Tony Woodlief has this column in today's OpinionJournal on the age-old parenting argument between utopians and realists.
Mr. Sowell contrasted the "unconstrained vision" of utopians, who want to radically improve humankind, with the "constrained vision" of realists, who begin with the proposition that man is inherently self-interested, and not moldable into whatever form the high-minded types have in store for us once they get their itchy fingers on the levers of power. Mr. Sowell's book has been influential among conservatives for its compelling explanation of the divide between people who want to reshape us--often via large intrusions on liberty--and those who believe that the purpose of government is to protect institutions (like markets and families) that channel our inherent selfishness into productive behavior. It is also a handy guide for parenting.
While some mothers and fathers stubbornly cling to the utopian beliefs of their childless years, the vision of humans as inherently sinful and selfish resonates with many of us who are parents. Nobody who's stood between a toddler and the last cookie should still harbor a belief in the inherent virtue of mankind. An afternoon at the playground is apt to make one toss out the idealist Rousseau ("man is a compassionate and sensible being") in favor of the more realistic Hobbes ("all mankind [is in] a perpetual and restless desire for power"). As a father of four sons, I've signed on to Mr. Sowell's summation of a parent's duty: "Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late."
I'm a realist. With three children in various stages of development--and two of them only 18 months apart--I have to be.
My oldest daughter, who was disciplined the most, has always been a model of decorum...at least before she entered high school, that is (there were other changes that I won't point to but with which I disapproved *ahem*). This was the child who won every award possible because she loved getting certificates of achievement and the "A" honor roll. In the fourth grade, this same child would go to school even when she was sick so she could get the "perfect attendance" award.
Her siblings are not so disciplined, although they both do fairly well academically. They are not as motivated by ribbons or certificates. They are motivated by computer time and cold, hard cash. I don't consider it bribery to give them money for straight "A" report cards, and I don't consider it cruelty to take away the computer when they bring home "N's" and "U's" in citizenship. This system seems to work for us.
My ex-husband would be more of a utopian, although I think he's becoming more of a realist the longer he has primary custody of our daughter. There was a time when he informed me that our daughter "would never do" various things. Unfortunately for him, he has discovered that she will, in fact, do the various things he thought she would "never" do. Why? Because, as a realist, I know humans are inherently selfish and self-motivated. We have to teach them to be good, kind, and giving. It doesn't come naturally.
This is what Woodlief also believes, and perhaps it is a conclusion most people with children come to through experience, not education. Yes, I started out thinking I simply needed to nurture the inner good of my children. But after watching them sneak brownies and complain about someone else getting the last cookie, I realized that their "inner good" only came out when I taught them to behave certain ways.
There are certain outcome differences between the parenting styles, I've noticed. Those who are utopian tend to have their 30-year-old children still living at home in bedrooms decorated for teenagers. Those of us who are realists produce children who can support themselves, spouses, and children at 30. Maybe the utopian parents just never figured out how to release their children's "inner adult."