Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Wisdom for Daughters

Seeking the best for our daughters

How can we help our daughters become wise?  Wisdom is a virtue that involves the intellect, but it is a moral virtue as well. There are three traits that consistently emerge when the lives of wise individuals are examined: curiosity, versatility, and critical thinking.* In what follows, I’ll explore these traits briefly and give some practical suggestions for cultivating them in our lives and the lives of our daughters.

A curious person wants to learn. She wants to understand new things, motivated by a sense of wonder at life and the world around her. Children are, as any parent knows, naturally curious. At some point during the preschool years, they almost incessantly ask “Why?” This is often a sign of curiosity, and it is incumbent upon parents to foster rather than squelch this curiosity. Questions about words, animals, society, religion, and a variety of other topics are often broached by our kids, and we should encourage this. When we don’t know something, we can admit it and look for answers together, whether this has to do with a question about dinosaurs that a five year old daughter asks, or a question about connections between science and religion that a fifteen year old daughter poses. A crucial part of wisdom is a persistent sense of curiosity about humanity, the world, and the universe.  This is the kind of curiosity parents need to encourage in their daughters, rather than the kind of curiosity present in the popular culture’s fascination with celebrity.

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A second aspect of wisdom is versatility. We live in an age of ever-increasing specialization regarding knowledge and competence, but a wise person has a broad range of interests. She is not obsessed with only one or two things (whether philosophy or the Twilight book series). Of course, our daughters will likely go through phases where their interests are captured by books like Twilight (and probably not philosophy!), and this isn’t necessarily something to worry about. However, over time it is best for them to have a range of interests, as this is part of being a wise person. Learning about new things and trying them out are good for our daughters, and could uncover a hidden talent or passion that may contribute to their happiness and the happiness of others. Giving our girls opportunities to try music, art, or sports can cultivate versatility not only by participating in these activities, but in learning about them as well. A trial and error approach in these areas also takes some courage, and this is one illustration of the way in which growth in one virtue also results in growth in other virtues. 

Of special importance here for parents is the need to show versatility as a way of loving our daughters. We need to take an active interest in what our daughters are involved in, even if their interests don’t mirror our own. My father-in-law did this with his girls by coaching soccer and learning about photography, among other things. This is a wise thing to do, as a dad or a mom.  It also communicates love and care for our daughters by making them feel appreciated, valued, and loved, especially when their interests are different from our own.

A final trait of the wise person is being a good critical thinker. Critical thinking involves the ability to use sound judgment, to discern what is true from what is false. A critical thinker pursues knowledge, and employs a variety of skills in the quest. Critical thinking involves making distinctions—sometimes very subtle distinctions—that are present among different ideas and values. It also involves understanding ideas and their connections with one another, as well as the evidence that can be marshaled for or against an idea. A good critical thinker also looks for and identifies assumptions people make, and thinks through the possible problems and objections that could be given to a claim. And a good critical thinker also is open-minded, being willing to change her mind when the evidence leads her to do so.

Developing these and other skills of critical thinking is crucial for our daughters, because there are so many false and harmful ideas propagated by our culture. As parents, we want our daughters to know that their value is not dependent upon the false standards of beauty embraced by popular culture. We want them to know that their character is what matters most. We live in a time in which elementary school-aged girls think their thighs are fat. When this occurs, there has been a lapse in critical thinking. And while our daughters will need to be at a certain level of cognitive development to do so, we need to help them critically evaluate the judgments and values that they encounter in their lives. 

One practical thing to do is to identify assumptions made in commercial advertising with your daughter. Whether related to cars or hair color products, there are assumptions about the value of human beings, what will bring us happiness, and the status of women that need to be challenged. By identifying these assumptions and talking them over with our daughters, we are helping them grow in wisdom. Ask them what assumptions are present, and what they think. You may be surprised at what they uncover. We need to be there for our daughters to talk through such issues. And we may have learned some lessons from our own journeys that could be helpful for them.

 

Note: This is an adapted portion of a chapter entitled "Dads and Daughters: Wisdom for a Winding Road," in Fatherhood: The Dao of Daddy, eds. Lon Nease and Michael W. Austin (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). I'm on Twitter, @michaelwaustin
*James S. Spiegel, How to be Good in a World Gone Bad (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), pp. 181-185.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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