Fridays with Fred: Parenting
Over the years I’ve said some apparently incendiary things about children and parenting, from arguing that married couples don’t have to attempt to have children and more recently that we should always tell our children the truth. Continuing that controversial trend, in this article I’m going to consider a remarkably insightful point Friedrich Nietzsche makes about parenting, in his Human, All Too Human: because parents live so closely to their children there’s always a danger of growing indifferent to them.
The German philosopher writes: “The grossest errors in judging a person are made by his parents; this is a fact, but how is one to explain it? Do the parents have too much experience of the child, and can they no longer compose it into a unity? We notice that travellers in a strange land grasp correctly the common, distinctive traits of a people only in the first period of their stay; the more they get to know a people, the more they forget how to see what is typical and distinctive about it. As soon as they see up close, they stop being farsighted. Might parents judge their child wrongly because they have never stood far enough off from him?” (§423).
Read that final question again: “Might parents judge their child wrongly because they have never stood far enough off from him?” Though Nietzsche was well accustomed with contempt, here he suggests that familiarity breeds indifference. The failing—indeed the folly—of many parents, including myself, is an inability to see the wonder of our children. Like Nietzsche’s traveller who returns again and again to the novel land that was initially a marvel, many parents stop seeing the their children’s “common” and “typical” traits. According to Nietzsche, they can even end up overlooking those “distinctive” characteristics, through familiarity induced forgetfulness.
Thus Nietzsche continues, noting that people “tend to stop thinking about things that are closest to them, and simply accept them. When parents are required to judge their children, it is perhaps their customary thoughtlessness that makes them judge so mistakenly.” You’d be hard pressed to find a parent who wouldn’t concur with this incisive point—at least, among honest parents. We’re all accustomed to those regrettably—at least, in my case—fleeting windows when gaze in sheer amazement at the little people before us. Being so close to us, we “simply accept them,” with “customary thoughtlessness.” What a shame, when there isn’t a single child on this earth who isn’t spectacular.
Before closing with another aphorism from Human, All Too Human, I want to pick out a detail in the passages above from Nietzsche: his emphasis on the ordinary. For his concern isn’t that we fail to recognise those things that set our children apart. The danger isn’t that we say we deem what’s remarkable about them to be ho-hum. No, it’s that we become incapable of celebrating that children are, plainly, remarkable. They aren’t their peculiarities or exceptions. In other words, we shouldn’t only delight in what makes them outstanding: their achievements, plaudits, and talents. For this is to grow indifferent to who they are, most of which is pleasantly “common” and “typical.”
Parents must resist the temptation to reduce their children to what distinguishes them from others. They should know that we treasure them as people, not according to their performance or success. We must be wary of allowing our familiarity to breed indifference. Don’t let your vast experience of them prevent you from embracing the gloriously plain and ordinary—their humanity.
In an uncharacteristically delicate passage, also from Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche illustrates the above danger superbly. He identifies the perils of living “too close” to another human, writing: “If we live in too close proximity to a person, it is as if we keep touching a good etching with our bare fingers; one day we have poor, dirty paper in our hands and nothing more. A human being’s soul is likewise worn down by continued touching; at least it finally appears that way to us—we never see its original design and beauty again” (§428).