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?