Monday, January 18, 2021

What must parents do for their children?

In a previous article, I examined the structure of the parent-child relationship, and considered an argument to the effect that the unique structural properties of that relationship can provide a justification for becoming a parent. To briefly recap, although I think there is much to this idea, I also I struggle to find a justification for parenthood within it, particularly given the moral risks involved. And yet, despite all this, I am myself a parent and have chosen, however unwisely, to take those risks.

In this article, I want to continue my examination of the parent-child relationship but take the discussion in a different direction. I want consider the purpose of the parent-child relationship (if any) and the consequent duties of parents vis-a-vis their children. This is a topic of considerable significance for any parent. One thing I noticed when I became a father was the level of anxiety and uncertainty I experienced with respect to what I ought to be doing for my daughter: how should I care for her? What should I be doing? Am I a bad father? Am I, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, fucking her up in some disastrous way?

They fuck you up, your mum and dad. 
They may not mean to, but they do. 
They fill you with the faults they had 
And add some extra, just for you. 
(Larkin, “This be the verse”)


To a large extent, my anxieties have dissipated in the 15 months since my daughter was born. In part, this is simply the result of increased competence. In an experience that I am sure has been shared by millions of other parents, I have found that the sweat-inducing panic of the first few weeks has gradually given way to a more sure-footed approach. But this isn’t the full story. I also think my anxieties have eased because, over the past 15 months, I have altered my understanding of my role as a father. I think of it less now as a series of tasks and duties that I must perform to some ideal end and more as an ongoing relationship that I must sustain with my daughter.

In what follows, I want to explain why I have taken this approach, why I think it is advantageous, and how it relates to some of philosophical writings and the duties of parents.

1. The Optimising Model of Parenting

In my experience, it is common for parents to conceive of their role as a set of tasks and duties. They must care for their child. They must feed it, clothe it, vaccinate it, educate it and so on. If they fail to do so, they will have violated their primary duties as parents. Sometimes these violations may even have legal consequences. If children are neglected or improperly cared for it is not unusual for the state to intervene and take them away from their parents, even if only temporarily.

To what end must all these duties be performed? Obviously, there is a minimal goal: keep the child alive; don’t fuck it up. But there is more to it than that. Most of my peers — college-educated, middle-class thirty-somethings — either implicitly or explicitly embrace, or at the very least struggle with, a stronger view of the purpose of parenting: to produce an optimal human being.

To be clear, very few of my peers are like James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill. James Mill tried to mould his child into a political and philosophical reformer through a rigorous regime of home-schooling. He had a specific type of life in mind for young John Stuart — a life that he thought was socially and personally optimal — and he structured John Stuart’s daily routine around the dogged pursuit of that goal. But even if they are not so single-minded and dogged in their pursuit of a particular parental goal, they are not far off. They think it is essential that they give their children ‘the best start in life’, enroll them in the best schools, and generally ensure that they have every opportunity to succeed as adults. What this success entails is sometimes unclear, but there is a common sense that if you don’t do all these things for your child, you are failing as a parent. The pressure is sometimes immense.

I call this the optimising model of parenting and I find it problematic, to say the least, but I must confess that I found it seductive in the early stages of parenting, and I occasionally find myself lapsing into it in conversation with others.

I am not sure that many philosophers openly embrace the optimising model of parenting but there are ideas out there that are similar to it. Julian Savulescu, for example, has famously defended the so-called principle of procreative beneficence, according to which prospective parents ought, among the children it is possible for them to have, procreate the best possible one. Savulescu uses this as an argument for preferring procreation via assisted reproduction as opposed to the traditional method (because the former allows for genetic diagnosis of embryos and selection of the best embryos). It’s easy to see how this principle could be transferred to the rest of the parental role: once the child is alive you have a duty to ensure that it has the best possible life. That said, the principle of procreative beneficence is widely critiqued in the bioethics literature (I covered some critiques previously in my own writings) and I am not aware of anyone using it to discuss ongoing parental duties after a child has been born. (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong).

What is more commonly discussed is Joel Feinberg’s ‘open future’ principle. According to this, all children have a right to an open future. Consequently, it is incumbent upon all parents to raise their children in a way that ensures that they have an open future. Feinberg’s argument is based on the idea that adults have autonomy rights: rights to choose their own preferred path in life, based on their interests and preferences (excluding obvious moral limits such as a preference for murder or rape). Since children will become adults, their future autonomy rights must be protected by their parents. Hence parents have a duty to develop their children’s capacities in such a way that they can exercise autonomy as adults, and they must not foreclose any possibilities from them in the process. On a maximal interpretation — which the philosopher Joseph Millum argues is implied in Feinberg’s original defence of the principle — this entails something pretty close to an optimising model of parenting. You don’t pick a particular goal for your child but you have to produce a child that can do pretty much anything that it wants to do.

Finally, there is the famous ‘best interests of the child’ principle, which is commonly used in legal and policy settings to make decisions that might affect the future well-being of a child. On the face of it, this sounds like it could be used to endorse an optimising model of parenting. After all, it seems to suggest that parents and all other people involved in childcare should act in a way that optimises the welfare of the child. But I’m not sure it works out that way in practice. Although the best interests principle is applied in different ways in different countries, it seems to be primarily used when a specific conflict has arisen between parents or other childcare service providers (for examples, sometimes conflicts arise between medical service providers and parents) as to what might best serve a child’s interests. In other words, it’s not as if legal authorities use it to closely scrutinise every parental decision and intervene if something seems non-optimal. They use it when people disagree as to the preferred course of action. Still, the very idea of a best interests test being applied to what they are doing might exert some psychological pressure on parents in their day-to-day lives. I’ll touch upon this again in the conclusion to this article.

2. Problems with the Optimising Model

As I mentioned, I think the optimising model of parenting is problematic. Why so? There are many reasons, some of which will seem obvious to you. Let me mention four main ones.

The first, and most philosophically obvious, is that I do not think that there is such a thing as an optimal life. I am pluralist when it comes to the well-lived life. There are many pathways to the good life and it is a mistake to suppose that an overly narrow one should be forced upon your child. Most people seem to agree with this idea when asked. But their actions belie this agreement. Implicitly, it seems like many parents (at least in my peer group) suppose that there is, if not a single pathway, a very narrow pathway to the good life: you get your child into the best school, you educate them well, make sure that they succeed academically and socially, get them into a good university, and then push them towards a stable and financially lucrative career. Most of the time, this narrow pathway is favoured because this is the path the parents themselves followed and it is the one that is favoured and reinforced in their cultural milieu. Perhaps other narrow pathways are preferred in other peer communities. But whatever content it might have, the assumption that there is this narrow pathway to success is, I believe, a mistake and something that parents should avoid reinforcing. One thing I always admired about my own parents, for example, was how they did not force a particular vision of success on me. They allowed me to pursue my own interests to a large extent, allowing me to drop certain activities (piano, sports) and take up others when I wished to do so. I would hope to adopt a similarly flexible approach with my daughter.

The second problem with the optimising model is that it assumes that parents have a lot of control over the shape of their children’s lives — that through their choices they can significantly influence their children’s capacities, interests and emotional well-being. I’m not sure that this is really true. I’m not going to rehash the whole nature-versus-nurture-versus-peer influence debate here, but in reaching this conclusion I have been influenced by two books I read in the past six months. The first was Robert Plomin’s book Blueprint. Plomin is a well-known (should I say ‘notorious’?) figure in the field of behavioural genetics. He was a pioneer in doing twin studies to understand the genetic influence on the variance in certain character traits. His book presents some pretty good evidence to suggest that the genetic influence on the variance in behavioural traits is, in many cases, far larger than you might expect, oftentimes greater than the environmental or parental influence. There are criticisms of his work, of course, but I found the book to be more persuasive than I expected it to be. The other book was Michael Blastland’s book The Hidden Half. This book wasn’t about parenting or behavioural genetics per se, but it was about the role of chance and uncertainty in human life. The central thesis of the book is that we know a lot less than we think we know about the causal influences over certain processes. This includes the causal influences over behavioural traits and dispositions. In some ways then, Blastland’s book is a counterweight to Plomin’s. Plomin is more sure about the causal influences. But both complement one another to reinforce the view that parents may not have as much control over their children’s long-term well-being as they might like to suppose. (Relatedly, there is Judith Rich Harris’s famous book The Nurture Assumption which argues that a child’s peers have more effect on its character than its parents. I’m not able to assess that book here but if it is right it lends further support to the view that parents have less control than we might think).

None of this is to suggest that parents have no role to play in their children’s lives nor that their decisions about how to educate their children and so on do not matter. They do, but they matter more from a relational perspective than from a character-moulding perspective. I’ll talk about this in more detail in a moment.

The third problem with the optimising model is that it encourages parental guilt, shame and regret. If your job as a parent is to optimise your child’s life, then you have a heavy burden of responsibility resting on your shoulders. You may constantly question the choices you make, fearing that you are fucking up your children’s lives at every point. This can lead to decisional paralysis, which is an impediment to good parenting. This is something I struggled with a lot in the early months of my daughter’s life. I was so anxious about how I should best fulfil my parental duties that I often didn’t know what to do. I was afraid that, like the butterfly flapping its wings in the jungle, every decision I made might have long-term, detrimental consequences. This is an unhealthy psychological burden for anyone to deal with and I think it prevented me from relating to my daughter as a result.

Finally, another problem with the optimising model is that it is, arguably, contrary to principles of social justice and equality. If parents must secure the best opportunities for their children, and if some parents have more resources to do this than others, then there is a danger that the optimising model just reinforces structural inequalities in society. This is something that many philosophers have written about, particularly when it comes to policies around school choice. Of course, it is not something that individual parents can do much about. It is a tragedy of the commons type of problem. Parents make choices that are rational — perhaps even commendable — from their own perspective but this reinforces a less desirable general social equilibrium. The solution to this problem will require some kind of top-down policy intervention that makes the seemingly rational parental choices less desirable. Still, if you have a social conscience, this is something you might worry about with the optimising model of parenting and add to your level of guilt as you pursue it.

Taken together, these seem like good reasons to reject the optimising model of parenting. But before I move on, I will add that I think these critiques hold for lesser versions of the optimising model too. For example, some people might argue that parents do not have to optimise their child’s life but they should ensure that they are happy or contented. I think this demands too much as well. No one is happy or contented all the time; there are many pathways to happiness; and we may not have as much control over the happiness of our children as we might like. For example, I believe that my parents did a pretty good job raising me but I am still prone to long spells of discontent and unhappiness. But this has nothing to do with them and the choices they made for me. Its just part of the human condition. It would be naive to expect my daughter to be any different.

3. The Relational Model of Parenting

Let’s get our bearings. The problem with the optimising model and its ilk is that they all assume that the goal of parenting is to produce a child with a certain mix of traits, dispositions, experiences, emotions and life opportunities. Parental duties and responsibilities then flow from the pursuit of those goals: we ought to do whatever makes it more likely that our children will achieve these goals. If we fail, then we fail as parents.

A better approach, at least in my mind, is to assume that we are in an ongoing relationship with our children. This relationship doesn’t have a particular end goal or purpose. There will be ups and downs within it. Sometimes our children will be frustrated, sad or angry. Our job is to be there for them, provide them with support and encouragement when needs be, to help them out when we can, but not to dictate the shape of their lives. Sometimes we will have joint pursuits with our children. For example, we might be playing a game with them that has a particular goal. In those cases we work together with them to achieve that goal. Similarly, our children might have pursuits and projects of their own. In those cases, we might help them out and try to ensure their success. But these goal-oriented pursuits are not the be-all and end-all of the relationship. They are incidental aspects of the ongoing relationship.

In this respect, our role as parents is similar to our role in other interpersonal relationships. Think, for example, of friendships and partnerships. I don’t think of my relationship with my friends or my wife as having any particular long-term goal. I’m not trying to control my friends’ lives or shape them in a particular way. I just want to enjoy their company, talk to them about the challenges and opportunities that life throws our way, engage in some mutually-fulfilling activities, and so on. We are in it for each other. For the support and enjoyment we can provide one another along the way.

Now, to be clear, I’m not claiming that our relationships with our children are exactly like these other kinds of interpersonal relationship. That would be silly. I noted in a previous article that the parent-child relationship is structurally unique, particularly when it comes to the level of dependency of the child on the parent in the early phases of the relationship. This asymmetrical dependence does impose greater burdens on the parent in those early phases. They must care for and avoid injury or harm to their child. I get that.

But I think of this as a relatively minimal duty — of the ‘do no serious harm’ variety. Certainly, I found that once I shifted from thinking of my role as a parent as one in which I had to ensure an optimal life for my child to one of simply being there and relating to her, a lot of my anxieties and worries lifted. Instead of every activity having to serve some ultimate purpose — play in order to ensure good cognitive development; reading in order to ensure literacy and academic success — I found that activities could be enjoyed for their own sake, as part of the ongoing relationship. The fear of failure could be substituted for the love of the interaction itself. Now, I know that there will be failures (of a sort) along the way, but as long as I am there for her, and do my best to support her and help her, I think I’m doing my bit.

4. Conclusion: Is the relational model sustainable?

This might all sound a bit pollyanna-ish and naive. I can only speak from my personal experiences of parenting thus far. My experience is that I found myself trapped in the goal-oriented, optimising model for months and this provoked a lot of guilt and anxiety. More recently I have shifted to the relational model. This has helped me to be less anxious and fearful of my role as a parent.

But the optimising model still holds some allure. As Richard Smith points out in his article ‘Total Parenting’, there is considerable ideological power behind it (or something very close to it). Through a mixture of cultural beliefs and practices, as well as social and legal policies, parents are now frequently reminded of the risks of getting things wrong with their children, of failing to provide for them or support them in the right way. I’m sure I will be sucked back into this mode of thinking as my daughter grows older.

That said, one of the surprising benefits of raising a child in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is the opportunity it has provided to resist this failure mode of parenting. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not grateful for the pandemic. But the disruption it has entailed, and the need for improvisation for parents who must work from home and care for children themselves, has reduced some of the pressure that might ordinarily be felt. It’s impossible to do all the things that are ordinarily expected of parents in the current environment. You just have to muddle through and enjoy the experience for what it is.

In short, in the midst of the pandemic, it is impossible to be the perfect parent. But maybe this should help us to realise that it is impossible to be a perfect parent at any time.


  1. So this might be kinda off topic but if you believe (and maybe I'm misreading) but if you don't think there is a moral reason to become a parent (not even superogatory does that mean you agree there is something unfair or unjust when the government subsidizes parenting. I mean we can distingush programs to benefit the children (education, money for poor parents) but when it comes to things like programs that offer paid time off even to relatively wealthy parents not offered to those who want to write novels etc.. doesn't admitting that it's not an on net morally desireable good at least call such things into question?

  2. I don't know. I haven't got into this in any of my recent posts, but I consider myself to be a mild pro-natalist in the sense that I think it is a good thing, in the aggregate, that human civilisation (and its offspring) continue into the future. I don't think that gives me as an individual a good moral reason to become a parent but I think that it may give government's some reason to support child-bearing and rearing. That said, I don't think human civilisation is at any risk of dying out anytime soon due to declines in the birthrate (though that could happen at some point in the future). Other existential risks seem more pressing.

    1. I should add, of course, that once children come into existence they have moral rights and governments have good reason to support them and prevent their undue suffering. I presume that's the distinction you make between benefitting children versus subsidizing or encouraging parenting. That said, I imagine it is a fine line in practice. Any policy that benefits children might, directly or indirectly, incentivise parenting.