In a society where parenting too often consists in coaxing, nagging, yelling, and indulging, some are rethinking how to raise well-behaved, virtuous children. One mother recently turned to Machiavelli for help in gaining a bit of control. Her Wall Street Journal article championed principles gleaned from the The Prince as a model for raising children and running a house. As Mrs. Evans learns, discipline and a measure of pragmatism are certainly helpful in running a household. Yet there remains a superior alternative to the Machiavellian focus on effectively wielding power: an approach based on virtue ethics.
“Power corrupts,” as Lord Acton said. Seeking power for the sake of peace and happiness might seem reasonable, but it can quickly become an end unto itself. Power easily becomes the center of one’s attention, and matters can devolve into continually striving to increase and fortify one’s power, so that nothing gets out of one’s control. A major problem here is that the ruler’s focus remains on himself, even though he may think otherwise. “I can’t let x, y, or z happen, or else I will lose the power I have worked so hard to acquire.” Taking this approach with one’s children and one’s spouse is a recipe for domestic disaster.
Now, all of this is not to say that there is not a natural power that parents have over their children. Of course there is, but it should be used respectfully and lovingly, not as part of a quest for ever-greater power. Children imitate their parents in countless ways. From the day they are born, their attitudes and habits are shaped by those of their parents. If a parent habitually makes use of lying and manipulation, children will more than likely eventually adopt this behavior, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Aristotle argues in his Nicomachean Ethics that happiness is the result of virtuous activity, and that this is developed through training. A virtue is a good habit that perfects a power of the soul. That is, it is a habit whereby one regularly chooses the good, which fulfills and perfects one’s nature. For example, the moral virtue of temperance regulates desires and pleasures of touch, particularly in matters of food, drink, and sex. He who possesses temperance will seek these goods in the amounts necessary for his good and that of his neighbor, and will seek neither too much nor too little of them. The virtuous man has self-control, and will be able to choose and enjoy a good without becoming enslaved to his desires for it.
Discipline and practical wisdom are necessary for training children in virtue. Deeply rooted habits are hard to break. Aristotle, ever the astute observer of human nature, put great emphasis on good training from the earliest years of childhood. He recognized that dispositions and habits that become ingrained at this age are very difficult to change down the road. Therefore it is all the more important to inculcate in a child an attitude aimed at acquiring virtue rather than one that thinks in terms of power.
Image: John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Familie Copley