One day a few years ago I reflected on my responsibility as a father to educate my son. I decided that education is a personal work of art, and therefore it’s my son’s decision how to educate himself. My role is to facilitate and support but not to “educate” in any active sense, unless he seeks that from me.
A good parent, I think, is like a forest ranger. It’s not for the ranger to decide exactly which tree should grow in what place or fashion. The ranger sees to the robustness of the forest ecosystem in general. The ranger should protect the integrity of the natural world, rather than play organizing angel.
I feel like saying this more strongly: for me it would be child abuse to insist that my son adopt my religion or politics or to learn any specific skill, including the ability to read. Of course I would be pleased if he did learn things I personally have found useful. But to insist upon that is contrary to a fundamental belief of mine: each of our lives belongs ultimately and only to ourselves. A parent is a temporary steward of the lives of his children.
What if I were responsible not for a forest, but for a single plant– only, I didn’t know what kind of plant it was? I might be partial to oak trees, but my plant might turn out to be a creosote bush. It would not be right (or productive) to try to force that bush to be a tree. I would hurt the plant and frustrate myself. Instead, I would have to discover what conditions that bush needed to thrive. I supply those things, as well as I reasonably can.
Different plants need different things; same goes for the minds of men.
As I pondered my role, I decided to make a list of all the skills I believe are absolutely indispensable to living a good life. This list reflects my values and beliefs about life in the free world. My list is humanist and secular. Your list may be different. Anyway here it is:
- Ability to evaluate and maintain your own physical body.
- Ability to comprehend your choices, and know that you can choose differently
- Ability to forgive yourself and others.
- Ability to live near others without creating unnecessary resentment or unreasonable disruption.
- Ability to seek and experience joy without destroying yourself or others to get it.
- Ability to daydream, imagine, explore, and play; ability to value those things.
- Ability to quit doing things that don’t bring you satisfaction; ability to change your mind, even it disappoints other people.
- Ability to tell the truth to yourself; and to know when you are telling lies.
- Ability to face disappointment, sorrow, and hardship with courage; to understand that pain can be a path to growth.
- Ability to take reasonable risks to achieve something important to you.
- Ability to understand your values as choices.
- Ability to evaluate your life as if you were a self-creating being with the power to change things and improve yourself.
Notice what is not on my list? There’s nothing here about learning any specific subject, including how to read. Nothing about social activism, or making friends. Nothing much about morality or discipline.
This list is about how to be alive, amidst other people, with integrity and without misery. I think anyone who has these skilled can live a good life, and without these skills (all of them) I believe life would be stunted and unhappy.
I see only one skill on this list (the first one) that a parent is actually obligated to teach. Well, maybe the fourth one, too, I’m not sure… The others can’t be taught directly, but they are definitely learned. Each of us, on our way to being an adult, develops each of these skills to some degree.
Many people (most criminals for instance) are not strong in one or more of these skills. I’m particularly depressed with the backwardness of politicians. This demonstrates my point: skills like this can’t be taught unless they are sought. They come to you over time, if you live at least a moderately reflective life.
I try to be an example for my son. He sees me using these skills. But I think it’s more about creating an environment where there is no fear or coercion. Then the garden will grow.