Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Parenting and the Metaphysically Given

(originally posted at Reepicheep's Coracle)

Remember that old serenity prayer?

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

There's a lot in there that is applicable to Objectivists and to parents. Ayn Rand herself, in her essay "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made" in Philosophy: Who Needs It, used the wording of the prayer to discuss what can and cannot be changed.

"In regard to nature, “to accept what I cannot change” means to accept the metaphysically given; “to change what I can” means to strive to rearrange the given by acquiring knowledge—as science and technology (e.g., medicine) are doing; “to know the difference” means to know that one cannot rebel against nature and, when no action is possible, one must accept nature serenely." - Ayn Rand

So, a rational person does not fight against the facts of reality or waste time wishing they were different. He accepts that they are true and forms his plans taking these unchangeable facts into account. He uses the dictates of nature to succeed; he cannot succeed by fighting against them.

Another Ayn Rand quote from the same article: "The metaphysically given cannot be true or false, it simply is—and man determines the truth or falsehood of his judgments by whether they correspond to or contradict the facts of reality. The metaphysically given cannot be right or wrong—it is the standard of right or wrong, by which a (rational) man judges his goals, his values, his choices. The metaphysically given is, was, will be, and had to be."

It's easy to see how to apply this principle in scientific endeavors. It would rock if we could sit around all day eating yummy chocolate chip cookies and still be fit and healthy. But nature dictates that bodies require certain kinds of nutrients. A person who fought this rule would be miserable. He would keep trying to make excessive amounts of cookies and health line up, and he would continue to fail because he has not accepted the metaphysically given.

It's not always so easy to apply this principle to social interactions (including parenting) because we have characteristics dictated by nature and characteristics that we are able to change and control. As parents, though, we have to be able to identify the metaphysically given and not spend time trying to change things about our children that can't be changed.

First, I think we have to accept the nature of children qua children (don't I sound super philosophical now?). Read my thoughts on the nature of children and how that metaphysically given nature should influence our parenting here.

I also think that we have to accept the temperament that our children are born with. Temperament may change over time, and a full personality is certainly something we can change, but some basic traits just are, such as extroversion/introversion. For more thoughts on temperament, you can check out this podcast or Jenn's post or my post.

The metaphysically given aspect of parenting that I want to focus on in this post is developmental stage. We all know intuitively that children at different ages behave in certain ways. Everyone talks about "the terrible twos" or "a typical teenager." But there are tons of stages that aren't quite so infamous and well-known, and it can be really useful to know what they are. It can really help to know what to expect and what is normal for children of a certain age.

There has been some discussion recently on OGrownups about toddlers. The initial discussion was about a 15 month old child, whom I might not even classify as a toddler. I generally think of toddlers as children between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. (Yes, I know toddlerhood is supposed to start when children learn to walk, but no 9 month old is a toddler, even if he can walk. It's about more than just motor skill development.)

So here's what I think is metaphysically given about toddlers:

  1. Toddlers don't know how to behave. They all do really inappropriate things, like hitting, biting, spitting, throwing toys, tantrums, and much more.

  2. Toddlers have poor impulse control. When they feel like doing something, they do it.

  3. It takes lots of time and lots of repetition to teach better behavior to toddlers. No matter how reasonably you explain, how firmly you set limits, even how harshly you punish (but please don't), you'll have to do it again and again.

  4. Toddlers are early in the conceptual process, but they are forming concepts. They are beginning to learn to use logic and reason. They are not only perceptual like animals.

So, since these facts about toddlers are metaphysically given, fighting against them is like banging our heads against a wall (and that's what parenting a toddler feels like sometimes!). We have to accept these facts and use parenting strategies that take them into account.

Here are some ideas about how to use each metaphysically given fact in parenting a toddler:

  1. Be prepared for these yuck behaviors. Know they are coming. Read up on developmental stages. And when your child hits, don't think, "Oh God! He's a rights violator and will probably turn out to be a communist!" Instead think, "Wow, he's really exhibiting the traits of a toddler! What can I do to stop him from doing inappropriate things and help him learn what is more appropriate?"

  2. Practice GOYB (Get Off Your Butt) parenting. Because toddlers have trouble controlling impulses, you gotta get right into the fray and be ready to stop hitting or biting. You can't say from your comfy computer chair, "Stop hitting, Little Johnny!" You have to get up, grab Johnny's hand to prevent the hitting, and then reinforce with words. 2 year old Johnny cannot stop himself, so you better be ready to it for him.

  3. One day, one week, or even one month of putting your hand over a toddler's mouth while saying, "Keep your spit in your mouth," is not gonna do it. Your child is not particularly recalcitrant and purposefully trying to drive you to insanity. He's just little, and you will have to say it over and over and over and set the limit over and over and over. And eventually, he will mature and learn. Expecting instant or even quick success when you are not going to get it will only make you feel like a failure.

  4. Since toddlers, who are developing conceptual capability, aren't mentally like dogs, who are never gonna be conceptual, we can't treat them the same way. Behaviorist ideas, like punishments and rewards, don't help a child learn how to think about what is right and wrong. Setting a limit, with both action and words, and helping the child to understand the reason for the limit respect a child's developing conceptual mind. (For toddlers, this would be very simple. I grab his hand (gently) and say "No hitting. Hitting hurts Mommy.")

Finally, a personal note: When Livy was a toddler, I thought I would go insane repeating myself and watching her so closely when she interacted with other children. She was a super intense toddler, with tantrums like you would not believe, and a fair amount of hitting. And yet, she matured into a happy, sweet child who keeps her hands to herself and tells me pretty calmly when she is upset with me. Toddler behaviors don't last forever, thank god!

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