1. A 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.
“In 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!
2. On the sweetness of children
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.
“The 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 unf airty – 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. 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 are is 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.
“It 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.”
3. 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 nevertheless. 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 Minecraft 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.
“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.”
6. You can’t guarantee their success
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 well-meaning couples.
4. Some principles 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 wilt be perfect – starting with you. We should also grasp the specifics of human imperfections: how alt other members wilt be irritating, difficult, sometimes irrational, and often unable to sympathise or understand us.”
However, these 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.
“We 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 0n 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 board.’
4. We need to be happy to be taught and calm about teaching
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 that 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 inevitably emerge.
“The family member we need is not the person who shares our tastes, but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently and wisely.”
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 clothing.
“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 them.”
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.”