A Modest Proposal about Paternalism

Today is a rescue operation.  I am going to try to rescue the term “paternalism.”  Very likely, I won’t succeed, but I have learned a phrase from my wife that I now use a good deal: “How bad could it be?”

Once you know that paternalism is bad, you really don’t need to know what it means.  In this, it parallels “racism” and “sexism.”  To the best of my recollection, racism was once a wPaternalism 2ay of ordering the several races in a hierarchy.  It meant that “my race”—all of the members of my race, without regard to personal traits—is better than “your race,” with the same wall to wall erasing of personal distinctions.  In that form, it is false.  You can have any kind of grading system you like, provided that it grades individuals, and “racism” in that form can be shown to be empirically false.

Over time, the term came to mean the recognition of any racial differences at all.  I think the operating theory must have been that if a fact is established, people of ill will can use it to the disadvantage of the targeted race.  And since there is no way to prevent people of ill will from using facts in this manner, it is up to you to deny the existence of those facts.  Or, if you are not willing to deny them, just ignore them.  That will work just as well unless you are put on the spot.[1]

Sexism works the same way.  One sex is better than another.  That has meant that men are better than women.  But it doesn’t work the way race does.  You simply can’t say that every man is better at everything than any woman.  You can get most of the heavy lifting done, however, if you denigrate the value of the things women are better at.  I trust you will notice the pun.[2]  So men are better “at the things that really matter” than women are.  This runs into the factual problem, of course, just as racism did, and the options for people who know what the facts are are the same: deny the facts or shut up about them.

This brings us to paternalism.  That ought to mean that fathers—not “men,” but “fathers”—are better at everything than mothers—not “women,” but “mothers”—are.  No one thinks that.  The fallback position would be that fathers are better at all the most important parts of parenting than the mothers are.  Hardly anyone thinks that either, although there remains the question of just what “the most important” parts are.

This brings us to the text for today.

But paternalism, modestly construed as an expectation of achievement cushioned by a responsible willingness to provide guidance and support, has both a firm basis in male tradition and a present utility.[3]  As with many of the important criteria of manhood, it expresses tension between judgment of performance and a loving association with the performer: one measures one’s son and tries to help him through the measurements.[4] (p. 194)

Paternalism 1This from Peter N. Stearns, a social historian and long-time observer of the pattern of gender roles.  In that whole description, I see only one weasel word, which I think is truly admirable.  The word I see is the “modestly,” after “paternalism.”  He gets to say what a “modestly construed paternalism” is and the men’s liberationists and feminists who have attacked him for this view (the book was first published in 1979) “just don’t understand” the kind of paternalism he has in mind.

I do, though.  I had a mentor.  My brother, Karl, was a pediatrician for most of his adult life.  He saw a lot of family settings and a lot of whole and balanced kids and a lot of seriously messed up kids.  He looked for two elements in the family setting.  He said that if these two elements were there, nearly every kid, however varied the personalities, had a good foundation for all the later choices.  The two elements were: love and firm rules.

That’s the way I remember it from all those years of conversation, but I called him last week to be sure I remembered it correctly and I discovered that he has clarified “love” a little.  He said he counted that a little boy was “loved” if there was someone in the home who was willing to listen to him.  Karl is a pediatrician, remember, not a child psychologist.  What he needs is a rough and ready criterion for “home setting,” something that will help him judge whether a child’s health is supported or abraded by the conditions at home.

I’ve remembered those two criteria over the decades since I first heard him say it, and they were in my mind when I read Stearns’ account.  In “loving association with the performer,” I see Karl’s insistence that the child is cared about and listened to.  In “judgment of performance,” I see the firm and clear rules that Karl thought were so important.

I see two kinds of dilemmas that will need to be addressed if this “modestly construed paternalism” is to be developed.  One has to do with the children; the other with the wife.

Stearns says that the decline of “traditional fathering” since the beginning of the industrial era has left men with a confusing situation. 

“Now that men cannot train their sons for work, and work with them during an overlap of careers, it has been difficult to find an alternate style with will produce guidance and authority…  Leisure activities, to which men now resort for so many of the satisfactions of manhood, have been the best surrogate, for they combine friendly association with training in skills and, where the father keeps up his own abilities, with the possibility of ongoing contact.” (pp. 192—193).

Being “buddies” with your children is often not what the child wants.  Furthermore, if one chooses to be a buddy rather than a father, it is not likely to be what the child needs, either.  The “judgment of performance” part of the father’s role is not really compatible with “being a buddy.”  If you have been to highly organized sports for children, you have seen fathers trying some way to play both roles at the same time.[5]

Before the industrial revolution changed family life so drastically, the father was the master of a setPaternalism 3 of skills he could teach to his sons.  This loaded the scale in favor of the judgment of performance criterion and against the “loving association with the performer” criterion.  Or, in Karl’s terms, the scale was loaded in favor of the rules part and against the “loving and listening to” part.  The Little League father is looking at a scale loaded the other way, even for the relatively minor part of essential family life that is played out in sports.  There are difficulties both ways.

Then there are the difficulties the wife presents.  Women have long borne the brunt of caring for the family.  The idea that the husband is going to be at home more now and therefore available to help bear the burden of family life has been an idea long welcomed.  On the other hand, when the women did all the work, they defined the job the way they wanted it and had no notion at all that it involved an exercise of power.  When the men enter the family to a new extent, being freed from the workplace to an increasing extent, they see “caring for the family” in their own way.  They don’t see themselves as apprentice mothers; they see themselves as fathers.

The family is, or should be, a field of male action in which men insist on defining a clear role for themselves, including a style of parenting.  Women complain that despite important strides to mutuality, men actually remain dominant in more cases than not.  This is doubtless true in many aspects of husband-wife relations.  But it is less likely true in areas of family activity, including child rearing, over which women have long maintained a virtual monopoly.

Men who want to be fathers, in this sense, are going to have to find a way to make it OK with their wives.  If the wives can’t find a way to assimilate a new adult at home, the children will be denied the “modest paternalism” that Stearns argues is the gift men have to give at home, or engage in protracted conflict about how to raise the children, particularly the boys.

I have no idea how these stresses are going to work themselves out.  I am quite sure it will not happen in my lifetime.  Stearn’s view is that the industrial revolution distorted gender patterns for several hundred years.  It would be odd to imagine that men and women—fathers and mothers—would devise some new balance on the fly and apply it collegially to the new challenges.  That is asking too much and I am not asking it.

What I am asking is that “paternalism” be removed from the listing of social pathologies it shares with sexism and racism.  Some way needs to be found for men to be men and fathers and husbands at the same time under confusing post-industrial circumstances.  I think this word can help us.


[1] In Ursula LeGuin’s marvelous novel, The Lathe of Heaven, her protagonist, George Orr, “solves” the race problem in a dream that changes the reality of the world.  In this new world, everyone is gray.

[2] I don’t, of course.  If I trusted that you would notice the pun based in denigrate, I wouldn’t have written this footnote.

[3] If you are like me and read a quotation beginning with “but…” you will want to know why it is there.  The previous sentence is, “Not a patriarchal style: quite apart from the effective disappearance of the propertied weapons of the patriarch, there is no way to justify a return to this formal dominion.”

[4] Peter N. Stearns, Be a Man! Males in Modern Society.  New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc. 1979.  I will give the page references along with the specific quotations.

[5] Not to go all nostalgic or anything, but the vast majority of my athletic experience took place in a vacant lot in our neighborhood, which was just fine with my parents who knew where we were and that we were safe, and cared nothing at all about whether we were learning to be wide receivers, shortstops, or power forwards.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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