The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)

The Family That Shoulds Together

Wilfred McClay

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.3 (Fall 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 3)

Sometimes the current state of the moral universe is best glimpsed not in philosophical treatises but in flashes of light thrown off by ordinary speech. For example, I was brought up short recently by a casual comment made by a friend, a conscientious and thoroughly admirable mother of two young children, who remarked to me that in her household, the words “should” and “shouldn’t” were regarded as four-letter words, impermissible to utter. I was struck by this statement, but since she moved right along to talk about all the ways she was trying to improve her kids’ diet, my first thought was to dismiss her striking formulation as a mere passing fancy rather than a settled conviction. But I couldn’t help but wonder to myself: didn’t her words mean, strictly speaking, that the only moral proscription that she was conscious of imposing on her children and herself was the requirement they not impose moral proscriptions on themselves or others? That the only rule was to have no rules? Is that really what she meant?

I’m fairly certain this is not what she had in mind. She would not consider herself a postmodern relativist, or even know quite what that meant. And her children, far from being stereotypically wild Summerhill-style brats, seem to be turning out entirely respectful and well-behaved. I rather suspect that her prohibition against moral interdictions is more honored in the breach than the observance. What seemed to make her uncomfortable about using shoulds and shouldn’ts is something generous in her nature: that doing so seems to privilege the raw exercise of authority, the “because I said so” dimension of child-rearing, over the immediacy and authenticity of the child’s own experience, imposing aspirational standards that (1) she is not certain she has any right to foist on her child, and that (2) are likely to be unmet, thereby subjecting children to damaging feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Better to have those aspirational standards arise spontaneously out of the child’s own experience, rather than being presented as dicta from on high. Or, alternatively, to communicate them subtly and indirectly, more in the manner of nudging than coercion, in ways that will not readily bear any fingerprints of parental coercion....

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Wilfred McClay is the Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma and the author of The Masterless: Self & Society in Modern America (1994).

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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