This is another post about childrearing and, like my previous ones, it is complaining about the status quo. This time I’m thinking about what we actively do to expose children to various ways of living and views about what makes for a good life (too little) and about how much we let parents screen such sources of influence out of children’s lives (too much.)
For starters, a piece of autobiography. While my parents were not religiously observant, they had religious beliefs of varying depths, which they wholeheartedly shared with me, expressing hope that I, too, embrace them. Our neighbour, a grandmother figure for me, who was observant, sometimes took me with her to church. My other grandmother, whom I visited often, and who belonged to a different Christian denomination than the previous people, did the same. In school I had the good luck of being taught the history of religion by someone so empathically immersed in each of the religions about which she was telling us that lessons were a lot more than reporting on various views; they were each a plea for a particular religion (most usually inconsistent with the previous weeks’.) And atheists, militant or not, I had plenty of occasions to meet in Romania in the ‘80s and ‘90s of the last century. None of these people usually required me to share their views; I wasn’t really expected to adopt rituals and declare my faith, and by and large no one scared me into fearing gods or punishments in the afterlife. Nobody pressured me into rejecting religion, either. I learned very quickly to counter the few attempts at putting pressure precisely because I quickly started to sense the degree and depth of disagreement between the views. This regime of mild initiation into multiple (anti)religious views enriched me: it gave me me access to epistemic goods – an insider’s understanding – and to religious sensitivity, without encroaching on the exercise of my budding personal autonomy. This story illustrates what an ideal process of religious value-formation may look like. Except that I enjoyed it by luck – my chance was that all the adults were, or seemed to be, chill about what I was actually coming to believe and do about religion. This is very different from most children’s lot.
Liberals in general agree that states may not promote any (anti)religious (or anti-religious) beliefs, or metaphysical, spiritual or controversial ethical views. This includes children’s education; for instance, public schools are not permitted to take a stance on the truth of Christianity or atheism, or teach, say, chivalry or selflessness to children. The same liberals, however, tend to think that it’s ok for parents to teach their children whatever they happen to believe that parents may try to inculcate such views in their children, as long as this does not detract from children acquiring, in due course, both a sense of justice enabling them to become citizens with full political rights and personal autonomy – the latter involving, amongst other things, an ability to make their own judgements about matters of value and metaphysics. Moreover, the same consensus has it that parents may prevent other people from trying to exercise the same kind of influence over their children.
This is puzzling! States recognise it as important that each individual fashions her or his life, in light of what they find valuable, good for them, and matching their own abilities. It’s true that children are not yet fully competent to take charge of their lives. But they do acquire, gradually, the requisite abilities, and the range of views to which a child is exposed matters a great deal to the likely content of their own (developing, and future) beliefs. Crucially, the people who hold and practice the views in question, and with whom a child is able to form relationships, matter a great deal to what kind of life the child will come to see as desirable. In this sense (too), the people who play central parts into a person’s childhood are a main determinant of how this person’s mind and life turns out. But such people, and their ideals and lives, vary hugely. The status quo, locking children in relationships with a very few (and usually very similar) adults – their parents – and giving these adults the legal power to exclude others, allows for a very arbitrary distribution of influences across children’s lives. And this happens at a developmental stage when such influences are more momentous then ever. What kind of neutrality is that – one may ask.
Arbitrary power relationships – which, moreover, are unequal, unchosen and quasi impossible to exit in the case of parents and children – are dominating. Elsewhere (here and here) I argue that non-dominating child-rearing must give all children robust access to multiple individuals with whom to form close, caring and long-term relationships. Essentially, children must be free to carry out these relationships whether or not their parents like it, and whether or not all these figures of influence approve of each other and their respective views. (Will this be safe for children? Yes, if we restrict the scope of accessible adults to people whom we deem safe for children – for instance, adults whom society allows to raise children of their own.) One virtue of this arrangement is the promotion of children’s non-dominated formation of values. (Will this be damn confusing for children? No, children are smart enough to understand that we disagree and some topics are difficult to settle. It might be a bit confusing, but that’s good: often the way to understanding goes through a bit of confusion.) As it was generally the case with the grown-ups in my life, adults who know that they are significant sources of influence for children must share their views respectfully – avoiding coercion, manipulation and deception – and be careful not to pull all the weight of their ability to reason and persuade behind formative interactions with children. With such an arrangement in place, all children could have it, as a matter of general practice, as good as I, by chance, did.