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Related Topics
The Philosophical ParentReview - The Philosophical Parent
Asking the Hard Questions About Having and Raising Children
by Jean Kazez
Oxford University Press, 2017
Review by Samuel LeBlanc
Jan 2nd 2018 (Volume 22, Issue 1)

Being a parent is the best and worst thing that can happen. Or, as Anne Lamott, mother of Sam, is quoted in Kazez's The Philosopher Parent, "I feel that he has completely ruined my life, because I just didn't used to care so much" (177). To this, add that there are more than 7 billion of us on the planet and you have a book that is easy and impossible to write. Parenthood is inherently social, so much so, that talking about it can be nauseating. Everyone has an opinion on every conceivable subject about what should--and shouldn't--be done. But asking thoughtful questions is a refreshing exercise for tired parents, like me with my 3-year-old daughter, and to this end, Kazez's contribution is a welcome one.

A parent of twins herself, Kazez divides her book in 18 fundamental questions that find their ways in parents' busy lives. She balances rigorous philosophical analysis, handling meta-ethical issues--such as the burden or blessing of being born; and practical matters with philosophical import--like in the case of lying to one's child. The tone of the book is just right, inviting readers into an intelligent and rich conversation.

Kazez's theoretical approach resides in Aristotle's idea that a child is an extension of the self. For example, she equates being concerned by the survival of her child with her own survival, or when she feels a touch puzzled about being proud of her child's accomplishment. Most of her arguments rely on this core idea, whether they relate to population control, custody issues, adoption, or circumcision.

Once the metaphysical issues are in place, the journey begins with life. Chapter 2 is devoted to conception, whether it's a duty, a fulfillment of a desire, or a source of happiness. The provocative idea that we are lucky to be born, presented through Dworkin's argument, is contrasted with the possible rights of yet-to-be-born children, and if parenthood is good as such. Kazez relies on the compelling question, "Can I function as a parent, regarding this child as a second self?" (29) to guide her case for having children, or not.

Chapters 3 and 4 attend to quantity and quality, nuancing threats of global overpopulation with regional variations, and personal realization. From divine to governmental interventions, Kazez confronts various viewpoints and balances her personal growth approach with the virtue of social responsibility. Discussions of quantity easily transition into preoccupations of the "quality" of newborns, in chapter 4, where parents are responsible for some choices. For instance, ought parents screen for future ailments (as we did), use in vitro fertilization, or optimize the time for conception? Kazez's analysis does justice to introduce the reader to some of what is in play prior to birth.

Actual conception, the topic of chapter 5, appears a bit far into the book, but nonetheless refreshingly as it involves a rich set of questions. The origin of life is a philosophical marvel, as we consider the growth of an embryo into a child composed of millions of cells. Matters are made more complex and unpredictable with Kazez's analysis of twins and miscarriages. If all goes well, 9 months later, parents embark on a journey described in chapter 6 as a voyager's trek. Natural births are contrasted with drug assisted ones by focusing on issues of pain and pleasure, as well as other values such as maximizing experience awareness, to conclude that every birthing story is memorable.

Once the child is there, whose is it? Mine, yours, everyone's, or no one's? Having created a new organism, chapters 7 and 8 deal with questions of property, identity, autonomy, prerogatives, and adoption. Once again, seeing a child as second self accomplishes much of the argument in having the right to determine the child's future. Building around Locke's theory of property, Kazez explains that unlike, say a house, a child has rights with regards to the parent; a human-to-human relationship is symmetrical in a way that a human-to-thing relationship isn't. As soon as parental rights are respected, including the right to give up or adopt a child, nothing, says Kazez, prevents adoptive parents from being fully parents themselves.

With rights and prerogatives determined, the aims of the parent are analyzed in chapter 9. Here again, the broad Aristotelian framework of the good life is the guiding voice. While happiness comes in many forms, the parent in Kazez's view ought to be "flexibly directive" (142), discouraging the tyrannical or steward-like approaches. Heritage and open-endedness underpin her philosophical approach in a way that reinforces the child's growing sense of autonomy.

But, obviously, all isn't up to the child. Circumcision and child-care are taken up in chapters 10 and 11. The former benefits from a health, religious, and social analysis, accepting that it may be impossible to determine whether to cut or not. Exploring her own Jewish heritage, Kazez admits to the unease behind the Orthodox reason for circumcision, that is of a father doing a "very, very hard thing," (168) to their boy as a testament of faith. From this hard event, Kazez transitions to the daily challenges associated with caring for a new life as part of already full ones. Women face especially dividing decisions as society still deems them to be predominant caregivers. Is motherhood compatible with a flourishing of life? If Anne Lamott, quoted above, is one version, it isn't everyone's. Kazez also explores the wanting and repetitive sides of parenthood, which for some cannot replace the satisfaction of a career.

With aging children, even very young ones, parents are confronted with the gender question. Chapter 12 tackles the blue pink dichotomy, with the philosophical parent not accepting this simplistic division. For Kazez, this issue concerns gender, sex, mental differences, and identity. Transcending the explicit sex differences associated with genitalia, Kazez appeals to biology to shed light on the spectrum of sexuality, including trans- and intergender realities. When it comes to the polemical theme of "male versus female" brains, she argues how boys and girls are more alike, than unlike, concluding that a balanced view of gender is required.

Turning to a more practical theme, the philosophical parent is put to task when it comes to group efforts in chapter 13. Should we to contribute to the school parent teacher association, attend performances of all schoolchildren (not only ours), and vaccinate our child? All of these issues boil down to the free-rider problem, which is that so long as others engage (e.g. get vaccinated), me or my child is free to do whatever she wants. But, as argues Kazez, these behaviors betray society's projects, where no child is more special than another, and that we should strive to flourish together.

The categorical wrongness of free-riding affords a nice transition into chapter 14's world of lying. Asking the questions of if and when is it all right to lie, Kazez covers many different scenarios. From convenient lies to avoid long explanations with a child for pragmatic reasons, to lying for one's child, the philosophical parent should engage in a progressive disclosure of truths. What is crucial, argues Kazez, is that the value of truthfulness is upheld. As we move to chapter 15, truth is front and center as we explore the issue of religion. Of Jewish tradition, Kazez explores this with regards to her children, for whom she wished a deeper religious experience, in the spirit of a child as a second self. However, after attending several religious education classes with her children, the unanswered questions, theological shortcuts, and indoctrination provoke Kazez to remove her twins. Respecting various approaches to religion, as well as parents' prerogatives, she argues for light, open, and progressive religious contact.

As time passes by children grow up. This puts Kazez's emphasis on the child as second self to the test. Exploring alternative ways of letting go, or not, control is at the heart of this process, which is taken up in chapter 16. Cases of obsessive parents and over-identifying ones, to the self-orphaning of children are dealt with the adroitness that comes with flourishing mindset. Kazez's identification to her children, we are told, facilitated their departure, since she sought adventure. Letting go, even if trying, nourishes autonomy.

Yet for the most part, it isn't full autonomy as the parent child relationship endures. In chapter 17 Kazez inverts the parent child relationship. What ought our children do for us? Do they owe us anything? Can they identify with us as a second self? Kazez builds from Confucian filial piety to invite children to be good to their parents, but falls short of reverence, for as we are told and can imagine, it depends on the context. An unhappy childhood, caused by heartless parents can't be expected to foster a caring relationship. Here, self-orphaning might be the only good option, despite its costs.

For all of the questioning and uneasy or paradoxical answers, why become a parent? In her final chapter, Kazez looks to psychology and economics to inform the philosopher parent. Drawing attention to the partiality of those studies, Kazez also points philosophy's failure to really notice parenthood until recently. The quest for the meaningful life shouldn't be reduced to happiness indexes or being able to reach universal philosophical truths. Parenthood is rich for the new experiences, even if destabilizing, it provides. Kazez reclaims Nussbaum's concept of fragility to show how parenthood makes growth, openness, and transcendence possible. Parenthood is duly promoted alongside other fulfilling lives, with moments of sorrow mixed in with elation and meaning.

The Philosopher Parent is a diverse, rich, funny, tragic, as well as analytical adventure in one of life's most challenging journeys. Kazez tackles ancient as well as contemporary questions by resting much on her use of the child as second self. But this, in turn, invites more questions. How are two unique parents to view the same child as their second self? And, what of my faults? How can the second self justify raising my child to be very different from me, a sort of second self that is a non-self? Finally, although it is easy to suggest more content to cover, and that The Philosopher Parent deals very well with the significant aspects of parenthood, the absence of a deeper treatment of emotions and new technologies is striking. As companions to Kazez's book, Matthew Pianalto's On Patience, Martha Nussbaum's Anger and Forgiveness, and Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age philosophically equip parents and parents to be.


© 2017 Samuel LeBlanc


Samuel LeBlanc is PhD candidate, at the Faculty of Education, University of New Brunswick (Canada) working on the 21st century intellectually virtuous student.


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