Platonic vision of the family
About 2,400 years ago, the
philosopher Plato surveyed the state of Athenian family relationships and came
to a distinctive conclusion. To leave children with their parents was, the
Greek philosopher felt, the height of folly, for the lack of wisdom of parents
would simply distort and harm every new generation, thereby holding back the
progress of humanity indefinitely.
The family was – Plato believed – the prime enemy
of true philosophy. Therefore, in his masterpiece The Republic, he recommended the dissolution of the family in
favour of a state-run pedagogical system.
As soon as children were born, he
argued that they would have to be taken away from their parents to a boarding
school run by kind and wise guardians, without any of the flaws of ordinary
people. There, they’d grow up in an atmosphere of compassion, wisdom and
kindness – and society would thereby, within a generation, be transformed.
It was a radical solution
that’s easy to laugh off, but the problem Plato was responding to has not gone
away. Families are still responsible for a huge share of human misery. From the
outside, they promise security, understanding, shelter, love and generosity. Yet
from within, they are often havens of bitterness, infighting, suppressed rage
and loneliness. They are both the greatest contributors to happiness and misery
in every life.
Though society pays a lot
of attention to the progress of careers, what will really determine whether a
life goes well or badly is the state of one’s family.
Unfortunately, the very
idea of trying to take systematic steps to become a better parent, brother,
sister or child still has something odd about it. We’re all the time going off
to the gym to try to improve our physical health; the very notion of doing
something comparable in the emotional realm sounds peculiar. It shouldn’t.
ages wiser than our own, we’d realise that there is wisdom that can pass down
the generations and that we don’t have to keep making the same mistakes.
Let’s begin with the
upside of the story. We hear so much about the difficulties of families, let’s
remind ourselves why people are desperate to begin families. In short, because
children are extremely charming. That’s where the story begins!
On the sweetness
Trying to pin down why these small people can have
such a hold on us, why they can so charm and move us, the word that might best
capture it is ‘sweetness’. There is sweetness in the questions they ask, the
games they play, the schemes they announce and the drawings they come up with.
What is childhood sweetness? It is the immature part
of goodness, witnessed through the prism of adult experience, which means, the
prism of a certain amount of suffering, renunciation and discipline.
We label ‘sweet’
displays of hope, trust, spontaneity, wonder and simplicity –qualities deeply under
threat in the ordinary conditions of adult life, and yet which we unconsciously
recognise as being critical to inner balance and psychological well-being.
sweetness of children reminds adults of what has been lost on the road to
maturity. It is a vital part of ourselves – in exile.
It shouldn’t be surprising if we are, at a
collective level, prone to finding children sweet. The ancient Greeks didn’t.
Societies get sensitive to things that they are missing.
We live in a world of
highly complex technology, extreme precision, scientific rationality, massive
bureaucracies, insecurity and intense meritocratic competition.
To survive with
any degree of success requires exceptional degrees of self-control, planning,
reason, cynicism and caution. The sweet is a repository of our counterbalancing
virtues, children being precious in part for embodying so much of what adult
life has no room for or edges us to lose sight of.
Chief among these lost virtues is the appreciation
of simplicity. Children are enthusiasts of uncomplicated things that have –
unfairly – become boring to us.
They are, in this sense, a little like great
artists: they know how to renew our enthusiasm for the ‘minor’ sides of life.
They are correctives to disenchantment. Puddles, ants, clouds, string, squashy
colouring pens, bogeys, an hour of television, bedtime stories, ice cream, the
roar at take-off, going underwater in the bath, cuddles, crisps… all these,
children find interesting, as we should as well.
flaws should never be interpreted as merely capturing a local problem. No other
arrangement would be better. We are as bad. We are a flawed species. There can
only ever be a ‘good enough’ family, never a perfect one.
There is sweetness in the many schemes adults know
to be entirely impractical but that are symbolic of an admirable refusal to
accept the status quo. Rather than dismissing them as naive, when children talk
– with great earnestness – about plans to reform or improve the conditions of
life, one listens with emotion. There is sweetness in utopian ideas not yet
tested by experience. Our pleasure is a recognition that we have grown
preternaturally sensible and resigned, that we have crushed the fanciful part
of ourselves a little too zealously.
They are not afraid of seeming abnormal,
for there is as yet, blessedly, no such category in the imagination. They are a
laboratory for how one might be if one didn’t internalise the judgement of an unimaginative,
censorious outside world.
Treated with kindness by the grown-ups, they fall
into the natural assumption that everyone might be nice. What humans really
areis simply too shameful to admit to quite yet. There is a difference between a child playing with an adult – and an
adult playing with a child.
The adult’s delight is more intense because of an
awareness of how fragile the qualities of the child are. The child’s joy is
naive; the adult’s joy is placed within a recollection of the tribulations of
existence. This is what moves and makes one want to cry.
The fears are sweet, as well, because they are so
easy to calm – and so out of touch with what there is really to be frightened
about. It is all about ghosts and wolves and bears and ‘monsters’, things it is
easy to explain won’t ever bother them, because they don’t exist and the
windows shut tight. They are, in truth, of course, correct to be scared, they
just don’t yet have the correct targets in mind. They aren’t informed about the
real monsters: humiliation, loneliness, despair, career disaster, envy,
addiction, failed relationships…
They even talk with remarkable calm about
death, fooling adults into thinking that they have achieved an unusual degree
of wisdom, when the sangfroid is in fact just a symptom of a constitutional
incapacity to imagine they really will die.
The shameful secret of adult life is that it’s not
just children who are childlike. Adults too are intermittently playful, silly,
fanciful, vulnerable, hysterical, terrified, pitiful and in dire need of
consolation and forgiveness.
Without bearing grudges, most adults know how to
bring help and succour to children even when they’re not at their strongest or
their best. Around children, they know how to offer a generosity of
interpretation, and a sensitive recalibration of expectations. They’re slower
to anger, and a bit more alive to potential. They readily offer children the
sort of kindness that they are woefully reluctant to offer to their own kind.
is beautiful to live in a world where many people are nice to children. It
would be even more moving to live in a world where adults knew how to be more
reliably nice to the childlike parts of one another.
The darker side
Now let’s turn to the
darker side: anyone of childbearing age will be surrounded by examples of
catastrophic parenting in their own and previous generations. We hear no end of
gruesome stories about breakdowns and resentments, shame and addiction, chronic
failures of self-confidence and inabilities to form satisfying relationships.
And at the root of all these varieties of suffering, one central cause sticks
out: a lack of love.
It was because the parents were remote and domineering,
unreliable and frightening that life has never been quite complete. From such
failures, a major assumption has come to dominate modern ideals of parenting:
that one must, above all else, love one’s child thoroughly, with immense
sympathy, gentleness and kindness, and that if one does so, the child will
develop into a happy, loving and fulfilled human being. This is the Romantic
view of parenting, and it is at its most vivid and self-assured in the early
years, especially at moments when the child (finally) lies asleep in its cot,
defenceless before the world.
Yet, despite immense
investments and profound devotion, one is – gradually – liable to be inducted
into a far more complex and challenging set of truths: that love is not a
universal panacea and that giving unconditional affection is no guarantee of
all the results one had hoped for. The terrifying 3am truths about parenting
run a little like this:
1. You are a punchbag
The blades of your child’s
remote-controlled helicopter snapped after five minutes, just as you were
starting to get the hang of flying it. The fault lies squarely with the
manufacturers. But, sadly, they were not present in the kitchen – so, at once
and not for the first time, you became the target for the raging disappointment
of your child. The repeated bad behaviour is surprising, of course (it wasn’t
meant to be that way), but it is a perverse sort of tribute to you
One has to feel rather safe around someone in order to be this
difficult. You certainly weren’t so tricky with your parents when you were
young, but then again, you never felt so loved.
All those assurances – ‘I will
always be on your side’ – have paid off perfectly: they have encouraged your
child to direct their every frustration and disappointment onto the loving
adult who has signalled that they can, and will, take it.
2. You have to be the spoilsport
Human nature has a strong
– and exceedingly inconvenient – bias towards indulging in whatever is most
immediately pleasant and fun. And yet the central, unavoidable task of being a
loving parent is to encourage the child to delay gratification in the interests
of longer-term fulfilment. That’s why there will be fights in families.
Constantly. After all, it is so much nicer to play
than to learn how to spell ‘scythe’.
Out of love, a
parent must – all the time, in small ways and large – say no. And for this,
they will be severely punished.
They will be treated as if they had arbitrarily
made up the mechanics of tooth decay or had designed an economic system where
the playing of computer games was disconnected from a capacity to pay bills.
They will be punished for always bringing up unwelcome facts. And they will be
very unfavourably compared with people who give the child whatever they want –
because they just don’t care about them. It’s the thoughtless hedonistic
characters, the ones who suggest all-night cartoon sessions and come around
with iPads, who will be viewed as the heroes, while the caring, denying parent
has to contend with being called a ‘meanie’ and, later perhaps, a fascist.
3. You have to exert authority rather than teach
The dream is to coax the
child into doing certain difficult things without ever having to demand they do
so by force.
The dream is not to have to ‘exert authority’, by which one means,
bypass reason in order to impose a conclusion. The dream is to teach, and never
to rely on the more basic weapons, like the assertion that one is the older,
richer, bigger party.
One thinks with distaste of the Victorian parent
demanding obedience simply by saying ‘I am your mother, I am your father’. To
the child, the meaning of these words, mother and father, have changed
entirely; they now mean merely ‘someone who will make it nice for me’ and
‘someone I will agree with if I see the point of what they’re saying.’ But
attempts to teach and appeal to a child’s reason can only go so far. Whatever
one says in a gentle voice, the children won’t eat vegetables; they won’t want
to get out of bed in the morning; they will want to mock their younger brother
or sister; they won’t stop playing the computer game.
When the child is very
small, it is easy enough to deal with these protests: one can just lift them up
or distract them in some kindly way for a moment. But later, by six, one has to
use authority: one must simply assert that one knows best without explaining
one’s reasons. The dream is that one will be able to pass on insights to the
child that were painfully accumulated through experience, and thereby save them
time. But in the absence of experience, insight doesn’t work.
One cannot rush
children to conclusions; one cannot spare them time. They will need, with
difficulty, to make many of the same mistakes (and a few new ones too) and
waste a good part of their lives finding out what you already know full well.
4. You can’t make things too nice for them
Modern culture is deeply
vexed – and appalled – by the thought that development might require suffering.
We have been traumatised by the barbaric old-fashioned enthusiasm for
punishment, the view – expressed by generations of sadistic Victorian school
masters – that success demands pain, that there is a necessary relationship
between early discomfort and humiliation and later strength and ‘character’.
But we have not merely rejected the Victorian mechanisms for inflicting
suffering (the cold showers, the beatings), we have for the most part sought to
abolish suffering altogether. Kindness has been triumphant.
And yet this
attempt to abolish suffering involves waging a counterproductive and ultimately
cruel war with the facts of human nature. We know from our own experience that
we have at key moments grown through things that had a painful side to them:
that there were terrors, rejections and disappointments that – in the end –
made us more mature and better able to pursue our goals.
We know that the drive
to accomplish certain things, to master some difficult material, to win out
over others, gained some of its power from fear and desperate insecurity.
Because someone (perhaps a parent) didn’t believe in us, we redoubled one’s
efforts. Because we were afraid of the consequences of failure, because
succeeding was the only way to impress someone we loved but who wasn’t easily
impressed, we put on an extra spurt.
We desperately want our child to become mature
but without going through awful things. We hate being an agent of fear. We want
always to cheer and to hug. We want everything to be nice. Yet we also know, in
our hearts, that this can only be a path to ruin.
5. You can’t guarantee their goodness
The Romantic view of
existence sees all humans as fundamentally good from birth: it is only
upbringing and a lack of love that corrupts and damages us and, in the process,
makes us cruel. Romanticism states that if only a child can grow up anxiety-free,
secure and encased in love, it will never break another child’s toy, rip up
their paintings or try to scare them. The child will be reliably kind if she or
he has reliably been shown kindness. But experience suggests the existence of
some ineluctably dark sides hard-wired in us and beyond the reach of the
gentlest behaviour: certain kinds of aggression, cruelty and violence appear to
be a given.
A child may just want to hit its sibling out of excess vitality,
boredom or native sadism. It might just be fun to smack someone in the face to
see what happens. That’s why there used to be such an emphasis on manners.
Those who upheld them didn’t believe that a child ever could be spontaneously
good simply because they’d been shown love. Indeed, a firm denial of love was what
was necessary to help the child to create a wall between what they might feel
inside and what they knew they could express with others.
6. You can’t guarantee their success
Being strict wasn’t a
route to making anyone evil, it was a way to teach a person to keep their evil
firmly locked up inside themselves.
The modern parent believes
that it might be possible to mould a happy, fulfilled, successful human. From
this flows the minute attention to detail, from the purchase of the cot to the
time-tabling of after-school activities. It is this that explains the Mandarin
lessons, the French horn, the educational trips to the countryside and the
ruinous tutor fees – because with all this in place, fate and failure can
surely be kept at bay. Yet the relationship between effort and return is more
bizarre and more random. We cannot spare those we love the cup of human sorrow
– whatever the intensity of our after-school programmes. We are always
statistically most likely to give birth to mediocrities.
As with most things in
life, the secret to a successful family life has to do with expectations. It
used to be thought that you were ready to form a family when you’d hit certain
financial and social milestones: when you had a home to your name, a set of qualifications
on the mantelpiece and a few cows and a parcel of land in your possession. But
when, under the influence of Romantic ideology, this grew to seem altogether
too mercenary and calculating, the focus shifted to emotions. It came to be
thought important to feel the right way.
That was the true sign of a good
union. And the right feelings included the sense that the other was ‘the one’,
that you understood one another perfectly and that you’d both never want to
sleep with anyone else again.
These ideas, though touching, have proved to be
an almost sure recipe for the eventual dissolution of families and marriages –
and have caused havoc in the emotional lives of millions of otherwise sane and
for a more successful family life
As a corrective to them,
what follows is a proposal for a very different set of principles, more Classical
in temper, which indicate the attitudes necessary to have a successful family.
1. Give up on perfection
No one in the family will
be perfect – starting with you. We should also grasp the specifics of human
imperfections: how all other members will be irritating, difficult, sometimes
irrational, and often unable to sympathise or understand us.
flaws should never be interpreted as merely capturing a local problem. No other
arrangement would be better. We are as bad. We are a flawed species. There can
only ever be a ‘good enough’ family, never a perfect one.
2. Be ready to love rather than be loved
We think of families as
crucibles of love. Confusingly, we speak of ‘love’ as one thing, rather than
discerning the two very different varieties that lie beneath the single word:
being loved and loving. We should start families when we are ready to do the
latter and are aware of our unnatural, immature fixation on the former.
start out knowing only about ‘being loved’. It comes to seem – very wrongly –
like the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent is simply spontaneously
on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, clear up and remain almost always
warm and cheerful.
Parents don’t reveal how often they have bitten their
tongue, fought back the tears and been too tired to take off their clothes
after a day of childcare. The relationship is almost entirely non-reciprocal.
The parent loves; but they do not expect the favour to be returned in any
significant way. The parent does not get upset when the child has not noticed
the new haircut, asked carefully calibrated questions about how the meeting at
work went or suggested that they go upstairs to take a nap. Parent and child
may both ‘love’, but each party is on a very different end of the axis,
unbeknownst to the child.
This is why, in adulthood,
when we first say we long for love, what we predominantly mean is that we want
to be loved as we were once loved by a parent. We want a recreation in
adulthood of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged.
In a secret
part of our minds, we picture someone who will understand our needs, bring us
what we want, be immensely patient and sympathetic to us, act selflessly and
make it all better. This is – naturally – a disaster. For a marriage to work,
we need to move firmly out of the child – and into the parental position. We
need to become someone who will be willing to subordinate their own demands and
concerns to the needs of another.
3. Be ready for administration
The Romantic person
instinctively sees family in terms of emotions. But what a family actually gets
up to together over a lifetime has much more in common with the workings of a
small business. Its members must draw up work rosters, clean, chauffeur, cook,
fix, throw away, mind, hire, fire, reconcile and budget. None of these
activities have any glamour whatsoever within the current arrangement of society.
Those obliged to do them are therefore highly likely to resent them and feel
that something has gone wrong with their lives for having to involve themselves
so closely with them. And yet these tasks are what is truly ‘romantic’ in the
sense of ‘conducive and sustaining of love’ and should be interpreted as the
bedrock of a successful family, and accorded all the honour currently given to
other activities in society, like mountain climbing or motor sport. A marriage
vow for future couples should read: ‘I accept the dignity of the ironing
4. We need to be happy to be taught and calm about
In unhappy families, there’s
often a resistance around education: the children don’t want to learn from the
parents, nor the parents from the children, nor the spouses from one another.
Any time anyone tries to point to a need for growth, it’s rejected.
But we are
ready for family life when we accept that in certain very significant areas,
the other members will be wiser, more reasonable and more mature than we are
(even if they might occasionally only be five years old).
We should want to
learn from them. We should bear having things pointed out to us. We should, at
key points, see them as the teacher and ourselves as pupils. Family should be
recognised as a process of mutual education.
5. We should accept we’re not that compatible
The Romantic view of
family is of a unit whose members have shared tastes, interests and general
attitudes to life. This might be true at points. But, over an extended period
of time, the relevance of this fades dramatically because differences
The family member we need is not the person who shares our
tastes, but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently and
Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the
capacity to tolerate difference that is the true marker of an ideal family
member. Generations will see things differently, cultures will evolve in the
outside world, meaning that parents no longer understand aspects of their
children and vice versa. A family brought up in Asia might move to America and
encounter entirely different ideas of decorum, love, career ambition and
This is the ultimate test for a family: how to stay harmonious not
because there are no differences, but precisely when there are thousands of
We have accepted that it
is a truly good idea to attend some classes before mothers give birth. This is
now the norm for all educated people in all developed nations. Yet there is as
yet no widespread acceptability for the idea of having classes in how to be
part of a family. The results are around for all to see. The time has come to
bury the Romantic intuition-based view of family and learn to practise and
rehearse being a parent or a child as one would ice-skating or violin playing,
activities no more complex and no more deserving of systematic periods of
instruction. For now, while the infrastructure is put in place, we all deserve
untold sympathy for our struggles.
We are trying to do something enormously
difficult without the bare minimum of support necessary. It is not surprising
if – very often – we have troubles.