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.

Don’t Blame Me!

We have assuredly become a nation of victims. The latest in the long list of people who refuse to lie in the beds of their own making is a group of convicts in an Idaho prison. This comes under the heading of “seriously weird” as a story in HuffPost tells us”

Five inmates at the Idaho State Correctional Institution are suing national beer and wine companies for $1 billion, claiming that alcohol was responsible for their crimes, the Associated Press reports. The civil suit alleges that they were not sufficiently warned about alcohol’s addictive properties.

One must stifle a laugh as the attempt to sue the alcohol industry is almost as absurd as the amount requested in the suit. But the story is indicative of a flaw in our cultural character — if you will allow the notion. In a society where all are victims, none are victims. We have become a nation unwilling to accept responsibility for our actions. As my former colleague and prolific author, Joe Amato, has said about what he calls “viictimology”:

The word “victim,” once a religious term and until very recently used primarily to describe individuals or groups abused by nature or government, has come to form in our world the standard language of hypercomplaint. The dialect of victimology is increasingly utilized not only to express real and significant injustices but to level charges for unachieved expectations and unrealized imagined potentials.”

A bit wordy, I admit, but on the mark. We have stolen the word “victim” from religion and use it recklessly; we like to feel sorry for ourselves. And the notion that a group of individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes can seriously consider passing the buck to the alcohol industry that “made them” commit their crimes must give us pause. If it’s not intended as a joke, or simply to draw attention to the five men, it suggests that these men see themselves as victims of an industry that should have warned them ahead of time that drinking can be addictive. Seriously?

The lawsuit is absurd on its face, of course, but it points to the salient fact that as a culture we have forgotten that right actions follow from sound character. Aristotle taught us long ago that the heart and soul of ethical behavior is good character and that good character is formed early on — Freud later insisted that it occurred before the child is five years of age. It requires correction and even the act of “judging” others — namely our own children — in an attempt to correct aberrant behavior.

But we have been in the hands of the pop-psychologists for many years now and we have been taught not to be “judgmental” and that we shouldn’t spank our children — or even attempt to correct their behavior in any way because it will traumatize them and thwart their potential and their creativity. We fail to realize that when we forget how to judge our conscience, which lies at the heart of the faculty of judgment, becomes dormant.

Our grandparents must be looking on in disbelief wondering how we could have swallowed this pile of crap. We look the other way and ignore our kids when they misbehave, refusing in our bewilderment to suggest that perhaps they should do the right thing. Indeed, the notion of “the right thing” has become circumspect in a culture that reduces all facts to opinions, ethics to common practice,” and morality to morés which, like table manners, can be changed at will.

We are not all victims. We need to acknowledge our mistakes and try to learn from them. We pride ourselves on our honesty as a culture, but we are dishonest when we insist that behavior should never be corrected and parents and teachers should not dictate what behavior is acceptable for children. Indeed we shirk our own responsibility as adults, as Hannah Arendt insisted years ago. In the end it is all about accepting responsibility for our actions — and our lack of action.

Poor Mom And Dad!

I am struck by the irony that behavioral psychologists are now writing books to remedy some of the problems triggered by their own colleagues years ago. This is especially true in the realm of parenting where parents have been told by “pop-phychologists” how to raise their kids for many years now. I referred recently to a book by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell that deals with the narcissism they are convinced stems from the “self-esteem” movement that has taken over the schools –and our homes. Like the teachers, parents have bought into the notion that their kids need more self-esteem and the way to achieve that goal is to keep telling them they can walk on water. As Twenge and Campbell point out in their book “Thinking that you’re great when you actually stink is a recipe for narcissism, yet this is what many parents and teachers encourage in children every day in the name of self-esteem.”

Twenge and Campbell admit that a part of the problem, at least, stems from some of the books their colleagues wrote back in the 60s and 70s — books such as PET: Parent Effectiveness Training written in the early 70s which told parents to be less authoritarian and that they need to be “pals” with their kids, insisting that “saying adults know more [than their kids]. . .is akin to the belief that some racial groups are superior to others.” Seriously! In a word, parents shouldn’t be telling their kids what to do, they should ask the kids what they want and go from there. The roles of parents and kids soon began to reverse, according to Twenge and Campbell, as parents became kids and kids became parents — telling their parents what they wanted and even what they should be doing.

My sense of things is that this movement dovetailed with the growing need felt by parents in the 70s and 80s for both Mom and Dad to work in order to provide their families with the material goods our commodified culture insists will guarantee them “the good life,” a life that was repeatedly paraded before them on their television sets. This trend has continued and, if the parents are not separated or divorced, they spend less time with their kids, are tired when they get home from work (feeling a bit guilty) and they take the path of least resistance which is simply to let the kids have their heads. “Yes” is easier to say than “No.”

All of this is coupled with the growing self-esteem movement to translate into a doctrine that turned the homes and schools upside down: parents and teachers now want to be friends with the kids and center their lives and teaching around what the kids want. In the schools this movement was carried along by the student-centered educational theories of John Dewey and his colleagues at the University of Chicago initiated in the early part of the twentieth century resulting in a strange blend of common sense (the child matters) with nonsense (the child rules).

In any event, psychologists like Twenge and Campbell are now back-peddling frantically as they try to make parents realize that it was all a terrible mistake: by putting the child at the center of the family’s universe, he or she becomes the center of their own universe. The chickens are coming home to roost. The self-esteem movement has resulted in kids who turn into dictatorial, narcissistic adults (as mentioned in a previous blog) who are convinced that they are entitled to be handed the controls of their lives and the lives of those around them (including their parents and teachers), creating growing numbers of adults who live in a self-centered, fantasy universe, talking, singing, and writing about themselves — the only interesting people they know. These are character flaws that cannot be easily altered.  The tiny snowball the pop-psychologists started down the mountain in the 60s and 70s has now become an avalanche.

The solution to this cultural malady is for the parents and teachers to simply resume control of the homes and schools. They need to teach the kids the meaning of the word “no” and mean it when they say it. I would also add that we need to pay more attention to what kids need and less attention to what they say they want. Kids need structure and discipline: it helps bring them back to reality from the fantasy world they have come to believe is real and it centers their lives. As things now stand they are becoming increasingly self-absorbed, conceited, aggressive, and convinced that they are entitled to wear the crown that rightfully belongs to the adults who used to rule the world and who now sit at their feet nervously waiting to be told what to do.