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Review of "The Whole Child"

By Seamus Carey
Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
Review by John D. Mullen, Ph.D. on Jun 21st 2004
The Whole Child

Philosophers have written far too little about parenting, a trifle in fact when compared for example to what they have produced in the present and previous centuries about science.  Facile explanations for this come to mind but in truth I don't understand it.  A consequence of this gap in philosophical energies is that any new endeavor along these lines should be given serious attention and notice.  It is with this in mind that I looked forward to Seamus Carey's The Whole Child: Restoring Wonder to the Art of Parenting.

Carey sets out the parameters of his project in a number of places early in the text.

"… to make philosophical wisdom and insight into wholesomeness and Being relevant to and useful in the nurturance and guidance of children." (x)

"…help the reader find some new ways to think about his or her relationship to children and about human nature in general." (xi)

"… to assist parents and children in developing their whole and highest selves." (3)

"… [to provide] an account of the dynamics involved in sustaining an awareness of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual development of children that is necessary for them to reach their highest potential."(4)

"… to help parents uncover a thoughtful context within which they can understand the essential needs of their children and provide insightful guidance that will facilitate the healthy development of all aspects of their children's lives." (6)

Some philosophers are architects, intending to create bold and different conceptual spaces within which human activities can proceed.  Others are building inspectors, inspecting the integrity of the reasoning that we humans use to make our ways about.  Carey's project falls clearly within the traditions of the former.  He intends to demonstrate how the philosophers who interest him, Heidegger, Aristotle, Plato, Levinas and Tillich can provide ways of approaching daily life, and by extension parenting, that far surpass our everyday thinking.  In the philosophical literature on parenting Sarah Ruddick's Maternal Thinking, Towards a Politics of Peace, 1989 shares Carey's architectural project while in contrast one could mention the building inspector Jeffrey Blustein's Parents and Children, 1982.

Carey is not subtle about his disdain for the patterns and behaviors of both everyday life and everyday parenting, at least in the west.  He speaks of "cycles of contempt" in which unreflective parents direct deeply repressed pain onto their children, of the predominance of a "calculative mind" that limits human experience and corrupts human relationships, he sneers that limousines to transport families on first communion day are even worse than their prom night predecessors, and charges that the use of Ritalin is motivated by a desire of parents and educators to medicate and manipulate children into conformity.  He notes, "Unfortunately, the conditions of our culture favor the diminishing of Being, as it becomes less and less necessary for human beings to be consciously present to accomplish the tasks that they are obligated to perform." (25)   Finally Carey tells a story of a courageous woman, his wife Noreen as it later turns out, who worked her way through college, became a successful accountant, well-regarded, accomplished and well-paid, who then put it aside to become a full time mother.  The story is unremarkable though not the manner in which the author understands it.  His wife has made the courageous decision to reject a selfish life of personal gratification for a selfless life of caring.  Her prior life, one of professional and material success, was by its nature, "… dominated by the interests of the ego …" and from this she entered "… into the ethical relation of infinite responsibility to care for others."  His point is grounded in the idea, so obvious to Carey as to require no mention, that the ordinary lives of work, even at their most accomplished, harbor no possibilities for ethical expression or caring.

As an alternative to the stultifying consciousness of the everyday Carey proposes "the contemplative mind", one that is "… open, nonjudgmental, and receptive." (19)  Unlike the calculative mind the "contemplative gaze" is able to perceive, "… the depth, meaning, and fluid presence …" that provide the context of otherwise ordinary things.  To illustrate the advantage brought to parenting by the detached contemplative mind, Carey relates that the kitchen of his home is often "… a battleground where strong wills clash … between my wife and one of our two daughters."  As the food cools, " … the intensity of my wife's and daughters' willfulness grows …"  To such situations the contemplative spouse "… can often find a calm and peaceful way out."  This parent, " … can perceive the background or unconscious factors that contribute to the child's resistance … The nonengaged parent has the opportunity to be more contemplative… A mother may be tired… She may have unpaid bills hanging over her head… To perceive this the contemplative parent needs composure, patience, and wonder, not a will to control or judge."(19-20)

Carey understands the contemplative mind in Heiddegerian terms as being able to regain the understandings and reactions that have been lost by the rise of calculation, to peel back the onion of history.  He speaks of wisdom and wonder, illustrating the latter with a story of his own experience of an ant colony and of his daughters' reactions to a snowfall.  In this sense there is something important in Carey's idea of the contemplative mind.  Applied to parenting he notes that, "… the primary function of a parent … is to help children become aware of their beauty and their potential." (36)  Presumably it is the parent who is contemplative, who is "open to being", who can succeed as a parent.  Carey is aware that this can seem impractical.  He counters this with a story about how his own "openness to the other" prevented him from acting inappropriately when his daughters argued.  Talking with his oldest daughter, he discovered the source of her upset and diffused the situation.

While the many vignettes in this discussion are simply stated, the theoretical framework is presented through the technical language of the philosopher under discussion.  And so philosophical phrases such as das Heilen, wonder, allurement, conscious presence, Sheol, the ontology difference, ontological forgetfulness, necessarily appear and then are gone quite quickly.  

Part II of the book contains analyses of some of the virtues that parents should bring to their responsibilities, courage, integrity, discipline, and higher love.  These are interesting discussions, in some instances very well written.  Good use is made of  Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illych to illustrate the existential issues that surround living in the face of death.  There is an affecting account of Carey's niece protecting his daughter during a frightening swim exercise.  And there is an unconvincing attempt to present Socrates' desertion of his children as a lesson in good parenting.  There are many reasons for philosophers to admire Plato's Socrates, perhaps even to take him as a model, but his devotion to Xanthippe and the children is surely not one of them.  All in all the chapters of Part II are instructive and readable, though not as satisfying as Sara Ruddick's earlier treatment of parenting virtues in Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace, 1989.

There are two main issues that I have with this treatment of parenting.  The first is that it not sufficiently empirical.  It is not a philosopher's job to act in systematic ways to produce empirical knowledge.  On the other hand he or she should not ignore scientific traditions that call into question the philosopher's claims or assumptions.  Carey makes his belief clear that parenting practice will have long-term effects upon the child.  For example:

"… parents are entrusted to guide their children toward a happy and good life." (34)

"The way in which we receive and respond to … [our children] … plays a significant and enduring role in the formation of their character. (36)

"The primary goal of parental discipline is to prepare children to be responsible citizens who are capable of living healthy and fulfilling lives…" (137)

            The enduring of effects of parenting practice is a familiar assumption.  Ironically it is a mainstay of the very everyday common sense that Carey so mistrusts.  However the most important tradition today in child development, behavior genetics, has cast serious doubt on the causal effects of home life (shared environment) upon the child after early adolescence. (David C. Rowe The Limits of Family Influence, 1994)  In addition is Carey's penchant for quantitatively unspecified generalizations.  Parents who are unreflective are said to often direct their repressed pain at their children (7), unhealthy relationships are often caused by an insufficient capacity for wonder (15), and, "If the parents meet certain basic needs such as comfort, food, tenderness, affection, and love, the infant will learn that the world is a place that can be trusted."(46)

Finally there is a delicate and subtle issue involving authorial attitude that I do not understand entirely but which sticks in my brain regardless.  Certainly any writer who sets fundamental social critique as his or her task necessarily places himself outside of and above his topic material.  The critic cannot escape the claim that he or she knows better than those whose practices he finds wanting.  This applies to the ancient Prophets, to Socrates, to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and to Seamus Carey.  Mild mannered Jesus for example referred to the pious Pharisees as whitened sepulchers (Matthew 23:27, harsh words indeed.  The difficult problem of the critic is to stand overtly outside and in-the-right compared to his or her subject(s) without emitting that annoying vapor of smugness.  Socrates and Kierkegaard succeed at this, Nietzsche and Carey do not.  The author's contemplative nature has already been contrasted with the "willfulness" of his wife's.  In another story the author's wife was tired with patience worn thin when their daughter complained of a painful ear and began to act out.  The mother wanted antibiotics but Carey reminded her of their opposition to their overuse.  "My wife was tired and didn't want to hear it.  But I remembered the remedy for ear infections and went to the medicine cabinet to get the tree oil… Looking back on the previous night, we realized that my wife's fatigue and the frustration that resulted caused a temporary lapse in discipline." (130)  One need not be a feminist to wonder, why is Seamus Carey never tired?  Why doesn't he ever worry about bills or get interrupted too many times during the day?  And if the wife's decision to leave the workforce was courageous, a rejection of egotism in favor of care, why was Carey's decision to stay in the workforce not cowardly and egotistical?    

There are other examples to be presented.  Carey's wonder at the workings of a colony of carpenter ants was disturbed by his father-in-law's mundane concerns for the integrity of his house's support beams.  Here is the author gently scolding and instructing his niece whose language was not appropriate.  Here he is harshly condemning parents of ADD children with no attempt at empathy for their frightful situations.  These concerns about authorial attitude are not relevant to the philosophical integrity of the work.  They could however color the spirit in which it is received.


© 2004 John D. Mullen


John Mullen, Ph.D. is Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island, NY.  He is author of Kierkegaard's Philosophy (New American Library, 1988). 

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