“It’s just so hard to get ahead,” a mom huffed to me on the city playground bench. She was explaining why, rather than send her child to the free public school, she was going to fork over a sum greater than my college tuition for her 4-year-old child’s preschool, where he will learn numbers, letters and not to put his mouth directly on the water fountain.
“I just want what is best for him,” she said, pointing out her son, who was at that moment climbing up the slide, preventing the gaggle of children atop the play scape from coming down. She laughed and blew him a kiss.
I silently disdained her. But am I any better?
Parents are praised for giving kids the steady-eyed, unconditional “I’ll help you bury the body” kind of love. We feel, on an almost visceral level, that there is nothing we wouldn’t do for our kids. But does chasing that ideal create a less ideal world?
My husband and I are the product of public school educations. We both spent our early careers working at nonprofit groups aimed at improving education, and went to law school with the intention of learning how to improve education policy. We know that schools thrive when families are active and engaged. And we vowed to be part of the solution.
Yet when it came time for us to decide upon our first child’s education, we balked. We were walking by our local school one day and saw an 8-year-old boy pull a long strand of wire from the decaying fence and use it as a sword in a battle with another child, who said “I’m going to kill you.” Meanwhile, a burned-out teacher barely looked up.
My husband paused and said, “I’m just not sure I can stomach sending our daughter here.”
The school decision highlights the problem at the heart of moral parenting. We want to teach our children to be ethical, yet is parenting in itself a constant choice between what is best for our individual child and what is best for all children?
Are we, for example, obligated to send our child to a low-performing school because if we don’t, we are participating in the failure and neglect of underperforming schools? Or are we obligated to send our children to the “best” school that we can provide? Is all of parenting a distortion of the classic trolley problem?
British philosopher Philippa Foot’s famous thought experiment asks people to imagine themselves waiting on the platform of a trolley station. Suddenly, you notice a runaway trolley barreling toward five people who are tied to the tracks. As you stand there, witnessing the certain tragedy, you also notice a lever. If you pull the lever, you can divert the trolley to another track, where there is only one person. You have two options: Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. Or pull the lever, diverting the trolley, where it will kill one person. Do you kill one to save five? What if, rather than a lever, the only way to stop the trolley is to push a man onto the track? What if that man is a villain? Do you do it then? What if the man is a stranger? A friend?
Now what if your child is tied to the tracks? For most of us, there is no longer a question. That changes everything.
As society becomes more individualistic, we have less accountability for putting our children’s needs above the needs of all. This shift can also be attributed to how the family landscape is constantly changing. Parents are tasked with co-parenting in arrangements that often don’t follow the institutional blueprints of generations past.
At the same time, parenting anxiety is at an all-time high. A complete reordering of the skills and technologies that affect our economy has left many parents feeling like we are preparing our children for life on a planet we have not even visited. That makes it tough to dismiss the allure of being “The Best,” as that at least feels familiar. So parents worry about getting their kid into the “right” preschool, or how to hire expensive SAT tutors, or how they can pull strings to procure choice internships.
But at a time when parenting options are limitless, information is overabundant, we are navigating without the rudder of convention or predictability and we are gifted with the privilege of choice, where do we draw the line?
In another famous thought experiment, philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves living behind a “veil of ignorance.” In this world, we are unaware of our personal details, political systems and laws. We don’t know if we are billionaires in Palo Alto or street merchants in New Delhi.
We are then asked: Which society best suits your needs?
The most rational choice is a system that guarantees the basic rights and liberties needed to secure the interests of free and equal citizens. We would naturally seek equal educational opportunities that would allow everyone to fairly compete and maintain self-respect. So why, when we consider what we want for our children, would we potentially choose something other than the path that provides that?
For many years, I pictured this thought experiment set in a jury chamber, where a group of individuals is stripped of status and permitted to deliberate upon only the information handed to them. But as my life has filled with images of hospital nurseries, with their the rows of bald and oblivious babies; and schoolrooms, filled with their rows of dimpled hands clasping No. 2 pencils, it’s not difficult to see that parenting puts us in the middle of this experiment. As parents, we have to help create the world we want our children to live in.
A year after the scene at the playground, I was sipping home-brewed coffee across the kitchen table from two women I had just met. Our daughters were awkwardly stealing glimpses of one another over an art project meant to be an icebreaker. The girls were about to start kindergarten at a public magnet school.
These moms are bright women who don’t see the school’s low test scores as a deterrent. They are enamored with the culturally and economically diverse school where nature, language and music will play leading roles. They are rewriting “best” as something that doesn’t involve winning. And finally, I realize what’s been bothering me for the past year.
Life cannot be won. And I am not so sure that we are doing an adequate job of teaching our kids that.
Maybe it is our insecurities, as we parent beyond tradition and beyond the known toward something that we can’t quite make out in the distance. Or the sinking feeling that, although we are working more than ever, our financial pressures are at an all-time high. But if we are defining our greater sense of “We’re okay” by how successful our children appear, then we are failing.
We need to be honest about our anxieties, take responsibility for our choices and refuse to let the ends justify the means. Our intense drive to protect our children cannot be the reason we make the world less virtuous. Rather, we should use the virtuous love and fierce drive to protect our children as motivation to make the world a place where all children can thrive.
Elizabeth Small is a lawyer, freelance writer and mother based in West Hartford, Conn. Find her on Medium at @ElizabethAnnHowardSmall.
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