The Thinking 


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A Walk in a Patriarchal Neighborhood

September 3, 2009

There were children everywhere, as if this was a reservation for a vanishing tribe. They were running and playing. They were talking and laughing. The girls wore dresses of pink or blue. The boys were dressed in shirts and slacks, not T-shirts with commercial logos. They crowded the sidewalks, some in strollers and others on their feet. Some walked along holding hands with a mother or an older sibling. A boy and a girl of about ten years were running an errand for their parents with plastic bags in their hands. A boy tore down the sidewalk on his bicycle, his head close to the handlebars. A group of teenage girls in dresses stood on a corner in long skirts, with a conspiratorial look in their eyes.

It would be hard to kidnap a child here. There were mothers everywhere. They were pushing strollers, putting children into cars, standing in small groups chatting. Many of them were young and they all wore dresses or skirts with stockings. It was strange. They were smiling and relaxed.  Mothers with many young children are supposed to be angry and depressed. They were smiling and laughing. Two old women sat outside one townhouse and watched children play.

There were some men, walking in pairs, strolling with their wives pushing strollers or visible through the front windows talking on the phone. There were people of every age, interacting and proceeding through the day together. But, most of all there were children. Was this a museum? Perhaps it was called, “The Neighborhood Museum,” a place where people come to see what a real neighborhood looks like.

Such was the scene earlier this week in Outremont, a neighborhood of Montreal I happened to be visiting. This part of Outremont is home to Hasidic Jews. The community has grown in recent years and now numbers more than 15,000. It subsists peacefully with the urban professionals who share the neighborhood in spite of occasional tension. Not long ago there was a controversy. The Orthodox Jews paid for new tinted windows in the local YMCA. Apparently, their teenaged boys were gathering outside a nearby school to watch the women in the Y work out in scanty clothing. Some non-Jewish residents said the new windows were an offense to religious freedom and made yoga exercises more difficult. 

This neighborhood is emphatically patriarchal. I will never be an Orthodox Jew and yet this is my tradition, more familiar to me than the sterile, childless no-man’s land that passes for a neighborhood in most parts of America. This sort of patriarchy doesn’t mean imprisonment for women. It means freedom from Sex and the City. It doesn’t mean women never work or never make money. It means a peaceable order, and a new and abundant generation. It means men confidently strolling down the street.  It brings people out of their homes and into the neighborhood, laughing and talking, running and playing.

Interestingly, these Orthodox Jews survive in the modern economy. How is it they can afford all these children and all these wives at home? Haven’t they heard that all this is no longer possible?


DSCF9465 by christopher dewolf |


DSCF9567 by christopher dewolf |



The Parental Serf

August 19, 2009


The feudal slave who produced grain for his lord, the Communist proletariat beholden to Uncle Joe, and the medieval peasant who paid cash for the forgiveness of sins were no less free than today’s parental serf.

The parental serf does not work for his family and his independence. He works for a higher master: his children’s educations. He starts paying college tuition when his children are young, putting them in expensive programs that will boost their “preparedness.” The goal is clear and predetermined: Admission to a good college. Expensive elementary schools, more expensive extracurricular programs, private lessons – no expense is too great if it creates an edge. The serf works so hard he barely sees his children. He does not know what they are learning or why. He becomes fully indentured with the whopping bills of late adolescence, the yeomen equivalent of a thousand bushels of grain. He pulls his wagon up to the fancy financial offices and empties it out. Anything this expensive must be worth paying for, he tells himself as his mule clip-clops back home. If he can’t afford it, his children can take out loans and become indentured too.

The parental serf speaks with misty-eyed fervor of M.I.T. and Duke. He’s not sure what his children get from these schools and it has never occurred to him to question what they might get. Their massive athletic facilities and glass-enclosed science buildings convey such an air of magical permanence, he wants to be a part of it. The Egyptians must have felt the same way about their pyramids.

It must be something important. There are millions of working adults who could teach a young person what he needs to know. Communications are advanced and inexpensive. Learning is everywhere. But, people say an expensive school makes all the difference in life. In his dark hours, when he thinks of his son or daughter sitting in a crowded lecture hall with a graduate student at the front of the room, the parental serf reassures himself. He must be working so hard for more than a few slips of paper and four years of mere school.

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Excellence in Parenthood

July 16, 2009


Here is a partial list of the virtues children need to learn in order to flourish as adults. Once acquired, these virtues tend to last, or at least to make a lasting impression. But, they may take many years to acquire:

  •     Truthfulness
  •     Neatness
  •     Obedience
  •     Self-control
  •     Courtesy
  •     Respect for elders
  •     Loyalty
  •     Thrift 
  •     Modesty
  •     Trustworthiness
  •     Courage
  •     Friendliness
  •     A sense of civic duty

 There are also intellectual virtues:

  •     Concentration
  •     Dispassion
  •     Simplicity
  •     Perseverance
  •     Moderation
  •     Judgment
  •     Piety
  •     Studiousness
  •     Curiosity
  •     Respect for the past
  •     Cultural literacy
  •     Exactitude in written and spoken expression
  •     Clarity in thought and idea

Here is a list of the practical things children require on a regular basis:

  •     Clean clothes
  •     Healthy meals at set intervals
  •     A neat, uncluttered environment
  •     Instruction in daily cleanliness
  •     Medicine and rest during illness
  •     Routine social interaction with the same people
  •     Conversation with adults
  •     Physical affection
  •     Words of love and encouragement
  •     Disapproval and punishment for wrong actions and unruly behavior
  •     Fun
  •     Quiet and peace at night 
  •     Adequate sleep


The Happiest Mothers

July 1, 2009


In the previous discussion about homeschooling, I mentioned that homeschooling mothers are the happiest mothers in America. Why might this be true? Parenthood is not just economics and emotions. It’s more than just providing a home and security. It’s about passing on what you love to others and thus ensuring its survival. The highest purpose of education, as Aristotle said, is to make the young love the right things. The highest goal of a parent is to make sure his children love the right things.

The homeschooling parent doesn’t have to fight the persistent intentions of school to make his children love the wrong things.

The homeschooling mother is more than a drudge, more than a mindless chauffeur and cook. She is not a de facto employee of the local school district, filling out endless forms, staffing pointless fund-raisers, and supervising evening after soul-killing evening of boil-brained homework. She forms character and minds.  That’s why she tends to have more children than her counterparts. She knows what she loves will survive. That’s why she is happy. Betty Friedan was wrong. Women didn’t want to leave home. They wanted their homes back.


Plutarch and the Manly Man

June 30, 2009


Plutarch, the Roman historian, was once the standard fare of any well-bred boy’s education. He was forced on boys for hundreds of years because he instilled important moral lessons in his biographies of figures such as Pompey, Alexander and Julius Caesar. But, it was more than that. Boys liked Plutarch. Here is history filled with conquest, intrigue and political machinations.

My 15-year-old son is reading Plutarch this summer. At first he strongly objected to this assignment. I was destroying his summer. I was ruining his life. Once again.

 But, last night, at midnight, he was busy tapping out written commentary. I may be wrong but he looked like he was having a good time. He wrote the following for a writing assignment on Plutarch’s Julius Caesar:

   Caesar’s extraordinary valor from a very young age paved the road for future success. One story that is most striking from Caesar’s life is his time being held for ransom by pirates.  During his passage back from a long period on the run from Sylla, Caesar was captured and held for ransom by pirates off of the island of Pharmacusa. What is most striking about the tale is his time and behavior during captivity. The boy was far from the timid and submissive nature of most who are kidnapped. He instead was commanding and aloof, a small young man calling a set of burly pirates illiterate and barbarous. He even went as far as to claim that he would one day hang or crucify them (which to the shock of the pirates came true). It was this unconditional valor that led him to be so loved by those he led. From his time in captivity as a boy to moments before he crossed the Rubicon he never once showed true fear. Even after he achieved the title of “dictator for life,” amidst rumors of assignation, not once did he break form. In the words of Plutarch, “When his friends advised him to have a guard, and several offered their services, he would not hear of it, he would not hear of it; but said it was better to suffer death once than to always live in fear of it.” It was through Caesar’s undying courage that a strong foundation for unimaginable heights was obtained.

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Rename Father’s Day

June 17, 2009


How do you celebrate a national holiday for fathers with a guy who shows up a couple of times a week to play video games and sleep with your mother? He’s just a guy. Father’s Day isn’t for guys.

The whole weirdness of fathers is getting weirder. It’s like living in a town where half of the houses are gradually replaced with huts. The people in houses come to be seen as lucky, instead of absolutely normal. “Hey,” say the people in huts, “At least, we don’t live in tents.” “Hey,” say the people in houses. “Huts are adorable!”

In 2007, forty percent of American newborns were born to unmarried mothers. Forty percent. Compare that with 1940, when just under four percent of children were the offspring of unmarried mothers. The numbers reflect the vast wave of Hispanic immigration, but the differences, as everyone knows, are profound across ethnic lines.

The proportion of births among single women in their twenties and thirties has soared. Between 2002 and 2007, the birth rate increased by 13 percent for women aged 20-24 and 34 percent for women aged 30-34, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Roughly one in five births to women in their thirties was to unmarried mothers in 2007.

A father in the house is like a roof over your head. You can survive without it. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t have it. Okay, maybe it’s a luxury to have a roof. But, it’s a luxury that feels necessary.


The Vital Child

May 11, 2009

Money is not the ultimate status symbol in our world. Energy is.

When someone asks what you do for a living, they are often wondering not how much money you make, but how dynamic you are.

Civilization in the advanced stages of nihilism exhibits this worship of energy. This is one of the profound insights of Father Seraphim Rose, the Orthodox priest who wrote his penetrating analysis of our condition. At Lawrence Auster’s site, there have been interesting discussions about what Rose calls Vitalism, including these comments here, and Auster has written a good summary of Rose’s ideas.

There are so many signs of the cult of energy today, it would be hard to catalogue them all. Let’s focus on one: the Vital Child.

The Vital Child is not a creature of repose. He is a dynamic, rapidly evolving being, capable of “socialization” even as an infant. He does not gaze at the walls wondering as children have done since the dawn of history why childhood is so long. His days are a blur. Television and electronic games fill any meager void and all useless cracks in a life of scheduled activity.

The Vital Child does not indulge in random play, except in small, accidental doses. His play is organized, efficient, directed toward rational self-improvement. He pursues sports with careerist intensity. This is not play, but a means of demonstrating his inner dynamism, of activating his miniature will.

Never pause: that is the inscription carved on the threshold of his youth. Standardized tests, sports,  clubs, long school days, all at a pace that far exceeds that of sleepier times – these fill his teenage years, plus more television, games and popular music. Never pause. All this prepares him for the raw energy he will need later. This is his vital initiation into vitality. The Vital Child will keep on moving. He has no expectation of repose and no acquaintance with reflection. He reveres movement: the movement of his own emotions, of his own half-formed will, and of an ultimately meaningless world beyond the self.

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