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Ethical Parenting Is More Than Possible. It’s Essential, for Parents and Children Alike.

Don’t break the rules just to help your kids get ahead. Teach them to be mensches by setting an example with your own behavior.

Marjorie Ingall
October 17, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

New York magazine ran an article by Lisa Miller last week called “Ethical Parenting.” At first I thought it was going to be a serious piece about the tough choices we parents have to make to raise mensches. Instead, it was a self-justifying piece of entitled crap wrapped up in fake hand-wringing. The central question: Can you be a decent human being and a parent at the same time? Miller’s answer—spoiler alert—is no. Let me quote some of Miller’s assertions so you can see why I’m drooling in fury on my keyboard right now.

“Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral.”

“Always be kind and considerate of others, except in those cases where consideration impedes your own self-interest or convenience. Then, take care of yourself.”

“Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all.”

Shut up.

Now, New York magazine frequently makes me want to move into a Unabomber cabin in the woods. (Ditto the New York Times’s T Magazine, which I’m pretty sure did a feature on artisanal bespoke Unabomber cabins made by Bushwickians with luxuriant civet-conditioned beards.) But there’s always been just enough of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink element to the publication’s portrayals of wilding teens, entitled hedge-funders, and the next hot neighborhood you already couldn’t afford. We were supposed to be horrified by these caricatures of human beings; we normal people were actually all in it together, gaping at those who were destroying society. This piece seems to start in a homologous us-vs.-them vein, pretending to offer up “the corrupt child-rearing customs … of the aggressively rising class: the mother who, according to Urban Baby legend, slept with the admissions officer (with her husband’s consent!) to get her child into the Ivy League, or the one who sued an Upper East Side preschool for insufficiently preparing her 4-year-old for a private-school test,” but then it goes on to argue that the rest of us are pretty similar. “Schadenfreude elides a more difficult existential truth, which is that ever since Noah installed his own three sons upon the ark and left the rest of the world to drown, protecting and privileging one’s own kids at the expense of other people has been the name of the game. It’s what parents do.”

No, it’s not. And you did not just compare giving a fake address to get into a better public school district, or sending a kid to school with lice so that she won’t miss a state standardized test, to the Noah story. Let’s review: God ordered Noah to build an ark because the earth was full of wicked people. The people who deliberately lie and cheat so their kids can get ahead are the wicked people. Noah’s ark-building impulse did not come from a realization that there’d be less competition for Harvard if all the other teenagers drowned.

Let’s ponder what an article on ethical parenting that didn’t make you want to give up hope for the future of humanity might say. It would say that, of course, we want to do whatever it takes to ease our children’s way in the world, but that it is possible to examine and sometimes even push back against those feelings. In the long term, not succumbing is usually better for our kids, for us, and for society.

We all are subject to nasty, competitive thoughts. That’s the nature of being human. But in Judaism we have a name for a primal impulse that is evil. We call it the yetzer hara. And you know what you do when it calls to you? You look to your yetzer hatov, your good impulse, the one I pray still exists in some tiny part of you that is not a small-batch-bourbon-drinking, status-obsessed ass-clown.

An ethical parent lets his kid experience consequences. If you do not study, you fail the test. If you do not put away your toys, they are taken from you and put in quarantine like furry tuberculosis victims. An ethical parent conveys to his kids, in word and deed, that being kind is more important than being right. An ethical parent does not excuse his child’s bad behavior—or his own—but rather uses it as a teachable moment for both.

I do not want to hold myself up as a parenting model; I’m writing this on Josie’s birthday, and I just hissed at her through gritted teeth and with what I’m pretty sure were terrifying narrowed rodent eyes for not returning her grandfather’s call to wish her natal felicitations. But I think all the time about how not to be a cretin and how not to make my children into cretins. I may fail, and I certainly fall short of the mark a lot, but I do not weigh my children against the balance of humanity and think mine deserve more, and therefore it’s fine for me to do their homework for them and never let them feel a moment’s moral discomfort and buy them everything their secret, greasy little hearts desire. (That last bit was a Little Shop of Horrors reference, by the way, a show that’s a pretty good lesson in not justifying your bad behavior in service to a perceived greater good, because if you sell your soul to a man-eating plant or an SAT tutor or a zillion-dollar bar mitzvah, you will still end up dead, gross, compost.)

There’s a reason my kids both go to diverse public schools I did not lie to get them into. It’s not just that I want them to know that lying is bad. It’s that I think these schools are better for my kids. I fervently believe the research on the downsides of calling kids gifted. I know that tightly wound Jewish parents think that if their kids aren’t in the “best” elementary school they won’t get into the “best” college and they won’t be successful in life, but we need to think about our definitions of “best.” Maxie’s school received a “D” on the Department of Education’s last school report card, and I would stack her education up against that at any fancy private school in the city. Yes, she’s learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. But she’s also learning about cooperation, collaboration, and community. Her teacher Colin is obsessed with Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, a pretty great book to be obsessed with. Tough argues that the qualities that actually lead to happiness and accomplishment aren’t linked to test-acing or being surrounded by fellow privileged white children. Conscientiousness, self-control, curiosity, and perseverance are better indicators of success and satisfaction and the kind of future we want for our kids.

And it’s not just our kids we should be worrying about. We are raising a generation of cheaters. Schmancy schools are rife with them. But when we convey to our kids that their grades and test scores are the most important thing about them, what the hell do we expect? When our kids do something jerky, and we rush to justify it or smooth matters over, how can we expect them to become anything but selfish, unempathetic weasels? I don’t want the kid who copies chunks of Wikipedia entries and pays someone to take his midterms to become the doctor who gives me a new hip when I’m 70.

Do not drey to me that you hate this culture of materialism and narcissism and test-score-obsession, but this is our culture, and yes, it sucks, but you gotta play the game. You do not gotta. You can opt out, even in this farshtunkiner city. I’m not telling you to throw your child to the wolves. I read with my kids, I am fortunate that we can afford to go to plays and concerts (though not as often as I’d like), and I did a buttload of research into public elementary, middle, and high schools. But I took the tour of the giftedness-obsessed school where the administration’s big brag is how much earlier the kids take state tests than their peers at other schools and where no one once mentioned fostering a love of learning or nurturing compassion or intellectual curiosity. Uh, no. My neighborhood has four progressive public schools that emphasize character education. They are ridiculously underfunded, and parents have to fund-raise like fiends for basic services. But they walk the walk when it comes to character. Maybe your community has no schools like this. Maybe you chose Jewish day school or private school. Fine. Then see it as your job to ride the school just as hard about making kids good people as making kids get into fancy colleges.

In the spirit of Tough’s book, Maxie’s class (with Colin’s guidance) came up with a list of attributes they’ve made posters for and hung on the wall: Grit, Kindness, Self-Control, Flexibility/Open-Mindedness, Creativity, and Reflection. The class doesn’t just pay lip service to these ideas; the kids note and encourage them in each other throughout the day. And that’s what we should do at home. Don’t just tell them what special, special precious flowers they are; urge them to be their best selves. Ethics are not a luxury.


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.