Parenting: Goodness as happiness
I spent last night curled around my toddler, bowl in hand, waiting
for her to wake and vomit again. She had a miserable case of food
poisoning that kept us both in and out of sleep until the morning.
I was thinking about relaying this episode to a seminary friend who
recently asked me to “sell” him on the idea of children. Why have kids?
he wondered. For my friend, as for many of us, choosing to parent is a
matter of tipping scales. On one side is your economic, personal and
social freedom, and career goals that are easier to achieve without
children. On the other side is the fresh smell of a newborn, the fun of
parenting, and the hope of lifelong companionship with your children.
One day, perhaps, the scales will tip and the parenting side will become
more important than the unattached side. And then you have a baby.
I think Richard Weissbourd would want to challenge this kind of
discernment. Weissbourd is an education scholar from Harvard who writes
about virtue and childhood. His book is on my reading list for the summer. In a recent post on Motherlode
Weissbourd talks about the self-esteem movement in parenting. His
thesis is that self-esteem building now tops the list of values parents
want to pass on to children. And our children’s basic morality suffers
as a consequence.
Weissbourd’s research shows that most children assume that “being
happy” is the their primary life goal; two-thirds consider this more
important than “being a good person.” The self-esteem movement tries to
bridge this gap. Weissbourd characterizes the trend as “fill yourself up
first, and then help your neighbor.” The problem is that high
self-esteem can just as easily lead to arrogance and harm. “Contentment
infamously breeds indifference.” Additionally, Weissbourd sees the focus
on moment-to-moment happiness as robbing children of the opportunity to
develop the skills to be a good friend, romantic partner, colleague or
Weissbourd remarks on what a change this is from the generations before us:
After all, adults in previous generations didn’t think
that morality came from self-esteem or happiness. They commonly
believed the idea, rooted in the Bible and much of Western literature,
that morality came from suffering. Moral character came from making
sacrifices, fulfilling difficult obligations, empathizing with the pain
and burdens of others, and surviving hard times.
The “tipping scales” approach to parenting seems to me to be another
instantiation of this phenomenon. It’s not that children aren’t a
tremendous source of joy, of happiness even, but children also involve
suffering. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. While short term
happiness radically changes post-child, becoming “strong, caring adults,
able to create a better and more just world” is a kind of happiness,
too. And children may help us to become those things by virtue of the
fact that they are mini-centers for training in perseverance, hope, and
I realize I’m not saying anything new. Augustine and Aquinas teach us that happiness is
the virtuous life that moves us closer God. Parenting just puts some
flesh on that idea, concretizes our experiences of suffering as joy in a
particular way. And on nights like these I’m glad to be reminded that
it’s possible even I might find some happiness in giving my life over to
Originally posted at Sign on the Window.