The Kiddy Pool: Machiavelli and the Pruning Parent

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I have come to believe that the slippery slope, while fallacious when used in writing, applies to parenting. To put it more colloquially, give kids an inch, and they’ll stomp all over you for a mile. I don’t mean to say that I parent tyrannically, but that any exception to the reasonable, memorable, and well-established household behavioral standards requires an incredible justification. If, for example, my elder daughter wakes up cranky in the morning and takes out her temper on me and her baby sister, I try to help her get the space she needs to work off her grump. I also consistently apply our standard discipline. I can make any number of excuses for her—that she is tired or ill or out of sorts or justifiably annoyed—and if I keep that up, then there is always a reason to misbehave. I have also found that responding with what seems like compassion in the moment (i.e. failure to follow through on discipline) makes the situation worse—not better. Therein lies the slippery slope.

That is a similar principle to the one Suzanne Evans applies in “How Machiavelli Saved My Family.” She uses the political treatise The Prince to change her parenting practices, and in an instance like my slippery slope example, she notes “an overly generous prince will quickly bankrupt the state and only increase his subjects’ greed for largess.” Giving an inch doesn’t make humans thankful for the inch; it only makes us want the mile. Neither Evans nor I is arguing for withholding necessities (or even some luxuries) from our children; indeed, what she considers frugality at Target (a $10 bill for each of her four children) I would deem extravagance. The point is that we appreciate what we earn more than what we are handed, and that’s a truth children ought to learn early and often. My elder child, who is only a preschooler now, is satisfied today if I go for a run and bring her back a penny or a pine cone, but it’s also essential for me to teach her that my purpose in her life is not to shower her with gifts.

There are many points later in Evans’ discussion where I fundamentally disagree with her perspective on childrearing; she takes Machiavelli’s advice to divide and conquer her children by setting them in direct competition with each other, and boldly states “Don’t feel guilty for lying to your kids if it makes you happy and relaxed…because having a happy, relaxed mom always benefits a child.” Internal competition may well breed superior performances, but it does not necessarily produce superior character. My husband likes to say that my mothering hermeneutic, the lens by which I try to filter how I interact with my children and all others, is the fruits of the Spirit. Is it loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, gentle, good, faithful, self-controlled? I reflect that on my own behaviors (and sometimes issue a necessary apology for my shortcomings) and strive to teach my girls to do the same thing. I also do not lie to my children. I sometimes say it’s none of their business and I sometimes provide an age-appropriate version of the truth, but I avoid bald-faced lies, white lies, lies of omission, and changing the context so grossly that a technically-true statement is essentially a lie. No, it’s not always easy and I mess up, but, again, I am looking not to politics but to holiness where my yes means yes and my no means no.

Evans claims that her Machiavellian methods are working for her: “As peace and predictability began to prevail at home, I turned to Machiavelli’s most infamous advice. Though often mistakenly recalled as ‘the ends justify the means,’ what he really says is subtler: that others will ultimately judge actions by results.” In some ways, this statement closely resembles the words of Matthew 7, where we know the tree by the fruit it bears; we judge the tree’s quality by its produce. The difference between Evans’ ideas and my own, or Machiavelli’s and the Gospel, is that the first is about rulers maintaining power and the second is about submission to an ultimate authority; the first emphasizes worldliness while the second emphasizes holiness; the first is product-oriented, focused on results, and the second is process-oriented, focused on relationships and sanctification. Both seem to share an equally grim view of human nature, but where Machiavelli strives to harness humanity’s traits in order to establish a more secure earthly realm, Christ eschews and transcends an earthly kingship in favor of something as good as it is powerful. All of this is to say that Machiavelli may be an effective source for an orderly family, but I think I will stick to my fruitful hermeneutic and keep on pruning away at my parenting.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.


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