Parenting and Tradition

In general, it's good to follow traditions where we can, because they contain valuable knowledge. We don't want to throw them out and start over because if we do we will make mistakes. Good traditions contain mistakes too, but a lot of people have thought about them and tried to fix the mistakes. Using traditions gives us a head start; abandoning tradition is like living thousands of years ago. What sets us apart from the distant past is our existing knowledge.

However, we can't always follow traditions. A lot of people say that, and they say the reason is a tradition is too flawed to repair. That is a radical, revolutionary attitude which we should be extremely cautious with. Maybe there are some cases where it's true. I'm not going to talk about that. I have in mind a different and more mundane reason we can't always follow traditions. Sometimes our traditions contradict each other. Then, no matter how much we might like to, we can't follow all of them.

Punishing children, including by hitting them, is traditional. But the right not to be violently assaulted is a tradition too. "Innocent until proven guilty" is an important American tradition, but parents don't need any proof to punish their children.

Expecting children to defer to the authority of parental opinions is a tradition, but it contradicts the Enlightenment tradition of using reason in place of authority.

It's normal for parents to be selective about who their children are allowed to be friends with, but that contradicts the tradition of freedom of association.

Equal protection under the law for all people is a tradition. That means if it's illegal to murder Bob, Joe gets the same protection from murder. If it's illegal to do something to my neighbor, the law also says not to do it to a stranger (no matter his race, religion, etc). Equal protection under the law contradicts common parenting practices. Parents frequently batter their children according to the legal definition which includes, for example, grabbing someone and dragging him out of a store or into a car. For this contradiction between traditions, I will venture an opinion. I think if it's illegal to do something to the neighbor's kid, or the neighbor himself, then you shouldn't do it to your own kid. I'm not saying you should treat your kid like your neighbor, just don't do anything to him that would be a crime to do to your neighbor.

The pursuit of happiness is a great tradition. But parents sometimes make their children unhappy, or aren't supportive of things the children want to do to pursue their happiness (now). Parents often have the attitude that a child's happiness matters some, but there are more important issues; what matters the most is whether the child is being molded to be a good adult and will be happy once he's grown up. This parental attitude contradicts the pursuit of happiness tradition, which says people should pursue happiness, and while they are allowed to defer happiness until later as part of a long term plan, that is their choice, not anyone else's, and no one has a right to tell them to be unhappy now.

When traditions contradict each other, which should we follow? There is no simple answer to that. It takes creative thought to figure it out. Good things to look for include a tradition that applies more broadly and is used with success in more areas; a tradition that you believe has good explanations; a tradition that you believe is trying to improve; a tradition that isn't the same as it was a hundred years ago; a tradition you find persuasive; a tradition with more knowledge in it and more supporting literature, support groups, or supporting organizations.

Here is a chart with some traditions and my take on their meaning for parenting and education. Many of these consequences of other traditions contradict traditional parenting practices, and it's important to consider these contradictions carefully and to think through which tradition one wants to follow in each case.

Tradition Meaning For Parenting and Education
Pursuit of Happiness Do not make children unhappy for any reason. Children should do things which they enjoy today, and pursue their happiness now. If they do otherwise, it must be their own voluntary decision. They should never be told that enjoying life is for grown ups, or that you can't have everything you want in life and therefore must be unhappy sometimes (which is a non sequitur).
Build It and They Will Come The tradition says if you get good at something and do it really well that will create an audience or customer base, which didn't exist before. So, if a child likes something, and wants to pursue it and get really good at it, that should be encouraged even if the parent doesn't see how it will lead to a successful life as an adult.
The American Dream Americans believe that if you make a strong effort, and take initiative, you can achieve success. Sometimes children are taught to be passive and that they should wait until they are older, which is a contradictory attitude.
Equal Protection Under the Law Do not do anything to your child that would be a crime to do to someone else.
Freedom of Association Children should choose who to be friends with; their parents shouldn't choose for them, only advise.
Reason When a child disagrees with me, just like if anyone else does, I should use reason to seek the truth, not assume I am correct.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty Parents and teachers should not punish children with no compelling evidence the children did anything wrong. They also shouldn't take on the role of judge, jury and executioner; they should get an impartial opinion.
Freedom from Authority People, including children, should only defer to authority when they voluntarily choose to, and when they do not agree with an authority they should be free to live their own life even if most people — even authorities like their parents — think they are mistaken.
Freedom of Speech I should not punish children for using profanity or for expressing opinions that I disagree with.
Freedom of Thought I should not punish children for not sharing a belief I have, such as belief in God or my political views.
Human Rights Our society opposes violence, quite rightly. Therefore, children should not be hit under any circumstances. Our society opposes threats of violence, and other ways to scare and intimidate people. Children should not be scared or intimidated. People also should not be caused pain unnecessarily. For example, if a child needs a shot, but is scared of the pain, then the child should be offered a local anesthetic (they are available).
Freedom to Dissent Our society considers it important to allow people to dissent from a mainstream consensus, and to continue to pursue their own "weird" ideas as long as they aren't hurting anyone. Parents should allow their children to hold dissenting opinions.
Property Rights Our society considers it valuable to have property you own and have full control over. Children should have property of their own, including money, which they are free to use according to their own judgment without parental approval. A room of one's own is also valuable, but children who have their own room are rarely given control over it — it's not really their own; parents interfere by imposing some requirements.
Privacy Our society allows people to have secrets, to have a personal life, and to decline to answer personal questions. By contrast, some parents expect their children to share everything (and then are shocked to find that sometimes children lie). Children should be allowed privacy.
Science Scientists double check their experiments and carefully look for mistakes. In doing so, they are accepting that they may well have made a mistake in their area of expertise. Parents should accept that they, too, may make mistakes — even in areas they are really good at — and, like scientists, should put substantial effort into finding and correcting mistakes.
Capitalism Free market capitalism says that many different people have some useful knowledge, and distributed decision making can work better than having a central authority. Distributed decision making approaches can work even if many people are mistaken or know only a little. Similarly, children have some knowledge, and can make valuable contributions to family decision making even if they have some mistaken ideas and don't know much.
Christianity and Judaism These religions are major traditions, and they contain some good ideas, as well as some bad ideas. One of their many ideas is moral realism:
Moral Realism When two people disagree about what should be done, there's a fact of the matter about what is best. That means that it's not an inherent feature of the situation that they must fight. If they find the moral fact about what's best, then they'll agree. This applies to disputes between parents and children.
Liberalism The classical liberal ideal is to improve our traditions and knowledge over time. We neither hold them sacred (the conservative approach) nor throw them out to start over (the radical approach). That means trying to do better than my own parents did, not the same and not something completely different. This has little to do with the "liberal" (left wing) and "conservative" (right wing) American political positions.
Individualism To understand a person and his actions, I need to know something about the person's ideas, not just his social group, gender, age, race, economic demographic, etc… It follows that I can't assume I understand much about someone just because he's a child.
Individual Responsibility We are each, individually, responsible for our choices. If I choose to go along with a group opinion, or defer to the judgment of an expert, that is no excuse if it was a mistake. A responsible parent should, when dealing with family problems, question common sense and expert parenting advice, and try to understand the issues himself, not just follow along blindly.

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By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!