Dichotomy of control, Parenting basics

Are you a good parent?


The world is overflowing with advice on how to be a good parent. Anywhere you look, you can find books and websites on parenting skills, parenting goals, parenting strategies, and all kinds of tips and tricks and secrets. (I even have a few suggestions floating around Apparent Stoic.) It’s enough to induce performance anxiety in any well-meaning mom or dad. If you want to be a great parent, say X when your child is mad, do Y when your child is sad, feed him Q on Wednesdays, but never R on Fridays, and above all make sure you do FGH sometimes but never or always LMN. Or is it UVW? Whatever it is, don’t do it, or your child will never go to college.

Reading all these lists and commandments can give you the sense that raising a child requires a master’s degree in child development. When Clementine was first born, I dutifully read stacks of parenting magazines, and dutifully acquired the uneasy feeling of guilt and incompetence that comes along with them. I had no idea how to raise a child, but I knew I could never follow all those rules to keep my baby safe, happy, and developing normally. It all seemed so mysterious. I thought to myself, “I’ve had 20 years of education and training in my profession, and 0 years of training to be a mom. I don’t have the necessary knowledge and skills to do this!”

But now that I’ve adopted a Stoic perspective on parenting, I’ve realized how backwards that way of looking at things is. Why does being a good parent mean having a specified list of key competencies? That might be a good way to describe being an engineer or professor or pilot, but not a parent. Why should I use a corporate or academic mindset to govern my personal roles and relationships?

I could be wrong, but I believe many contemporary cultural forces see parenting not in terms of “who we are” but in terms of “what we produce.” If you think in terms of production and efficiency, then the point of being a parent is to produce a certain kind of child. (The kind of child who goes to an elite college, gets an elite job, and contributes to cultural and technological innovation.) This is natural when you remember that many parents today have had extensive education and careers before they have children. We are so used to developing competencies, delivering a targeted outcome, and being judged on our performance, that we naturally apply these ideas to parenting.

With this professional parenting mindset, it’s easy to accept the idea that as parents, we should be judged on our competencies and deliverables. “Being a good parent” means “knowing a lot about parenting,” “having great parenting skills,” “solving parenting problems,” and “producing a good child.” It sounds like a performance evaluation. Am I wrong about this? Have you never thought about yourself as a parent in these terms? I certainly have. Given that this is how we are taught to think about our academic and career roles, it is not surprising that we apply it to our most challenging personal role.

But there are some big problems with seeing parenting in terms of competencies and outcomes. First, who gets to define what these skills and outcomes are? Does it mean spending lots of time with your kids? Feeding them only organic food? Making them practice the piano? Giving them freedom to be themselves? Helping them become a Youtube star? There could be as many definitions of “a good parent” as there are parents in the world.

But the bigger problem lies in associating your worth as a parent with the kind of child you produce. It might be that a good baker always bakes a delicious cake, or a great artist always produces a masterpiece. But those are jobs that depend only on your own skill. Raising a child involves many other elements besides yourself: your child’s personal attributes, your circumstances, your partner or other family members, your culture, your geographic location, etc. Even a great parent won’t raise a perfect child. And sometimes a great parent won’t even raise a child who is well-behaved and productive. Even if, theoretically, there were a perfect parent, he couldn’t control everything that happens to his child or everything his child does.

If you take the professional parent mentality too far, you associate your own performance with your child’s behavior. If your child misbehaves at school, it means that you are a bad parent (because your “product” was faulty). If your child doesn’t eat her vegetables, it means you’re a bad parent (because you lack the necessary skills to achieve the desired outcome). Anything that your child does wrong is reflected back on you as a failure of competence and outcome. As a result, you always feel like an incompetent failure. (That’s what happens when you try to control things that are not actually within your control.)

I suggest that we completely remove this competence/outcome mentality from our view of parenting. Maybe, instead of focusing on the outcome of our efforts (producing “good” children), we should just focus on being good people within the context of parenting. So let’s reformulate the equation. Instead of being a good parent = being good at the activity of parenting, we can say that being a good parent = being a good person who is also a parent.

In the new formula, your status as “good” does not depend on your skill as a parent or the type of child you produce. You are a good person, who just happens to have children. It’s the same way we use other relationship phrases: being a good sister, or good son, or good neighbor, or even a good citizen. If you are a good sister, that means you do what “good sisters” do, regardless of how your sibling acts. You are not responsible for her or his actions, and you can remain a good sister no matter your sister or brother does. Even if your sibling does something wrong, it does not change your own status as a good sister.

If you think about, it’s this second meaning we refer to whenever we talk about our other personal roles. If you are a good friend, you support your friend and try to do what’s best for him. But you are not responsible for your friend’s actions. If you are a good neighbor, you do neighborly things. You clean up after your dog, you keep the noise level down at night, etc. It doesn’t make you a bad neighbor if, despite all your good activities, your neighbor across the street does something mean.

It’s unfortunate that cultural forces have shifted the concept of “being a good parent” away from the “good friend/family member” mentality to the “competence/outcome” mentality. It’s no longer enough for parents to be good people who also have children; now we have to master a whole list of skills that “experts” devise for us. Now we have to be efficient and effective parents, with productive offspring who not only meet but exceed expectations. We are expected to be professional parents.

I think it’s time to reject the competence/outcome model of being a good parent. If there’s one thing that Stoic philosophy teaches us, it’s that we cannot control what other people do, even our own children. We can only apply our own wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and sense of justice to helping our children become good people themselves. Instead of trying to memorize someone else’s rules for raising kids, why don’t we just apply what we already know? You don’t need someone else to tell you how to interact with your child. You can refer to the Stoic principles that already guide your life.

So let’s embrace the idea of being good people who are also parents. We can still try our best to be good parents, but that doesn’t mean “producing a good child.” It means developing our own virtue while also trying to teach our kids virtue. It also means not feeling anxious and guilty when things don’t turn out like you wanted. If you are a good person, then you are still a good parent even if your child makes bad choices sometimes. Just remember, some things are up to you, and some things are not. That’s really the only parenting secret you need to know.  

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2 thoughts on “Are you a good parent?

  1. Hi! Some great points here. As a new-ish parent (a week shy of my first year on the job) and an even newer student of Stoicism, I really appreciate your writings.

    I think it’s certainly important to emphasize that being “a good parent” means being “a good person” first. But I think if we begin to view our childrens’ outcomes as “preferred indifferents”, we can still be “good parents” in the more traditional sense, if we adopt Irvine’s advice of internalizing that goal.

    What does it mean to be a good parent? I think the precise definition will vary from family to family, but ultimately it will be a manifestation of the Stoic virtues as applied to parenting – interacting with our children wisely, treating them justly, courageously following a parenting approach no matter the challenge (try putting a crying child in a car seat while maintaining tranquility and see the courage it requires), and teaching or exemplifying temperance. So we combine those four virtues into our internalized goal of being a good parent, and apply the discipline of practicing that goal. Whether the arrow hits its target is another matter.

    Despite the degree to which parenting books, magazines, and the entirety of the parent-focused-internet can induce unnecessary anxiety, I still believe these materials can be useful (indeed, in the same way this site is useful). One aspect of Stoicism that I appreciate is that it combines practice AND theory. Similarly, I think that studying parenting theory can be very useful. But ultimately what matters is how you practice that internalized goal of being “a good parent”.

    1. Hi Justin, thanks for your comments! I’m glad you find the blog useful. I absolutely agree that we can aim for preferred parenting outcomes, and that internalizing our goals is probably the best approach to achieving these outcomes. I think that’s especially true as our kids get older and we see them developing habits that we have worked really hard to prevent (like whining). And you’re right, we should try to develop our parenting knowledge and skills as best we can, so that we can be more effective at achieving preferred outcomes. As long as we approach parenting from a Stoic perspective, we can do all those things and still avoid defining ourselves based on the kind of child we produce. Thanks for raising these great points!

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