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The Goal of Parenthood

Parents, as stewards, should have a specific goal in mind.

The amount and variety of resources available to help parents in their role is vast. Psychology, sociology, child and family studies, and many other fields of knowledge offer their assistance to parents. Surprisingly, perhaps, philosophy can be useful as well. Yes, you read that right! Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom, and when it is done well it can help us live better and more fulfilling lives. With this in mind, let's look at one area of philosophical debate in family ethics.

I favor well-being as the most important goal of parenthood for several reasons (see my work on this issue , for more detail). First, the moral status of children and the adults that they will become supports this claim. Given the worth of children and the adults they become, we should aim for our children to experience well-being over the course of their lives. We should want them to flourish, to have good moral and intellectual character. Parents are neither owners nor dictators, but instead they should act as stewards of their children. Under this approach, the well-being of their children becomes the primary goal of parenthood.

Second, I believe that well-being is a preferable goal to its primary competitor, namely, freedom. William Irvine argues that the (or at least a) criterion for judging the success of parents is how free their children are upon reaching adulthood ( Doing Right by Children, Paragon House, 2001), pp. 259-286. One reason Irvine alludes to in support of this view is that freedom is intrinsically valuable. It would be hard to fault parents who spend considerable time and effort at increasing the freedom their child will have at the age of majority. For Irvine, freedom should be the primary goal of parents because it transmits respect for persons. Moreover, it is value-neutral, insofar as people who hold quite different values can agree on the value of freedom. Lastly, in seeking to transmit values, parents must understand that there is a risk of brainwashing their children, and so undermining their freedom.

There is much to be said for Irvine's view, as many parents need to take his concern for the present and future freedom of their children to heart. One objection to Irvine's view is that we do not and should not value freedom as the primary goal of parenthood, because freedom is too value-neutral . We do not want our children to make immoral, unwise, or irrational choices. Irvine is immune to this objection however, because he is only concerned with the fully rational person, and notes that the only time an individual would want less freedom is if she suffers from weakness of will. Weak-willed people, however, are not rational, according to Irvine. They are not able to carry out a course of action which they understand to be the best.  If a moral life is a rational life, then this objection does not succeed.

I agree with much of what Irvine argues for in this book. However, I don't think that freedom should be the primary goal of parenting. I think that we ought to embrace well-being as the primary goal of parents who take themselves to be stewards of their children. Freedom is valuable, and parents should of course be cautious and seek to avoid undermining the freedom and autonomy of their children. However, I would argue that freedom is one element of human well-being. That is, part of what it is to experience well-being is to be free, in Irvine's sense of the term.

Given this, a more directive approach to parenting is not only permissible but preferable, given the interests parents have in seeking to transmit their values to their children and the interests children have in receiving direction from their parents. We must respect the developing freedom of our children, but if we take ourselves to be stewards, we must take their well-being, their moral and intellectual welfare, to be our primary goal.

One implication of this is that we will not seek to live vicariously through our children. Parenthood can be deeply meaningful and contribute to our own happiness. However, the deepest forms of meaning and happiness come to parents who put the interests of their children ahead of their own. While this isn't easy, it offers the best life for parents and the children who are in their care.

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