On a recent flight to Houston, I had the good fortune to sit beside Kenneth, a 39-year-old father of a nine-year-old (lovely Olivia, who was seated by the window), and of six-year-old fraternal twin daughters, seated with their mother in a row across from us. Kenneth was in the middle seat, me in the aisle.
We started chatting, and after discovering we had daughters the same age, Kenneth — a lawyer by training who is a diversity and inclusion manager for a law firm in the greater D.C. area — began to pontificate a bit about parenting.
Mostly, the wisdom that guides him as a parent was passed on to him by his mother, whom he was traveling to visit. “Two things, my mom told me — One, don’t beat yourself up when you make mistakes, and two, learn from your daughter, learn about her, and nurture in the best way the person and the nature that she has.”
I buy wholeheartedly in pearl of wisdom number two that he offered.
As I write in The Philosophy of Childing: Unlocking Creativity, Curiosity and Reason through the Wisdom of Our Youth, Kenneth’s philosophy of parenting and ‘people raising’ in general is very much in line with that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who maintained in Emile that each of us is born with a built-in disposition that is, in his estimation, “an inherently good one, even if it reveals itself in dramatically different ways in each of us.” Rousseau, I note, “goes so far as to call it our ‘divine instinct,’ our “conscience to love the good, reason to know it and freedom to choose it.”
But I’m a little more wobbly on Ken’s philosophy of ‘never beat yourself up’ as a parent. There have been more occasions than I would care to admit in which I believe I (and my children) have every reason to beat me up for mistakes I’ve made. My harsh criticisms of my actions are based on exacting yardsticks I’ve set for myself in which I fell miserably short.
Now, as I also note in The Philosophy of Childing, according to one of the most sagacious modern philosophers, the late Walter Kaufmann, his claim is that “(t)hose who have fallen short of their own high standards in painting, writing, or sports”—or for that matter, parenting—“are clearly sensible when they do not feel guilty, nor need they feel shame.”
It is reasonable for them to try to criticize their own performance carefully, to ask themselves what went wrong, and to map strategies for doing better next time. And if there is no next time and the failure is somehow irrevocable, they may well feel keen regret, but they would be unreasonable and neurotic if they felt guilty.
But I challenge this. At least, I would say, “Kaufmann’s assessment might apply to cases in which our actions impact only ourselves (if there is such a thing).”
But what about when one’s actions do lasting damage to others? There is no “next time” when it comes to raising a child, no dress rehearsal. What would be an appropriate response if one fails in critical aspects of parenting? What if such failure is irrevocable, and there is no next time to map out new strategies for doing better? Is it sufficient to feel keen regret? Or is it far more likely that such a parent would no more experience regret than guilt in the first place, much less take the time to evaluate critically his conduct as a parent?
I do know this. I’m much improved by a parent by my own yardsticks from where I was when I started out. But I do wonder sometimes if it has had an impact in other personal and professional areas of my own development. I would like to think that my improvement in one area will naturally flow into others, but sometimes the time and energy devoted wholeheartedly to one dimension, such as parenting, can impact the amount of time and energy and passion in other areas. So I’m working on this, definitely a work in progress, and I do hope, with some time for reflection nearly every day, I can see to it that my attempts at improvement in parenting do spill over to all my other endeavors and aspirations as a human. More often than not, I believe this is the case. But I do have a ways to go.