Animal Parents and the Quest for Simple Solutions

We’ve heard about the self-styled Eagle Dad from Nanjing who pressured his tearful 4-year-old son to lie down in New York snow in his undies. His reason? To toughen the kid up because he was a sickly preemie.

On the purely physical level the boy survived that ordeal without much damage. But what about the emotional side? What does it do to a kid when his pleas for a warm hug from Mom and Dad are ignored because they would rather impose an arbitrary ordeal on him. Not out of urgent necessity or even certain benefit to the boy, but to test their theories on how to toughen him up. Is that boy likely to grow up to be a compassionate and empathetic human being? Or will he come to feel the same callous indifference to the suffering of others as his parents?

One of the most farcical things about parents like that is their insistence on claiming the names of honorable animals for their inhumane parenting strategies. Tiger Mom. Wolf and Eagle Dads. I wouldn’t be surprised to see stories about Polar Bear Grandmas and Mongoose Uncles!

Truth is, comparing their mechanical, cold-hearted methods to the nurturing that most warm-blooded animals strive to provide their young is highly unfair to the animals.

It’s easy to dismiss such misguided human parents as heartless, demented, diabolical or kooky people. I am willing to concede that they may even be well-intentioned but simply have a limited capacity for the conscientious balancing of values and priorities that good parents typically perform in raising kids. Conscientious parents recognize the need to instill core human values like compassion, empathy and a sense of joy along with a recognition of the need for discipline and determination.

The self-styled “animal” parents settle on the simple-minded expedient of using harsh measures to force kids to subordinate all other values to the pursuit of some objective notion of “success”. In so doing they are teaching some terribly wrong lessons, namely:

1. Values and priorities are imposed by others.

2. Imposing arbitrary suffering on others is acceptable.

3. Life must be whittled down to goal-oriented behavior instead of valuing activities that can produce a sense of personal satisfaction.

4. One must be hard-hearted in raising offspring.

We have evolved into humans because over many millennia our ancestors acquired the capacity to balance discipline and resolve with compassion, empathy and nurturing. A thousand generations of humane childrearing went into producing what we are — creatures who can enjoy life and have a deep respect for the rights of others to enjoy their lives.

Parents who want to replace humane values like compassion, empathy, tolerance and the sharing of joy with mechanical and arbitrary variations of tyranny are doing us all the disservice of keeping society seeded with throwbacks to harsher stages of evolution when necessity imposed the priority of seeking to survive at the expense of others.

As we slowly emerge from a period of great hardship brought on by just that kind of attitude, we have the right to resent those parents who seem to be seeking attention and applause for their retrograde parenting strategies.