X Close

Our modern parenting is making monsters To make children constantly choose is to abdicate one’s responsibility for being a parent

USA, Pennsylvania, Reading

December 30, 2019   4 mins

“Black Americano, please.” A simple enough request to a barista. But, oh, it’s not. I’m already grumpy. It’s too early for chat. But the questions keep coming. “Small, medium or large?” she replies. “Medium please” I grunt, hoping that will be the end of the matter. “Drink in or take away?” I reply. “Would you like milk with that?” I resist the temptation to refer my chirpy interrogator back to the original request for a black coffee. “No, thank you.”

Surely that’s enough information. But, no. “Would you like to try our new Guatemalan blend?” I decline, signalling growing irritation. “Would you like a pastry with that…” A list of various croissants and muffins follows. My mood darkens further. All I want is a bloody coffee.

Choice is the bane of modern life. “Existence precedes essence”, preached the existentialists. What they meant was that who we are is not given at birth, but is constructed by the series of choices we make about who we want to be. “Become who you are”, said Nietzsche some decades before.

From this perspective, life is a never ending succession of choices, a constant work-in-progress of self-definition. We are the authors of our own identity. Mini gods of self-creation. Sartre liked to sit in coffee houses, musing on the meaning of life. But surely even he could not have reckoned with the ubiquity of choice in a consumerist society. I fancy that he, too, would have been broken by the ever-present demand to decide for oneself. As I sip my coffee, a semblance of calm begins to return. Existentialism is too heavy a burden. No more questions, please. I can’t take it any more. I don’t want to be endlessly responsible for me. I want someone else to shoulder the burden on my behalf.

I was wrestling with this as I read the Children’s Commissioner’s comments about the mental health of our children. There has been a sharp rise recently in the number of children self-harming. There has also been a significant rise over the past few years in the number of children seeking help from psychiatrists. Why are our kids so unhappy? Various answers have been touted. The use of social media is an obvious one. So, too, is the collapse of community life. Both of these are important.

But I also suspect that the way we have come to treat children as mini-consumers, little choice-centres, also has something to do with it as well. For nowhere is this choice-inducing anxiety more toxic than in childhood. It used to be that childhood operated under instruction. For the child, life was a series of givens. And this functioned as a sort of emotional security. But now that we are inducting our children into this culture of choice at an ever-earlier age, we deprive them of the necessary scaffolding of care, love and support.

It’s a big claim, I know. But it is worth reminding ourselves of an important aspect of our culture of choice: that it absolves people of a responsibility of care towards others. To put it another way, our culture of choice contains this message: I am not responsible for you because you are responsible for you. Are you fat? That’s your choice. Smoke? Your choice. In debt? Your decisions have got you into trouble. It’s all on you.

It is one thing to take this attitude towards adults. But our culture is so saturated with this culture of choice that it has come to apply even to children. I am ashamed to admit that my two year old could operate a remote control almost before he could walk. And instead of presenting him with his tea, I now ask him what he wants. It’s almost as if the poor boy has a menu in hand before he can even read it. Choose, we demand. “What do you want?”

The truth is, he doesn’t really know. And choice is bewildering. Frightening even. Especially if you are asked to bear responsibility for the consequences of the choices that you have made. “You said you wanted sausages, so now you must eat them.” To make children constantly choose is to abdicate one’s responsibility for being a parent. To put it bluntly and provocatively: respecting the decision-making autonomy of a child is tantamount to a refusal of love.

The reductio ad absurdum of this overblown culture of choice is the case of a man who is currently taking his parents to court because he didn’t choose to be born. Yes, it’s true. A businessman from Mumbai, Raphael Samuel, 27, is suing his parents because he didn’t ask to be born. Apparently, by conceiving him without his consent, they were infringing his ‘right’ to choose.

I know his is hardly a serious case, but it does highlight this nonsense of thinking that we can generate ourselves through a succession of our own choices. No, we begin life as if we are already “thrown” (to use a word favoured by Heidegger) into a place and time, with parents and grandparents, within a particular language and culture. Our circumstances precede who we are. They are a necessary given.

The word they use in theological college about the process of “becoming who you are” is formation. In this context, formation is achieved by acclimatising oneself to a tradition that stands over and against one’s individual choices. Indeed, it is only by recognising that one is situated within a given set of values that precede who we are that we are enabled to make the very choices that have come to define adult responsibility. The unchosen is a precondition of the very possibility of choice. No one makes choices in a vacuum. That makes as much sense as putting your hands on your own waist and trying to lift yourself up.

For the last 30 or so years – at least since Thatcherism – choice has become a sort of cuckoo value, pushing out all other values in the nest. And choice places all the burden of responsibility on the individual chooser. In parallel to this development, paternalist politics is now deemed a terrible imposition upon our freedom. Unfortunately, we have begun to think the same way about paternalistic parenting. That’s crazy. For paternalistic is exactly what parenting should be.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sean Arthur Joyce
Sean Arthur Joyce
3 years ago

Thoughtful article, with a relevant and useful perspective. I would argue that this so-called “culture of choice” is nothing more than consumerism run rampant, with parents whose lack of capacity for critical thinking has left them unable to shield their children from its insistent demands to buy, buy, buy.
But in order for that to work, people must first be cultured in an ethos of narcissism, something psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell write about in The Narcissism Epidemic. Narcissism has replaced what was once a view of society as the relationship of individuals to a larger whole, which implied that self-gratification isn’t necessarily always the first imperative, that our choices have an impact beyond ourselves. According to Twenge and Campbell, the so-called “entitled generation” didn’t happen by accident but is a logical outcome of four decades or so of cultivating narcissism, each successive generation becoming more narcissist than the last. Children now run the household; a first in human history as far as I know. As you say, this imposes a burden on them they are not constitutionally or intellectually able to bear. That’s why parents were invented.
Joel Bakan in his book and documentary The Corporation pointed out how corporations now routinely hire psychologists from elite universities in order to more successfully manipulate the public to buy their products. And one of the things they realized long ago was that marketing to children as the primary consumer works far more consistently than marketing to adults alone. A child’s lack of experience and critical thinking capacity leaves them more open to manipulation, which then is passed on to the parents via the “nag factor.”
This shift in culture happened, according to the BBC documentary The Century of the Self, somewhere around the middle of the 1960s and was largely driven by marketing imperatives. JFK’s famous dictum, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” marks the watershed of the previous era just as it began to be eclipsed by the new narcissist-driven consumerist utopia. Marketing experts like Edward Bernays were critical in developing this new paradigm.
From that day to this, people are expected to define themselves by what they buy, rather than focusing on how choice can best be reflected by our ethical behaviour, how we hew to our integrity, how we contribute to society rather than demanding that it always serve our personal needs.
“Paternalistic is exactly what parenting should be.” This idea that kids are born with as much “wisdom” as their parents is a New Age trope that needs to be dispensed with. Evolutionary biology gives the lie to such nonsense.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

Car; Trueman’s book, ‘The rise and triumph of self’ is fascinating on the so-called culture of choice.

Susan Grimsdale
Susan Grimsdale
2 years ago

Really late to read this article but I thoroughly enjoyed it – and agreed with most of the points made. While I do appreciate the many choices I have in my life and situation, sometimes less is more.Thank you Giles.