What Would Socrates Say To Mrs. Smith?



Susan T. Gardner


Published in

Philosophy Now. Issue 84. May/June 2011. 24-26.



What is Mrs. Smith to do? Eight-year-old Johnny has not budged from his seat in front of the television since she told him that it was time for bed 10 minutes ago.


“Make it happen,” will certainly be the response of those of you who place a high priority on compliance.Every child,” so the reasoning goes, “must be integrated into an interdependent social system populated with other people who have needs, wants and responsibilities of their own. Having a non-compliant child in any social unit can wreck utter havoc.”


This view, sometimes referred to as an “authoritarian” approach to parenting, has much merit. Who among us has not experienced the frustration of trying to deal with a willful child disobeying “just because” or having a temper tantrum when what is wanted doesn’t instantaneously appear? Who among us has not witnessed the despair of parents whose rebellious child refuses to embrace even the minimal demands of home or school, and who may even treat his or her parents with a furious disdain?


This picture of a furiously disdainful child prompts an alternative response to the above situation.  “Just let him be,” some may respond. “After all, it is not as if there is bedtime god who dictates precisely what time children ought to retire. Who really cares if Johnny watches one more TV program? Surely there is little point in wreaking havoc in an otherwise peaceful household over something so trivial. Besides,” so the reasoning continues, “a happy child often tends to be a more compliant child, so if it’s compliance you want, go after it indirectly rather than using a heavy hand. It is far better, surely, to be a friend to your child so that you keep open the often tangled lines of parent/child communication.”


Authoritarian parents, of course, disagree utterly with this “parents as friends” strategy.  They believe that compliance fuels happiness, not the other way around. They believe that a child who functions seamlessly at home, at school, and in the community will elicit maximally positive responses, which in turn will result in far greater contentment than just going directly for increasing the happiness-quotient. From these parents’ point of view, the job of a parent is to parent, with parenting being defined as having the responsibility to set a matrix of explicit and well-defined rules and to ensure that the rules are followed.


So which is it? Dictator or pal, authority or friend?


Philosophy suggests that the answer is neither.


Philosophy suggests that the primary responsibility of a parent is to help children acquire the tools to figure out for themselves what paths to take in any of the infinite situations that they will find themselves in in their journey through life. Philosophy suggests that the primary responsibility of a parent is, in other words, to help children learn how to reason.


After only a little reflection, it is hard to imagine how anyone could possibly think otherwise. After all, the capacity to reason is universally accepted as the characteristic that uniquely defines humans as humans, and as different from other animals. How, then, is it possible that enhancing a child’s reasoning power is often not perceived as near the top of the list of parental responsibilities? And worse, how is it possible that the capacity to reason is sometimes, perhaps even often, actively sabotaged by parents? Why should this be?


Why indeed. “Why should I have to go bed? Why should I share my toys with my sister? Why can’t I have that new computer game? Why shouldn’t I swear? Why do I have to go church? Why can’t I eat the whole bag of candy? Why do I have to clean my room? Why do I have to do homework? Why do I have to play the piano? Why shouldn’t I sleep around? Why shouldn’t I smoke or take drugs?”


The list of “whys” is endless, and so, therefore, are the reasons why parents often try mightily to keep a lid on Pandora’s reasoning box. Since it is infinitely easier to bring up a puppy that never asks “why,” why not bring up a human as if it were a puppy? Why not either set few or no limits so the “whys” never surface, or set firm non-negotiable limits in a sufficiently authoritative manner that one’s offspring feel either too intimidated or too stupid to let a “why” pop up. Let’s bring up our children like happy carefree puppies or like well-trained obedient puppies.


The problem with both these strategies is that they often work! They result in “why-less” children, i.e., children who are either completely deaf to the prudential and ethical “whys” that their intended actions scream, or who firmly believe that since “those in the know” already know why, attempting to respond to these silently screamed queries seems outside of their realm of responsibility and/or capacity.


If we could keep our children sheltered, like we do our puppies, in environments that are unchanging and relatively undemanding, then producing reasonless children might be a reasonable option. The difficulty is, of course, that because of this maximally changing global village into which our children are now born, young humans, unlike puppies, will inevitably be exposed to an incalculable number of conflicting demands from an enormous number of ever more powerful influential groups. In the face of such schizophrenic “plenty,” happy-go-lucky children can be expected to act like kids in a candy shop and choose whatever they think will make them feel good—often to the severe determinant of their long-term best interests, while, on the other hand, obedient kids will continue to be obedient, though of course those to whom they are obedient will change as a function of what they deem most relevant to their lives at any one time, again often to the detriment of their long-term best interests. Choosing between dictator or friend, in other words, is truly a false dilemma since a child’s long-term best interests is jeopardized by either strategy.


But surely maximizing a child’s long-term best interests is the whole point parenting, is it not? How could any well-meaning parent lose sight of that fact?


At least part of the answer is that parents themselves tend to have a short-term view. That is, they believe that both their duties as parents and the measure of the success of those duties take place primarily while they are actively parenting. They believe, in other words, that a happy and/or smooth-functioning household is all the evidence that they need to show that their parenting style is successful. Indeed, this narrow focus on household serenity is so insidious that some parents even believe that any outside influence that has the potential to create waves in the tranquil waters of home ought to extinguished forthwith, with the result being that many excellent, albeit secular, thinking programs get sacrificed on the alter of “family values.”


Of course, wanting a happy and/or smooth functioning household is not in and of itself a dishonorable goal, as long as it doesn’t eclipse the parents’ primary responsibility which is to engage in the much more arduous task of equipping their children with the reasoning capacity to consistently reasonably negotiate the challenges that spring up to meet them in light of their long-term best interest. And the way to do that is to insist that reason rules in the household, despite the fact that, in so doing, both parental authority and the happiness quotient will frequently be undermined.





The primary characteristic of a house where reason rules is that all agree that the best reason ALWAYS wins.


One of the major offshoots of this practice is, ironically, that the “whys” start going the other way. That is, in a house where reason rules, the first parental response to children who suggest an alternate course of action will always be “why.” And the result of this practice will be, of course, that children will quickly learn that the only way they ever get to do what they want to do is by coming up with a reason that is better than all other reasonable alternatives.


But of course, for this to reallytake,” parents must play by the same rules. That is, parents, too, must be prepared to give reasons for why children ought to act in the ways they prescribe. This suggestion, that parents ought not to command what they cannot reason, will be anathema to many. This is hardly surprising. After all, a lot of parents were themselves brought up in reasonless households with the result that their own parenting strategy is fuelled by intuition for which they indeed have no reasons. So how can they offer what does not exist?


The answer is, happily, that though reasoning like any other talent gets rusty with neglect, also, like any other talent, it plumps back into shape with extended and consistent practice. It really is the case, in other words, that, for reasoning beings, reasoning really is on your side. It really is the case, in still other words, that the ordinary reasoning of ordinary individuals about ordinary situations can make an extraordinary difference, which is precisely the message that Socrates paid such a heavy price to have you hear.


Socrates believed passionately that people reasoning together can make genuine progress in moving toward truth in landscapes that are forever changing precisely because, in reasoning together, individuals can help one another ferret out sloppy thinking and insidious bias. Which brings us to the second characteristic of a house where reason rules and that is that there is a whole lot of dialoguing going on about issues of real and relevant importance.


This second rule, that both parents and children consistently engage in reason-seeking dialogue, can be very unnerving to many parents, particularly those who are wedded to a specific recipes that they think are critical for cooking up a good life.  Dialogue with children can be unnerving because, if dialogue is sincerely reason-seeking as opposed to speaking in order to convince, than one can never know in advance where reasons will in fact lead.


This fear of potentially moving off paths that parents have come to hold as near and dear is one of the prime reasons why parents are reluctant to invite reason into their homes. Children pay an enormous price for this reticence because, if children do not learn reasoning practically about how they ought and ought not to act at home, there is a very good chance that they will not learn it anywhere. Schools certainly cannot be expected to pick up the slack, as their agendas are already completely preoccupied with the needs of theoretical reason and the kinds of skills that are necessary to make a good living, to focus seriously on practical reasoning and what is required to make a good life.


And then we wonder why self-indulgence, entitlement, crowd pleasing conformity, unreflectively focusing on short-term pleasures are so often apt descriptions of our youth. But, honestly, and I mean really honestly, what else can we expect? After all, only reason can dull the seduction of self-indulgence. Only reason can lay bear the possibility that we owe more to others than they to us. Only reason can show the dangerous fallacy of the appeal of the crowd. Only reason can make the case that your long term best interests are often served when you forgo short term pleasures.


So the answer to the title of this paper is this. Socrates would say to Mrs. Smith that “as a reasonable individual, you owe it to yourself and to your offspring that reason rules in your household. And in such a household, reasonable people together will inevitably create rules that ensure the maximization of the well being of all, and that it is reasonable for reasonable people both to respect those rules and to assume that others do likewise, unless those who wish to be exempt can make a reasonable case in favor of such an exception.”


“Ah,” replies Mrs. Smith, “that is so typical of an academic to suggest what ought to be done amongst fully rational peoples. But unhappily, Mr. Socrates, in most households, most people are less than fully reasonable, and this is particularly so with regard to my Johnny who, at eight-years-old, is only just growing into his powers for reason.”


“But that,” Socrates would reply, “is all the more reason to maintain a reasonable approach in dealing with Johnny. How else can Johnny learn to reasonably deal with real life every day situations unless his powers of reason are called upon in real life every day situations?


And so with regard to this bedtime tug of way,” Socrates would continue, “for sure, this situation ought to have been preceded by genuine dialogue which presumably would have included your concerns about the importance of sleep for health and mental alertness, as well as Johnny’s input as to why he may be reluctant at times to go to bed. And if such a reasonable dialogue had indeed taken place, then Johnny will already know that the onus now rests with him to articulate why he believes that tonight is a reasonable exception to what has already been established as a reasonable rule.”


“But dialoguing with children in this fashion is ridiculous,” Mrs. Smith may persist, “because it would result in silly rules such as ‘never being required to eat greens’ or ridiculous exceptions such as ‘being allowed to stay up for every TV reality show (which would mean staying up practically every night long past the prescribed bedtime).”


“But Madame,” Socrates will respond, perhaps this time losing some patience, since even maximally reasonable individuals lose patience, “you need not worry about silly rules and ridiculous exceptions because the first rule in a reasonable household is that the best reason always wins.  So, if Johnny can come up with the best reason for creating a rule or making an exception, then, by definition, it is not silly.  For a reasonable being, Madame, you have shockingly little faith in the efficacy of following reason wherever it leads. So my advice to you, Mrs. Smith, is try it. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. And Johnny will forever thank you for it.”


And Socrates, now reincarnated in modern garb, might add, “And you might investigate, Mrs. Smith, whether your school runs a Philosophy for Children program which Johnny might be able to join, and you yourself might also consider taking a practical reasoning course—though, of course, this would just be icing on the cake, the major ingredients of which you bring to the table through your combined innate powers of reasoning.”


“Truthfully,” Mrs. Smith may yet respond, “this seems like a lot of trouble to go to when all I need to do is march in there and switch off the TV.”


“But Mrs. Smith,” Socrates would most definitely respond, “you won’t always know even where Johnny is, let alone have the power to make him do whatever it is that you want him to do. And when that day comes, which it surely will, you will be grateful indeed if he has learned to get his biased self out of the way and to follow reason wherever it leads. And though reason will certainly ask much of him, I can assure you that reason will never let him down. So, Mrs. Smith, do Johnny a favor and in so doing be the best of all possible parents: introduce him to his new best friend.”





Dr. Susan Gardner is an Oxford-educated Professor of Philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, Canada. She is the director of the Vancouver Institute of Philosophy for Children and her critical thinking text, entitled Thinking Your Way to Freedom: A Guide to Owning Your Own Practical Reasoning, was published by Temple University Press in 2009.