Oh, Crap! and The Opposite of Spoiled

If you ask Socrates a question, there’s a pretty good chance he will respond by pushing you up a moral ladder. He’ll insist that the question cannot be understood except in light of a more general question or that you need to stop until you more fully understand one of the terms you’re using.

It’s a tall ladder: it doesn’t stop until you reach The Good. That is, it often seems that—for Socrates—you can’t answer any particular moral question (or indeed many questions we would consider semi- or amoral) until you fully understand goodness and value itself in their most general manifestations.

That’s not intended as scholarship. If you want that from me, look elsewhere. But the Socratic / Platonic insistence on the primacy of extremely general forms of knowledge is often on my mind these days, and not just because I’m an ancient philosopher by training. I’m a parent; I read parenting books; and the very best parenting books tend to be thoroughly Socratic. They’re written for everyone but spend a lot of time way up there on the moral ladder.

Take potty training. There are questions like:

…but, if you’re Jamie Glowacki and writing the excellent and very Socratic Oh, Crap!, you also wind up asking your reader:

Glowacki’s books are full of the best advice at both ends of the moral ladder. At the mundane end, there are tons of relevant facts and a “bag of tricks” for the everyday practical questions every reader will have. But these are always presented with an eye toward the other end, where the very deepest parental—very deepest human—questions and concerns live. And it is these questions and concerns, of course, that make potty-training worth caring about in the first place.

Not every parenting book is this kind of achievement. Not every good parenting book is this kind of achievement, even. Take Ron Lieber’s The Opposite of Spoiled. It’s a good book, I’m glad I read it, and I haven’t seen any better long treatment of the intersection of parenting and money. Thumbs up.

The author gives a lot of useful information about money and covers all the mundane questions you’d expect: when to start talking about it, what to do about allowance, what the correct relationship is between allowances and chores, and so on.

But I wanted more Glowackian anchoring in big questions, honestly confronted. His discussion of the question whether to pay kids directly for their chores (in Chapter 3) is telling: Twice he provides brief, unconvincing arguments that you shouldn’t. Then he gives the floor to a parent he interviewed who gave “the only convincing counterargument” he’d seen. That parent gets the last word in the chapter, and Lieber never attempts to adjudicate the issue. It’s a hard choice, and perhaps one without a single best answer, but Lieber misses the chance to directly confront the questions the issue raises about the roles of children, money, and work in a household. Later, Lieber briefly mentions grandparents, who in his experience often challenge a household’s rules about money. Here, again, he adjudicates the issue hastily, absolutely avoiding deeper questions. And Lieber mentions the shift from pensions to other forms of retirement savings, he takes the opportunity not to discuss retirement savings per se but to repeat familiar, broad, and oft-disputed moral claims about the social consequences of this shift.[1]

Precisely because money touches so many of the deepest and toughest issues in a household, it would be unfair to expect Lieber to treat all of those issues, or even to expect complete treatments of any of them. But I was struck by how much of Lieber’s advice took the form of anecdote and dictum. Glowacki teaches us about excrement, and also the nature of childhood and of the well-going human life; Lieber tells us useful things about money and goes no further.

There is exactly one big exception here: Lieber is happy to confront, or at least to frequently reference, big questions around privilege, inequality, and economic luck. Whatever one thinks about these, they’re certainly important and deep issues that must be confronted if one is going to parent well in this domain. I still find these discussions somewhat shallow, but other readers might disagree. One example: I admire Lieber’s humility in admitting that a comment to a New York Times[2] blog post of his caused him to overhaul his money habits around giving to the homeless. How, though, did he make it so long with a professional interest in money without confronting that issue in a way that already incorporated the reader’s (thoughtful but rather fundamental) concern?

Again, however, I learned much from The Opposite of Spoiled and recommend the book. I’ve focused here on what I find lacking mostly for the sake of contrast and out of an interest in the latent ethical metaphysics of parenting books. (Business books too, but that’s another subject.) If you are going to write a parenting book, though, I do hope you will emulate Glowacki in her thoroughness, courage, and depth.

[Draft; all comments welcome.]

[1] There are other annoyances that don’t fit this general pattern. There’s the unmotivated and inaccurate slur against pigs (p. 52); there’s the citation of studies seemingly without regard to whether they replicate; there’s the fact that so many of the interviews and set pieces comprising the book come from humanities professors from the American northeast. The collective wisdom of humanities professors from the American northeast is immense, but I would have appreciated a bit more balance.

[2] Of course.