Parenting Philosophy: Recap from 2/5

We took a step back from our more practical parenting discussion to talk about the importance of having a philosophy of parenting. I have tried to put all we talked about into a framework that makes sense so that we can have a resource to refer back to and so absent moms can catch up. There are truly brilliant ideas below but none of them are actually mine. I will try to link to my sources throughout. 

You already have a philosophy of parenting.

For more on this.

Everyone has a philosophy. It’s only a question of whether or not it’s intentional or not. This is just like what we have been reading about how our habits shape our lives. Our basic underlying beliefs about parenting inform our actions and reactions towards our children. We need to stop and examine our philosophy and see how it is shaping our choices in the same way we are trying to stop and think about our habits.

You don’t need a complete, thorough, filled out philosophy of parenting. That is too intimidating and esoteric.  But you do need to know your basic philosophy because all our decisions flow from our philosophy.

We’re all working out a philosophy, but is the philosophy we’re working out one we would actually agree with if we saw it written out?

What is a parenting philosophy?

We assume a philosophy is abstract, academic, and difficult. However, fundamentally, a philosophy is just a love of wisdom, a pursuit of wisdom.

It is worth taking a minute here to define wisdom. Click for more

Modern Definition: the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.

From Webster’s 1838 Dictionary: The right use or exercise of knowledge; the choice of laudable ends, and of the best means to accomplish them. This is wisdom in act, effect, or practice. If wisdom is to be considered as a faculty of the mind, it is the faculty of discerning or judging what is most just, proper and useful, and if it is to be considered as an acquirement, it is the knowledge and use of what is best, most just, most proper, most conducive to prosperity or happiness. wisdom in the first sense, or practical wisdom is nearly synonymous with discretion. It differs somewhat from prudence, in this respect; prudence is the exercise of sound judgment in avoiding evils; wisdom is the exercise of sound judgment either in avoiding evils or attempting good. Prudence then is a species, of which wisdom is the genus.

For our purposes the older definition which speaks of wisdom actively as use, exercise or choice is helpful.

You don’t need to have all the answers to all the questions to have a philosophy. We need to be gaining experience and knowledge and acting on what we know.

A philosophy needs only to answer the basic questions about the nature of persons and learning and reality.

Getting a philosophy isn’t a creative project.

Choosing a philosophy of parenting can feel intimidating if we think it’s something we have to come up with ourselves.

If we each have to be our own Descartes and begin with nothing but doubt and construct a philosophy from scratch, few would be up to the challenge.

However, we definitely do not need to do that. Instead, particularly as Christian parents, we rely on the many intelligent and articulate people who have gone before us and put truth into principled statements for us.

Wisdom is drawing on the experience and clarity of those who have gone before.

Philosophy brings freedom.

When we don’t know our philosophy, we go by our defaults. If we heard our default principles stated plainly, we probably wouldn’t agree with them.

To be set free from our ingrained thinking and parenting patterns, we have to be thoughtful and intentional.

Without a philosophy, we are also slaves to outside advice and checklists. If we don’t have parenting principles internalized whereby we can make wise choices about what to do and what to leave out, then we’re going to feel compelled to obey someone else’s requirements….or follow everyone else’s advice.

When you know what  you’re aiming for, you can adapt the practices you use to achieve your end, rather than follow the instagram crowd.

Questions form a parenting philosophy.

A philosophy is about having definitions for existential questions and terms.

What is a child?

What is a parent?

How does a well parented child live as an adult? What is a “good person”?

If you have answers to those questions, you have a philosophy.

A philosophy isn’t just a set of words, but also an imaginative picture of what a “good person” looks and sounds like, so we have an idea of what we’re working toward. Even if we never get there, having a direction helps us make better choices.

Good news: we don’t have to start from scratch!

A good place to begin is with the Anna Karenina Principle which is derived from Leo Tolstoy’s first line of Anna Karenina which states,

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In other words: happy families share a common set of attributes which lead to happiness, while any of a variety of attributes can cause an unhappy family.

Much earlier, Aristotle states the same principle in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book 2):[3]

“Again, it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the class of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, and good to that of the limited), while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult – to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue; For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.”

This concept has been generalized to apply to several fields of study. It is really getting at the idea of  natural law which  is a system of law based on a close observation of human nature and based on values intrinsic to human nature that can be deduced and applied independently.  The author of The Happy Dinner table explains, the conditions for a happy family weren’t dreamed up in the ivory tower or a boardroom. Rather, these rules are natural laws that arise from an analysis of what works and what doesn’t. They were laid down by nature and our creator and they reflect human behavior. For more

Do all roads lead to Rome?

Since this topic arose from our conversation about dinner, let’s think about how philosophy and natural laws affect our dinner table.

  • The advice parents get about feeding their kids is all over the place…. Make them try it at least once…No, repeated exposure if better! The kids have to have tried it 7 times or 10 times. Let them eat when they are hungry; allow them to graze. No eating between meals. Make dessert conditional on finishing dinner. Never give them dessert! Treats ruin their palate. Trick them into eating healthy food by disguising it. Offer lectures around the table about the value of “eating the rainbow”. It is really endless.
  • Parents are looking for truth. However, the advice given with authority to parents isn’t always truth.
  • We want to believe that “all roads lead to Rome”. Surely, if we love our children and are sincere in our efforts that everything will work out in the end. We think that whatever seems true for us in our minds will work out in reality. However, nature often steps in and proves us wrong. Feeding children and parenting in general can be one of those times. 

If you want a happy family, you have to have a sound understanding of the child. A flawed understanding of the child leads to abnormal and ineffective parenting.

The good news is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, we can look to natural laws of child rearing.

If the Anna Karenina Principle can be applied to families at the dinner table, then there is a path to follow and a set of basic foundation requirements to meet.

A Charlotte Mason Parenting Philosophy.

So  we need a philosophy of parenting based on these natural laws to cut through the noise of modern parenting. Thankfully, there was a wonderful woman, Charlotte Mason, who spent her life studying classical thought, working with children, discerning these natural laws, and communicating her insight to parents and teachers all over England.

We can use her knowledge in our attempt to answer the questions necessary to develop our parenting philosophy. Charlotte Mason’s seminal work was on philosophy of education. So, she is most well recognized in classical and homeschooling circles.

I am going to argue that in reality a philosophy of parenting and a philosophy of education are very similar because, as parents, our job is to teach our children how to live….to educate and form them properly. So, let us try to answer our big questions with Miss Mason’s help.

What is a child?

How capable are children? Of what are they capable? What does a child need? What does the child need from me? What conditions are necessary for a child to thrive? What can she do on her own? What does she need to do on her own?

These questions are generally addressed by Mason’s first principle: “Children are born persons.”

These seems sort of obvious but it is actually a very difficult concept to internalize in modern America.

If children are born persons, I think we need to think a bit about: What is a person? more here

Humans are Image bearers.

If we go back to natural laws Aquinas argues that because human beings have reason and because reason is a spark of the divine, all human lives are sacred and of infinite value compared to any other created object, meaning all humans are fundamentally equal and bestowed with an intrinsic basic set of rights that no human can remove. Essentially because they are made in the image of God, humans have intrinsic value.

Humans are fallen.

Rousseau was dreadfully wrong. Children are not blank slates, and sin doesn’t develop because of bad environments or a lack of opportunity. All of us are sinners from conception, being younger or uncivilized does not make people less sinful. Society is not the issue, people are the issue.

Humans are spiritual beings with bodies.

People are neither only spiritual or only physical. We need to be parenting our children as people with bodies and souls.

An understanding of this aspect of  the personhood of a child is essential to guiding our behavior as parents toward children.

Both body and soul need to be nourished and exercised to grow healthily. Here is a good spot to introduce Miss Mason’s use of mind and brain.

When Miss Mason refers to the brain, she means the organ. The neurons, the neurotransmitters, the stimuli. But when she refers to the mind, she means the immaterial part of a child: their reason, imagination, reflection, and judgment. The part of them that gives them their personality; the thing that makes them them; their spirit, soul, or intellect. 

As parents, we all acknowledge our duty to nourish our children’s bodies…but what about their minds? If a child is a born person, then he has a body and soul, both of which require our care and attention.

To clarify here are some ways moderns deny that children are born persons: more here

We manipulate children’s wills through rewards, threats, fear, competition, guilt, grades, and affection. ( Read that one again. It is a biggie.)

We offer children watered-down, pre-digested ideas. Rather than allowing children to engage with ideas and consequences, we have textbook chapters present primarily facts in bulleted form. A child neither thinks about the ideas nor forms his own thoughts. He is given only the chosen facts. 

We routinely develop kids’ tastes towards junk. We train children towards kids’ menus of the same three food options; read books with ugly illustrations, empty storylines, and untrue ideas; play annoying music that grates on the ears; and overuse screen time which is passive in form and often, in today’s market, tells a tale of self-obsession and forms an imagination of self. 

We prioritize convenience over curiosity and growth, rushing children along, skipping out on read alouds, doing their work for them, zoning out on our phones, and allowing bad habits to grow roots. 

We allow the technology-obsessed culture and language to shape how we think of our children as learners. We think of them as data processors whose neurons fire in response to stimuli. If we program them with the right information, we’ll get a competent adult in the end. 

We allow comparison between animals and children to take root in our minds.  We act as though our children are “little beasts” or monkeys dressed in clothes. We offer them treats and rewards to train them as we did the family pet.

So if I believe that children are born persons, how is that reflected in my parenting? In our family habits? Is this idea of what children are part of my parenting philosophy? Do I see my children as little beasts I need to civilize? As animals I need to housebreak? As computers I can program? As an empty vessel I need to fill? As a lump of clay I need to mold?

What is a child? If a child is a born person, what is my role as parent?

What is a parent?

So it turns out a parent is a person too. All of the above statements about humanity and personhood apply to mother as well as child. So where does the difference lie between mother and child? For our philosophical purposes here an important distinction can be made around authority. But really we can look to scripture for guidance here.

There is so much to unpack in these verses. More than I can get to in this post or maybe ever. I do, however, want to highlight two things from Ephesians 6.4:

  1. The Greek “ektrephete auta” is translated as “bring them up” but it actually has more to do with nourishment than teaching. for more
  2. Similarly, the phrase “in the discipline” actually refers to the Greek concept of paideia. We really do not have a good modern definition for this word. It is from a culture that is so different from our own in some ways that it is hard to bridge the gap. For now let’s just borrow from Doug Wilson’s book “To the ancient world, the boundaries of paideia were much wider than the boundaries of what we understand as education. Far more is involved in paideia than taking the kids to church, having an occasional time of devotions in the home, or even providing the kids with a Christian curriculum. In the ancient world, the paideia was all-encompassing and involved nothing less than the enculturation of the future citizen.” So it seems like maybe the paideia of the Lord is about more than what we teach and say, it is in the atmosphere of our home and culture. For more see here and here.

As I am fond of telling my children: “When I am correcting and guiding them I am not trying to make them mad. I am doing as God has bid me as their parent. When they demonstrate obedience to me, they are doing as God has bid them. We are working together to stay on the “King’s path”.

 Understanding our role of authority in our relationships with our children and acting on it appropriately is not easily done. So let’s look this a little further: 

From the very beginning, we’ve had authority and obedience. This is true for every person in every time from the Garden of Eden to today. God wrote authority and obedience into every part of creation, including the heart of man. (For the full version of this bit and what is below see here)

Now, a society, a school, or a family cannot thrive without authority and obedience. We can all agree that ultimate authority belongs to God, but remember that we do have authority given to us as mothers. We hold an office or position created by God which holds authority inherently in the position or work. It’s like being a king, a commander, a police officer, or a team captain. I.E. I am the Mother in this family in the same way one would be the Captain of his ship or his soccer team. . The title holds the authority. People just know you have it. But, you, it needs to be said, are not the authority. You must obey the ultimate Authority in how you fill your role.

And when Mom doesn’t obey, it’s not easy for others to obey her. We’ve probably all been under the authority of someone who abused their position above us and we’ve probably all been that authority too. Our lack of obedience can be a terrible stumbling block for our own children.  Who doesn’t struggle to follow a mom who arbitrarily makes up rules, leaves you guessing on her reaction, and quips, “Because I said so,” as a reason for randomness? No one wants to obey that kind of authority.

Mason points out two pitfall roles that moms (or dads) can assume: the arbitrary and the authoritarian parent. Both forget they’re in submission to God, but the arbitrary find authority in themselves, not the office of motherhood; and the authoritarian abuse their power on the hearts of children. Like with so much else, we are meant to strive for the golden mean, the virtue between these vices.

God is one of authority and requires docility, he’s one of order and rhythm, and yet we know his boundary lines for us fall in pleasant places, that the path marked by light is one of joy, one that will, someday, be only delight and laughter. Order gives us a clear line to know what we can or cannot do, and when that line is based on God’s definition of good, it gives everyone in our home true freedom. Mason seemed to think this principle would create a closeness between parents and children. So, authority and docility in our homes—however imperfectly we manage to practice them as a family—should generally lean towards joy. 

Towards merriment. Towards jollification. Towards a really, really good time. Because Mason is pointing us to the ways of God, and they can only be good. ( see here for more) 

We talked a few weeks ago about freedom within limits. (see here). This addresses the same idea. It is easier to understand when thinking about your own life. Most of the time for me,I feel like I’m doing whatever I want: I choose the food, I set up the house, I decide that we spend our days hiking, reading, playing, cleaning, and learning. Because these are things I am naturally inclined toward, it can seem as though the rule is “Do what you like, Jessica”…I am sure that is how my kids see it. But, it is my job to remember that it’s not “do what you’d like,” but rather “do as God bids” and to clarify this misconception in my kids. And knowing how to obey what God has bid, so to speak, gives me an immense amount of freedom in doing as I’d like within those bounds. It’s what Mason calls ordered freedom.

We point to and follow God whose reason is ‘because it’s right,” believing that his ultimate Authority is trustworthy and we can submit to his patterns for formation—for our kids, and for us.

We don’t want to manipulate a child into right behavior, because, without their happy hearts, it doesn’t form them towards anything worthwhile. We want our children to understand doing something because it’s right because it allows them the joy of finding dignity in obedience or docility. It becomes a matter of pride and respect to do what God says is right. 

So what is a parent?

I know it isn’t cool to quote Oprah but Oprah said “Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother”. There are a lot of ways to be given the role of Mother. I have been mothered by many people over the years who were not my actual mom. To take on the role of parent is to be a person in authority over a child. It all comes back to authority and obedience. Proper home education requires a mother to know her authority, a child to respect that authority while growing in self-authority, and for a child to be obedient or teachable. A child cannot come and eat at the table, otherwise. If we are meant to nourish our children in the paideia of God, then it is our duty is to rightly present the best of ideas, it’s our child’s responsibility to learn. This is why Mason says the principles of authority and docility are also fundamental. Without them, nothing grows, nothing builds. 

(We are circling back to nourishment and atmopshere. So keep that in mind)

What is a “good person”?

I think all parents want their child to grow up to be a “good person”. Do we really know what we mean when we say that? Is there a gold standard for a person?

The true Ideal Type is Jesus. We are to imitate Him. We are called to become Christ-like. So sanctification is a process guided by this Ideal Type. The Ideal Type is a standard, but not an achievable standard. It gives us what to aim at, but there is no arrival at the Ideal Type. The Ideal Type points to virtue outside of culture  or trends. The essence is universally applicable, even if set and told in particular ways. The Ideal Type is universal and timeless, because it is based on being an excellent human. The Ideal Type looks not at what is but what ought to be. By the standard of the ideal type, each and every choice is considered. The type is not a level that you attain and then are good to go. When you have an unattainable goal, you stop asking whether or not you’ve arrived and start looking at whether or not each choice moves you closer or farther away. You don’t get to check virtue off as something you’ve accomplished. Virtue resides in each choice. (See here for more)

Remember how ordo amoris keeps coming back into our conversations? Well, here it is again. Ordo amoris refers to rightly ordered affections. Plato says that any education worthy of the name trains the child to take pleasure in goodness, or what is beneficial and feel pain from what is evil or harmful. “Only formation that leads you always to hate what you ought to hate and love what you ought to love from the beginning of life to the end of life can rightly be called education.” This sincere and virtuous love and enjoyment of goodness Plato called the harmony of the soul.

Thus according to Plato, with the right training your child can escape the endless battle between what he should do and what he wants to do. If properly formed a child wants to do what is good. Such a child can go into life with a harmony of his soul in a priceless love of what is true, good, beautiful. (Read more here) We can all avoid the conflict between our duty and our desires, when they become one in the same.

While this may seem as lofty a goal as the Ideal type. Still, it is more important now than ever because it is much easier to fall into traps of vice and over consumption than at times in the past. ( See here for more)

So what is a “good person”? What is the goal we are aiming at in bringing up our children

We and our children are meant to imitate Christ and strive for virtue. A virtuous man is defined by the choices he makes. Our children will have a much easier time choosing virtue over vice if they have been trained to recognize and love what is true, good, and beautiful. 

So, how do we do that?

That is a big question. Figuring out the answer is why I started our group and read so much. This question is bigger than I am. I need help.

So even though we don’t have a final and complete answer. I want to leave the group with a little more wisdom from Miss Mason ( via Autumn Kern)

(Remember how I said we would come back to the idea of nourishing our kids body and soul? We are back…)

The most important thing we offer our children, from tots to graduating students, is ideas

You see, education is a bit like faith, it’s conviction of things unseen. When we offer ideas to our children, we’re touching the immaterial part of them. So, naturally, if ideas are the food for the mind, we want to give our children the very best ideas. That’s our job. Not to do the heavy thinking for them, or insist they end at our opinion, or even to make knowledge flashy and fun, but to provide the very best ideas and leave the child to deal with it as he chooses.  The idea takes root and forms a thought that shapes the child. She also refers to this as the ‘inspiring idea’ and she connects it to every part of a child’s life. Want a child to work on a habit? First, give them an inspiring idea. Want them to work in the home? Inspiring idea. Want them to grow in virtue? Inspiring idea.

Miss Mason’s first principle that children are born persons is a reminder to teach children in a way designed by God for their formation, to teach the minds he’s crafted in his image to learn and grow according to what he says they should think about. When we teach our children the best ideas, we show them what is worth thinking about. There are a great many things about which one could think on any given day, and we all make decisions on what we allow in our minds. And if you don’t intentionally decide, something will fill it regardless. But what we choose to think about is what we decide is most worthwhile. We decide that not only is it worth repeating, but it’s worth becoming a part of us. We become what we honor with our time and thoughts. 

Who could’ve thought that what your child attends to, or what he pays attention to/what ideas he thinks on, could be shaping him even in the earliest years before formal instruction ever begins? 

This is what it means to see your child as a born person.  To understand that he or she needs an education built on a feast of ideas worth thinking about, worth loving, and worth imitating.. If you aim to have a child who pursues wisdom and virtue, you repeatedly offer ideas that uphold those principles. Your conversations will circle around those ideas, hopefully, you’ll live them out in front of your children. You’ll give them stories of people and places who exhibit such things, and you’ll make sure the framework of their home life has been one of goodness, truth, and beauty. You’ll trust God that in his design for the forming of imagination and the shaping of one’s affections, a child can be formed to his goodness and grace. That his image bearers can be trusted with lovely, noble ideas because it’s exactly what he intended them to think about. To give them a life of learning God’s goodness when they sit at home, walk by the way, when they go to sleep, and when they wake up is to give them what God desires for them as persons, as image bearers. “

We will have to come back to atmosphere another time.

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