What does it mean to be a good parent and what influence do we have on children as they navigate the challenges of the 21st century? Philosopher Elizabeth Cripps, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, recommends books that shed light on some of the ethics of parenting, including one on how to raise kids who aren’t assholes.
Parenting is a common enough phenomenon. But what’s the ethics of parenting?
The ethics of parenting as I see it looks at the question of what special responsibilities we have to our children, over and above the responsibilities we have to everyone else, just because we’re human beings. So, we ask questions about why we owe something special to our children and whether that is justified, and we ask questions about what those responsibilities are.
The philosophy of parenting also asks questions about things like, is the family justifiable as an institution? Do people have a right to be a parent? Do children have a right to be parented at a certain level? Are there other child-rearing arrangements that might be better? There’s then a whole area of related philosophy on the ethics of care, which is obviously also very, very relevant to parenting. So it covers a very wide range.
My particular interest has been on the question of what we owe our children and how that fits with the moral duties we have just as human beings in the face of these huge global challenges that will face our children’s generation: climate change, the fact that we’ve just lived through a pandemic and they face the threat of future pandemics, antibiotic resistance, the fact that our institutions are still deeply unjust, and so on. What responsibilities do we have to our children and how do they fit with, conflict with, or possibly overlap with, the responsibilities we have to other people? And how does it change when we find ourselves in this very flawed situation, on a warming planet?
Those sorts of questions, many of them, must have arisen for a long time. We are in a particularly important time in terms of climate change, and technological development and new possibilities and new threats. But many of the issues about what makes a good parent have existed for centuries. Have philosophers of the past written much about these issues?
Certainly, this is something that’s been relevant to philosophy for a long time. The main philosophical theories all have implications for parenting. I think there’s been a particularly interesting literature recently, focusing on this specific question of whether we have so-called ‘special duties’ to our children and what that might mean. One thing that’s really important to stress, which you rightly touched on there, is the matter of whether these questions are new. Yes, we face a massively challenged world, but to some extent it’s an incredibly privileged thing, as a middle-class white person, to wake up now to the fact that our governments aren’t protecting our children adequately. That’s something that parents of color have been dealing with for centuries. So, yes, in some ways this is a unique global challenge, but at the same time, having to be a parent, or thinking about what we owe our children when the future isn’t safe for those children, is not novel.
“Is the family justifiable as an institution?”
I try to do a combination of things in my work. One is to start from uncontroversial views that we can accept across different moral philosophical schools of thought – and, indeed, so-called commonsense morality. We can begin from the idea that we have some core responsibilities to other people, such as not to harm them, and to protect them if we can, and that we have special duties to our own children (biological or adopted) that we can defend in various ways. But then I also find it very useful to draw on philosophers who have thought about these issues more recently. The philosophers that I particularly focused on in my new book, Parenting on Earth, are Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse, whose model I find very useful. There are some other great philosophers working on similar issues at the moment, people like Anca Gheaus and Tim Fowler. Obviously, care ethics is also very useful. I also find Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to flourishing and justice to be a very plausible starting point: this idea of what we all need for a decent human life.
As with most philosophy, there’s a tension between a kind of idealism and the brute reality of the world. In political philosophy, generally, there are many people presenting utopias, and then quite a resistant political scene. With children, my own experience was that I started out with high ideals, made many compromises and mistakes, and ended up thinking that the best model is not failing, just being good enough. Almost any parent is likely to make huge mistakes (though some don’t recognize that). We’re all fallible. In the family, we are caught at our worst moments as well as our best. This can have an impact on children. Even if you’re trying to model a certain way of life and a certain set of attitudes, you have to bear in mind that, at least in adolescence, most children want to revolt against whatever their parents represent. So if you are representing a kind of idealized version of what you hope they might become, carefully modeling, considerate, world-centered behavior as a cosmopolitan, you might end up with children for whom the only way they can rebel against you, is by doing something quite different from you, or perhaps giving less weight to these issues than you do.
I think that’s really interesting because certainly, yes, there is evidence that teenagers especially are likely to rebel against the things that their parents have taught them. And there’s also interesting evidence when it comes to climate change and the degree to which it works the other way. Quite often, teenage children educate their parents about the importance of this issue. But there is also considerable psychological evidence that parents do have a significant influence on their children’s moral development. Also, these questions are broader than about teaching your child to be a moral person, it’s about the other ways that we might owe it to our children to act on things like climate change.
Let’s move on to your first book choice.
I’ve chosen The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships by Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift. This is an academic book, a philosophical book, which I found incredibly useful in developing my thoughts on these issues. Essentially, they are attempting to justify the family as an institution, the way that we raise children in societies like ours. To some extent, in my own work, I don’t need to have that justification. I can start from ‘Well, this is where we are, so what do we owe our children in that situation?’ but it’s very interesting that they do that. What’s particularly interesting about it is they talk about the importance of the parent/child relationship. They say, ‘Well, look, this is something that we need, not only for children’s interests, but also for parents’ interests’. Parents have an interest, they argue, in the unique relationship that you have with children, and they think this isn’t like other relationships. They argue that parents do have rights to exercise some discretion over what their children do and so do have some authority over them, but those rights are essentially conditional on them being used to do right by their children: to parent adequately. I find that an interesting and useful argument. They also talk about the moral limits of parental influence and partiality. They argue that we need the family, but that parents don’t automatically gain the freedom or discretion to give their children unlimited advantages over others or freedom to shape their values precisely as the parents want.
We know from attachment theory just how important parent/child relations are to the development of any individual. And if it’s not the parents or biological parents, some figure or figures who play that role. So that’s uncontroversial.
Yes. Very clearly it doesn’t have to be the biological parent. Children need one or two adults who are playing a parental role in their life.
But the idea that parents relate to the world in different ways from others, that is unlike other relationships, may be controversial for people reading this who don’t have children and don’t engage with children. Do they discuss that?
Yes. It’s important to say that, firstly—and again, it has echoes of the capabilities approach here—they’re talking about the opportunity to do this as being a non-substitutable good, rather than making the claim, which would clearly be ridiculous, that nobody can have a full or flourishing life without actually doing it. So I think that’s important. But as you suggest, even that claim is controversial. They discuss the unique combination of an intimate, loving relationship and the degree of fiduciary authority that you have over the child, the fact that you’re caring for them, and you’re also shaping them. It’s a unique combination of things in the relationship. It’s difficult, because, as a parent, that seems intuitively convincing. But it’s also arguable that there are other relationships, which, if not exactly the same, could play a similar role or an equally valuable role in people’s lives.
I think this is a minefield when you start talking about the rights of parents. If you take a broadly liberal position, you can go many different ways on this. You could say, ‘Look, I’m an intelligent person with the means to homeschool my children and my sensitive children need this because I can give them much more than they will get in this local school, which isn’t so great.’ That immediately has the potential to harm other people in the school who haven’t got the benefit of your child being there, and don’t get your involvement with the school, but it also potentially harms the child from having a very restricted exposure to diversity, and differing points of view, different sorts of authoritative adults, and all those sorts of things. I think that generally, homeschooling is a bad thing, except in extreme circumstances. But that’s a controversial position itself. But somebody could argue, as a liberal, ‘We want to give everybody freedom to do the best that they think they can for their child.’ How do you negotiate that sort of thing?
That’s definitely one thing Brighouse and Swift talk about, the way in which the family as an institution could seem in tension both with a fully liberal society and a fully egalitarian society. They defend the family as institution, but they don’t defend unlimited discretion for parents to do whatever they want, to bring up their children however they see fit. They center these core familial relationship goods: the idea that there are certain things that need to happen between parents and children for the relationship to have its value and to play its role in children’s cognitive development, and so on. To provide these goods, you don’t have to pile endless advantages on your children or give them exactly the kind of narrowly determined view of life that you might think that they should have. This is about things like reading bedtime stories, sharing those sorts of close experiences. It’s about doing things that you value together. In saying that the family deserves to be protected as an institution, they’re not saying that parents have unlimited rights to make every single decision about what happens to their children. Essentially, it’s a right that deserves protection only insofar as it’s used to protect the children’s interests, because that’s what ultimately grounds it.
But people have divergent views about what the interests of children are. Some people from highly religious groups have very specific views. I remember a child being withdrawn from my daughter’s primary school trip to a synagogue on religious grounds, even though the group visited a mosque and a Christian church, and the idea was to give a broad education. The school’s aim was admirable: to help children get a better understanding of different religious perspectives and rituals. Hopefully, they had a humanist visit as well, though I doubt they did because it was a Church of England-funded school. The parents who withdrew their child from the synagogue trip were being sincere: they were adhering to the values of their religion. They were doing what they felt was best for their child. But for me, from my liberal, atheistic perspective, that’s absurd, and they were completely wrong to do this.
One thing I like about Brighouse and Swift’s approach is that they’re sensitive to that tension. They’re saying, ‘Well, yes, doing things that you value together with your children, and sharing some of the things that are valuable to you is a key part of having that relationship. But at the same time, as parents, we have a moral duty to cultivate our children’s capacity for autonomy.’ And so at the point where you’re in conflict with that, then there’s a line to be drawn in terms of what parents can permissibly be doing.
I think I’m right in saying that they’re broadly egalitarian in their approach and not everybody else is. It’s very easy to be theoretically egalitarian, and yet within the family, give your children priority over other kids, as it were, and not just other kids who are in the immediate vicinity, but kids who exist in the world. For many people, that’s what parenting is. You give unconditional love, and you give everything you can to help your child because you can help your child flourish. Others come second. I remember my wife saying that she felt her mother was too egalitarian. She resented that her mother found too much time for other kids. She wanted her mother’s attention.
It’s the Mrs. Jellyby problem, isn’t it? She’s a minor character in Dickens’s Bleak House who spends her whole time trying to help children and people in different parts of the world while completely neglecting her own children. It’s Dickens, so it’s very gendered: there’s no question about what Mr. Jellyby should be doing! But the core idea is that there’s a balance to be struck. It’s tempting to think that ‘good parenting’ is just doing all you can to advantage your own children, especially socially and economically, but I really try to challenge that in my own work. That’s partly for reasons that philosophers like Brighouse and Swift have pointed out, which is that we still have our responsibilities of justice and morality to other people, even if we are parents, and there’s a limit to how much we can legitimately prioritize our own children’s interests. But I also think it’s a mistake as far as our own children are concerned. It’s partly because we’ve been focusing only on our own children in rich societies (and focusing on them in a very consumer-orientated, individualistic way), rather than on global emergencies like climate change, that they now face a very threatened future. So, we do need to think more about what we owe other people collectively. But returning specifically to Brighouse and Swift, they talk about the difference between doing things for your children that will actually cultivate core relationship goods, and trying to give them a competitive over their peers. The idea is that the former is a core part of loving parenting; the latter is less legitimate.
Let’s move on to something we haven’t talked about, which is race. This is the topic of your second book choice.
Yes, the book is Pragya Agarwal’s Wish We Knew What to Say which is essentially about raising children to be anti-racist. Her own perspective is very interesting on this because she’s a woman of color, but two of her own children are white passing. She’s very sensitive to the different possibilities and the different ways in which parents will approach this depending on their perspective and privilege. She’s very much speaking to both parents of color and white parents.
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I really liked this book. I found it very helpful, because it highlights the importance of being open with children about issues of race, and also the way in which a lot of liberal, well-intentioned parents might be mistaken in their approach. The mistake is to try to raise children to be colorblind, believing that if we just teach our children not to notice race, everything will be solved. Actually, that is itself often a reflection of privilege, for white parents, and ultimately not all that helpful, because children will notice race, whatever we do or say. That’s Agarwal’s point. Children will notice racial difference, because they will see it conferring subtle advantages or disadvantages from a very early age. She talks about the way in which at a very early age, children will start to reflect the pervading social norms about this. There are studies that show that very young children move from not caring what color skin their playmates are, or gravitating towards children who share their own race, towards all children showing a preference for playing with white children, at as young as three, because they’ve been socialized to think of them as better.
From Hitler’s point of view, being Jewish was a racial issue but that wasn’t always a visible trait. There are also differences which are invisible, in terms of disabilities as well. Is this book specifically about race in terms of visible difference? Or does it range more broadly, in terms of cultural origins and ethnicity or something like that?
I’d say it’s certainly relevant more broadly. Yes, the core focus here is race, and especially the way in which visible racial differences impact on the social treatment of young children – and how they perceive each other – even from a very young age. But it’s apparent from this and her other work that Agarwal understands the other patterns of discrimination which need to be challenged and discussed with our kids.
Your third book is also partly about difference. Can you say something about Bobbi Wegner’s Raising Feminist Boys: How to Talk with Your Child About Gender, Consent and Empathy.
This book does something similar to the previous one, but focused on how parents can raise boys who are feminist. Again, an important starting point is this idea that it would be wrong to do nothing. Neutrality is a myth. You can’t just think if you don’t talk to your children about these issues, then they’re just going to turn out not to be non-racist and non-sexist. Actually, Wegner says, in a culture of toxic masculinity, it becomes extremely important to raise boys who are consciously aware of the pervading sexism and taught to challenge it.
One thing that I really like about all the books that I’ve recommended, all of the more practical books, is that they talk in age-specific steps. There’s a combination of the psychology, and the need to do this, with the recognition that how we do this has to be age-appropriate. This goes all the way through from avoiding gendered toys right through to talking to teenage boys about sexual consent. I find this very valuable because it focuses on the importance of building up empathy. And again it comes back to that all-important parent-child relationship: it’s about how you build that up so it’s possible to have these discussions.
There are probably books on both sides of this issue. It seems to me that’s the kind of dilemma that any parent has. Underneath this is a basic question: Is your role to facilitate an inquiring mind wherever it goes; or is it to encourage the values which you think are best without forcing them too much onto the child?
This is an important question, whether we’re talking about raising kids who are anti-racist or anti-sexist or, as I do in my book, about raising them to be good global citizens more generally. By that, I mean raising them to recognize the common humanity of all their fellow human beings and to understand the implications of that in terms of our moral responsibility to address (rather than perpetuate) core injustices like climate change, institutionalized discrimination, or global poverty. I think it is really important to cultivate that in our children. It’s not a matter of brainwashing: it’s not about bringing them up bound to some controversial ideological view or even what philosophers call a ‘comprehensive conception of the good’. In some ways, that makes this a much simpler question, morally, than the ones we were talking about earlier about parents’ rights to bring up their children in their own religions. Essentially, bringing up good global citizens, like raising anti-racist and anti-sexist kids, means raising our children to recognize their fellow humans as humans, like them, and to respect them as such.
However, it’s also crucial how we have these discussions, in terms of not undermining autonomy and, practically speaking, succeeding in raising good citizens. That’s not going to happen if we dictate to them or teach them by rote. All the psychological and sociological work I’ve looked at on this is clear: this has to be about having a dialogue with your children. In other words, we need a Socratic approach to learning which is about exchanging ideas and not judging kids for what they say, but encouraging them to think things through for themselves.
On to the next book, How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes: Science-Based Strategies for Better Parenting – from Tots to Teens. It’s a memorable title, and a nice objective, but how do you do it?
This book is by a science journalist, Melinda Wenner Moyer. I chose it because it’s engaging and relatable but also very helpful. Moyer asks what we should do in a society which regularly encourages children to be, as she puts it, assholes, whether through what they see on TikTok or YouTube, or what they see powerful politicians getting away with. She argues that parents need to work proactively to cultivate qualities like kindness and empathy. It’s broader than the two previous books. She talks about anti-racism and anti-sexism but she also addresses how to raise children who aren’t bullies, for example. She says makes the point that almost everything written on this focuses on what to do if your child is bullied, or how to avoid that happening, but there are plenty of children out there who are doing the bullying, so maybe we should be focusing on how to avoid our children being the bully, as well.
The book includes a mixture of psychological reasoning and very specific strategies, often grounded in parenting psychology, about the specific things that parents can do. Again, this comes back to the theme which we saw in Brighouse and Swift: the importance of the parent/child relationship and particularly the need for what psychologists would call an authoritative rather than authoritarian parent/child relationship.
I’m intrigued by all of the books we’ve discussed so far, and the assumption that we can be more than an influence, that we can actually shape behavior to produce success stories. In my experience of parenting, and seeing other people’s children growing up, things happen and the best intentions may not produce the best results. There’s no guarantee. You can read every book about parenting, you can try your best, but there are no guarantees whatsoever. Just to give some examples, a kid who went to the same school, a friend of my son’s, ended up later in drug dealing and on a murder charge. A kid who was the same age as my daughter, and who was in the same toddler group, ended up joining ISIS as a white middle-class youth. In both cases, I’m sure the parents wanted the best for their child. Whether they went through all these strategies or not, I don’t know, but they certainly were trying to raise children who didn’t turn out in those ways. From my experience it’s quite an eye-opener to see how things turn out for some people and the degree to which that was unpredictable – we look for the possible causes in retrospect. The idea that this is entirely within our hands is probably misleading.
I agree. In fact, I have an anecdote about it in my book. A few years back, when I’d drafted a paper on why we should be raising our children to be good global citizens, one of my colleagues said to me, ‘Oh, you can tell your children are really young.’ Because his were teenagers, he knew there’s a limit to how much we can actually shape our children’s values. And of course, I see that more as my children get older. Recognizing the other influences on our children is really important. One thing that the different writers I’ve been discussing focus on is the need to engage with schools, for example.
“This has to be about having a dialogue with your children…we need a Socratic approach”
But psychological studies show that we are an important factor in our kids’ moral development, even if we’re not the only one. And, speaking as a moral philosopher, just because there’s no guarantee here doesn’t mean there’s not a responsibility to try: to use the influence that psychologists show that we do have, especially when we know that a lot of other influences will be pushing in the other direction. Some of the authors I’ve talked about are based in the United States, where education about climate change in some areas is minimal or actually misleading. Agarwal points out that the history that children are taught in schools here in the UK is massively sugar-coated, especially when it comes to colonialism. When even schools aren’t always teaching the truth about injustice, especially the degree to which it’s still happening, and you have misogynist or racist influencers on TikTok and YouTube who your children like it or not, will be seeing, then I think that puts even more onus on parents to do what we can.
Let’s move to your final book choice, Harriet Shugarman’s How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change: Turning Angst into Action. Well, in my experience, they’re probably going to be talking to me, rather than I’m talking to them, but go on.
There definitely is that, and the author is very aware of the differences between doing this at different ages. Teenagers and young adults will often be educating their parents and becoming activists themselves. But one thing she says about that, which I think is really important—and I talk about this too—is this idea that the fact that young people are really active in this is not a reason for parents not to be doing anything themselves. We have a core responsibility to be acting on this and this is something that I’ve tried to fill out philosophically. We can enhance and work with what our children do, but we can’t just leave it to them.
Shugarman is an experienced climate activist and educator, a communicator on climate change. She provides a whistlestop tour of the climate science and politics and then talks interestingly about the emotional processes that parents will sometimes need to go through to be able to talk to their children about this. She does this in a very age-appropriate way, starting with young children and engaging them more with nature or reading stories to them that bear on the question, then working through to talking to teenagers in a different way about the more complex politics and the science. Again, she stresses how important it is that this is a conversation rather than a parent laying down the law.
This was published in 2020 and things have got worse since then. We can recycle our plastic bags and not go so often on planes. But realistically, that’s not going to save the world. If a child says to ‘There’s a school trip that involves a flight,’ if you, as a parent, say ‘Why are they flying, they could go by boat’ and stops the child going on the trip as a result, that socially disadvantages the child. The child could very reasonably say, ‘That particular flight isn’t going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, it’s not going to be the thing that tips us into climate disaster. Besides you did a wrong thing by having a child at all.’
One thing I really like about Shugarman’s approach is precisely that it recognizes that this is a collective challenge. She foregrounds the need to talk to children about climate activism and model that for them. She makes clear that this is not about whether you as an individual are using plastic or paper straws, this is about the fact that the biggest fossil fuel companies are continuing to produce huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, that what we need is political action to change that. The key thing is playing a part, working with others to try and change what happens collectively. She draws on her experience as a climate activist, and how she’s involved her children in that along the way This is not just about how we can teach our children to recycle.
As you say, this is a very difficult thing to talk about. But children are already aware of it, they’re already scared. So the point is to be open with them in an age-appropriate way. She also talks very interestingly about the constant difficulty of managing our emotions around climate change: learning to do that. It’s also crucial to think about how we can build hope actively, by actually trying to be part of progress, rather than sitting back and saying, ‘Someone else will solve it.’
Does she discuss the ethics of lawbreaking? In the UK we’ve now got very restrictive laws limiting law-breaking protest. Civil disobedience is a long tradition that involves breaking a law. That seemingly conflicts with how we usually we teach children that the moral thing to do is, other things being equal, abide by the law.
As it happens, I wrote an article for The Guardian last year on the moral case for civil disobedience to justify things like the Just Stop Oil protests. I’m not speaking for Shugarman here, just giving my own thoughts, but I’d say that, again, this has to be age-appropriate. When they’re older, I expect I’d be quite happy to talk to my kids about when I thought it might be justified to break the law, i.e. if the government wasn’t upholding its part of the bargain to protect them and others in future generations, which is what’s currently happening with climate change. But I’d also want to make sure they understood the nuances of the philosophical argument, as well as the more pragmatic considerations involved!
And the difference between that and breaking the law for personal gain is a crucial aspect which is often lost. When people say, ‘Well, you broke the law.’ The answer should be ‘But I broke the law for the greater good, not for my own personal gain.’
Yes, exactly. Principled, specific, reasonable law-breaking on a special issue is the essence of civil disobedience. This isn’t about saying ‘the law doesn’t mean anything to me’, in some ways, it’s the exact opposite.
Your book, Parenting on Earth, I have to say is admirably clear. It’s possible to engage with it on every level. What inspired you to write that book?
Thank you. The short answer is that I became a parent. As a philosopher, I’ve written about climate justice and ethics for around fifteen years now. I’ve always known that these issues are important. I’ve talked about them with numerous students, I’ve taught courses on them. Then I had my first daughter, then my second, and these issues became highly personal and salient in a new way. It’s their future that’s at stake. From then on, it really mattered to me to think about how what we owe our children fits with this wider moral question that I was already interested in: what it means to be a decent global citizen.
The book weaves together my various different perspectives. I’m a philosopher now, but I used to be a journalist. I was able to use that experience and interview people from other disciplines, including activists, scientists and psychologists. That was absolutely crucial. I also wrote it very much as a mother. It’s an unusual opportunity for a professional philosopher to be able to combine the personal and the philosophical like that.
I hope you write a sequel when your children have been through adolescence, too. Thank you.
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Elizabeth Cripps is a moral and political philosopher and writer, specialising in climate justice and parental duties. She’s a senior lecturer in political theory at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Director of CRITIQUE: Centre for Ethics and Critical Thought.
Elizabeth Cripps is a moral and political philosopher and writer, specialising in climate justice and parental duties. She’s a senior lecturer in political theory at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Director of CRITIQUE: Centre for Ethics and Critical Thought.
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