Recently witnessed at an outdoor café in Akureyri, Iceland: the sun suddenly beams down, warming the cool air. A man leaps from his seat where he’s been eating breakfast with his family and lies down in the grass by the patio, soaking in the rays with eyes closed. His young son dives down next to him and nestles under Dad’s chin, eyes also closed. If I interpreted the father’s expression correctly, this was a moment of perfect bliss for him.
Parental love is extraordinary in many ways, starting with the fact that it is particularly groundless. Romantic love can begin with only a minimal basis. John is nice looking and pleasant. Mary reacts by finding him gorgeous and delightful. With so slight a basis, she falls in love. Romantic love has a slight basis in reality, but parental love starts with no basis at all. The boundless love that parents feel for their children is not normally a response to any attribute of their children.
In The Reasons of Love, Harry Frankfurt speaks eloquently about this feature of parental love: “I can declare with unequivocal confidence that I do not love my children because I am aware of some value that inheres in them independent of my love for them.” In fact, he says he started loving his children before they were born – before he knew their attributes. He doesn’t think his present ardor has much at all to do with qualities he now knows his children to have. The special value we see in our children is due to our love, not the love due to a special value that’s already there.
Parental love is also especially lasting. Romantic relationships and even marriages fail all the time, but parents rarely fall out of love with their children. It takes a very extreme transgression on the part of children for love to be threatened. Committing mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school in 2013 did cost Adam Lanza the love of his father, who two years later told Andrew Solomon, in a New Yorker interview, that he’d rather his son had never been born. But even mass murder doesn’t necessarily extinguish love. In his book Far from The Tree, Solomon writes about other young killers and their parents. Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters at Columbine high school in 1999, didn’t lose his parents’ love. His mother told Solomon “I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.” Why? She says, “For myself, I’m glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did, because the love for them – even at the price of this pain – has been the single greatest joy of my life.”
Not only does parental love last, but way down the road, it’s still very intense. The newborn’s parent feels waves of love; the toddler’s parent is full of ardor. Parents adore their eight year olds, their twelve year olds, and their teenagers. At my twins’ high school graduation last month, the exultation and tearfulness of parents was visible evidence that parental love is pretty delirious, whatever the age of the beloved child. This isn’t to say there are no delirious romantic partners after multiple decades, but I think romantic love does have more of a tendency to subside after a torrential start than parental love does.
Parental love also has other features of love to an exceptional degree. Harry Frankfurt is once again illuminating. He points out that a lover identifies with his beloved so much that he tends to acquire his beloved’s interests as his own. Parents have a chance to plant tastes in their kids that they’re capable of sharing – you can expose your child to the Beatles, soccer, hunting, or whatever it is that you love. But in the normal course of things, children’s interests also pop up uninvited, and parents often share them; and do so at least partly out of love.
Or so I have found. What was I doing loving Thomas the Tank Engine and Captain Underpants when my kids were very young? Frankfurt’s explanation seems right: we love what our loved ones love. Today I’m surprised to find myself loving Eminem and Kanye West under my son’s influence; and loving Animal Collective and Joanna Newsom under my daughter’s influence. Though I’ve also come to love music under my husband’s influence, I cannot tell a lie: the fact that he loves X doesn’t have quite as much power to make me love it. For example, his undying love for Van Morrison still, after 20 years of marriage, makes me only a Van Morrison liker.
Parental love exemplifies many of the features of love to an exceptional degree, while also being different in some respects: it’s physical but obviously in a different way. It’s more bound up with caregiving and preparation for the future, etc. But let’s focus on the common ground and the superlatives – the extra groundlessness, lastingness, lasting intensity, and transitivity. Why do we love our children in this way? Presumably it’s related to our biological programming. Parental love takes many species-specific forms, which is why Emperor penguins dote on their kids until they depart for the sea, never to see them again, while human parents separating from college-age children expect regular Skype calls and visits. No doubt culture makes a difference too. In the 60s the standard script for family life included the “generation gap,” probably making parents less likely to share their children’s interests than they are now. Back then you were supposed to hate the Rolling Stones because your kids loved them, but that’s no longer the case.
Biological and cultural explanations have their place, but we can shed light on parental love in other ways too. Frankfurt rhapsodises about two types of love: parental love and self-love. Both are especially pure and paradigmatic, he thinks. He doesn’t attempt to explain why two such seemingly different things are both so pure and paradigmatic, but here’s one possibility: parental love actually is self-love, since children are self-like to their parents. Is that plausible?
That children are other selves has been the view of a variety of philosophers over time. Aristotle, for example, writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “A parent, then, loves his children as he loves himself. For what has come from him is a sort of other self.” Robert Nozick says something similar about children in his book The Examined Life: “children themselves form part of one’s substance,” they “form part of a wider identity you have.” Likewise, in the book Right and Wrong, Charles Fried calls children “extensions of the self” and writes, “Parenthood is a kind of physical continuity, a physical continuity which is also bound up with spiritual and moral continuity through our influence on our children.” In other words, the self doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the individual body: our children are not exactly self to us, but also not exactly other.
Children are akin to other selves, I’m prepared to say, but do we love them like we love our selves? A sizeable impediment to the comparison rears its head immediately: we do love our children, but do we love ourselves? Frankfurt thinks self-love not only exists but is “ubiquitous” and “ineradicable”. His goal is to rehabilitate it, showing there’s nothing bad about self-love, contrary to the misgivings of philosophers like Kant. When I query people on this subject I find about two thirds ready to affirm “I love myself” and one third reluctant, not because they hate themselves, but because they find the statement strange. Why strange? Because self-love, if it exists, has none of the passion and ardor of romantic love or parental love. We don’t feel surges of love for ourselves. When was the last time you wanted to caress your face or give yourself a big hug?
Let us say, following Frankfurt and others, that self-love is not ardor for oneself, but a set of attitudes, including immediate, automatic concern with one’s own interests, preferences, and problems; intense concern about one’s own well-being; a tendency to focus on a particular corner of the universe, i.e. one’s own. Thanks to Frankfurt’s astute analysis, we can add that the best sort of self-love gives us wholeheartedness. If you have consummate self-love, you have found goals that you pursue and endorse. Self-love is thus undivided and unambivalent – with it you will take up your projects, whatever they are, resolutely, instead of vacillating between doing X and wondering whether you should be doing X.
With that said about the nature of self-love, we’re in a better position to see to what extent parental love is a manifestation of self-love. Drawing a connection between parental love and self-love would explain quite a lot. Take the fact that parental love is groundless, not arising from a child’s traits. That’s to be expected if parental love is a manifestation of self-love. We certainly don’t love our selves because of our outstanding traits. As I noted before, parental love is usually forever, not disappearing after some number of months or years. Again, that’s to be expected if parental love is closely related to self-love. Self-love also endures, usually for a life-time. Parental love is lastingly intense, I observed above. Again, self-love is the same: also lastingly intense. Parents come to share their kids’ interests, out of love. That makes more sense, if you realise a child is akin to another self. I have my self’s interests – as long as I am not crippled by ambivalence and self-doubt. So the self-like character of my child may account for my tendency to share his interests.
Parental love and self-love seem to be deeply connected, but then there is one major difference. We have no ardor for ourselves, but we do have ardor for our children. Parents often feel waves of love for their children – they are smitten, besotted. The passion of parental love must be related to the fact that children are only “sort of” selves – they are not us. Because they are not us, they can be far away. They can leave and come back or leave and not come back. Parental love has a lot of worry to it, a lot of anxiety about possible loss. This is true in the earliest days, when parents are relentlessly focused on protecting their vulnerable babies from potential hazards. But I suspect this anxiety is involved in every scene of parental ardor, including the high school graduation scene I mentioned earlier.
If not everything, then at least a lot about parental love is explained by the supposition that children are self-like, to their parents. As a popular adage goes, to decide to have a child is “to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Parental love is love of a self outside of ourselves, so to speak. So I conjecture, but now let’s turn to some worries, from an ethical standpoint.
As Frankfurt points out in The Reasons of Love, self-love has a bad reputation. Kant claims that self-love interferes with morality. It must be overcome before we can do anything that has moral worth. On Kant’s view, parental love would not be morally admirable or lead to actions that are morally admirable, if it were, at the core, a matter of self-love.
Setting Kant’s highly debatable account of moral worth aside, you might have more mundane qualms about parents loving their children as sort-of-selves. Some authors use pejorative terms like “narcissistic” to describe parents who love their children in this way. They think loving children like second selves is bound to be an unwholesome business. What worries the worriers, apparently, is the supposition that loving a child as yourself would involve a domineering, possessive, egotistical love. If you loved your teenager as yourself, you’d pressure him to excel in the way you wish you had or could. If you loved your ten year old as yourself, you’d force your hobbies and values on her. If you loved a five year old as yourself you’d shop for mommy-and-me outfits, turning her into “mini-me.”
These worries are exaggerated. We can view our children as self-like and love them as such without becoming their oppressors. For one, we can love them in the way we love our friends, taking them as they are instead of shaping them. Where shaping does take place, it’s not true that parents always shape children instead of children shaping parents. Yes, parents share their way of life with their children, but that way of life will shift in response to the child’s likes and dislikes. Love can make us love what our children independently love, not seek to influence them.
It’s noteworthy that people are not even oppressors of their very own selves. No reasonable person buys now all the books they plan on reading for the next ten years. Instead we leave it up to our future selves to make “their” own choices on many matters. We give our future selves appropriate freedom. So there’s no reason to think that in viewing a child as self-like, one will automatically opt for total control and domination. We want the best for our future selves and we want the best for our children, which means that we can’t make all the decisions for them. Of course the limits are different in the two cases, but the future selves examples show that there are limits.
We shouldn’t be disappointed to learn that parental love is bound up with self-love, but we should heed some cautions. Since a child is self-like to a considerable degree, it’s true we can get carried away, treating a child as if there were no difference whatever between parent and child. Worse case: you can involve yourself in your child’s daily affairs as intensely as you involve yourself in your own – when the child is not two but 22.
Warnings like this have been spilling out of many recent books aimed at parents of college-age children. In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz says modern parents’ crucial error is over-identification, leading them to intrude too much and feel excessive vicarious pleasure in their children’s successes or disappointment because of their failures. This leads to the endless ministrations of the contemporary parent – the helicoptering and micromanaging, the intense concern about SAT scores and about kids getting into prestigious colleges. I am told that many college students text with their parents throughout the day, letting themselves be coached through all the day’s ups and downs.
The solution is not to deny that kids are self-like to their parents, but for parents to treat them as only sort of selves, and in a respectful, freedom-affirming manner to the extent that they are self-like. We want good lives for our children, and good lives require age-appropriate autonomy. Over time, our role in making decisions for our children has to diminish. Though self-like to us, we will know less and less about their lives, letting them have their privacy. It’s not easy to know when to step back and when to be involved, but parental love doesn’t have to be intrusive and smothering, even if it has close connections to self-love.
Would it be better if we tried to think of our children as entirely other, no more “self” than friends, neighbors, or strangers? I doubt it. The exceptional quality of our love for them might very well be altered. That would be a loss for parents, but also for children. It’s all very well to be loved by a spouse or friend or stranger, but there’s something uniquely reliable, affirming, and sustaining about a parent’s love.
This brings us to a final worry about parental love. Just as we are exceptionally partial to our very own selves, we are exceptionally partial to our children. From their parents kids can count on care and support far beyond what they will ever get from anyone else. But some parents have far more to give than others. Parental love that functions like self-love is one of the principal factors perpetuating social inequality. If I loved my children less I might be sending ten kids to inexpensive colleges for the amount of money we’re spending to send two to outstanding schools. I might be buying basic dental care for twenty kids for the amount we spent on our kids’ braces a few years ago.
Reining in parental love seems like a dire solution. All sorts of social schemes can reduce these inequalities, so that the tendency to favor one’s own child remains, but resources are spread more evenly. The inclination to favor our children is a byproduct of the special love we feel for them and that special love has all sorts of benefits. For one, the close identification with our kids mitigates one of the existential problems built into the human condition. We’re small relative to the whole universe, and life is short. When much younger people are like selves to us, life is fuller and longer. We aren’t so limited to the interests and passions of our exact place, time, and age. We’re expanded by being 30 but enjoying the books of Roald Dahl; 50 but enjoying little league baseball; 70 but enjoying Kanye West; 90 but enjoying tales of our children’s travels. Parents are expanded by parental love and kids supported during their initial foray into a complicated world.
Not only that, but children we closely identify with become our companions in old age. My father, nearly 90, keeps reminiscing about the early days when his three children were in diapers. In my call with him this morning, he said he was grateful that the same three children are still around, talking to him via Skype every day. Perhaps we’re still around because parents are other selves to their children when children are other selves to parents. Thus our parents’ well-being matters to us in an immediate, unreflective way, in the way our own problems matter to us. Clearly there need to be some boundaries between parents and children, especially when kids are leaving home and embarking on their own lives, but there are many reasons to be glad there is a connection between parent-child love and self-love.