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IX

Parenting one child (well) is a very large project. Deciding to do it is a big deal. It creates lots of obligations towards the child. And they are very time-sensitive -- child needs help now, not later. They are hard to reschedule.

Lots of questions and hypotheticals about parenting involve two children (or more). Many of them try to prove painless parenting is impossible by putting forward difficult situations and claiming there is no solution. Fundamentally, these issues are not very interesting. Two kids? Well of course it's easy to craft very difficult situations out of that. You've taken on two, separate, very large, very time sensitive projects, with unpredictable and hard to change schedules. Of course that's probably not going to work very well. Just like one kid + one arctic expedition. Or one arctic expedition + one space expedition (simultaneously). Or trying to raise your young kid attentively while President.

Many people would say, "But I want 2 (or more) children, and I don't want to have the second one when I'm 50." I agree that with present lifespans having multiple children while avoiding overlap is not much of an answer (occasionally people have more kids after their first one or set grow up. it can work. but it isn't like some great idea to recommend to everyone). Also, by the way, there always must be a little overlap unless the first child dies. But when child is mostly independent then it is no longer problematic: you have plenty of time, attention, etc, for a new large project.

Note also that any problems which result from choosing 2+ children were in no way fundamentally inevitable dilemmas! They were avoidable. You chose to face them. And, if they are seriously troubling you, then you chose to face them without being adequately prepared, which again is not at all inevitable. And note also that many common examples of potential problems with 2+ kids, such as them fighting ... well they are common! They are well known! If you have a second kid without thinking about how to solve known difficulties in advance, and being satisfied that it will work out OK, then that is gross negligence. And if you do think you can solve them, but turn out to be mistaken, then you were mistaken, so again there was no inevitability here, just human error.

So, what *is* my answer? It is: wanting 2+ children does not address the issue of what should be wanted, which is what I'd like to know about, and consider most important. Should we want that? If we are prepared to deal with the problems it entails, then it's fine, if we are not, then we should not. This is a very liberal rule. It allows for a wide range of personal taste. It only says that if we aren't prepared to handle it, then we shouldn't want it. Otherwise, it's up to you. Judge based on your values, and I have no particular advice (Well, I guess I do think people should in general move away from large families, and towards paying more attention to less children. In fact that is a trend: more developed nations have less kids per family.)

One kid is a massive responsibility. People wildly underestimate it. Kids take time and money. People know that much, although they actually take more time than is thought if you want to parent really well (and if you don't want that, please don't have kids). They also take more money than people expect, if that money is available. And being budgeted for beer and cigarettes counts as available.

Kids are born in ignorance. Not like your stupid friend. This is serious ignorance like you can't imagine. I can't imagine it either. To properly imagine it we'd need to realize that most of our ways of looking at the world don't exist in such an ignorant person, so they give us inaccurate views. The more we think about it and create knowledge and understanding of what it means to be so ignorant, the more we are *not* seeing through their eyes. Damn hard to imagine what it's like. But understanding, and explaining, is something else. We can do that. One thing we can understand is that children need a lot of help and advice to become knowledgeable members of our culture. Expecting them to figure it all out themselves is lunacy. It is *not* lunacy because children are dumb, or their brains don't work right, or they are lazy, or they are incapable, or anything like that. But consider the past. Think of the dark ages. Think of the static societies. Think of the wars (war is on the decline). Why would past societies live in such ineffective, violent, awful ways, when they perfectly well could have invented all the good ideas we have today like democracy and freedom? Because inventing all these good ideas is hard! So, if you were to not help your kid they'd have the same sort of chance of coming up with good ideas as a neglected kid from the dark ages (with various caveats: other people might help. TV might help. Books might help. Modern appliances create extra leisure time. School would ruin everything. etc). The point is the truth is not manifest. Whole societies failed to find a lot of our good ideas for generation after generation. So it's important to help new people to learn all the great stuff we already know, not to expect them to reinvent it. So, parenting takes a lot of "teaching" (teaching is a loaded word).

School, church, and daycare cannot be expected to educate your children for you. (And if you want them to then you should reconsider why you want to have a child in the first place.)

Daycare hardly tries. I don't think many people would seriously try to argue daycare is the best place for kids. They would only say parents have a right to work and have their own lives, and daycare may be a necessary evil. That doesn't seem logical to me. If you want to "work and have your own life" and not have enough time in it for a kid then don't have a kid! What if you want to parent but only a little? Part time? Well, you could babysit. Or you might consider sharing one child with another couple. If you are thoughtful and live close (or share a house) then that certainly could work out fine for child. Why is it better than daycare? Because then child is around people who care about him personally and want to help him. At daycare there isn't much personal attention: the caretakers are focussed more on avoiding disasters (fights, tantrums, very upset children). You might object that having 4 parents would lead to fights about which values to teach child. I have two things to say about that. The first is that if you care so much about what values child has then shouldn't you be willing (and happy) to spend lots of time with child teaching him those values? The idea that daycare is better than extra parents because they won't teach him values (or much of anything) so he won't be changed when you get him back is essentially praising daycare for *not* being a place of learning, while simultaneously advocating daycare. My second comment is that it's silly to fight over which values to teach child: you should all present your best ideas and then child should make his own decision about what makes sense to him. All parents need to be prepared for the possibility their child will disagree with them about one of their values (or about anything). Complaining about some other adults being in positions of too much influence (that is, as much as you have) really comes down to complaining you have less power to control your child, and fear that he will not be obedient. That is a bad attitude.

What about Church? First, religions are very strong memes. Caution advised. Next, Church's don't claim to teach you everything you need to know. They have only a limited sphere they address. Next, religious philosophy contains errors. Never mind whether it's right *on the whole*, there are individual errors in thinking -- mistakes. It would be irresponsible to send your kids to be taught such things without helping them to understand rational philosophy, critical thinking, and logic, so that they are equipped to evaluate religious claims in the best ways that we know how. One specific example is faith. Religions ask people to have faith. Philosophically, rationally, that is no good. We should think about our beliefs and do our best to choose good ones. Embracing faith means being less thoughtful. So, at most Church can provide an incomplete education while requiring some other education for it to approached with reason.

For what it's worth, I may be not religious, and I believe there is no God, but I do not hate religion. I say this because the mainstream position of atheists today is extreme hostility to religion. Examples include Dawkins and Hitchens (Christopher. His brother is religious!). And even though I believe the largest claims made by religions are false and are magical thinking, I also think a lot of what they have to say is pretty good.

That leaves school. The first thing to consider is that most schools are Government run, and are run much worse than the post office. But that can be dealt with: you can get your kids into a private school, or a particular public school you believe is better, if you care enough. The second thing to consider is that schools expect children to be obedient. This makes them largely unsuitable places to get an education for thinking people. There can be exceptions, but people who expect obedience make very bad helpers for helping you to learn what *you* want and what *you* are interested in. Schools teach the lesson plan, not your interests. And they don't let you pick and choose what to learn according to your interests. They have homework and tests and quizzes about each topic to monitor you. Why do they need to monitor you and invade your privacy? Why can't you decide for yourself how it's going and whether you want extra help? Because they want obedience, and they need to monitor if you are being obedient, so they can punish you if you haven't learned what they want, at the time they want, and agreed with their conclusions about it. So, schools are bad places. Don't expect your children to attend. And if they do attend, don't expect them to receive much education. And if they do attend, much like with religion, it will go much better for them if they learn critical thinking skills first. It will be better if they understand that the people with authority are not necessarily right, and that obedience is bad (and also that disobedience will be punished -- children should be warned of detentions, various types of mental pressure, failing grades, and so on). School is easier to deal with for people with the knowledge to be confident, assertive, and calm in the face of hostility or adversity. Children should understand that their interests *do* matter, and that following the one-size-fits-all lesson plan is *not* the best way to learn, though it is important for avoiding trouble. And so on. Lots of skills help.

So, if school, church, and daycare won't education your kid, that leaves you. You need to be prepared to explain all sorts of things. If you don't like giving explanations then what business do you have wanting to be a parent? You also need to be prepared to learn all sorts of things that your child asks about and you don't already know. And also to sometimes learn with your child, together. And to teach him how to find things out. And so on. Big responsibility. Remember, children are born with huge ignorance.

The theme has been that parenting is a big responsibility. Many parents have a kid and suddenly feel hugely responsible for the child's safety and well being. This is a somewhat strange phenomenon. Didn't they think about this in advance? Why should the child being born be a major learning experience or cause a revelation? But, OK, they are right. They have that responsibility. They need to be careful. Just leaving everyday objects in places a child can reach could be dangerous and requires some thought.

What happens next, often, is that parents are so protective, and are so used to doing things for child's own good, to help him, and help keep him safe, is that when child wants to do something parent considers dangerous then parent tries to thwart child and is frustrated by his lack of obedience. "Why won't you listen to me? I do so much to keep you safe. Why won't you cooperate?" But obedience is not the right way to help people, offering good ideas is the way to help. Obedience is the way to force.

Another thing that happens is parents want to protect their children from *ideas*. And I don't just mean a meme that causes suicide, or an idea designed as a weapon of war, or something out of a sci fi book. I'm talking about mundane, ordinary ideas like about courtship, sex, profanity, drugs, birth, and sometimes TV in general. And sometimes even anything the parent disagrees with he labels a "harmful influence" and wants gone. This is absolutely the wrong approach. The way to fight ideas is not to hide from them, it is to criticize them. This isn't just best because it's most effective. The crucial issue is that it helps test whether you are right or wrong: it's hard to criticize effectively when you are wrong, but much easier when you are right. So using criticism causes *error correction* whereas refusing to think about the other idea has no way of correct errors if you are wrong. And some of the above it isn't even a *wrong* idea the parent wants kept hidden. It is the truth. Parents try to make their children ignorant of sex and birth, for example. What good can come of such a thing? The justifications for this are laughably flimsy. Children "aren't ready" to know such things. But why? There is no reason. People might claim to be scared of pedophiles. But that is all the more reason to make sure children are *not* ignorant about sex. A child who knows nothing of sex and relationships is a much easier target! He won't even understand what the danger is. And also he may be glad to be helped to learn what his parents were keeping from him. Hiding sexual knowledge from children is about as rational as scaring them with the idea that masturbation causes hairy palms. And it's an important part of the process by which people are made wildly irrational about sex, which is why parents are acting this way in the first place: their parents did it to them, and it has evolved to make people do it to their own kids.

Elliot Temple on July 20, 2007

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