Thinking out loud – “What, to you, are the primary goals of parenting?”

In the most recent Slate Star Codex open thread, OT115, Hoopyfreud asks us:

What, to you, are the primary goals of parenting?

I have come up with a list of 5 things, ranked in order from most to least important to me.

1 – Giving kids tools to deal with/find meaning in life (philosophy, logic, dealing with grief, recognizing beauty)
2 – Giving kids concrete knowledge and skills (reading, writing, arithmetic, campfire-building, cooking, accounting)
3 – Making sure kids have good outcomes for them (not ending up homeless, paying for good schools)
4 – Giving kids good values (promoting my own moral beliefs and encouraging them to adopt them)
5 – Making sure kids produce good outcomes for me (caring for me in my dotage, providing me with grandchildren)

I should note that 4 I’m skeptical of, and 5 I would actively try to avoid doing, insofar as it conflicts with anything above it.

I thought this was a pretty cool question, but as I am like a foundling barely worth fondling, I don’t actually have any kids myself. I am pretty neutral on having kids in the future, leaning towards not out of practicality. I’m going to content myself with thinking out loud about this question as I read through the answers others have given.

Let’s start with HF’s own bit.


The first question I ask myself: Are the goals Hoopyfreud lays out orthogonal to one another?

I’m using “orthogonal” in a context only slightly different from its use in things like Nate Soare’s post, Dark Arts of Rationality. What I mean here is that making progress on one goal doesn’t lead to significant progress on the other goals. A little at the margins is okay, because we can write it off as a fringe effect that doesn’t macro-level matter. There’s an obscure analogy here to be made to perturbation theory here, but my parole says I’m not allowed to do math.

It’s easier to reason about orthogonal goals. You don’t have to consider that maybe the best way to achieve #5 is to focus more for now on #3 and less on #2. Sadly parenting is a human-complete problem, so not only are these goals not orthogonal, I’m not sure anything in this problem space would be.

Next question: How would I rank these goals, personally? I think I would re-rank them as such:

3 – Making sure kids have good outcomes for them (not ending up homeless, paying for good schools)
2 – Giving kids concrete knowledge and skills (reading, writing, arithmetic, campfire-building, cooking, accounting)
5 – Making sure kids produce good outcomes for me (caring for me in my dotage, providing me with grandchildren)
1 – Giving kids tools to deal with/find meaning in life (philosophy, logic, dealing with grief, recognizing beauty)
4 – Giving kids good values (promoting my own moral beliefs and encouraging them to adopt them)

#3 first because it seems to honestly be the most coherent superset of the last ones, but also because I want to prioritize their own moment-to-moment well being, because they’re my kids.

Sure, #2 will let them make a larger difference on the rest of the world, #1 + #4 might even make it a positive one (even though ethics is hard, anyone trying to tell you different is selling you something, and it weakly seems that often the best approach to making differences in the world is the Do Nothing action).

But at the end of the day, the people close to me come first, and not everyone is as philosophically inclined as you and I are, so whatever bit of #3 is separate from #1, I would prioritize that. I am unapologetically Slytherin in this regard.

Let’s also look at #4. Where do my intuitions about being a big lax w/r/t giving my kids my own moral beliefs hail from?

Part of it probably comes from an ethical spin on the principle of least commitment: Leave the ethical reasoning computations about the world of posterity to posterity, because making generalizations before the fact is very hard business. Part of it comes from lingering sympathies for left libertarianism, Seeing Like A State edition: My kids understand their local situation, hopefully they have enough metis to counterbalance the episteme, and so I should prioritize giving them the general competence to function effectively in more tractable ways before I start imposing values on them.


I don’t have kids either.


I feel like giving them good values should logically be the top priority, because it serves society as a whole, but I also feel like I’d place my children’s well-being first.

I don’t know if it should be top priority, given my reasoning above, but if you think that there are longstanding ethical principles that they’re not likely to discover and embody themselves, then I could see it much more. Otherwise, I’m glad someone agrees with me about putting their well-being first.

Giving them concrete knowledge and skills would be important to me mainly to the extent that it serves their own interest.

Yeah, I could see that. I think I might partly give this one more credit just because I know that me, my brothers, my parents, and pretty much everyone in my family likes knowing they’re good at their jobs. We’ve got a bit of the crafty craftsmen in all of us, so we probably need a good deal of #2 to achieve #3 (non-orthogonality strikes again!).

It would never have occurred to me to list meaning of life, but that’s probably because I’m a bitter cynic. Anyway, it’s a subset of the children having good outcomes for themselves.

Ha. Somehow I get the feeling I would do more damage than good trying to give them what I understand about the meaning of life!

But I actually mildly disagree that it has to be a subset of good outcomes; I know plenty of people who don’t seem to think very often or very deeply about the meaning of life, and when they do they often fall prey to motivated reasoning. I am not without grievous sin in this regard, of course.

This would be stronger disagreement if we didn’t add in local knowledge: I think that for my kids #1 probably would be important, since they’re probably likely to be closer to me than the general populace in weird ways like that. (“Probably” = “Mildly confident that this is the general rule”, and “likely” = the actual statistical meaning, my kids could end up being different as night and day from me, but assuming I’m right about the general rule, they probably won’t.)

I think the best way to get my kids to take care of me in my old age is to raise them as generally good people, which I should be doing anyway.

I don’t really have a solid argument for or against this one. I know that past me found it pretty easy to reason his way out of wanting to do that, but I honestly don’t know how much of that was ethical reasoning in good faith and how much of it was just him trying to lick his wounds after many years of emotional pain dealing with them (I’m fine now, don’t worry, time and therapy did wonders for me). I think the ethical case is on slippery ground, however, because shouldn’t these people have found a better way to provide for themselves in old age? Why are they putting the burden on me? Status: Inconclusive. Check back in 5 years.


(Aside: If you ever read this, I want you to know your review of Models: A Summary pretty much changed my entire life for the better. Thank you so, so much, you wonderful human being.)

As a parent, one striking absence from this list is “making sure my kids have a happy childhood.”

Kids are people, not clay to be molded into people. And how happy your kid’s childhood is is [sic] something everyone agrees that parents have control over.

Gotta hit you with the [sic] there and assume you meant “is not something everyone agrees that parents have control over”. And I’m definitely in that camp, people like Bryan Caplan, Robin Hanson and Julia Galef have all given me decent intuitions that it’s better to not parent with too tight a leash like that.

I guess I was assuming that the goal of happy childhood would be naturally rolled up in #3, but since we have an n = 1 data point of someone who didn’t assume that, we should probably spin it off into its own goal. We’re allowed to do that! The goals are already non-orthogonal, after all.

This seems like the kind of point that smart people should point out, “Hey guys, I know we’re probably assuming this but let’s make it explicitly clear so we don’t accidentally Tiger Mom our kids without reason.” One of many things I like about the rat community. 🙂

(Incidentally, our original poster, Hoopyfreud, also seemed to assume this sort of thing fell under #3, and claimed that’s why it didn’t occur to him at the time to list it separately. So that makes n = 3 data points of cool people who thought this a high value comment!)

Le Maistre Chat

Teach them how to think rather than what to think (which is what schools do), having faith that this will lead to the best outcomes (3 & 5).

Applause lights notwithstanding, I feel I agree more than I disagree with this. I don’t think being able to think is everything, but I do think it’s a pretty big component of living a satisfying life for an intellectually curious person. And, as previously said, my hypothetical kids would probably lie pretty far on that axis.


I have a two year old and a thirteen year old sons, and it’s different.

Modesty suggests I should perk my ears up.

Keeping them physically safe is paramount, after that giving the two year old a happy day (with the bad air quality due to the “Camp Fire” up north, it’s been taking him to libraries and Barnes & Noble instead of playgrounds lately).

Unfortunately with the thirteen year old a “happy day” is no longer the goal as he has ambitions to go to U.C. and “study computers”, and now there’s little time for him to do anything except study, and his childhood is pretty much over.

This post suddenly made me sad, so let me shift gears for this post and indulge my silly little bit of humanity.

I’m a student at a Top 10 university, and I meet students here constantly who seem to come from this background. I don’t know how much I should weight “Hey, these are different people with probably much higher levels of conventionality to you, so they’re probably happy with their choices” versus “These kids were probably funneled into this place by years of unhappy grinding and massive social pressures to follow through”. Stories like this always make me feel the latter.

I guess I would point out to the thirteen year old that studying computers is something most people do at college, and that spending your entire day studying is actually a really shitty way for most people to spend your teenage years (been there, done that, skip that tourist trap please). But I’m also aware that it’s generally hard to convince anyone of anything for any reason at any time.

It’s very saddening, but with the odds of success so narrow, what’s the choice?

That makes two of us pops. I’m sorry. 😦

Right now he’s on the computer trying to learn Spanish (knowing a foreign language is a requirement), and I know when I tried to learn a foreign language in High School (when I was a couple of years older than he is now) I was a failure at it (the only classes that I got consistently good grades in High School were history classes).

This, I wouldn’t actually worry about quite as much as it sounds like he does. Barely anyone actually remembers anything from their language classes one way or the other.

Plumber’s son might get some mileage out of looking into Caplan’s signalling model of education, because despite how unpleasant it was, it was what finally convinced me not to stake my life’s happiness all on school.

No idea if were doing the right thing, I could just have him compete High School, practice doing arithmetic fast, along with spatial relations and “mechanical aptitude” tests, and have him become an apprentice plumber like I did, but when I last took him under the house to see the piping he wasn’t interested.

He might still come around. My little brother is training with my dad to be an electrician after doing community college. IIRC, California has a good junior college program your son could aim for.

I don’t think we will ever know whar [sic] the right thing to do is for sure.

Maybe not. But you still sound like a great dad in my eyes. 🙂


To raise children that are able to help themselves and others, or, independence + good citizens.

Happiness and material success are great when they come around, but they won’t always be around and it might will be a long time between drinks. What’s important is that they have the set of capabilities to improve their own life, persist in the face of inevitable suffering, whilst being minimally reliant/dependent on others. From there you’d be free to create your own fun/happiness.

I might also add a secondary goal of learning from parents’ mistakes and doing a little better than they did.

General agree. I feel like a lot of us here value giving them independence strongly, which is good news to me.

Author: mainsailpatcher

Undergraduate, rationalist, loves: 🐕🐱🌯

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