is best for you. The systems and institutions in which they operate – schools, governments, hospitals, media outlets and yes, churches, are all designed with one all-encompassing principle on which their survival depends . . . the principle that they can continue in existence by doing you just enough good so that you don’t realize they’re expending all that effort in order to tell you what to think.

There is an infuriating arrogance to it all. At the root of all this, for the so-called “libertarian paternalist” is the very un-libertarian notion that he or she knows what is best for you and me, and that he or she will deign to look down, make the choice for us, and then guide us – ever so gently – toward that choice.

And it is in the realm of religion – Hayward’s forte – that we discover just how insidious this “soft paternalism” really is, for having laid down the weapon of brute force with which to accomplish their desired outcomes, they are left with the even more insidious weapon of shame. Educators, Politicians, Doctors, Newsmakers (a more accurate term these days than “News Reporters”), and Pastors are all – as a class – adept at using this weapon to demonize, marginalize or belittle those who are not content to pick from within their institutions one of a variety of bad options, and who opt to leave the system all together. My wife and I can personally attest to this in every single one of these five areas. Shame is a moral concept, but the amoral can use it just as effectively.

And it is all the worse for being so seductive. Those who wield shame as a weapon often do not realize they are wielding any weapon at all – witness Glenn Reynolds, an eminent libertarian blogger, saying that the solution to people who do not follow his desired course of action with regard to vaccinating their children ought to be “shamed” for it. Seemingly swayed by the same logic that persuades Sunstein and Thaler, Reynolds refers to this as the “libertarian solution” to what he sees as the problem of declining to vaccinate.

Just imagine . . . what if the solution to this or any other action that affects nobody but the person doing it was to simply do as you please, and let them do likewise??

This, to me, seems the essence of what Christ meant when he urged us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


Filed under Ideas I stole from somebody else, but improved on, Things most people won't understand at all

11 Responses to How much freedom will we settle for?

  1. wow. excellent article. thanks for referencing me. i would like to clarify that some of those quotes of “mine” are actually from the modern philosopher Zizek. well done. and it is an interesting, relevant and timely argument.

  2. LeftCoastCurmudgeon

    Are there times in our journey through life when a degree of “libertarian paternalism” might be valid, if not necessary? Say perhaps by a libertarian “pater.”

    Just curious …


  3. LCC . . . thanks for your comment.

    I certainly would agree that there are times in our lives – particularly during childhood – when we are less well-equipped to make the wisest choices available to us. While this might be used as a good argument for a sort of “libertarian paternalism,” I think that argument presumes that the end result – the “point” of a particular choice – is that the child in question ultimately performs the proper behavior.

    But what if “behavior” is not the point? I’m not a parent – yet – and so I am admittedly speaking to an area in which I have no experience . . . but it seems to me that the point of childhood is not to learn how to perform all the “right” actions and do all the “right” things . . . but to learn HOW to make wise choices so that one can continue to do so into adulthood.

    Certainly, there are emergency situations when a parent needs to be able to expect that his or her child will obey unquestioningly (don’t play in the street, etc.) but honestly, I think that such situations are much more about TRUST than they are about OBEDIENCE.

    If a parent has earned the trust of his or her child, then a son, for example, will know that when daddy uses “that” tone of voice, he had better obey . . . not because daddy will spank him if he doesn’t, but because daddy wouldn’t use that tone of voice in a normal circumstance, just to tell him to clean his room or brush his teeth.

    If a parent earns a child’s trust in this way, then he or she won’t NEED to “nudge” them. In a sense, this frees both the child to make REAL choices from the earliest ages they have a capacity to do so, as well as freeing the parent to truly feed their child’s capacity for desire and sense of curiosity, rather than worrying about “proper behaviors,” while knowing that when the situation is truly an emergency, the child will trust them enough to listen.

    So in emergency situations . . . the “big” choices a child will be confronted with during his or her childhood . . . I think that fostering a relationship of trust will free me up as a parent to make choices for the child when they don’t have the capacity to fully understand the choice, while at the same time freeing them to make their own “little” choices when they do.

    And let’s be honest. The vast majority of choices with which child will be confronted are “little” choices. Why can they not make those choices themselves? Why cannot a daughter decide that she wants to get her ears pierced or wear a bit of makeup at an age her father might think is “too young”? Why cannot a son decide that he would rather play catch now and clean his room later, rather than the other way around?

    It seems to me that in this situation, my job as a parent will NOT be to protect them from the consequences of bad choices by making those choices for them, but to help them learn from their choices so as to make better ones next time.

    The key here is to ensure that you are teaching your child to both understand the full scope of the choice being made, and grasp the ramifications of that choice. It seems to me that when a child is forced to choose between a slate of preselected options, he or she is essentially “programmed” to accept whatever is presented without questioning it.

    So when I become a parent, I hope that I am able not to make the best preselected choices for my child to choose from, but to explain to that child the full weight of their choice as much as they can understand it, and then allow them to make it.

    Will they always choose the “right” choice? No, of course they won’t. But in a world where “behavior” is not the point, and where my child’s “good behavior” is not a referendum on my parenting skills, that’s OK.

  4. LeftCoastCurmudgeon

    “… Why cannot a daughter decide that she wants to get her ears pierced or wear a bit of makeup at an age her father might think is “too young”? Why cannot a son decide that he would rather play catch now and clean his room later, rather than the other way around? …”

    Not bad in theory, but come back and talk to me again in 10-15 years. In most cases parents are wiser (not smarter) than their children, if only because of decades more experience in the “real world”. A child left to make his own choices will consistently make poor ones, at least until he begins to pay the price for making them, because he is a child. Often in today’s world by the time the bill comes due for those poor choices it is too late.

    If a child is left to decide for himself whether to take care of his responsibilities or “play catch now and clean his room later”, I maintain he will – with great consistency – chose the latter, and will be ill equipped for life in the world of work and responsibility. I expect most 9 to 12 year-olds would rather sleep a little past 5:30 in the morning than go out in the cold and rain and deliver newspapers. Probably even the ones I knew, had they not had the benefit of their mother rousting them out and teaching them, rather than leaving them to decide.

    Yes … there is a time to play and a time to enjoy life and stop to smell the roses, but I don’t think many children are equipped to decide when that is.

    I started my parenting journey with a commitment to not use the word “no”, but rather to take the time to explain the rational behind my decisions/directives. I really wanted to develop that trust of which you spoke, so my children would intuitively respond responsibly when given instruction/direction, or when told they must (or must not) do something.

    It didn’t work … because they were children, and they didn’t have the benefit of a combined 70+ years of experience and wisdom, as poor as it was.


  5. LCC –

    It is certainly true that we don’t have children yet, and we very well might change our tune later. However, it is also important to point out that we’re not talking about offering children at every age *complete* freedom to make whatever choice seems right to them, but rather being partners in their development towards eventually being able to make *all* their decisions on their own, hopefully with wisdom.

    Babies, when they come into this world, have absolutely no choices – when it comes to when they are fed, when they are held, etc – they are powerless. They can try to tell us what they want, but we may or may not listen. (Incidentally ignoring their cries at this early age will set up later problems with whether or not they think their voice is important enough to be heard.)

    As they move into toddlerhood, the parents are still making all the decisions – what foods to introduce to their palate, what clothes to wear, what kind of schedule the day will contain.

    But as they reach the age of 2 or 3 where suddenly they have a conscious ability for decision making, one which they are able to articulate, I think it’s important to begin offering them *some* choices. Not all – because like you said, they’re children. The point isn’t to treat children like adults who are capable of making discerning choices, but rather, to treat children as children who will someday become adults and need to *learn* how to make decisions with discernment.

    Sometimes that will mean (especially at younger ages) making decisions for them, decisions they will only LATER understand to have been wise. (Like starting a four-year-old on an instrument – only a very small number of small children choose this for themselves, but in their teenage years when they decide to become a professional musician, they are incredibly grateful for the choice their parents made.)

    But if we are to help children eventually become responsible for ALL their decisions, it seems we must give them at least SOME which they can decide for themselves now….even if this approach guarantees that they will make some bad choices.

    There IS a time to say no….I have a feeling we will utilize that word quite frequently when we are parents….but I also feel that there are many, many times to use the word “yes” that we just don’t. We’re too consumed in what we are currently doing to say “yes” to the child who wants to be read a story (and I speak of myself here, with regard to my younger sisters), we’re too concerned with “adult” things to remember that Christ said we must become as little children to inherit the Kingdom – which might mean going outside and playing ball and finishing the bills later when the kids are in bed.

    Too often, when kids don’t get enough “yes’s” and get too many “no’s”, they grow up believing the common dogma that our desires are wrong/inherently bad/not to be trusted. So they go through life, unsure of what they want, and so unable to pursue it…

    …unable to make the choices that would bring around what they want…

    …because they have no idea what they want.

    So I look at this as sort of a two-pronged issue. First, there is the issue of desire – children must know that they have the freedom to (in the words of Virginia Satir) “feel what they feel, instead of what they ought to feel.” This means a baby needs to be treated as a fully conscious being who is communicating with each one of her cries. This means that feelings and desires need to be validated and in many cases, inconveniently fulfilled while “adult” tasks wait for later when the kids are in bed.

    I mentioned Virginia Satir. She is (I believe) a family psychologist who listed five essential freedoms for all of us as human beings, freedoms necessary for emotional health:

    1. The freedom to see and hear what is here, instead of what should be, was, or/or will be.

    2. The freedom to say what one feels and thinks instead of what one should.

    3. To freedom to feel what one feels, instead of what one ought to feel.

    4. The freedom to ask for what one wants, instead of waiting for permission. (and I would add, direction.)

    5. The freedom to take risks in one’s behalf instead of wanting only to be secure.

    I think it is essential to give children these freedoms. And it is important to notice that she doesn’t list “the freedom to get whatever one wants” or even “the freedom to choose whatever one wants” – but rather, “the freedom to ask for what one wants.”

    In adults, this might translate into making certain choices to assure what we want. Of course, even adults have things happen to them that they *don’t* choose, and they can only choose how to respond.

    In children, this (I think) translates into being able to clearly articulate what they want. In some cases, what they want might not be possible – for example they might want to “choose” to listen to all their music on an expensive iPod that their parents can’t afford. That’s not really a choice they can make…on the other hand, their parents can set up a system where they earn money for extra work around the house and that money goes towards an iPod.

    But I think we might be surprised that in many, many cases our children might want something different from what we want….

    ….that in an of itself is not dangerous, sinful, or unwise.

    Isn’t telling them what to do in these cases, rather than offering them free choice, arbitrary?

    As a person who has struggled mightily with knowing what I want and choosing to pursue it, I’m concerned with validating my (eventual) children’s desires – which ties in with choices because they need to be able to choose things they want. But again, it is limited because they are children. I will not let them decide whether or not they want to do school, or learn to play a musical instrument, or help around the house…and yet they eventually become an age where they are going to make their own choices about those very things, whether you want them to or not. The choices you can make for them at 6 become choices they need to address for themselves at 16.

    I look at it a lot like teaching…when I’m working with a violin student I am developing a set of skills. They have no idea what I’m developing – I don’t often talk about the ingredients necessary to play the Tchaikovsky concerto, but that’s what I’m developing. It starts with one small thing at a time. They might not fully understand each ingredient (although I do my best to explain the necessity of each technique) – but before they know it, they had all the ingredients towards playing the Tchaikovsky concerto. But if I set the Tchaikovsky concerto in front of them too early, they will flounder and be unable to play.

    With children, I think we need to look at it as “developing” the ability to make free and conscious choices rooted in our desires. They are children, and they don’t have this ability yet. But everything I do as a parent should be with this development in mind, so that I give them small choices appropriate to their age and development, so that I listen to their desires and validate them, so that they are even more used to hearing “yes” than “no.”

    If I let them make *every* decision, it would be like putting the Tchaikovsky concerto in front of a beginning violin student: they would flounder. They might even avoid “playing” or “making decisions” in the future. It is important to develop step-by-step.

    I think what Mike and I have noticed is that too often, parents *aren’t* looking at their children as fully conscious beings with valid desires and (developing) decision making capabilities. Children are viewed as “lesser” beings that just need to learn to obey instantaneously without question…who need to conveniently fit into our lives, our schedules, our decisions. Well…the ability to obey without questioning is just not a skill I think *any* adult should be particularly good at – so why are we focused on developing *that* in children? Why not let them make the decisions they can, while making other for them (such as schooling and learning how to work) while developing in them the capability to make more and more decisions as they get older?

    In a nutshell, I’m for honoring children as conscious human beings, honoring their desires, letting them make choices appropriate to their age and development (more and more as they get older), and throwing “arbitrary” out the window.

  6. LeftCoastCurmudgeon

    Once again … we’re not very far apart. No real surprise there I think. I particularly like your analogy to teaching a “pre-twinkler” how to play a Tchaikovsky concerto. I think that should be how we teach them how to play “life” as well. I think I had some small successes and more, larger failures.

    We did want (expect) our children to obey, and I do believe the old saw (I’m sure you’ve heard it) that delayed obedience is disobedience, but I don’t think anyone would accuse us of needing them to “…fit into our lives, our schedules, our decisions…” Actually, our lives pretty much revolved around their schedules.

    The point in Mike’s piece with which I take is the part about playing catch now and cleaning his room (or whatever chore awaits) later. I don’t think a child of elementary age is equipped to make that choice and should not be allowed to, although there shuld certainly be time and room for discussion as to why.

    I like Virginia Satir’s 5 points – mostly. I have always advocated seeing, hearing, and accepting what IS vice what should be or was or might be someday, but tempered with a willingness to TRY to change it – to whatever degree you can – if you find it unacceptable. I do have a problem with #2 – for children who have not yet learned what might or might not be appropriate in a given setting. Actually – for adults too sometimes. How appropriate would it be for me to, for example, tell Bill Clinton what I really think of him if I were perhaps in a town hall Q&A. Probably should exercise some adult reatraint and not go there. Obviously (to me anyway), #5 has to be tempered with age appropriate guidance.

    One last question. You said “Why not let them make the decisions they can, while making other for them (such as schooling and learning how to work) while developing in them the capability to make more and more decisions as they get older?” Doesn’t that imply that there are times when the right reason might be “Because I’m the Dad, and I said so.” , but coupled with, when time allows, a teaching moment as to why “my decision is the right one”

    Hugs to you both!

  7. You’re right, we’re not so far apart. 🙂 You certainly are right that you could not be accused of needing your children to “fit into your lives/schedules/decisions.”

    As far as the 5 points go…I think the “freedom to say what one feels and thinks instead of what one should” IS an essential freedom, but one that we learn more control of as we get older. That means children very well might say things that are “inappropriate” in a certain setting, and hopefully we can help them learn from these situations when they are small and insignificant, so that by the time they are in an important situation, they have learned appropriate modes of expression. But I don’t think that helping develop appropriate responses to certain settings need involve *denying* them the freedom to say what they feel. More…helping them learn HOW to say what they feel in a way that is appropriate.

    I think that a lot of parents need to just get over their own embarrassment at “inappropriate” behavior and look more at what they’re telling their child about what kind of human being to become. Are they trying to develop a people-pleaser, who always does/says the right things but wears a false front? Sometimes I think that parents are unconsciously doing this very thing, because they themselves want to be patted on the back for their “good parenting” when their child behaves well in public. I personally would rather be embarrassed sometimes and develop a human being who is authentic, in touch with their thoughts and feelings, and as they get older, one who learns how to express and deal with those thoughts and feelings in appropriate ways.

    As far as “telling Bill Clinton how you feel” – I think the issue again is not *denying* yourself (or being denied) the freedom to say what you feel, but rather – choosing not to exercise it in that setting. This is what I would like to develop in my (someday) kids, rather than denying them that freedom for a time and then suddenly giving it to them at a time when they’ve learned to “say what one should”.

    You said, “Doesn’t that imply that there are times when the right reason might be ‘Because I’m the dad, and I said so’, coupled with, when time allows, a teaching moment as to why ‘my decision is the right one.'”

    Actually, no, I don’t think it implies that. I can’t think of a hypothetical situation where the true reason why they should do something is because the parent said so. Even in those cases of danger (get out of the street NOW!) – while there may not be time for a protracted discussion about why – the real reason is because they’d get hit if they don’t, not “because I’m the parent.” Not even, “Because I’m the parent, and I said so, and here’s why MY decision is the best one.” Again, in those cases of true danger that require instantaneous “obedience”, I think the real issue is trust – and a child who has simply been conditioned to obey many times when it is NOT important or dangerous, is actually learning the opposite of what their parents intend: that when mom/dad says to do something, oftentimes it is arbitrary, so why listen? It’s like crying wolf – by the time the “get out of the street” moment comes, the child may have stopped listening altogether, having learned that most of what mom/dad wants me to do is arbitrary and unimportant. Versus, if they have the trust to know that EVERYTHING mom/dad says has a reason, and even if I don’t know this one right now, it sounds important.

    Incidentally, I don’t practice obeying my friends instantaneously, but if one of them yelled at me to get out of the street, I would – not because I was “obeying” but because I heard the fear in their voice and I trust their perception of a situation. I don’t think children are really all that different.

    I also think that most adults would be surprised at what a child can understand about the way the world works. I explain very adult concepts to five year olds for a living. 😛 Very often I use a word they don’t understand, or a concept they don’t understand. (One parent thanked me profusely for not treating her 9 year old as, well, a 9 year old. I related to her much like I would relate to any adult.) When I can see the child doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, I will break it down and use different words, until I get them to understand. I have never had a situation where I can’t, in the end, get a 5 year old to grasp what I’m talking about.

    There are a lot of things I ask them to do that are non-negotiable – they must learn to play with their fingers on thumbside corners, they must stand without slouching, they must play without noise in their tone, etc. But I would NEVER (and have never) said “because I’m the teacher” as the reason why they must do something. ALL questions are okay, even when they’re driving the parents nuts. If the child doesn’t understand WHY a technique is important, I don’t see the point in teaching it.

    So while I would never teach the Tchaikovsky concerto directly to a five year old beginner, in many ways, I am preparing each of them at every lesson to play the Tchaikovsky concerto someday, which means letting them begin to make artistic choices in the earliest stages, and which means respecting their ability to understand difficult musical concepts.

    It might be easier to simply get them to play Twinkle well by obeying every directive of mine “because I’m the teacher”, and they might become masters at Twinkle, and might do so faster, but they would never ever get to the Tchaikovsky concerto if that were my method.

    Honestly, I don’t really understand the “need” many parents have to make their child “obey.” I don’t know that strict obedience is a trait I want to cultivate in my child. I want to cultivate understanding, responsibility, maturity, discernment, the ability to think things through, the ability to be authentic, the ability to doubt and think for one’s self…many of which are short circuited by blanket obedience. I read recently about an experiment in which subjects were tested to see just how much they would obey an authority figure even when it involved hurting others. It was scary how much they would obey…and it’s just not something I’m sure I want to cultivate.

    While there are some times the child does not have a “choice” per se, because he is a child, I feel that things are always up for discussion, we can always talk about it, the child can always tell me how she feels, even if in the end I say “this is what we’re doing, for the reasons outlined earlier.” I really would rather be a “partner in development” than an “authority figure.”

    I heard recently the concept of “normal difficult behavior” – i.e. it is normal for a 9 month old to throw things, and normal for a two year old to have a temper tantrum. A child’s first lie, developmentally, is “normal difficult behavior” – realizing “I can know something you don’t know.” It’s not a moral issue…it’s a developmental issue. When a child is exhibiting normal difficult behaviors for their age, I think it is very important to consider what we are telling them about learning and development if we just get embarrassed or frustrated and make the “point” to be quiet or obey or whatever. Versus, if an 8 year old throw a temper tantrum, that is NOT “normal difficult behavior”, and would need to be dealt with in an entirely different way than when a 2yo throws a tantrum.

    Another example is that 4 and 5 year old kids will suddenly start interrupting their parents a lot. Is the issue that “they just need to learn not to interrupt”? No…it is again a developmental issue…they have suddenly realized that their parents have a relationship that is separate from them, and they are inserting themselves into the relationship because they are really struggling with being on the outside of that relationship.

    I think far too often we look at the behavior – the temper tantrum or the interruptions – rather than what is going on emotionally and developmentally for the child. Too often we’d rather have Stepford children who obey our every dictate, who are quiet, who speak only when we tell them to speak, who do chores without complaining (instantaneously!), who never fight with their siblings. The problem is that those Stepford children don’t often grow into emotionally healthy adults.

  8. I feel I have to jump in here again to clarify a couple things . . . first off, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit when you say, “I think I had some small successes and more, larger failures,” or when you talk of, “70+ years of experience and wisdom, as poor as it was.”

    Heidi and I will routinely stop some conversation we’re having – whether about parenting or some other, tangentally related topic – and make some comment about how lucky we both are to have the parents we do. I certainly wouldn’t accuse you or mom of needing us to “fit into your lives, schedules, decisions, etc.” . . .

    I agree that we’re not very far apart, but I think we may be further apart than it seems because our differences, though few, are fairly fundamental. However, I never intended this conversation on parenting to become a referendum on YOUR parenting skills. Just because we seem to have a somewhat different philosophy on parenting – and on life in general – doesn’t mean that I think you were a bad father, or that you should have done everything differently. Did you make some mistakes? Sure . . . you are, after all, human. I expect that when I am a father, I too will make some mistakes.

    But let me draw this back to where it began – with the concept of “true” versus “apparent” freedom. Let me be clear, I have no illusions that I will be able to go through the process of raising children without ever saying “no.”

    But the idea of “never saying ‘no'” is not libertarianism . . . it’s anarchy. While many tend to confuse the two, they are very different. Libertarianism, at its roots, is not really about completely unbridled freedom . . . at least not the way I interpret it. At its very core, libertarianism is a very freeing philosophy, but that freedom is a byproduct of something deeper – respect.

    You have, I know, heard the libertarian mantra that “my freedom to swing my fist ends at your nose.” This phrase, though seemingly trite, captures the distinction between libertarianism and anarchy. An anarchist acknowledges no such restriction. For an anarchist, freedom is its own end, but for a libertarian, it is the respect . . . the VALUE . . . he places in himself and others that are the reason and the source of that freedom. My freedom to swing my fist ends at your nose because of the value you have as a human being, and because of the value I have as a human being, I will respect that boundary.

    This respect – this value – extends not only to other adults, but to children as well. They are no less valuable just because they do not have the capacity for fully-informed decisionmaking. For that reason, yes, there are times I will tell my children “no,” but I will NOT excuse myself from explaining the reason for that “no,” by giving them the false reason, “because I’m the dad.” As Heidi said, this is NEVER the real reason . . . and it was never the real reason when you gave it to me. The real reason might be a good one, like “because I am older and wiser than you, and I know better than you do what is needed in this situation,” or it might be a bad one like “because giving you what you want inconveniences me too much to bother,” but there is ALWAYS something deeper than “because I’m the dad.”

    . . . and your response might be that a child cannot always grasp the real reason . . . but that fact does not mean they don’t deserve to hear it. And when they DO hear it, they will be challenged to think more deeply, and to more thoroughly develop their own capacity for decisionmaking. You mentioned in your first lengthy comment that,

    “A child left to make his own choices will consistently make poor ones, at least until he begins to pay the price for making them, because he is a child. Often in today’s world by the time the bill comes due for those poor choices it is too late.”

    You are absolutely right. The undeniable fact that you point out here seems to me to leave two possible courses of action – either train your child to engage in instant and unquestioning obedience, or train them to recognize poor choices.

    The inevitable result of the first course of action is a human being dependent on the whims and wills of others. This may work out well for you while you’re around, but what about when you’re not?? Who will they allow to make their decisions then?? They certainly won’t be well-equipped to make those decisions themselves, having never learned how.

    The result of the second course of action is, as you correctly point out, a child who is forced to learn from his or her mistakes . . . but who, when they make those mistakes AS A CHILD, is able to learn good decision-making BEFORE they are faced with a choice where the wrong road leads to drastic, life-long consequences.

    THAT is why I said what I did about the boy who is never allowed to make the choice to play now and work later. To me, being faced with the choice of, “clean your room now or get a spanking” seems, in most cases, to be a good way to teach instant obedience. But if, on the other hand, that boy is faced with the choice of, “you can play now and clean your room later, but you must have it clean by bedtime or you won’t get dessert” carries a much deeper set of lessons. The boy in question may end up going to bed without his ice cream a few times, but instead of a lesson in “instant obedience,” he will learn discernment, time management, prioritization and decisionmaking skills that will stand him in good stead long after his childhood years are past.

    And that, I think, is the heart of the matter. It seems to me that the root of your philosophy of child-rearing aims to raise good children. And as the product of that philosophy, I happen to think you did a pretty good job of it. But I don’t want to raise good children . . . I want to raise good adults.

    . . . and frankly, instant, unquestioning obedience is NOT a trait I consider a virtue, in a well-adjusted adult.

    There is a second consequence to all this as well. The child who lives under threat of punishment for failing to “instantly obey,” learns to relate to his parents out of fear, while the one who is RESPECTED by those parents enough to make his own choices – even when they are the WRONG choices – learns the real meaning of God’s love . . . for that is EXACTLY how God related to Adam and Eve. They were children in their understanding of the world, and of Him, prior to having their eyes opened to the nature of good and evil. And He gave them the freedom to disobey Him, KNOWING FULL WELL not only the choice they would make, but the effect that choice would have on the rest of humanity.

    THAT is how I want to relate to my children.

    . . . then again, you might be right, and my philosophy might just be a pie-in-the-sky, idealistic vision that will have no basis in reality once I actually have kids . . . I guess I’ll take your advice and come back to you in 10-15 years, and find out :-).

  9. LeftCoastCurmudgeon

    We’re closer even than you think, and in philosophy as well. I only hope you do a better job if implementation – and I fully expect, with the two of you working in tandem and with your degree of communication and commitment that you will.

    A couple amplifications …

    “…the idea of “never saying ‘no’” is not libertarianism . . . it’s anarchy…”

    Absolutely – I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t mean that I never wanted to say “no”, but that I always wanted to be able to explain why, and use the moment to teach rather than just leave the question at “no.”

    What I meant to imply above “…the right reason might be “Because I’m the Dad, and I said so.” , but coupled with, when time allows, a teaching moment as to why …” is that in those few instances when that is the immediate reason, it should ALWAYS be followed up as soon as time and circumstances permit. Needless to say, most even well intentioned parents, me included, do not do that. I agree that it is NEVER the ultimate, actual reason.

    Yes … I did want to raise “good children”, due in part at least to my experiences around some who were not. I disliked being around them as much as you did. While there’s obviously nothing wrong with that, my ultimate goal in the endeavor was to raise them to be “good adults.” Frankly, I think that was a halting and stumbling but in the end overwhelming success. I’m glad you want to raise good adults. I KNOW I did!

    God Bless.


    MY lengthy comment??? You’re not exactly frugal with words sir!

  10. Carol

    You all make me laugh!!!

  11. LCC, I meant your “lengthy” comment as opposed to your first, short one . . . not as opposed to my own, even lengthier ones . . .

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