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Objectivism and Parenting

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In “How to Raise a Life-Loving Child,” my wife, Sarah, and I show in pattern how one basic principle, in the form of the Master Question, applies to all aspects of parenting: “What can I do (or refrain from doing) to enable my child to learn about reality, to develop his mind and skills, and to make his own choices so that he can live well and love life?”

Although parenting with the Master Question is not Objectivist parenting per se (there’s no such thing), it is an application of certain aspects of Objectivism to the process of raising a child. Basic principles of the philosophy not only set the framework for our approach; they effectively inhere in the Master Question itself; thus, they are implicit in the entire process of parenting with this conceptual tool.

Because this connection is not essential to the theme of our original essay, we did not discuss it there. But, for those who might be interested, I’ll say a few words here to indicate how parenting with the Master Question is essentially parenting with key principles of Objectivism.

To begin, note that the Master Question has essentially three (overlapping) parts: one pertaining to the child’s need to learn about reality, another to his need to develop his mind and skills, and a third to his need to make choices and love life. These three parts correspond to the basic branches of Objectivism—its metaphysics, which is concerned with the basic nature of reality; its epistemology, which is concerned with the nature and means of knowledge; and its ethics, which is concerned with the nature of values and how people should and should not act. We’ll consider these briefly in turn.

The Objectivist metaphysics holds that there is one reality, the one we perceive with our senses; that it is governed by the laws of identity (things are what they are) and causality (things can act only in accordance with their identities); and that, to live successfully in this realm, we must establish and maintain cognitive contact with it. The first part of the MQ—What can I do to enable my child to learn about reality?—goes to this requirement of life.

By asking and answering this question, and by parenting in accordance with our answers, we foster a child’s cognitive contact with reality and its laws. We help him see that everything has a nature, that contradictions and miracles are impossible, that wishing or mere wanting cannot change the way things are. We help him see that, because reality is an orderly and causal environment, to make any desired changes in life, we must take certain actions and not others. We help him see that he can understand the world and can transform it to suit his needs and desires—so long as he recognizes and respects the laws of reality.

Among the countless benefits to a child who develops a deep (even if implicit) understanding of such metaphysical facts is that he is likely to form the conviction that the universe generally is amenable to human success and happiness. (Ayn Rand called this the benevolent universe premise.) This positive outlook can make a huge difference across a child’s entire life. Among other things, it is fundamental to the development of such vital psychological values as a pro-effort mindset, resilience, and grit. A child who has formed the conviction that, if he works smart and hard at some endeavor, he can and likely will succeed, is far more likely to succeed in life than is a child who has not formed that conviction.

A child’s (implicit) metaphysics matters, and parenting with the Master Question fosters a metaphysics of identity and causality—along with a psychology of “I can—if I think and try.”

Objectivist epistemology holds that an individual’s reasoning mind is his only means of gaining knowledge, understanding the world, and correctly conceptualizing his values and needs. This aspect of the philosophy is reflected in the second part of the MQ: What can I do to enable my child to develop his mind and skills?

If a child is to live successfully, he must develop his rational faculty—his ability to think, to project, to plan, and to transform his thought processes into physical action. A child who uses his mind early, rigorously, and continually will, all else being equal, live a better life than a child who does not. He likely will come to recognize and uphold reason as his supreme value. If he does, and if he acts accordingly, he will reap the rewards of his rationality for the span of his entire life.

A child’s implicit epistemology matters, and parenting with the MQ fosters the epistemology of reason.

The Objectivist ethics (aka rational egoism) holds that the standard of moral value is the requirements of human life, that the purpose of life is the achievement of personal happiness, and that a proper human life is a life guided by one’s own judgment and choices. This trinity of principles is reflected in the balance of the Master Question: What can I do to enable my child to make his own choices so that he can live well and love life?

A child who is encouraged to take seriously the project of making his life the best it can be is, all else being equal, more likely to do so than a child who is not. Likewise, a child who regularly makes his own choices and regularly experiences the fruits of his in-focus (life-serving) choices as well as the frustrations of his out-of-focus (life-throttling) choices is, all else being equal, more likely to adopt and consistently act on rational principles than is a child who does not.

A child’s implicit ethics matters, and parenting with the MQ fosters the ethics of rational egoism.

Because the Master Question entails and reflects certain fundamental principles of Objectivism, insofar as parents use the MQ in raising their children, they are effectively (if only implicitly) parenting with these principles of Objectivism.

For instance, as we discuss at some length in the article, by using the Master Question and thus striving to establish and maintain maximum developmentally appropriate freedom for a child, we respect his autonomy, and we foster in him a primary orientation toward reality, rather than toward other people or authority. And, of course, a child who early in life develops the psychological habit of focusing primarily on reality is more likely to become and remain an independent thinker than is a child who does not.

Likewise, by using the Master Question and thus providing a child with reasons for all that we ask or expect of him, we foster in him a respect for reason; by using the MQ and thus refusing ever to lie to a child, we foster in him a respect for and an expectation of honesty; by using the MQ and thus helping him to understand the nature and source of emotions, we foster in him a grasp of and respect for the different roles of reason and emotion; and so on. (For detailed discussions of these and other applications, see the article.)

Perhaps one of the most illuminating connections between parenting with the Master Question and the principles of Objectivism is the application of the MQ to the sphere of child discipline. Here, the MQ leads to an overarching policy that is essentially an application of the Objectivist metaphysics and ethics. Just as Ayn Rand’s ethics is neatly summed up in the proverb “God said: ‘Take what you want, and pay for it,’” so too discipline via the Master Question can be summed up by the literal meaning of that proverb. The goal of discipline, in this regard, is to help a child understand and embrace the law of causality as it applies to human values and behavior: Reality is such that if you want something, you must act in certain ways (and not in other ways) in order to get it. (Again, for a detailed discussion of this application, see the article.)

There are many more connections between the philosophy of Objectivism and parenting with the Master Question. The foregoing is merely an indication. Those with a substantial understanding of the philosophy who read the article likely will see such connections throughout.

In a nutshell, a key value of the Master Question is that it incorporates certain principles of the Objectivist metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics into a single, mind-activating tool that guides parents’ thinking and decision-making in ways that foster their children’s development toward rational egoism. (And the MQ serves this purpose regardless of whether the parents using it are Objectivists.)

As one long-time Objectivist mother said after reading the article, “These ideas come straight out of the fundamental premises of Objectivism as I discovered in 1960. Thank you for articulating these applications so clearly. They should be extremely helpful to parents.” (Karen G.) And as another long-time Objectivist mother said, “If Ayn Rand had ever chosen to have a child, I can easily imagine her taking to mind and heart what is said in this essay about the use of the ‘Master Question’ in raising a child.” (Catherine M.)

Sarah and I will write more in the future about our thoughts on raising a life-loving child. So if you have a question you’d like us to address, feel free to email me at [email protected]

Also, be sure to join our Facebook page “Parenting with the Master Question” for links to notable articles, podcasts, and videos, as well as wide-ranging discussions about various aspects of parenting.

We hope you’ll help us spread this approach to parenting, both because we want more parents to raise reality-oriented, independent-thinking, self-interested children for the sake of the children—and because we recognize that the more such children there are, the better the world will be for us and for our children and grandchildren.

When parents raise life-loving children, everyone benefits.

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