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Peikoff on Parenting as Career

Posted Feb 09 2011 12:00am

Hooray for Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s strong statement supporting parenting as a legitimate career – aka central purpose – in his podcast of Jan 31, 2011 !  I have always been dissatisfied with Ayn Rand’s lukewarm (and, as far as I know, only) statement on the subject, given in her Playboy interview of March 1964:

PLAYBOY: In your opinion, is a woman immoral who chooses to devote herself to home and family instead of a career?

RAND: Not immoralI would say she is impractical, because a home cannot be a full-time occupation, except when her children are young. However, if she wants a family and wants to make that her career, at least for a while, it would be properif she approaches it as a career, that is, if she studies the subject, if she defines the rules and principles by which she wants to bring up her children, if she approaches her task in an intellectual manner. It is a very responsible task and a very important one, but only when treated as a science, not as a mere emotional indulgence.

This answer has always bothered me, even before I had a child.  What happened to the union of the moral and the practical?  And why is legitimate career parenting treated as the exception here?  Those of us who do take our parenting roles seriously should not be tainted by the fact that most parents do not treat their role scientifically (if they think about it at all).  Just because most people make a mess out of parenting does not diminish it as a legitimate, productive, creative, moral central purpose for those of us who take it seriously.

I would have liked to hear her answer, “No – absolutely not immoral!”  I would have liked to hear her say that, of course, it is moral, and it can be one of the most fulfilling careers in existence.  And then if she wished to speak about the lazy, unthinking parents – fine.  In fact, I would have loved a long rant from Ayn Rand on that subject.

I know that Ayn Rand did think parenting is important work.  She says so in the statement above, and she makes it clear in the scene with the mother in Atlas Shrugged.  Personally, I have never had any qualms about the morality (or the practicality) of my choice to be a professional parent.  I know firsthand how fulfilling it is and even if Ayn Rand did think otherwise, I wouldn’t give a damn.

But there is a lot of misunderstanding amongst young Objectivists about the virtue of productivity, and it comes out in the parenting field all the time.  (Rational Jenn addresses many of the common objections in this post .)  We Objectivist professional parents have always been somewhat on the defensive on this issue, and Rand’s statement does more harm than help, I think.  So I cheered when I heard Dr. Peikoff make the following statements in response to the question of whether raising children could be a legitimate central purpose:

“I think it is the responsibility of the parent to look after young children personally.  I think it gives room for tremendous creativity. It’s very important in their development.”

“However strong I am about career, I do not believe that you have a baby and dump it in day care.”

“If you intend to be a weekend parent, I don’t think you should have children.”

“If you have children, they have to be the focus; they are your responsibility, and it is not a job that can be passed off to someone else – not without harm to the children. That’s my understanding; I’m not a pediatrician.”

Unfortunately, most of Peikoff’s statement came from the perspective of the children’s needs, which I don’t think justifies whether parenting is a valid central purpose.  But I loved that his answer was an unqualified “Yes!”

I do disagree slightly with Peikoff about it necessarily harming children to put them in day care while both parents work.  I think that can be a legitimate choice as well.  But I do agree with the sentiment that, if you choose to have children, they must be the focus.  So a mother might go back to a career that she enjoys outside the home, but it could no longer be her central purpose, at least not while the children are young.  Her outside career would be on hold, and working in it would be a placeholder.  Some careers would be ruined by taking a ten year break, and I think it would be a sacrifice to give up such a career forever if it is your passion, just for the ten years of child-rearing.  I also don’t think that those people should never have children.  I think it is possible to have both (not two central purposes at once, but the central purpose of raising children, with a full-time job on the side), but one had better be ready for some seriously hard work, and to give up many other optional values, if that is one’s choice.

I think that during those ten years (or whatever the appropriate amount of time is), the working mother (or the father) would have to have the attitude that the children come first.  This would exclude any type of career that requires both parents to work very long hours, or to be so spiritually drained at the end of the day that they have nothing left for the children.  I completely agree with Dr. Peikoff that, if you intend to be a weekend parent, you should not have children.  His argument is that they need more of their parents (or at least, one parent) than that.  My argument is that it could be nothing but a sacrifice.  Without at least one parent having the direct influence on the children, every day, the children are not really even “yours.”  They won’t absorb your family culture. They won’t see you as a role model and (hopefully) emulate your virtues.  They won’t be “of you,” except in the crudest, genetic way.  (And I know exactly how much that is worth.) You will not have a true family, but just a marriage with young strangers involved. The children won’t know you, and you won’t know them.  What’s the point in that?  What value would you be hoping to gain from that situation?

The good news is that I do think that when you have two parents in a good marriage, one can indeed work long hours and only be there on the weekends.  His (or her) influence on the children will be there, indirectly, through the other partner.  But if both parents are essentially absent, the connection is severed.  And that is a recipe for disaster, for all involved.

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