Kung-sun Ch’ou said: “Why is it the noble-minded never teach their own children?”
“The way people are, it’s impossible,” replied Mencius. “A teacher’s task is to perfect the student, and if the student doesn’t improve, the student gets angry. When the teacher gets angry, the student in turn feels hurt: You demand perfection, but you’re nowhere near perfect yourself. So parents and children would only hurt each other. And it’s a tragedy when parents and children hurt each other.
“The ancients taught each other’s children. That way parent and child never demand perfect virtue of one another. If they demand perfect virtue of one another, they grow distant. And nothing is more ominous than parents and children growing distant from one another.” (Mencius, 7.18; adapted from the Hinton translation)
In an age that encourages maximum parental involvement in every aspect of a child’s upbringing, Mencius’ statement seems heretical and outrageous: how could it possibly be true that if you shuffle off all educational responsibilities to a family friend you will have a more harmonious relationship with your children?
Children care deeply about what their parents think of them. This caring may be one of the most important facts of our lives, influencing us well into adulthood. We care about our parents’ opinion of us even when we don’t particularly respect them as human beings. I have seen 40-year-olds lash out at their parents for what appear to be minor criticisms, or even reacting to well-intended parental advice by deliberately taking the opposite course. Resistance to parental advice and resentment of their criticisms are an integral part of our bond with them; I hesitate to call it love, because it may be more profound than any of the things we think of as love.
What Mencius means by “teach” includes not only schooling but also upbringing. In our attempts to bring our children up “right,” with regard to morality, practicality, health, hygiene, and so on — think of the daily fights about brushing teeth, going to bed early, picking clothes up off the floor, table manners — we end up correcting them throughout the day, and with many parents at least half the time we spend with our kids is consumed by our attempts to correct them and their resistance to us. Rarely does a child just say, “Ok, thanks for telling me” — and if they do say it, you can bet that they are just concealing their annoyance. If there were no schools to send them to during the day and no teachers to do the correcting, we would be correcting our children in eighty percent of our interactions with them. No relationship can survive that without being seriously damaged.
Mencius is matter-of-fact about this state of things. He resorts to no shoulds. All people, including children, have a basic pride threshold. If they receive what they think is criticism from someone whose approval and respect they crave, they will react with hurt and bristling; if they get it most of the day for many years, they will experience the relationship as made up of a string of small humiliations. We all know this when we have a romantic partner who is constantly correcting us, yet how much more sensitive children are because they care so much for the parents’ approbation. On the other side, he is not saying that the teacher should get angry, just that people do get angry: after saying the same thing for the seventh time, or watched the child’s attention drift off as we are telling him something important, we would have to be saints not to get irritated. And if we have the self-discipline to control the irritation, our children will nonetheless detect it. The parent-as-teacher throws a stronger emotional punch than a mere teacher. Even if they are barely conscious of it, our parents know how to push all our buttons — and we know how to push theirs. We can hurt each other in so many ways, and we do. Mencius also sees astutely that we are hurt not only by the fact of being criticized by our parents, but by their having the arrogance to suppose that they have the capacity to sit over us and evaluate our every action — when, as their closest observers, we are well aware of all their imperfections and believe that there are few people out there quite as exasperating as our own parents. We know all their faults, they know all our faults: we have been watching each other since our births. How could we possibly respect the assertions and judgments that come from each other’s mouths?
Therefore it is better that our children be taught by our most trusted friends, in a context that is less defensive or embattled, and bearing no toxins from a long history of being stung. If parents spend only a small part of their time in correcting their children, the relationship can be built on reciprocal contentment and appreciation. At any rate there is far less perceived aggression — or, as modern kids tend to experience it, attempts to control, because, as we know, our parents only want to control us and turn us into them. For a modern child the constant criticism is read as an ancient war to crush their free spirits — and perhaps there is a little truth to that. All this is why, as friends of mine have pointed out, parents who hand their kids to the care of nannies usually have a far healthier relationship to their children than we more involved parents do.
Mencius’ remarks lightly and gracefully point the way to a more thoroughgoing re-orientation of our attitudes — for what he says about the parent-child relationship applies to all relationships. We tend to think that we are competent to judge the people around us, and the closer they are, the higher the standard becomes. We tend not to be angered by poor judgment in our friends’ parents, but silly pontifications from our own parents can drive us into a frenzy of rage. The great ruiner of relationships is our expectation of perfection in people whom we know to be imperfect, and who know us to be imperfect. Even if we never say anything, the expectation is always felt; there is no one more eloquent than someone who is biting her tongue. “The bane of mankind,” says Mencius, “is that we all want to teach others” (7.23) — for as long as we occupy a seat above the other person, no relationship is possible.