Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Essays

You’re Not the Boss of Me

Parental Authority and Liberal Society

Rita Koganzon

Mode Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

In a recent essay, the philosopher Agnes Callard aptly characterizes a modern turn toward what she calls “acceptance parenting,” a presumption on the part of parents that their job is not to impose their own standards for a good life on their children, but instead to nurture the future adult latent in their undifferentiated child into the best possible version of itself that it can be, whatever it happens to be.11xAgnes Callard, “Acceptance Parenting,” The Point, October 2, 2020, Astronomer or artist, believer or atheist, gay or straight, trans or cis—all these emergent aspects of the self must be identified, cultivated, protected against critics, and set on a path toward their fullest expression so that the child may become an adult fully in sync with himself. Parenting becomes a scramble to suss out and affirm the complete adult within the child, taking care never to undermine or repress its development, even if that development runs counter to every parental hope. In this paradigm, Callard writes, “the parent is demoted from wise authority figure to tentative spokesperson for the child’s future self.”22xIbid.

Callard’s account of acceptance parenting resonates with popular practice, with the devoted—and mostly hopeless—search for signs of precocity, with the buffet of classes and activities and experiences children must be offered in order to discover their “passions.” But where does acceptance parenting come from? It is, by all appearances, fundamentally at odds with the basic relationship between parent and child, which is one of extreme disparity in experience, knowledge, and independence. Children don’t know anything and can hardly do anything for themselves. How did we arrive at a situation in which they—or at least the specter of their future selves—wield sufficient authority over their parents to make at least certain of their assertions and demands obligatory and unassailable for parents?

The answer, put simply, is from our liberal democratic regime. The highest values of liberal democracy are liberty and equality, and while these are formally only the guiding principles of our politics, they easily and logically bleed into private and social life as well. There is an intuitive logic behind treating fellow citizens as equals invested with rights at the supermarket and the office if we treat them this way at the ballot box. Indeed, as early as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the egalitarian mores of Americans in social and economic life and saw them as arising primarily from politics.

But there is also a difficulty with insisting on “congruence” between the public and the private. Private life is full of, even dependent on, formal and informal hierarchies.33xI borrow this term to describe the mirroring of institutions of political and private/social life from Nancy Rosenblum, “Democratic Families: The Logic of ‘Congruence’ and Political Identity,” Hofstra Law Review 32 (2003): 145–70. We may be inclined to treat both those we hire and those who hire us respectfully, to see ourselves in both our bosses and our employees (the latter a title notably different from the aristocratic “servants”), but it remains a fact that these are unequal relationships. Can they be democratized? Should they? Overburdened as it is by indignities and absurdities, the workplace is an obvious target of the logic of congruence, and many scholars and writers have argued for remaking it in the egalitarian, individualist image of the regime.44xSee, e.g., Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017). But more voluntary and closed institutions like the church and even private friendships have come in for the congruence treatment as well.55xChiara Cordelli, “Democratizing Organized Religion,” Journal of Politics 79 (2017): 576–90; Cordelli, “Distributive Justice and the Problem of Friendship,” Political Studies 63 (2015): 679–95.

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