Is Childhood an end in itself?

Here I sit in a room littered with toys, colorful books, and tiny dirty socks. I like to think of myself as an aesthete, but as a new parent my living room floor has been taken over by forces far more powerful than my aesthetic sensibilities. My desire to entertain my son coupled with my wish to do something other than clean while he is asleep have resulted in this. As I scan things more carefully, I see another theme arising. It’s not only a wish to preoccupy him that these toys are here, but also a desire in me to help him develop. I see flashcards to facilitate reading, boxes with images of animals to open his mind to the diversity of life on earth, and a miniature plastic piano for him to discover music. Although the ultimate goal of his development is not always clear to me (insofar as I’m not exactly sure what the purpose of life is), it seems much of his existence could be viewed as steps—no matter how small—towards adulthood.

Numerable philosophers throughout history have theorized about how to shape children into their idea of a fully-formed human being. Aristotle wanted children to receive a thorough education in correct moral conduct so that as an adult they could experience a life of virtue, which for Aristotle was synonymous with the good life: “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed society corrupted people, and so he argued that education needed to help children preserve as much of their natural goodness as possible. John Dewey, who tried to sidestep the issue of the purpose of life as defining of education, still wanted to prepare children to continue to grow and have more educative experiences.

Recently in the U.S. media, there has been a debate regarding the proper way to raise a child. Amy Chua, who kicked it off with an essay in the Wall Street Journal (based on her memoir) said that, for parents, “the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.” For Chua, this meant not allowing her children to have play dates or sleepovers, demanding that they get only straight As, and sometimes calling them “garbage” and “fatty.” It also meant that they had to spend grueling hours every day studying mathematics or practicing an instrument (she only allowed them to play violin or piano). Many critics argued that Chua was far too extreme, and that the end she had in sight for her daughters was in fact a rather narrow take on human life (see here and here, for example). The better approach to raising children, some said, would be to encourage children to have new social experiences and to delve into the humanities, both indispensible to the good life.

I am not suggesting that the focus on children as a means to adulthood is inherently bad; indeed it’s absolutely necessary to prepare them for what is to come, and to guide them in the process of learning. We could even say that to neglect this would be immoral. Yet, I still wonder: is there a feature of childhood that ought not simply be a means to an end? Is there something of moral value that we ought not reduce to an investment into the future, whether theirs or ours?

Leave a comment ?


  1. hmmmm…

    I wonder what Amy Chua thinks about the concept of play through the adult lifespan? Not much I imagine.

    Perhaps that’s the single element a child takes through their developmental years and into adulthood. Learning to learn is one thing – learning to love learning and embracing a capacity to explore life to the point of risking the heart is another.

  2. amelia dombrowski

    Thankfully there are parents who are writing about the slow lane approach to enjoying your offspring’s childhood with them. Their sponge brains absorb things faster than you can point out “red truck” and their curiosity will have you look at the world through their eyes. As Ms.Chua discovered by raising strong girls, they will strike out on their own once they are adults and make choices you have no control over. As Dana said, loving to learn is key. There are many workaholic adults out there who should be leaving some more dirty socks on the floor and laying in the grass or enjoying a hobby. Its hard to let go of the worry in this super competitive age that we must do all we can to educate our children early early early but it takes away something precious from them and leaves you no guarantees that they will be successful – or happy.

  3. s. wallerstein

    The future is uncertain.

    You may be preparing your children for a society which no longer exists when they become adults.

    32 years ago, when my son was born, I certainly could not foresee what society is like today.

    Let children enjoy their childhood.

  4. Michael Esplin

    “[I]s there a feature of childhood that ought not simply be a means to an end? Is there something of moral value that we ought not reduce to an investment into the future, whether theirs or ours?”
    This is a difficult question. If I were to give an answer, it’d probably result in a appeal to ignorance fallacy. Perhaps so, perhaps not. More data is required to answer.

    Even so, I don’t agree with Dana Roberts. I don’t think “play” is something that parents can remove. “Anything can be a toy to a kid.” Play can involve doing mathmatics, playing music, etc. Her argument is that parental control negates “loving” learning. This is a false cause fallacy. I know a counterexample to this proposition, this person loves reading even though her parents are controlling.

    Society does change, but a work ethic is always valued. Happiness is a choice of a child as has little correlation to control of the parent. In other words, happiness is a choice.

    Personally, I agree that Amy Chua was right about many different things. I think that she was wise to be a strong disciplinarian. I think she is also right in the idea that “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” It makes sense, losing and being incapable is not fun, even as a child. And she was incredibly confident in her children. I think all of these concepts are accurate. I do not think any of these damage creativity in any form.

  5. Our “investment into the future” as a means to an end is sadly driven by the desire of material wealth- taking on many differing forms and structures which all are intended to pursue a similar goal, namely that of advancing in a society that is predicated on competition. Unfortunately, this desire of ours has even extended itself as a manifestation in our nurturing og children…a shameful act indeed!

  6. Steve Merrick

    To sacrifice your child’s for a possibly-better future is a Very Big Decision. A parent has the right to take such a decision, but it’s a serious responsibility, one that I would think Very Hard about.

  7. Steve Merrick

    That should read “To sacrifice your child’s *NOW* for a possibly-better future…” Sorry.

  8. I think parents think too much in terms of how “now” will cause benefits or harms in the future. For example, the whole debate about daycare tends to be about future repercussions. As if the days and years of childhood didn’t matter, in and of themselves! Of course they do. In fact, I think there’s probably a special sort of especially enjoyable happiness that people have as children. So parents should be working toward their children being happy NOW, as well as toward future goals.

    Amy Chua’s book is interesting and thought-provoking, and a good read. But “chinese parenting” (as she calls it)…NO!!!

  9. Dennis Sceviour

    “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” I have been trying to find the source of this, but can find nothing further than Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011).” It seems inaccurate, inchoate, incomplete and inappropriate. Perhaps it is a variation on one of the old sayings made by War Lords to convince rice pickers to be happy in their work.

    The process of learning can be fun.

  10. I don’t know, my parents always treated me as a potential adult and I turned out to be pretty childish anyway. Today I am a professional philosopher but that’s only because I manage to fool my employers into thinking I’m a responsible man.

    Loved your blog. Take a look at mine sometime so you see what a childish philosopher does with his spare time.


  11. Michael Esplin

    Hamza Mannan:
    The desire for material wealth isn’t a sad thing. It is simply a necessary thing. To educate children that money isn’t significant would be a lie. To teach that money is the only thing that is significant would also be a lie. I think these two facts should have a relation to parenting and it is not shameful to be honest.

    Dennis Sceviour:
    Perhaps you misunderstood the phrase “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” Learning certainly can be applied to this concept. If you are good at learning, then it is fun. Think of the phrase as progression, it is no fun if you cannot progress but it is fun if you can. For example, if I were learning to computer program, it would not be fun for me not to progress in creating increasingly complex programs. But it would be fun for me to understand new concepts and being able to apply them. Also if I knew everything about computer programming that would also be fun.

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Posted by Michael Esplin | April 1, 2011, 4:26 pm
    “If you are good at learning, then it is fun.”

    Not necessarily. If people are bad at learning, they can still have fun. For example, you may not (or may) be good at learning Mandarin Chinese, but can still have fun trying to learn. It is not fun to be admonished for having fun learning. Perhaps only Amy Chua can explain what the phrase is supposed to mean.

    Learning can be fun.

  13. Michael Esplin:
    To demarcate your children from a social life because of the very idea of a better future- one which certainly involves chasing dollar bills is certainly a shameful act. We’re all prone to it. We all, with the exception of some great-men, tend to chase the all important bank notes. To instill this as the emphasis of life itself in your two-year olds is indeed a shameful act. As David Brooks of the New York Times (Link given in the article) argues, the school cafeteria certainly challenges your cognitive processes more than a library and to mediate between the two realms should have been the priority of Mrs. Chua.

  14. Michael Esplin

    Hamza Mannan:
    Firstly, I never mentioned prohibiting a social life. I said “To educate children that money isn’t significant would be a lie.” and “To teach that money is the only thing that is significant would also be a lie.” Social relations should be considered important but so should money. Both will be used as they become adults. Teaching about money is just as shameful as teaching relationships.

    Dennis Sceviour:
    That’s a good point. I’ll try to clarify my position more clearly. First, frustration and fun cannot exist simultaneously. Second, the source of frustration is perceiving inadequacy. Therefore, the only way one can experience fun is to not perceive inadequacy. So if I am learning Mandarin Chinese and I am inadequate and I having fun, then I must be ignoring my inadequacies and focusing on my strengths, perhaps socialization or parts of the language I do understand.

  15. Michael Espin:
    I was simply commenting on the approach of Amy Chuan.
    Relationships help build bridges, convey a sense of understanding, and above all, forge a communication bond that lasts forever. On the other hand, money is perhaps the greatest evil on earth (Unless the work involves philanthropy). But I do agree that both will be used as one progresses through life

  16. I’m not sure that the strict demarcation between ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’, that I think that the preparatory approach demands, can be maintained so easily.

    I’m 36 and still learn from my parents.

    “Nothing is fun until you’re good at it”- not too sure about that either: there’s no yardstick by which one can judge whether or not someone is good or bad at popping bubble wrap, hitting saucepans with wooden spoons or driving a toy car around an imaginary track on a carpet but they were all fun (and maybe still are!)

  17. Michael Esplin

    Jon Kingham:
    Perception is the measurement. How I determine how “good” I am is the measurement. In other words, the person is the yardstick.

  18. There are parallels between Chuan’s philosophy and the Western perspective. Discipline and setting high standards for oneself were all very much a part of Aristotle’s definition of creating happiness and a life of fulfillment.

    A great difference is fostering individual identity and passion. For Aristotle, happiness depended on a person finding their “function;” the thing(s) that gives someone purpose and meaning. If someone chooses and finds that being a harpist is her passion, then she should put all her efforts into being the best harpist she can be. In Chuan’s approach there doesn’t seem to be much room for kids to explore and discover that passion for themselves. What if they want to play the accordian? God forbid!

    Also, Aristotle noted that one of the purposes of education (at least a “liberal” one, of which Chuan may not approve) was to create well-rounded individuals who, besides working well, also know how to enjoy their leisure. Some of the most wonderful moments with my kids is our leisure time which includes plenty of goofing off, but also some terrific constructive and educational moments.

  19. Your child has before him the possibility of a fascinating experience, that is to say living a life. With your encouragement and experience he should be shown what an interesting place this is. Develop his instinct of curiosity encourage him to ask why, and ask him why. With your education you should not find it difficult to set some sort of example. Always try reason before discipline. Develop the child’s confidence and explain that failure is no disgrace provided you have sincerely given your best shot. Life is not easy and it is not fair, but it can be a wonderful experience with a little bit of luck, and some serious effort on his own part. Yes nothing is fun until you have mastered it. A child needs fun to develop, but contrary to some authorities on child education learning and fun are not easy bedmates. Steer him clear of any brainwashing religious or moral codes encourage him to see the reasons for action and what is best to do. Amy Chua is in my opinion some sort of control freak, who lacks true wisdom. I would not want to be her husband or child but I guess her feelings on those points would be mutual were we to meet. However that said she does highlight some important points and these are of a disciplinary nature, self discipline and accepting the discipline of others who know better.

  20. Considered in the context of a terminally ill child, the question of youth’s value becomes starkly clear. While it is true that children growing up with the knowledge of their impending death mature rapidly, the idea of preparation for the future tends to fall by the wayside. In these cases, in my limited experience, it is clear to all involved, family and friends, that the greatest goal is to allow the child to experience dream fulfillment, happiness, and a sense of magic and wonder. When development for the future is no longer a consideration, we can see the true values of the childhood experience, in all its innocent gaiety and fascination. I of course respect the value of preparing children for their adult lives, but this emotional journey of wonder and fulfillment should be followed and expanded upon for all children as well.

  21. From an ageing Man

    Looking back, I can so no advantages to adulthood whatsoever.

    At least at the internal mental level.

    To be sure one needs to be able to generate enough money for a roof a fire and food, and if the fancy takes you company, sex and possibly babies, but really, that’s all the good the adult world is. It’s just a way to get to those.

    It does offer access to wider experiences of course. Grown men can drive fast cars and loose women, and do amazing things with their biochemistry. This is passably interesting. And you get to stay up as long as you like.

    But not one jot of it is worth losing the childlike innocence and wonder of Life.

    To all children, by all means learn to behave as adults do, but never, ever become An Adult.

    That’s the term applied by one loser to another.

    To me the greatest moral crime, is when I see children that are already Adults, without ever having been Children.

  22. Michael Esplin

    The wonderful blissful life of children doesn’t exist.

  23. Michael. the life, may be not (love the ‘toon’) but the state of MIND does.

    Although I was being tongue in cheek, I am serious. The ability to recreate a state of innocence and joy, is something any adult should protect beyond anything else.

    And should never ever condition a child out of.

    Children are in Heaven, or Hell.

    Adults are taught to live in Purgatory.

    I say ‘why bother’ ? The aim of adult life is to learn how to escape the hell, and get to heaven again. Metaphorically. Purgatory is at times a necessarily somewhat better place than hell, but one should not become addicted to it.

    I am at my most repulsed when I see overweight children of 5 or 6, whose minds are already firmly enmeshed in their parents weltauncshung, where life is dull, tedious and on more or less miserable, and the only recompense is to be had by screwing your mouth up into a complaining whining ‘I am a victim’ shape, and basically being so deeply unattractive that someone will give you a sweet just to shut you up.

  24. Michael Esplin

    That’s an interesting perspective of adulthood. Trying to avoid Hell, manipulators of those who are of Heaven and Hell, and contributors to the belief of victimization. It’s a rather depressing perspective.
    Personally, I don’t think there is much difference between life of a child and the life of an adult (in a broad perspective, I’m not saying that there are not differences). However, my state of mind is that people become better as they become older in general. A few examples, sex, $$, strength, knowledge, enhanced abilities, responsibilities, freedom, etc. In my mind, the child-like innocence is nice, but it’s short-term and it was outweighed by what I desired more.

  25. s. wallerstein

    Those of us for whom childhood was hell are happy enough to dwell in purgatory as adults.

    We never were in heaven and so we don’t feel that we are missing anything.

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