Is It Possible To Be An Ethical Parent? (Hint: It’s a Trick Question).


In parenting, there’s right and wrong, ethical and not. Tricky? Sure. Impossible? No.

This line in a recent New York Magazine article, called “Is Ethical Parenting Possible,” by Lisa Miller, grabbed me by the throat as I read: “Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral.”

The piece is about blahblahblah you’ve heard it all before mostly New York City parents pulling all kinds of strings to get their already-privileged kids another heaping slice of privilege pie. It’s one of those articles that, while interesting and on-trend and broadly applicable to those immersed in parenting on other rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, is just ripe as all hell for some wonderfully sarcastic commentary (to wit, this response in Jezebel, You Don’t Have to be a Rich Asshole to Raise a Successful Kid).

For me, it presses the buttons you’d imagine it might: how doing it all for our kids stunts their growing ability (not to mention their motivation) to do for themselves; how not allowing for failure (and defining “failure” as “not Harvard”) is just helping us turn out a generation of entitled adults. And that’s the post I thought I’d write.

But that line. That line, it just really nagged at me.

For a statement on which to balance an entire thesis, it’s sketchy at best. Because how are we defining “moral”? If she means, “it’s impossible to think about the perfect good of every other person on the Earth AND do the same for your own child,” then yes, that’s impossible; we are hardwired to think of our loved ones’ needs first (which is why I feel perfectly “moral” buying a week’s worth of groceries for my family, and tossing in a few extra items to donate to the food pantry. I can’t feed everyone). Total selflessness (if that’s a definition of moral or ethical) isn’t what we should be aiming for in parenting. Geez, seriously, do we still think that?

Because if you think that — that we’re supposed to be morally flawless to be a perfect parent — then you are going to fall short every day, and you’re going to know it. So then you think, “hey! All parents are immoral and unethical, in service of the good of their children! Which makes it a-ok to shove them to the front of the line, maneuver them into the better school, argue for the better grade, and… Well, you know what I’m going to say here.

But let’s pull this apart, shall we?

1. Every parent who is not psychopathic wants what is best for her children, and will move heaven and earth to achieve that. I mean, duh.

2. Every parent who does what she can to secure what is best for her child can also be a decent, caring, moral and ethical person.

That is, the state of being in which you want the best for your children doesn’t automatically make you an unethical person (it makes you normal; see #1). But, and stick with me here, nor does it mean you’re allowed to excuse actions that are actually unethical.

How can you take that giant leap from: parenting is inherently immoral because you can’t think about every other child on earth, only your own offspring; to, therefore everything you do in service to that offspring is justified, even inherently unethical crap like lying and cheating? The piece keeps setting up these equivalencies that seem false to me, unless it’s just that I’m not a hedge fund manager and I don’t live on the Upper East Side and I’d very much rather my child not go to Harvard.

For example, Miller writes: Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all.

She seems to be lumping into the same immoral stew such parenting decisions as moving to a district that has a school system that’ll give your child a good education; and lying about where you live so your child will get a spot in a great school that, by rights, belongs to people who actually do live there. Clearly, the first is normal parenting (wanting what you deem best for your child, and doing what is within your power and within the bounds of the law and ethics to achieve it); and the second is immoral, unethical, and sets a bad example.

This piece, infuriatingly, keeps making situations like these roughly equivalent. Or not equivalent, but on the same continuum: You would help your child with homework,right? Well, it’s a slippery slope from there to doing it for him, or lying about his having done it, and it doesn’t matter because either is somehow immoral because it’s impossible to be a parent without being immoral.

I know, I’m dizzy too.

She mentions sports: Why else does a father volunteer to coach Little League and then put his son in the cleanup spot? (Why else, meaning, there’s no other reason to volunteer to coach? Huh?). My husband coaches our kid’s soccer team. My son is treated the same as the rest of the team (and he’s far from the best on the team). In fact, sometimes I tug Mr. Coach’s sleeve and tell him maybe he could maybe possible cut down on his enthusiastic cheering on of the other team (“great save, goalie! Good play!”) for the sake of sportsmanship. It really can be about the love of the sport sometimes. It really can have zero to do with what happens after (school sports, trophies, scholarships, fame…Harvard).

It is absolutely possible to be a parent and be moral. All you have to do is to look beyond the here and now, to pay attention to what sort of child you care to raise. This is something parents paying $22,000 for an SAT tutor think they are doing, while I argue they are doing the opposite; they think they’re buying a good future, but they’re only buying a good school, they’re only buying a step on a ladder to what they’ve defined as success.

Listen, there are a lot of real assholes that had a great education. Amirite?

Miller writes this, too: Here’s my excuse, and I presume it’s yours, too. It’s tough out there. The future is uncertain, and no one knows what skills kids will need to get by in war or warming or economic collapse.

Mmm hmm. It is tough out there. It’s been tough for my boys’ dad and me, trying to navigate a world that increasingly feels tougher, meaner, and murkier than I expected it to be. But when I think about preparing our boys, as best anyone can, to get through whatever world is there for them (or that they help create) when they’re grown? I’m not thinking about what school they’ll go to (and therefore not thinking about the phone calls I can make or favors I can curry); I’m thinking of the skills they need. Which are no different than the ones humans have always needed to live a decent life: Compassion, honesty, integrity, intelligence, creativity, dignity. The future has always been uncertain (that’s why it’s called the future).

Parenting can certainly be moral. If our kids have any chance at all, it damn well better be.