Wonder and the Art of Parenting

By Seamus Carey '87

While driving home on the New Jersey turnpike one night after teaching an ethics seminar, I found myself rehearsing in my head the discussion that took place in class an hour before. Over the previous weeks, our class discussions were more lively than usual. The students seemed very interested in understanding the details of Aristotle's Ethics, and I was trying to accommodate them by making his thought as relevant to their lives as I could. Since it was a night class, many of the students were older and working full-time jobs. Some had children, and there were even a couple of grandparents in the class. And since the traditional college-age students in the class were going through the process of separating from their parents, the parent-child relationship was something we all had in common. It proved to be a fertile topic for discussing the ethical theories we were trying to understand.


A man smiles at his daughter
A man smiles at his daughter

Parenting is particularly important to me. At the time I was teaching that class I had two young daughters, and we were expecting a third child — who turned out to be our first son. As I prepared to talk about texts that I had read numerous times before, they came to life with a new freshness as I reflected upon their relevance to parenting. In fact, the relationship between philosophy and parenting took such a firm hold of my mind that I could scarcely think of anything else. It seemed to me that there was a great deal of wisdom that could be mined from philosophers throughout the ages, to provide desperately needed insight into parenting and the development of children. This notion was driven home at the end of one of our class discussions when the grandmother in the class, with a look that combined awe and resignation, spoke out loud — to nobody in particular — saying, "Aristotle just made me realize everything I have done wrong with my children for so many years."

This was a serious and intelligent woman who, like so many parents, wasn't aware of the insights of the great philosophers. She never knew of the importance of wonder and contemplation as ways of thinking. She never thought of listening as a skill that needed to be developed rather than just a biological fact. She never had the opportunity to reflect on ideas such as phronesis — practical wisdom — or how to cultivate such a virtue in herself and her children. As a result, her understanding of her children and how she dealt with them was uncritically accepted from her parents and from society at large. I felt for her as she sat there with much of her life passing before her eyes. On my ride home, I considered how these ideas had so dramatically shaped my own life and my relationship with my family — and I knew I had to find a way to share my thoughts.

One of the philosophers who has had the most influence on me is Martin Heidegger, a 20th-century German thinker. One of the central themes of his work that transformed my understanding of how people relate to the world and to each other is das Heilen, or "the hale." Heidegger uses this term to connote the whole, wholesomeness, and holiness of human life that occurs when we relate to the event of Being (to reality in general and the reality of others) with a mature, open-minded, and highly perceptive disposition. The hale, I thought, is what we want to nurture in our children and in our relationships with them.

As a parent, I would be pleased if my children developed a personality or character that could be described as wholesome and holy. In fact, these are qualities that almost all parents want to cultivate in their children. The best ideas of philosophers throughout the ages reveal, in different and creative ways, the wholesome and holy potential of human life. And if philosophy could provide parents with some insight and perspective on the meaning and methods of cultivating the whole child, families and society in general would benefit.

A man sits with his three children on his lap, smiling
A man sits with his three children on his lap, smiling

Carey lives with his wife and three children (left to right: Caitriona, age 7; James, age 2; and Anna, age 5) in Pelham Manor, New York.

A philosophical approach to parenting aims at cultivating parenting into an art. It does not provide menus or techniques to follow in disciplining a child or in alleviating rivalry between siblings. It does not provide steps to take to get your child to eat dinner. And while there are many useful "how-to" books, parents who have consulted these books, as I have, realize that they sometimes have limited relevance to the specific needs of their families. The premise of "how-to" parenting books is that raising children is about techniques — ones that, if mastered, will lead to successful parenting. But children are far too complex to fit into categories or respond predictably to prescribed techniques. When the technique reaches its effective limit or breaks down, we are left to our own resources to figure out the next move. In other words, we must think for ourselves. And so, philosophical parenting is not a fixed approach to anticipated events, but pursues fluid understanding of the evolving act of parenthood. Beyond techniques, a philosophical grounding helps to better understand parenting, better understand the universal dynamics of the parent-child relationship, and therefore better prepare parents to deal with any situation.

This is not to say that parents do not benefit from intelligent techniques. But techniques without the more basic understanding of the nature and needs of children and the role of parents are doomed to failure. For any technique that a parent may use must be a part of a mature, insightful, and understanding disposition if it is to be effective. In thinking philosophically about the whole child, parents can uncover a thoughtful context within which they can understand the essential needs of their children and provide guidance that will facilitate the healthy development of all aspects of their children's lives.

Philosophical reflection can also help parents uncover and nurture those parts of their own lives that the demands of everyday life usually force us to forget. In fact, the activity of philosophy is sometimes described as a process of remembering. What does philosophy help us to remember? Some argue that the primary purpose of philosophy is to help us to remember the inner self. That is, philosophy helps us to remember that part of the self that is concerned with the questions of ultimate meaning in life; questions such as "What is my purpose of life?" and "How do I fulfill that purpose?" In remembering the part of the self that asks questions of ultimate concern, we remember or reattune ourselves to a dimension of experience that is obliterated by the fast pace of 21st-century life. This is the ontological dimension of existence, a dimension in which all of our everyday activities such as work, play, and caring for children find their deepest meaning. By uncovering this dimension of our lives we gain access to the deep wisdom that has been accumulating, not only throughout our own individual lives since birth, but also throughout the billions of years of evolution. This wisdom is carried forth subtly and sometimes imperceptibly in the memory of our cells. In order to access this dimension of unconscious, embodied wisdom and meaning we need to cultivate our ability to perceive its hidden and often mysterious qualities. Such cultivation and development enables us to see and appreciate a vast universe in every being, the universe in which we participate, and of which we have the privilege of being conscious.

The philosophical process of remembering begins with self-examination. It forces us to take account of the values or ideals that we hold to be true and good and the habits by which we live. For most of us, there is dissonance between our ideals and our habits. We form habits beginning in infancy and they often remain unconscious. As we mature and reflect upon the habits we have formed, we find that they sometimes conflict with the ideals we hold to be true and good. Self-reflection is necessary to identify areas of dissonance in our lives and to work towards bridging the space between ideals and habits. Only by clarifying our ideals and what we value most can we effectively guide children toward a self-composed, well-adjusted, confident, and creative adulthood. But self-reflection is only one aspect of philosophical thinking that is essential in becoming artful parents. Another is wonder.

There is a well-known story concerning Heraclitus, a legendary pre-Socratic philosopher from Ionia, who lived around 500 B.C. It might be hard for us to imagine a philosopher being so famous that people would travel long distances just to get a glimpse of him. But apparently this was the case with Heraclitus. One particular day a group of visitors came upon the thinker unexpectedly while he was standing by the fire in his kitchen. For some reason, the visitors were startled upon seeing him. Some speculate that Heraclitus was warming himself naked by the fire. Undaunted by their surprise, Heraclitus encouraged the visitors not to be shy but to come into his kitchen because "here too the gods dwell." For Heraclitus, and for all of the great contemplative minds throughout history, the sacred and the holy are found among the familiar and mundane. It is in the things we see and interact with on a daily basis that the mystery and magic of life resides. For many, the magic and mystery of the modern world is hidden behind the obsession with certainty and material gratification. Our capacity to perceive the ambiguous depths and latencies of the familiar is diminished under the spell of technological innovation, titillating entertainment, and copious consumption.

The contemplative mind does not shy away from what cannot be quantified. A virtue of the contemplative mind is its ability to welcome and appreciate the ambiguity that is present in what it perceives. Contemplation is open, non-judgmental, and receptive. When we direct a contemplative gaze towards something, we do not impose our will upon it, but rather we allow the other to emerge and fully express itself. The contemplative mind preserves an awareness of the ambiguous background from which individual figures emerge in contrast to the calculative mind, which seeks a clear representation or concept of what it perceives. As the calculative mind intensifies its focus on an individual object, it tends to ignore the contextual background from which the individual object emerges. As a result, it misses the depth, meaning, and fluid presence that dwell in the background. The familiar things of everyday life become lifeless and uneventful when we no longer perceive the depths from which they emerge. The contemplative mind has the capacity to perceive these depths and, as a result, in contemplation of ordinary things we encounter the sacred and holy. This is what enabled Heraclitus to encounter gods even in his kitchen.


Two children smile
Two children smile

But I doubt that Heraclitus had children. The kitchen in my house is often a battleground where strong wills clash; it does not usually feel like an abode for the sacred and the holy. Most often these contests arise between me or my wife and one of our two daughters. Dinnertime, for instance, is often preceded with negotiation. As the minutes leading up to dinner pass and the food cools, the intensity of willfulness grows and negotiations become full-fledged standoffs. On bad days these standoffs can result in a parent's raised voice and a child's tears. But parents have the power to find positive outcomes from these standoffs by maintaining a contemplative mind and a broad perspective rather than locking horns with their children. In our house the parent that is lucky enough not to be locked in a battle of wills can often find a calm, peaceful way out. This is easier for the parent that is not intensely engaged because he or she is not faced with the invitation to respond to each assertion the child makes. Instead, this parent can see and hear more than the specific words of the dialogue. He or she can perceive the background factors that contribute to the child's resistance by maintaining a contemplative perspective. For instance, the child may not be hungry. She may be feeling tired, or lonely, or hurt by something she saw at school. These are things the child may not be able to express in words. As a result, a parent may not be able to perceive the source of the child's resistance while trying to serve dinner.

To perceive these unconscious factors, the contemplative parent needs composure, patience, and wonder. As we open up to the background influences on behavior, we begin to see the burdens a child carries as she makes her way through the day. We feel compassion for the child as we help her decipher her moods and emotions. Guided by compassion rather than a will to control, we hold and hug the child even as she vents frustration at us. We help her become comfortable with these complex feelings and forces that she barely understands. By abandoning the impulse to control the situation, we are better able to decipher what the child is expressing in her moods, gestures, and words. Such understanding is not possible if we focus on and respond to only her words. It requires a compassionate, emotionally attuned receptiveness of the child. Real understanding occurs if we love our children and allow them to love themselves, even when they don't want either form of love. And as philosophers and sages throughout history have taught us, love is the human means of self-transcendence into the holy and the sacred. So even in kitchen battlegrounds we, like Heraclitus, can create a space in which the divine can dwell.

Many parents have had experiences of the sacred and the holy in watching their children grow, create, and flourish in the world. But our world is very different from the world of ancient Greece where philosophers and the activity of contemplation were revered. Parents who work, cook, and chauffeur their children from event to event do not have the time to develop their capacity for contemplation and, as a result, their experience of wonder is often fragmented. And yet, we are never far removed from genuine experiences of wonder because these experiences are called forth by a confrontation with the mysterious depth of meaning at the heart of what is familiar. And what could be more familiar to a parent than her child? When we take the time to step back from the world of calculation, organization, and money-making, philosophical reflection and wonder can help us to see in our children what they so often see in the world: an embodiment of the mysterious and the sacred.

Seamus Carey teaches philosophy and directs the Center for Professional Ethics at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York. He is currently working on a follow-up to his book The Whole Child: Restoring Wonder to the Art of Parenting entitled The Sense of Silence: Language, Power and Faith in the Family. When he is not writing or teaching, Carey devotes much of his time to carpentry.