Machiavelli and Steinbeck On Parenting

Machiavelli gives the following advice to prospective Princes:

“From this arises the following question: whether it is better to be loved than feared or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

I was reminded of this passage when reading John Steinbeck’s remarkable story “The Red Pony” in which he describes the complex relationship between the little boy, Jody, and his father whom he both fears and loves. Steinbeck has this interesting passage in the story:

“When the wood-box was full, Jody took the twenty-two rifle up to the cold spring at the brush line. He drank again and then aimed the gun at all manner of things, at rocks, at birds on the wing, at the big black pig kettle under the cypress tree, but he didn’t shoot for he had no cartridges and wouldn’t have until he was twelve. If his father had seen him aim the rifle in the direction of the house, he would have put off the cartridges off for another year. Jody remembered this and did not point the rifle down the hill again. Two years were enough to wait for cartridges. Nearly all of his father’s presents were given with reservations which hampered their value somewhat. It was good discipline.”

Several things jump out of these passages. To begin with, the notion that discipline might be a good thing, that a young boy might have to wait a couple of years to get what he wanted, is a dated concept — Steinbeck wrote this story in the early 1930s. But what intrigued me most was the ability of Jody’s father to “instill” both love and fear in the young boy, the very thing Machiavelli says is difficult for the Prince to do. But it is a key to good parenting, I would think. A child should respect, love and even fear the parent a bit. I am not talking about child abuse here — while Jody’s father is a bit stern, there’s no suggestion that he beats his son — I simply mean that a twinge of fear in the child that comes from the conviction that he or she knows the parents mean what they say. Jody knows his father will not give him the cartridges if he sees  him pointing the rifle at the house.  Moreover, the need to demand that Jody postpone immediate gratification, only “hampers” the value of the gift in the ten-year-old boy’s mind; in fact delayed satisfaction, increases value — the satisfaction that comes from a long-awaited gift (even if it is given with “reservations”) — all of which seem to go into the difficult (Freud says “impossible”) job of parenting.

We have lost a great deal in trashing the concept of “discipline,” insisting in all cases that it amounts to disguised abuse, and giving in to the notion that good parenting means complying with the child’s every whim. These bogus notions came from the plethora of pop-psychology books that were all the rage in the 1950s that sought to tell parents how to raise their children. This was the outcome, in turn, of a movement that started in the 1900s when the “helping professions” regarding themselves as “doctors of a sick society” decided that most of the problems with criminals in this country resulted from bad parenting and the job should be taken over by trained professionals like themselves.

This, of course, was nothing more than self-promotion on the part of educators, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and penologists. To state the case as plainly as possible, the  parents are the ones who should raise their children. The child simply needs to know the meaning of the word “no,” and he or she needs to know the parents mean what they say and that whatever else might happen, they love their child and want what is best for them. All of this comes from that difficult balance of love and fear that comprise the core of respect that should be at the center of any relationship between a child and his father or mother.  Steinbeck knew this, and his story about the red pony (which is really about Jody) gives us a convincing portrait of a child who both respects and loves his father — and fears him in the sense described above.

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One thought on “Machiavelli and Steinbeck On Parenting

  1. And, at the heart of the argument against Machiavelli’s point, is eventually the fear will subside and then what are you left with. You have to have discipline and love (or esteem) to flourish. If a child only feared his father, then after he became of age, the relationship would change and likely end. If a leader only got his subordinates to fear him, then eventually they would overthrow him or leave. On the flip side, a beloved, but incompetent leader would have problems as well. I agree that discipline has gotten a bad rap in the context you use. Good post. BTG

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