Conquest of (Parental) Happiness

I've been thinking about parenting lately since I'm on deck, and it's reminding me of college in a way. College is where I made the transition from being a child dependent on my parents to being an adult, and that's the time when I began figuring stuff out for myself. It's also when I was fully immersed in the problems of the adult world via my classes, and thanks to that I read some philosophy (among other things) to help make sense of the world. I didn't always understand what I was reading (I wasn't a philosophy major—just read for fun), but some of those books did give me new ways of looking at things that I've found useful.

So as I'm getting ready for another life-shift, I've been wondering what philosophers have said about parenting. I know there are a lot of books out there about "parenting philosophies" and that's not quite what I'm after. I'm wondering what classic Philosophers have said.

The philosophy I read in college dealt with abstract concepts like whether or not a table exists in reality, or whether the table is simply expressing its tableness through existence or something. I didn't read anything about practical matters like raising children. (Or maybe I wasn't reading the right books.) It's not like I expect to find Baby or Superbaby? by Nietzsche, but thinking back there wasn't much in what I read specifically about family life, which isn't all bad. Ideas about personal responsibility and freedom that are a part of existential writings can apply to every aspect of life. Philosophy is sort of a meta-layer above everything else anyway. I also think philosophy has the problem of being dominated by men who might not be completely tuned into their nurturing side.

Conquest of Happiness I remembered reading some thoughts on marriage by Bertrand Russell and if you read his bio you'll know why he had some ideas rattling around about that. Even though his life isn't the model of family bliss, I've found his logical writing hard to argue with. So I thought I'd see if he'd written anything about parenting. I eventually found his Conquest of Happiness on Google Books and read a bit there before picking up a copy. It's not a philosophy book or a parenting book. It's more of an early self-help book he published in 1930 where he lays out "life lessons" for being happy.

The book is surprisingly modern for being almost 80 years old, and the issues of modern living he addresses have only become more pronounced. Parts of it are dated, and he was obviously writing for a white, Western, upper-class audience. And sometimes I couldn't decide if I was reading grandfatherly advice or cranky old man rants, but either way this book has given me a lot to think about. The book has also generated a lot of conversation around the house, and I thought I'd summarize some of his parenting thoughts.

The most fascinating chapter in the book for me was ironically about Boredom where Russell encourages parents to teach children how to endure boredom. "The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts himself from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness." He talks about how the ability to concentrate on boring tasks will pay dividends in adult life. And in a poetic passage he mentions that the human body is adapted to the slow rhythm of the Earth, and children especially need contact with this slow ebb and flow. (I was reminded of this just today reading Asha Dornfest's thoughts on planning summer activities and the fear of "wasted time" for kids. It's obviously still something parents are grappling with.)

In a chapter on Family, Russell describes a conflict that arises in all parents, "...between love of parental power and desire for the child's good..." He advises parents should have an almost mystical respect for the child's personality so they don't become possessive or oppressive parents. This can lead to the classic case of Democrats having a Republican child (or vice versa), where hilarity ensues. The idea that, "...the child should as soon as possible learn to be independent in as many ways as possible..." seems difficult to me, and I'm not even a parent yet.

Russell also mentions that our modern knowledge of psychology is both a blessing and a curse. While we have a better understanding of phobias and neuroses that can help children be healthier, Russell feels this knowledge can create timid parents who are afraid of screwing up. His prescription is self-confidence, respect for the child, and self-permission for occasional mistakes. Easy!

The bits on parenting only make up a small portion of the book, and overall reading it was like a smack in the face. But in a good way. I went looking for philosophical parenting advice, and I've found just this small bit. I'm sure there are other parent-philosophers who have a completely opposite take. Anyway, just as I found in college there's only so much you can glean from books before real life takes over and teaches you the hard way.
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Congrats! Parenting has been a joy for me, through every stage, even as we are now firmly embedded in the teen years. They are strange creatures who crave and loathe our guidance at different times, but it really is a remarkable journey.
Granted, I'm only two weeks into this whole parenting thing, but the philosophy I've found I apply most often is a Buddhist approach. I (trying to) avoid judgment in situations, e.g. crying is bad, or I'm failing at this, or XYZ seems wrong.

I just acknowledge that I am and my son is, and focus on the moment. Whether that moment is a little smile after feeding, or crying in the night, or changing a diaper. I focus on being in this moment entirely, because I know it will pass so quickly. I change the diaper to change the diaper, to paraphrase Suzuki. And so far, it's been wonderful. :)
very nice post. Looking forward to parenting!!
Hi! You're reading a single post on a weblog by Paul Bausch where I share recommended links, my photos, and occasional thoughts.

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