Almost every night, my son falls to sleep with either Becky or I telling or reading him a story. Apparently, we’re supposed to feel guilty about this.
Why? Because we’re unfairly disadvantaging someone else’s children.
I’m in favor of philosophy and fairness, but the idea that bedtime stories make life worse for others—and the associated, halfhearted attempt to philosophically defend the bedtime family ritual—belongs right up there with “A Modest Proposal.”
Both ideas came from philosophers surnamed Swift. Unfortunately, only the one that suggested eating infants was being satirical.
Adam Swift, a professor at the University of Warwick, recently said in an ABC radio interview that families cause inequality because some parents give their children advantages that other parents might not give.
‘I got interested in this question because I was interested in equality of opportunity,’ he says.
‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’ …
‘The evidence shows that the difference between those who get bedtime stories and those who don’t—the difference in their life chances—is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t,’ he says.
After briefly flirting with the not-new idea of simply abolishing families, Swift explains that, instead, we need to sift out what must be “allowed” and what must not. In other words, what aspects of family life can be justified in his philosophical framework, despite their contribution to inequality.
Private schooling is strictly out in Swift’s mind. Bedtime stories, on the other hand, ought to be allowed. The saving grace of the bedtime story is that it creates intimate bonds and “familial goods” that it would be wrong to take away, even if they do cause inequality. But the allowance of bedtime stories should come with a tinge of guilt:
‘I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.’
His idea is farcical for several reasons, but I’ll just name three.
Failing the Defense
Swift’s defense of the bedtime story ritual (or family involvement, in general) does not adequately deflect the very criticism he directs at the family. In his book, the fact that family is good for kids is the very fact that causes positive family experiences to result in the inequality that plagues us. If family was not good for the kids, then there would be no advantage conferred on the kids with family bonds, and he wouldn’t have started this conversation to begin with.
If I were on trial, I would not want Adam Swift for my defense attorney. “Your honor, I’d like to call, as my first witness, the prosecutor. I’d like the jury to hear why he thinks my client is guilty.”
It’s nothing new
Another round of farce in his argument (or in the ABC radio article discussing the interview) is that this philosophy is precented as a new defense of the family. “Joe Gelonesi meets a philosopher with a rescue plan very much in tune with the times,” reads a summary of the story. After explaining why Swift and other philosophers have a problem with the family,
Swift and his [colleague] Brighouse set to work on a respectable analytical defence of the family, asking themselves the deceptively simple question: ‘Why are families a good thing exactly?’
Not surprisingly, it begins with kids and ends with parents.
…‘From all we now know, it is in the child’s interest to be parented, and to be parented well. Meanwhile, from the adult point of view it looks as if there is something very valuable in being a parent.’
… Although it’s controversial, it seems that Swift and Brighouse are philosophically inching their way to a novel accommodation for a weathered institution ever more in need of a rationale for existing. The bathwater might be going out, but they’re keen to hold on to the baby.
Whew! Just when I saw no hope for the family, and no option other than to rip children from the arms of their storybook-wielding parents, here comes a Swift defense of the family: they’re good for kids, and they’re good for parents.
They are good for us. But how is that a new argument?
You don’t need a degree in philosophy to come to the conclusion that family is good for parents and children. People of faith have been making that claim for a long time, especially in the past few decades while secular society has been redefining family into a needless, replaceable, easily-severed legal designation. Family is not “a weathered institution ever more in need of a rationale for existing.” We have all the rationale that we need. Thanks for joining the party, but you’re a bit late (and not very excited about celebrating with us).
Family is not a zero-sum game
Finally, Swift’s idea is laughable because it implies that we actually improve the world by depriving some people of experiences that could improve their chances in life.
It assumes a zero sum game: If you are given something, then that thing has been taken away from me. If you earn money, I have lost it. If you enjoy a loving home, you receive emotional well-being at someone else’s expense.
Family is not a zero-sum game. There is no limit on the number of bedtime stories that may be told. Bedtime stories, loving conversations, high standards, firm and fair discipline, and other aspects of family life that increase a child’s well-being are not scarce commodities. Their supply is only limited by the choices people make.
When I tell my children stories and read them books, I am not disadvantaging the children whose parents make other choices. If anything, other parents might disadvantage their own children by choosing instead to watch TV for hours on end while the kids fall asleep playing Candy Crush Saga under the covers.
Rather than see bedtime stories and other family rituals as a source of inequality, we ought to see them as a potential equalizer. I grew up in a family well acquainted with financial challenges, but some of my fondest memories of childhood involve my parents telling bedtime stories. Eventually, my siblings and I started telling stories to each other. I’m lucky that (nonfiction) storytelling is a huge part of my career.
Who knows how much of my success in this life is owed to the family relationships and the creativity forged because my parents took time to tell me stories when I was a kid. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have college degrees, high-paying jobs, or the ability to get us involved in a lot of sports leagues. It mattered that they took time to be parents.
Implying that we ought to feel guilty for making good choices for our children—whether that good choice is telling bedtime stories; having a strong, secure marriage; or serving healthy food—does nothing to improve the lives of those who do not have those advantages. Encouraging, and helping, more parents make those good choices, however, could improve the lives of children for generations.
That should be the focus of any effort to reduce inequality—giving people more opportunities. Not taking away, or shaming, the opportunities enjoyed by those who are blessed to have them.