Parrents attitude toward children


Integrity can be defined as consistency between reality, ideas and behaviour. Consistency with reality is not telling a child that daddy is “sick” when he is in fact drunk. Consistency with behaviour is not slapping a child for hitting another child. The value of this kind of integrity is also well understood by many, even if imperfectly practiced, and we will not deal with it much here either.

It is consistency with ideas that causes the most problems for families – and the most long-term suffering for children throughout their lives.

When you were a child, you were told over and over that certain actions were either good or bad. Telling the truth was good; stealing was bad. Hitting your brother was bad; helping your grandmother was good. Being on time was good; failing to complete chores was bad.

Implicit in all these instructions – moral instructions – was the premise that your parents knew what was right and what was wrong; what was good, and what was bad.

Do you think that was really true? Do you think that your parents knew what was right and wrong when you were a child?

When we tell a child that something is wrong – not just incorrect, but morally wrong – there are really only two possibilities. The first is that we actually know what is right and wrong in general, and we are applying our universal knowledge of right and wrong to a specific action committed by the child.

This is how it is always portrayed to the child. It is almost always the most dangerous lie in the world.

The second possibility is that we are telling our child that his actions are “wrong” for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with morality whatsoever.

For instance, we might tell a child that stealing is wrong because:

1. We are embarrassed at our child’s actions.
2. We are afraid of being judged a poor parent.
3. We are afraid that our child’s theft will be discovered.
4. We are simply repeating what was told to us.
5. We enjoy humiliating our child.
6. Correcting our child on “ethics” makes us feel morally superior.
7. We want our child to avoid behaviour that we were punished for as children.

... and so on

Assuming they are not terrified, most children, on first receiving moral instructions, will generally respond by asking “why?” Why is stealing wrong? Why is lying wrong? Why is bullying wrong? Why is hitting wrong?

These are all perfectly valid questions, akin to asking why the sky is blue. The problem arises in the fact that parents have no rational answers, but endlessly pretend that they do.

When a child asks us why something is wrong, we are put in a terrible bind. If we say that we do not know why lying is universally wrong, we believe we will lose our moral authority in the eyes of our children. If we say that we do know why lying is wrong, then we retain our moral authority, but only by lying to our children.

Since the fall of religion, we have lost our way in terms of ethics. As an atheist, I do not mourn the loss of the illusions of gods and devils, but I am alarmed at the fact that we have not yet admitted that the fall of religion has not provided us an objective and rational moral compass. By failing to admit to the fact that we do not know what we are doing ethically, we are perpetrating a grave moral error on our children.

Basically, we are lying to them about being good.

We tell them that certain things they do are right or wrong – yet we do not tell them that we do not know why those things are right or wrong. If our child asks us why lying is wrong, we can say that it causes people pain – but so does dentistry – or we can say “you don’t like it when someone lies to you” – which would be an incentive to not get caught, not to refrain from lying – and so on. Every answer we come up with leads to more questions and inconsistencies. What do we do then?

Why, then, we must bully them.

This does not mean hitting them or yelling at them – though sadly all too often this is the case – because as parents we have a near-infinity of passive-aggressive tactics such as sighing, acting exasperated, changing the subject, offering them a cookie, taking them for a walk, claiming to be “too busy,” distracting or rejecting them in a million and one ways.

These kinds of innocent questions about morality represent a kind of horror for parents. As parents, we must retain our moral authority over our children – but as citizens of modernity, we have no rational basis for that moral authority. Thus we are forced to lie to our children about being good, and about our knowledge of goodness, which transforms virtue from a rational discipline into a fearful fairy tale.

In the past, when religious mythology was dominant, when children asked “Where does the world come from?” parents could reply that God made it. Despite the superstitious ignorance of those who even now make the same claim, most modern parents provide the scientific and rational explanation of where the world came from, or at least send their children to the Web, an encyclopaedia, or the library.

There was a time, though, when the question of where the world came from was very difficult to answer. When religious explanations were becoming less and less credible, but scientific explanations had not become completely established, parents had to say – if they wanted to speak with integrity – “I don’t know where the world came from.”

By openly expressing their lack of certainty, parents not only acted with honesty and integrity, but also stimulated their children to pursue a truth that was admittedly absent from their world.

Alas, we suffer similar difficulties today, but about a far more important topic. The religious basis for ethics has fallen away from us, and we lack any credible or accepted theory to replace it. For a time, patriotism and allegiance to culture had some power to convince children that their elders knew something objective about ethics, but as government and military corruption have become increasingly evident, allegiance to a country, a state or a military ethos has become an increasingly fragile basis for ethical absolutes. Even our cherished theories about the virtues of democracy have come under increasing pressure, as gargantuan governments continue to separate themselves from the wishes of their citizens and act in a virtual “state of nature.”

Religious explanations of virtue have failed not just because we no longer believe in God, but also because it is now completely self-evident that when most people refer to “truth,” they are really referring to culture.[...]

Too Harsh?

I have often been accused of being too harsh on parents. “Parents do the best they can under difficult circumstances; you cannot judge the practical instructions of parents according to some abstract and absolute philosophical standard. My parents were not philosophers – they were simply telling me the truth that they believed, that they thought was accurate.”

The wonderful thing about applying philosophical concepts to our own lives is that theories are very easy to test. Discussing a philosophical theory about the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire is a largely theoretical exercise, since we cannot go back in time and test it.

Theories about our families, however, are very easy to test, assuming that we have access to the relevant family members.

It is my firm belief that most human beings are absolutely brilliant. I have come to this conclusion after decades of studying philosophy and having the most amazing conversations with countless people. I am now certain that parents know exactly what they are doing – and a relatively simple test can prove this to the satisfaction of any rational person.

A Practical Exercise

Sit down with your parents and ask them what the capital of Madagascar is – or some other piece of trivia that they are unlikely to know. They will very likely smile, shake their heads and say, “I don’t know.” They will not avoid the question. They will be more than happy to help you look it up. It will be a trivial fact-finding interaction.

After you have established what the capital of Madagascar is, ask them: “What is goodness?”

I absolutely guarantee you that there will be an instant chill in the room – there will be an enormous amount of tension, and your parents – and probably you – will feel a very strong desire to change the subject, or drop the question.

Why is that? Why is it that when you ask your parents to explain what goodness is, the tension in the room spikes dramatically?

Well, for the same reason that Socrates was introduced to a grim libation called hemlock.

There is terror in the face of the question “What is goodness?” because authority figures claim the right to tell us what to do based on their superior knowledge. If we decide to learn karate, we submit ourselves to the judgment and instruction of somebody who is an expert in karate. If we become ill, we submit our judgment to a doctor, an expert in the field. In other words, when we lack knowledge, we defer to those who claim greater knowledge.

Our parents claimed the right to instruct us on good and bad based on their great knowledge of ethics, not based on their power as parents. Our fathers did not say to us: “Obey me or I will beat you.” Although that terrible sentence might have come out of their mouths at some point, the basis of their ethics was that we owed them obedience as a just debt, and thus could be punished for failing to provide it. “Honour thy father and thy mother” is a staple of moral instruction the world over, both religious and secular. However, the honour that we are supposed to bestow upon our parents must be based upon their superior knowledge and practice of virtue – otherwise the word “honour” would make no sense. If we were thrown in jail, we would obey the prison guards because they held power over us, not because we “honoured” them. If a mugger presses a knife to our ribs, we hand him our wallet – obey his wishes – not because we honour him, but because he has the power to harm us.

By using the word “honour,” parents are claiming that we owe them allegiance due to their superior knowledge and practice of virtue.

Currently, the foundational “ethic” of the family – the entire basis for the authority of adults – is that parents know right from wrong, and children do not. Metaphorically, the parents are the doctors, and the children are the patients. Parents claim the authority to tell their children what to do for the same reason that doctors claim the authority to tell their patients what to do – the superior knowledge of the former, and the relative ignorance of the latter.

If you are unwell, and put yourself in the care of a doctor, and follow his instructions, but find that you do not get better – but in fact seem to get worse – it would be wise to sit down with that doctor and review his abilities – particularly if you cannot change physicians for some reason. Since following his instructions is making you worse, you must ask: “Why should I follow your instructions?”

It would be logical to begin by asking the doctor to confirm his actual credentials. Then, you might continue by asking what his definition of health is, to make sure that you were both on the same page. Then, you would continue to drill down to more specific questions about the nature of your illness, the nature of his knowledge of the human body, and his understanding of your ailments and the methodology by which he came up with your cure.

This is the conversation that you must have with your parents regarding the nature of virtue and their knowledge of it. Your parents were the moral doctors of your being while you were growing up – if, as an adult, you are happy and healthy, full of joy and engaged in deep and meaningful relationships, it is still worthwhile to examine the knowledge of your parents, since you may have children in time, and will yourself become a “doctor” to them.

If, however, you are not happy and fulfilled as an adult, then it is essential that you examine your parents’ ethical knowledge. If your health regimen has been established by a quack who has no idea what he is doing, you will never be healthy as long as you follow his instructions, since one can never randomly arrive at the truth.

If a madman passes himself off as a doctor, when a patient asks for his credentials, he will smile, spread his hands, and say, “Well of course I don’t have any!” His openness about his lack of knowledge and credentials establishes his relative innocence.

However, when the patient asks for a doctor’s credentials, if the doctor evades the question, or becomes hostile, or dismissive, then clearly the “doctor” is fully aware of what he is doing at some level. A man who commits a murder in a police station may claim insanity; a man who murders in secret and then hides the body has the capacity for rationality, if not virtue, and thus cannot claim to be mad.

The fact that your parents will do almost anything to avoid the question “What is goodness?” is the most revealing piece of knowledge that you can possess. It is the fact that blows the cage of culture wide open. It is the horrifying knowledge that will set you free.

You will not just benefit from examining your parents. You can also sit down with your priest, and examine him with regards to the nature of the existence of God (this is a useful conversation to have with religious parents as well). If you are persistent, and do your research in advance, you will very quickly discover that your priest also has no certain knowledge about the existence of God – and will become very uncomfortable and/or aggressive if you persist, which you should.

Is it wrong for a priest to say that he only believes in God because he “has a feeling”? In terms of truth, not exactly – in terms of integrity, absolutely.

The fundamental problem is not that the priest claims the emotional irrationality of “faith” as his justification for his belief in God, but rather that the existence of God was presented to you as an objective fact, and also that you were not allowed the same criteria for “knowledge.”

These two facets of the falsehoods you were told as a child are essential to your liberation as an adult.

Fiction as Facts

[...]A counterfeiter necessarily respects the value of real money, since he does not spend his time and energies creating exact replicas of Monopoly banknotes. The counterfeiter wishes to accurately reproduce real money because he knows that real money has value – he wishes his reproduction to be as accurate as possible because he knows that his fake money does not have value.

Similarly, parents present their opinions as facts because they know that objective facts have more power and validity than mere opinion. A “doctor” who fakes his own credentials does so because he knows credentials have the power to create credibility.

Recognizing the power of truth – and using that power to reinforce lies – is abominably corrupt. A man who presents his opinions as facts does so because he recognizes the value of facts. Using the credibility of “truth” to make falsehoods more plausible simultaneously affirms and denies the value of honesty and integrity. It is a fundamental logical contradiction in theory, and almost unbearably hypocritical in practice.

Thus it always happens that when grown children begin to examine their elders, they rapidly discover that those elders do not in fact know what they claimed to know – but knew enough about the value of the truth to present their subjective opinions as objective knowledge. This hypocritical crime far outstrips the abuses of mere counterfeiting, or the faking of credentials, because adults can protect themselves against false currency and fake diplomas.

Children have no such defences.[...]

Is Ignorance Hypocrisy?

The argument is often made that parents are not aware of all the complexities of their own hypocrisies, and thus are not morally responsible for their inconsistencies.

Fortunately, there is no need for us to rely on mere theory to establish the truth of this proposition.

If I tell you to take Highway 101 to get to your destination, and it turns out that this takes you in the exact opposite direction, what would be a rational response if I were truly ignorant of the fact that I was giving you really bad directions?

Well, I would first insist that they were the correct directions, since I genuinely believe that they are. However, when you sat me down with a map and pointed out exactly why my directions were so bad, I would see the truth, apologize profusely, and openly promise never to give out bad directions again – and buy a whole bunch of maps to boot, and spend some significant amount of time studying them.

However, if I got angry the moment that you brought up that I had sent you in the wrong direction, and refused to look at any maps, and refused to admit that I was wrong, and kept changing the subject, and kept distracting you with emotional tricks, and got more and more upset, and refused to tell you how I came up with my directions – and ended up storming out of the room, you may be unsure of many things, but you would not be unsure of one thing at least.

You would no longer imagine that I was ever interested in giving good directions.

In the realm of the parent-child relationship, this realization comes as a profound and terrible shock. This realization lands like a nuclear blast over a shantytown, radiating out in waves of destruction, smashing down the assumptions you have about all of your existing relationships.

The moment you realize that your parents, priests, teachers, politicians – your elders in general – only used morality to control you, to subjugate you – as a tool of abuse – your life will never be the same again.

The terrifying fact that your elders knew the power of virtue, but used that power to control, corrupt, bully and exploit you, reveals the genuine sadism that lies at the core of culture – it reveals the awful “cult” in culture.

A doctor who fakes his credentials is bad enough – how would any sane person judge a doctor who studies the human body not to heal it, but to more effectively cause pain?

A fraud is still better than a sadist.

What can we say, then, about parents and other authority figures who know all there is to know about the power and effectiveness of using moral arguments to control the actions and thoughts of children – who respect the power of virtue – and then use that power to destroy any capacity for moral integrity in their children?

In movies, terrorists almost invariably kidnap the wife or child of the hero in order to enforce his compliance with their wishes. His virtues – love and loyalty – are thus turned into the service of evil. The better he is, the worse he must act. The more he loves virtue, the more he is controlled by evil.

And thus do the best become the worst.

And thus are children raised.

And this was your instruction.


The Contradictory Appeal

When your father says, “Honour thy father and thy mother,” he is invoking both a principle and a person. The principle is that all mothers and fathers are honourable, and so deserving of respect. The person that he is invoking is himself and your mother specifically – thy mother and father.

Logically, this makes no sense.

Saying, “Honour thy father and thy mother,” is like saying, “Honour all the women who are my wife.” If I must honour all women, then I will automatically honour your wife, since she is a woman. If I must honour your wife, then there is no point saying that I must honour her as a woman, because that would involve honouring all women again. It’s one or the other.

If you must honour the category “father” and “mother,” then you must respect all mothers and fathers equally. Showing preference for your own parents would be unjust.

If you must show preference for your own mother and father, then the category of “mother” and “father” is irrelevant. It must be for some other reason, then, that you should honour these particular individuals.

If you should bestow honour upon your mother and father as individuals, and for no objective principle, then what is really being demanded is not honour, but obedience towards individuals in the guise of honour as a principle.

This basic logical contradiction, while complicated to discuss syllogistically, is something that every child instinctually understands. When our mother demands that we respect her, do we not feel contempt, frustration and despair? Demanding respect is like demanding love, or hijacking an aircraft. It is commanding a destination, rather than respecting the free choices of individuals.

We cannot imagine someone hijacking an aircraft on its way to Vladivostok and demanding, “Take me to Vladivostok!” People hijack planes because the plane is not going where they want to go.


The Open Cage…

I’d like you to imagine a man standing in the middle of a large meadow. You spend some time watching this man, and it doesn’t take you very long to notice that he paces back and forth in a small square, about 10 feet on either side. That’s all. Just 10 feet.

After a few hours of watching him do this, you walk up to him. When you reach forward to shake his hand, however, your fingers are burned by a strong electrical shock from an invisible barrier.

Startled – and hurt – you cry out. The man looks up.

“What’s the matter?” he asks.

“I just ran into this invisible wall which gave me a hell of a shock!” you cry.

He frowns. “I didn’t see anything.”

You blink. “Really? You’ve never heard or seen or felt this invisible barrier?”

He shakes his head slowly. “What invisible barrier?”

“The one that surrounds you – the one that keeps you penned in this little 10 foot square!”

“What little 10 foot square?” he demands. “There’s no little 10 foot square! I can go wherever the hell I want!”

“No you can’t!”

“Who the hell are you to tell me where I can and cannot go? I decide that!”

“I’m not telling you where you can and cannot go – I’m just telling you what you are actually doing!”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“Well, I’ve been watching you for the past few hours, and you’re standing in the middle of this great big meadow, and yet all you do is pace back and forth 10 feet.”

“I can go anywhere I damn well please!” the man repeats angrily.

“You say that, but all you do is pace around and around in a little 10 foot square! If you can go anywhere you please, why don’t you just try taking one extra step?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he growls. “Now get the hell off my damn property!”

“Wait – I can show you!” You reach down and pick up some grass. You throw it towards the man. A few feet away from his face, the blades of grass burst into flame and evaporate. You do this several times, proving definitively that there is in fact an invisible force field that surrounds him, roughly 10 feet by 10 feet.

“Do you see?” you ask eagerly. “Do you see that you are in an invisible cage?”

“Get the hell off my property, you madman!” he cries, shaking with rage.

“But you must know that you are in an invisible cage,” you cry out. “You must know that, because you never try to go outside these walls. You must have at one time tried to break free of this cage, and were burned by the electric shock, which is why you never take more than a few steps before turning around! Don’t you see?”

He pulls out a gun, screams that he has a principle of shooting trespassers, and, quite sensibly, you run away.

This is the great paradox of attempting to teach people what they already know. Everybody claims complete freedom, but paces back and forth, trapped in a little square. Everyone is surrounded by the invisible cages of culture and mythology, and denies it completely. The evidence of these cages is very clear, because people always turn back just before they hit them. But then they deny that these cages exist.

Everybody acts as if they are perfectly free, and perfectly enslaved at the same time. Nobody admits to being in a prison, but everyone shuffles around in an invisible 10 x 10 cell.

In the same way, everyone tells you that they are free, but in fact everyone is trapped in little tiny cells of allowable conversation. Everybody tells you they love you, but strenuously avoids talking about what love is, or what about you they love.

Everyone tells you to be good, but they have no idea what goodness is – and will savage you for even having the temerity to ask the question.

Everybody talks about the truth, but the real truth is that nobody can talk about the truth – what it is, how it is defined, how it is verified, and its value.


If the man in the meadow were put into his cage when he was a toddler, he would have discovered the limits of his confinement – painfully – when he was very young. It is entirely conceivable that he would end up just avoiding his invisible prison bars, to retain his illusion of freedom, and repress the pain of imprisonment. If you cannot escape your prison, then you might as well imagine that you’re free.

The man is not responsible for being put in the cage when he was a toddler, and he is not responsible for his resulting repression, and he is not responsible for not testing the bars of his cage, but instead turning away before he touches them.

There are two things, however, that he is responsible for.

The first thing that he is responsible for denying is clear and tangible evidence that contradicts his belief. There are two primary pieces of evidence: the grass that bursts into flame, and the fact that although he says he is free, he never takes more than a few steps in any direction before turning around.

The second thing that he is responsible for is shutting down the conversation when it makes him uncomfortable.

The essence of wisdom is learning the value of “staying in the conversation,” even when it makes you uncomfortable.

Especially when it makes you uncomfortable.

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