Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Peikoff on Parenting as Career

Hooray for Dr. Leonard Peikoff's strong statement supporting parenting as a legitimate career - aka central purpose - in his podcast of Jan 31, 2011!  I have always been dissatisfied with Ayn Rand's lukewarm (and, as far as I know, only) statement on the subject, given in her Playboy interview of March 1964:
PLAYBOY: In your opinion, is a woman immoral who chooses to devote herself to home and family instead of a career?

RAND: Not immoral—I would say she is impractical, because a home cannot be a full-time occupation, except when her children are young. However, if she wants a family and wants to make that her career, at least for a while, it would be proper—if she approaches it as a career, that is, if she studies the subject, if she defines the rules and principles by which she wants to bring up her children, if she approaches her task in an intellectual manner. It is a very responsible task and a very important one, but only when treated as a science, not as a mere emotional indulgence.

This answer has always bothered me, even before I had a child.  What happened to the union of the moral and the practical?  And why is legitimate career parenting treated as the exception here?  Those of us who do take our parenting roles seriously should not be tainted by the fact that most parents do not treat their role scientifically (if they think about it at all).  Just because most people make a mess out of parenting does not diminish it as a legitimate, productive, creative, moral central purpose for those of us who take it seriously.

I would have liked to hear her answer, "No - absolutely not immoral!"  I would have liked to hear her say that, of course, it is moral, and it can be one of the most fulfilling careers in existence.  And then if she wished to speak about the lazy, unthinking parents - fine.  In fact, I would have loved a long rant from Ayn Rand on that subject.

I know that Ayn Rand did think parenting is important work.  She says so in the statement above, and she makes it clear in the scene with the mother in Atlas Shrugged.  Personally, I have never had any qualms about the morality (or the practicality) of my choice to be a professional parent.  I know firsthand how fulfilling it is and even if Ayn Rand did think otherwise, I wouldn't give a damn.

But there is a lot of misunderstanding amongst young Objectivists about the virtue of productivity, and it comes out in the parenting field all the time.  (Rational Jenn addresses many of the common objections in this post.)  We Objectivist professional parents have always been somewhat on the defensive on this issue, and Rand's statement does more harm than help, I think.  So I cheered when I heard Dr. Peikoff make the following statements in response to the question of whether raising children could be a legitimate central purpose:
"I think it is the responsibility of the parent to look after young children personally.  I think it gives room for tremendous creativity. It's very important in their development."

"However strong I am about career, I do not believe that you have a baby and dump it in day care."

"If you intend to be a weekend parent, I don't think you should have children."

"If you have children, they have to be the focus; they are your responsibility, and it is not a job that can be passed off to someone else - not without harm to the children. That's my understanding; I'm not a pediatrician."

Unfortunately, most of Peikoff's statement came from the perspective of the children's needs, which I don't think justifies whether parenting is a valid central purpose.  But I loved that his answer was an unqualified "Yes!"

I do disagree slightly with Peikoff about it necessarily harming children to put them in day care while both parents work.  I think that can be a legitimate choice as well.  But I do agree with the sentiment that, if you choose to have children, they must be the focus.  So a mother might go back to a career that she enjoys outside the home, but it could no longer be her central purpose, at least not while the children are young.  Her outside career would be on hold, and working in it would be a placeholder.  Some careers would be ruined by taking a ten year break, and I think it would be a sacrifice to give up such a career forever if it is your passion, just for the ten years of child-rearing.  I also don't think that those people should never have children.  I think it is possible to have both (not two central purposes at once, but the central purpose of raising children, with a full-time job on the side), but one had better be ready for some seriously hard work, and to give up many other optional values, if that is one's choice.

I think that during those ten years (or whatever the appropriate amount of time is), the working mother (or the father) would have to have the attitude that the children come first.  This would exclude any type of career that requires both parents to work very long hours, or to be so spiritually drained at the end of the day that they have nothing left for the children.  I completely agree with Dr. Peikoff that, if you intend to be a weekend parent, you should not have children.  His argument is that they need more of their parents (or at least, one parent) than that.  My argument is that it could be nothing but a sacrifice.  Without at least one parent having the direct influence on the children, every day, the children are not really even "yours."  They won't absorb your family culture. They won't see you as a role model and (hopefully) emulate your virtues.  They won't be "of you," except in the crudest, genetic way.  (And I know exactly how much that is worth.) You will not have a true family, but just a marriage with young strangers involved. The children won't know you, and you won't know them.  What's the point in that?  What value would you be hoping to gain from that situation?

The good news is that I do think that when you have two parents in a good marriage, one can indeed work long hours and only be there on the weekends.  His (or her) influence on the children will be there, indirectly, through the other partner.  But if both parents are essentially absent, the connection is severed.  And that is a recipe for disaster, for all involved.


  1. Good post. I was also heartened by Peikoff's statement. Ive met too many non-parent or anti-parent objectivists that I fear if we ever do become successful in the culture, the society will only last a single lonely generation.

  2. While I think Rand is implying that treating parenting as a science is the exception in society, I don't think this answer makes parenting sound like a less serious career choice. As a side note, if I recall, she herself used pregnancy as an analogy for her work on her novels.

    As for the moral vs. practical - it is interesting why she phrased it that way. I think she is trying to take the question out of the realm of morality as such: it is moral to choose to have a family instead of a career, but it is impractical to devote oneself to one's family and *not* be professional about it. And being a professional means knowing when to stay put or let go and not let emotions take over (thus the comment about "emotional indulgences").

    Also, think of the context: who would have been reading this interview? It would have been the layman who got clichéd explanations for why one ought or ought not to have children - i.e., an emotional reason from a spouse, and altruistic reasons from family, society and intellectuals. These explanations are still prevalent today.

    However, I do have a follow-up question and comment: (1) is parenting no longer a moral career choice if one's children are teenagers? From my reading of her answer, it sounds like she would think so. At what point is a child no longer in need of a full-time caregiver? I'm not looking for an actual age as such, but perhaps some milestones, such as the ability to look after one's own basic needs, or the ability to trust them to leave them at home alone. (2) She says that it would be proper to choose parenting as a career, but I don't think it follows that she would say it would be *im*proper to *not* choose parenting as a career if one decided to have a family. Which I think is ok, as long as the parent does not cede moral and legal responsibility for the child to someone else while one is capable of parenting.

    Your observation about focus is spot on - I find it hard to commit equally to career and children for the first 3 years of a child's life. Also, as someone who has had the privilege of having full-time housekeeper and nanny, I can tell you that even though she often helped to care for my children, I still had to spend quite a bit of time training her to use our parenting methods, and that there was no question as to who are the parents.

  3. Yuen, for #1, I don't know for sure, but if you send your kids to school outside the home, full time parenting might properly end when the youngest starts first grade. I can't imagine how anyone could be fulfilled with what remains after that, but I'm not there yet. But that doesn't mean everyone should go get a full time job at that point - just that it seems like you'd have to start moving on once your kids are out of the house for a good portion of the day. But you still couldn't properly be a weekend parent at that point, in my view. You'd still need to invest significant time and energy in the children for them to be a proper value to you. So when could one go back to an intense level of work that leaves only weekends (or less) free? I suspect that depends on the child. Once they can drive, and they have enough independent values to guide them, very little is probably required from the parent. 16-18 years old?

    For #2, I agree that it does not follow as you say. I don't think Ayn Rand was trying to say anything on the subject that most of my post was about. I was responding to Peikoff in that. And like Peikoff, I would go further than to say that a parent must not cede moral or legal responsibility for children to others. I don't think two lawyers working 80+ hours per week should have kids, no matter how they handle it. It's a bad choice for them and for the kids.

    But even after your comments, I still see AR's remarks as almost grudgingly accepting of parenting as a career. And actually, now I'm wishing Peikoff said even more about what the parents get out of it, instead of being so focused on what kids need. Why is it so hard for Objectivists to see parenting as productive, fulfilling, creative work?

  4. On a side note, I think that "central purpose in life" (CPL) and "career" are not synonyms. A CPL is a broad abstraction that covers a vast range of productive activities, including a career. A career is a logical upward progression of levels of work. A CPL subsumes the career, just as a career subsumes particular jobs, and particular jobs subsume particular tasks.

    An example of a CPL is to portray the ideal man in fiction or to design and build buildings. An example of a traditional career (in medicine) is pre-med school, medical school, internship, and so forth (in becoming a physician).

    In an analogy (with all the pitfalls of analogies) to a novel, one could say that a person's CPL is the productive "theme" of his life. His career is the productive "plot" of his life.

    My view of the nature of a central purpose in life:

  5. Burgess, you're right. I was using the terms interchangeably out of laziness. But I'm not sure if parenting, since it is necessarily not a life-long activity, would fit into "career" or "CPL". What do you think?

  6. I would say the answer is "Yes."

    A central purpose in life need not cover one's whole lifespan. One could have two CPLs in sequence, although the after-parenting one might be difficult for achieving mastery because fewer years might be available for that.

    And parenting is (can be, should be) a logical sequence ranging from making the decision, preliminary research, having (or adopting) a child, and then all the subsequent stages of the parent's own development as the child develops. If the parent home-schools, then the schooling will go through a logical sequence of stages -- more and more abstract, I suppose.

    So, parenting (as a fully focused, integrated activity) involves both a CPL (as a guiding abstraction) and a career (as a logical plan of action).

    Variations are available. A parent could, when the children are independent, turn his own parenting career into a related career such as teaching children, being a child psychologist, or teaching parents to parent. That would be an evolving CPL with a spine of a lifelong career.

    Or a parent could switch from parenting to nuclear engineering or some other beloved but radically different subject when the children are old enough. The parent would then have a life with two distinct CPLs in sequence. Both would contribute to happiness (if possible) or at least satisfaction, as Ayn Rand has noted.

    The choice of CPL and career are personal. What matters is integration. That is what a CPL, as an abstraction, does: it integrates a vast range of activities. Likewise a career plan integrates various "jobs" into a logical sequence so that there is ever-higher progress and not just a heap of actions.

    My summary would be this: The primary parent needs a clearly stated CPL and a career plan of some sort for the parenting.

  7. In thinking about this more, there is generally a hesitancy in society (including myself) toward thinking of parenting as a career, since it is "necessarily not a life-long activity," as you say. But that's a confused view of career that many people have - that one has one career over one's lifetime. Perhaps that is ideal, in the sense that, if one worked toward one thing for a lifetime (e.g., Howard Roark, Richard Feynman), the culmination of all of one's efforts should not only be significant in scope but make one truly happy. But people don't generally think that someone who has had more than one career is less productive, so, if they stopped to think about it, parenting shouldn't be considered less productive, either.

    BTW I would say that if Ayn Rand gave an emphatic answer such as "parenting is certainly *not* immoral" - it would sound defensive of parenting, which I don't think she wanted to do in her answer.

    In the end, I think the job that's closest to being a parent is that of a sole proprietor or partner in a school for at least 5 years who also had to teach about 20 hours a day. (If you hired a nanny or a tutor or a governess, then you'd be training teachers on top of that.) Though I had some idea of the kind of work that parenting entailed before I started, I wish someone had given me this analogy before I started, because then I would have prepared a lot more. That people decide to have children *without* planning on teaching in this day and age ... well, perhaps there are some parts of the world where, even today, it may be so primitive that it is not possible to plan, but when I hear reasons such as "I came out ok, so why should I?" (!) - there's no excuse.

  8. Yuen, I think people rationalize that "activities" are all the teaching that kids need. Stick them in an art class and you don't have to think about it. Wrong!

    But I do feel that I don't need to do much formal "teaching" since Sam is in Montessori. Most of the "teaching" that I do with her is really just us talking about things. Sam is a talker, so this works for us. Sure we read, we cook, we grow butterflies, we even do workbooks, but I don't do much planning for that stuff, and usually I let her interests lead me. I've found that when I try to do activities from books like "Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready" she is just not interested, so planning does not work. What I have to do is be aware of her interests and find ways to exploit them at the right moment. Like now, she is becoming aware of time and place, so we've started talking about clocks and calendars, and as soon as the weather improves, I plan to walk the neighborhood with her and draw a map of it together. But I can't seem to plan ahead for those things, or I get the timing wrong and she resists. I look forward to seeing you in person soon so we can talk about these issues!