Since before my daughter was born, I’ve had this theory that much of good parenting comes from being selfish.* Over and over, I have to make choices that most people see in terms of the conflicting interests of parent and child: whether to give up traveling for the sake of stability, whether to allow a child to sleep in ”the family bed,” whether to spend a lot of money on an expensive pre-school, etc. In many of these cases, I seem to find an answer that does not require a sacrifice from anyone. In fact, staying grounded in selfishness – in the pursuit of my own rational self interest – seems to help guide me in making these choices.
I want to try to explore this theory further by using my blog as a storehouse of experience. I want to be inductive here, and to start collecting examples of how I’ve used selfishness as a guide. I’ve been trying to write a meaningful introductory essay to kick off the experiment, but I keep getting stuck because I can’t prove this theory yet. Saying that selfishness is a virtue is very abstract and while it implies that parents need to be selfish, is it a principle that can actually help guide parenting choices? The only way to find out is to be inductive and start with concretes that I know.
So I’ll start with the latest example – something I mentioned in my last post about Montessori school. I don’t let or encourage Samantha to “help” me with cooking very much. Now, allowing a child to help with everyday life activities is something I believe in. I agree with the Montessori way of including the child in the activities of the family. But this principle is not helpful when you hold it in isolation from other principles. It doesn’t tell you when a child is ready, or even how to think about when he might be ready. It also doesn’t tell you how much effort you should be willing to put into nurturing this aspect of your child’s self-esteem.
There is a cost to letting my 2-year-old “help” me cook. At her developmental level, it would mean an enormous amount of extra time for me in preparation and clean-up, plus, paraphrasing the parents in the video, our meals might taste “different.” When I first saw the video of Edison helping make a pizza, I thought, “I should probably be putting more effort into letting Sam help with the cooking.” But my next thought was, “Nooooooooooooooooooooo!” I already do all the cooking and cleaning in my household, and I have to be careful that those chores don’t take over my life. Ok, so some would call this a conflict of interests. Her gain is my loss, and I just have to decide if I’m going to be “selfish” or not. And here’s where altruism gets you. If you believe it is moral to sacrifice, the answer to this situation will be automatic: the parent should sacrifice for the child’s sake. Not all parents will actually do it, but only on the grounds of a fuzzy thought such as, “I’m not a superhero,” or “nobody is perfect,” or “what about me?”
I started to think about why I was not interested in letting Sam help more. There are certainly other areas where I do things “for her sake,” giving up values that are more strictly “for me,” because of the value she is to me and what it requires to raise her in the way that I want to. But with this one, I analyzed (quickly, and almost subconsciously) the particulars of our situation: Sam is particularly good about playing by herself while I am cooking, so it becomes a “me-time” event, I am already doing many things to let Sam take care of herself and gain a sense of efficacy, and she is probably not developmentally ready to control her impulse to taste raw eggs and handle food in a structured way (since she can’t even do it at mealtime). When I look at the whole picture, it turns out that my good and her good are probably more in sync than it first appears. Since the general principle of nurturing her independence is already a value for me which I act on, this particular case is optional, and in my hierarchy of values (which includes nurturing her independence) this would be a sacrifice. And maybe the amount of time it would take is an indicator that I would be pushing her too hard or too early. After all, you can actually do harm to your child’s sense of efficacy when you expect her to do something too early, when she is simply not capable of it. When you are adjusting your life to “suit” your child in ways that seriously interfere with your other values, you are creating a fake world for her. The child is not fully formed and needs you to guide him, but he does not need his entire environment customized to his small self. Montessori classrooms are exactly that – scaled to the child’s size – but that is just for a few hours a day. At home and elsewhere, the child needs to live in reality, not in some fantasyland.
So I find my selfishness is guarding against doing too much for my daughter, even too much “guiding” towards independence.
I notice that, along with selfishness, another idea guiding me here is the issue of holding context – I need to retain the whole of my value system, not isolate one issue. That is another way to slip into duty. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I continue to write up examples.
I’ve written much more than I intended here, but hopefully I’ll be able to essentialize these examples better as I go forward. As with my Three Good Things exercise, I hope you’ll find some value in going on this journey with me.
* I’m talking about Ayn Rand’s selfishness here:
The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness-which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man-which means: the values required for human survival …
The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash-that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness