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Climbing trees and raising children with Simone de Beauvoir

As the existential philosopher foresaw, the goal of parenting must be to raise an autonomous human being.

Is there any point in having children? Most people do, and it structures their lives for decades. But those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world in the 21st century can lead rich and rewarding lives without making such a huge commitment. So why have children? Is it worth the effort?

If we turn to great existential philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, we’ll be disappointed. It is their job to illuminate the basic features of human life. But they almost entirely ignore childhood, writing as if human adults simply appear fully formed and then struggle to get along.

Simone de Beauvoir is an exception. She’s an existential philosopher who paid close attention to parenting. The central theme of her major work, The Second Sex, is summarised in its most famous sentence: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. This opens her analysis of childhood and adolescence, which is followed by a chapter on motherhood.

Childhood, according to Beauvoir, is characterised by the different social expectations for boys and girls that train different skills and instil different perspectives. Boys are encouraged to be ambitious and adventurous, girls to be pleasing and helpful. Boys are supposed to climb trees, girls should keep their feet on the ground. As a result, everyone becomes accustomed to boys reaching elevated positions and girls living at a lower level.

These social expectations are often presented as natural differences. Boys like climbing trees, girls like pressing flowers. Boys don’t cry. Girls don’t argue. Any divergence from this script is seen to confirm it. When girls climbs trees, claimed Alfred Alder, it means they want to be equal to the boys.

When a girl climbs a tree, replied Beauvoir, it means she likes climbing trees. There are, in other words, no goals that are natural to boys or natural to girls. Rather, human beings set goals for themselves. Anyone can choose to climb trees, but nobody naturally aims to do so.

Humans are free to set goals for themselves, which explains why gender expectations are continually enforced during childhood and adolescence. Indeed, enforcing gender expectations would make no sense if these expectations reflected natural differences between boys and girls. But why does society engage in such enforcement?

Beauvoir believes that society enforces gender because motherhood condemns a woman to routine and repetitive tasks. Keeping the family fed and the home clean is a continuous cycle of work with minimal scope for setting goals and pursuing them. This suppresses a woman’s ability to transform herself and her surroundings by selecting goals for herself.

Beauvoir also argues in her earlier book Pyrrhus and Cineas that setting and pursuing our own goals is a basic human need. If a child is having trouble climbing into a tree and an adult responds by lifting the child into the tree, then the child might burst into tears. What the child wanted in this case was not simply to be in the tree, Beauvoir notes, but to have climbed into the tree.

This, for Beauvoir, means human flourishing is built on the exercise of our basic need for autonomy. The domestic life of motherhood makes a flourishing life difficult. And as we have seen, Beauvoir believes gender enforcement in childhood and adolescence is designed to condition women into accepting this atrophied existence.

Life for girls and women is less constrained today, thanks in part to Beauvoir’s work, though it is sobering how much of her description remains true seventy years later. Yet to appreciate her insight into the value of parenting, we need to consider exactly why she thinks this gender conditioning is wrong.

Beauvoir thought human freedom was the foundation of all other value. Her argument rests on her view that setting and pursuing goals is fundamental to human life. We cannot avoid treating our aims and ambitions as valuable. But if we stop and reflect, we might ask why a particular goal is important.

It cannot just be because it is mine – then there would be no inherent value in this goal rather than any other. It cannot be that my goals can be built on to pursue further goals. For that just returns us to the same question: what makes those further goals valuable? There is only one other option, Beauvoir claims. The human ability to set and pursue goals is supremely valuable. My goals can have value as expressions of this human autonomy.

This is the core idea of Beauvoir’s existentialism: human autonomy is the fundamental value, so we are required to respect it. If my goal frustrates human autonomy, then this cancels out any value it would have as an expression of my autonomy. Goals that respect human freedom are valuable. Those that do not are worthless.

Exploring new lands and mapping out the world can be a worthwhile endeavour, but not if the aim is to enslave people. Becoming a doctor can be a valuable expression of human abilities, but not if the medical skills are used in service of a murderous totalitarian regime. More mundanely, it is because the suppression of human autonomy is morally wrong that the enforcement of a gender role aimed at limiting women’s freedom is wrong.

Because she emphasises the routine and repetitive nature of motherhood as suppressing human autonomy, Beauvoir has often been read as recommending a life without children. Yet a more careful reading of her analysis suggests an existentialist form of parenting that is no less valuable than any other way to live. When mothers are condemned to a life of mundane domestic tasks, this is caused by the social system, not by the human condition itself.

Raising a child can be a goal chosen and pursued by a fully autonomous and flourishing human being. Most goals involve repetitive work, and this work is not simply cyclical if it contributes to the overall achievement. So, a positive existentialist approach to raising children would need to organise the repetitive work in pursuit of some overall purpose.

What might that purpose be? It cannot be to produce a new person who shares your own outlook on life. Beauvoir points out that our basic need to develop our own projects, to climb the trees we choose to climb, explains why the parent who tries to determine their child’s goals and values will not succeed. But more importantly, this would be an attempt to constrain human autonomy, and it would therefore be ruled out by Beauvoir’s moral theory.

The goal must rather be to raise a child who is well equipped to set and pursue goals for themselves, to develop their own projects, and to continue exercising this ability throughout their lives. In short, the goal of parenting must be to raise an autonomous human being.

What does this mean in practice? It means resisting social pressures that would limit the child’s outlook and options. It means providing the education required to navigate the world in pursuit of our own projects. And it means fostering the confidence to do so. Indeed, a central theme of The Second Sex is precisely that individual autonomy has been thwarted by the lack of these aims in the traditional upbringing of girls – and, to a lesser extent, boys – in our culture.

Of course, resisting social pressures, providing an education that cultivates autonomy, and instilling confidence in a child are all difficult tasks. And this returns us to our initial question: Given the immense commitment involved in parenting, is there any reason why we should choose to do it?

Nothing in Beauvoir’s philosophy entails that we ought to raise children. There are plenty of ways to organise our lives that respect the value of human autonomy without bringing up an autonomous human being, including the ways Beauvoir organised hers.

Beauvoir’s philosophy does, however, imply that raising a child to be autonomous is as worthwhile as any project could be. After all, if human autonomy is the most valuable thing there is and the foundation of all other value, then what could be more valuable than raising an autonomous human being?

Jonathan Webber is Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University. He is the author of Rethinking Existentialism

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland