Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One Size Fits All Revisited

by Tibor R. Machan

Outside of politics, the place where the one size fits all approach is most tempting would be the family. Parents are often eager to urge their own tastes and preferences on their children, confusing these with the basic values, virtues and principles they do need to teach them.

My own experience with this has been rather severe—my parents were nearly fanatic athletes who insisted that I, too, follow in their footsteps. Things got so bad that as soon as I reached the age of legal maturity, I left. Of course, back in Europe and in many parts of the world the idea that one must virtually copy one's parents' lives is widely embraced and it is often inescapable because of its economic utility. In a relatively free and abundant country, however, the idea that children need to find their own way, based on their talents, desires, opportunities and so forth, is more prevalent.

Yet even in such a society the temptation for parents to insist that children follow in their footsteps is a powerful one. Even though I have guarded against yielding to it, I cannot say I am immune. Just the other day I spent time with my older children, both in their late twenties, and I noticed how they were interested in matters that leave me entirely cold. In fact, in my more self-indulgent or vain moments I even consider my own interests superior to those of many others—just as one finds watching certain kinds of TV programs silly or trivial or tasteless. And I was on the verge of expressing my disdain for my adult children's tastes and preferences when I realized what I was doing—namely, following my own parents' lead in trying to make my children into clones of myself.

It is difficult, of course, to identify just what sort of values one really must try to inculcate in their children and what are those they should be left nearly on their own to discover. What if they enjoy horror movies while you find them disgusting? What if they love to watch professional sports all weekend and do not check out a novel or seek out some good play or concert in the neighborhood? What if they wear clothes that you consider in bad taste or read gossip magazines instead of those informing them of culture and science? How about if they have no interest at all in politics or economics?

Surely some matters are important to anyone and if one's kids show no interest, trying to encourage them to look into them is not being too tyrannical. Yet, even there a delicate balance needs to be found between being pushy and giving friendly suggestions and advice. Moreover, there may be a good time to explore some things—say, a bit after they have left school so they have had their break from all the heavy mental lifting.

Parenting is not instinctual for human beings, contrary to what so many people seem to believe, judging by how unprepared they are for rearing kids. The notions that one's own tastes and preferences are high and mighty, superior to those of others, is very tempting—after all, if one has them, surely they must matter more than those others have! But that is a mistake. More often tastes and preferences are quite idiosyncratic and there can be many different ones, with none superior to others at all.

Some people prefer opera, others drama, yet others big band concerts; some are fond of tennis, others of golf, and yet others of basketball. Even though one often hears debates about which of these is superior, which inferior, it is most likely that such debates are misguided. These matters are really more about tastes and preferences, not about right or wrong judgment and conduct.

However, that is difficult for many of us to keep in mind. Some tend to confuse matters of principle, about which it is important to find common ground, and matters of pleasure, about which no common ground need to be found at all. Never mind all the self-congratulatory magazines, books, galleries, fashion venues, and forms of entertainment that are advertised as superior to all the others. In fact, in most cases, they are just some people's pleasures but not that of others.

Indeed, this point is something too many educated people—even some geniuses (who peddle their likes as if they were metaphysical truths)—overlook. Some even insist that what they prefer, what they have a taste for, be provided with special subsidies by the government—such as PBS and NPR and museums and other forums the rest of us are coerced into supporting. And all of it tends to begin with the family practice of wanting kids to follow parents in all things, something that denies the children's individuality and freedom of choice.

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