Parenting and Prudence

Among the many controversies to emerge from the recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo, the responsibilities of parenting is perhaps chief among them. I’m only a few years into parenthood, but I can say this with absolute confidence: Parenthood is the ultimate teacher and tester of the virtue of prudence.

Let’s get this out of the way: the disparity between the value of human and animal life is so radical that it would be better for every lowland gorilla in the world to be shot in the head than for one child to die at the hands of such a creature.

If this is the case, one might wonder, why don’t we do just that? If human life is so incomparably valuable, why not round up and euthanize every creature that could possibly pose a fatal threat?

Any reasonable person would think this suggestion obviously ridiculous, but why? Put simply, it would be imprudent. We don’t kill every dog that could maul a baby, not because we don’t value babies, but because there are competing goods, such as the life of the animal itself and the delight his companionship brings to other people, which balance the miniscule threat a Cocker Spaniel poses to an infant.

Prudence is traditionally considered the fundamental virtue by which we use the intellect to apply moral laws to everyday life. A great deal of prudence consists not just of choosing good over evil, but rather of balancing competing goods, carefully weighing them so as not to allow one to overwhelm and exclude others. Vice is found in excess, virtue in the mean.

In a world where parenting outrages spread daily like wildfires across the internet and consume communities of commenters, this is very important to remember: Unless a parent is incorrigibly abusive or neglectful, he or she will never intentionally choose against the good of his or her child. Most of the time, the outrageous parent du jour is just choosing among competing goods—that is, exercising prudence—in a way different from the way you do. And when parents fail—and we do!—it is hardly ever a failure of care or concern or love, but a failure of prudence.

For parents of young children more than for people in any other stage of life, every day is a constant stream of little prudential decisions among competing goods. For instance: Do I let my toddler play in the dirt? I weigh the good of independent exploratory play against the good of hygiene. I consider how recently I applied weed killer in the area, how much time we have until grandma arrives, and the likelihood the child in question will try to eat rocks. When I make a decision, I’m not deciding against play or cleanliness, but for what appears to be at that moment the most compelling collection of goods. And I might get it wrong. He might eat a rock.

Prudence will look different for different parents with different children in different circumstances. Parents of an only child will balance goods differently from parents with a large brood, where the good of, for instance, individual attention and scrutiny will necessarily be deemphasized. Poor parents will balance goods differently from rich ones because they are more constrained in their choices. When a poor single mom drops her child off at a public park during her shift at McDonald’s, she isn’t choosing against the safety of her child but for an economic necessity.

Parenting problems most often arise not from indifference to the good of children, but overemphasis on one type of good to the exclusion of others. “Helicopter parents” weigh safety so highly that the goods of independence, exploration, and learning to cope with physical and emotional pain (yes, these are goods) are excluded, to the detriment of the child. A certain kind of hippie parent, on the other hand, weights independence so highly that the goods of discipline, orderliness, and deference to authority (yes, these are goods) are never experienced. Again, these parents are not necessarily intentionally choosing against certain goods; rather, in their single-mindedness, they neglect them.

I understand the impulse for parents to take down other parents on the internet. None of us know if we’re doing it right, so it feels good to have an obvious example of Doing It Wrong with which to compare ourselves. But this only further feeds the original insecurity. Rather, let me make a proposal that might sound radical in an age of internet trolls and Twitter wars: Let’s work on growing in prudence together by trying to understand—and maybe even learn from—those whose parenting choices are different from our own.

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