Rebirth of Reason

Sense of Life

Tough Storge
by Luke Setzer


Many animal species require their parents' careful nurturing from birth into young adulthood to survive.  Mammals in particular spend a great deal of time and energy feeding their young and teaching them life skills such as foraging or hunting so they can become fully functioning adults.  They do this because even though they rely on instincts, these instincts alone lack sufficient information to let the newborn mammal flourish freely in the wild.  The young mammal must still use his senses and his instincts to acquire the programming needed to make his instincts fully informed and thus fully functional.

Nature behaves according to immutable and thus unforgiving laws.  An animal that fails to grasp these laws implicitly will fail to live for long in the wild.  In a sense, his parents must act as intermediaries between the harshness of nature and the life of their offspring until the offspring reaches maturity.

As a rational animal, man also finds himself subject to these conditions of nature with one caveat: man's cognitive faculty relies on volition rather than automation.  This means that man lives by reason using concepts derived from percepts rather than by instincts using percepts alone.  Parents must thus teach their offspring how to live by reason until the offspring reaches maturity.  As with the other mammals, human parents must act as intermediaries between the harshness of nature and the life of their offspring until the offspring reaches maturity.

The ancient Greeks called this form of love between family members such as parents and children storge.  A helpless infant absolutely relies on storge from mature caretakers for many years to grow into a fully functioning adult.  In a harsh world of dangers both natural and man-made, such caretakers must necessarily draw hard, objective boundaries on the behaviors of these children.  Boundaries not only protect the children from harm, but instruct them about the nature of the metaphysical and the man-made.  As the children grow and expand their abilities to live, their caretakers can expand the boundaries appropriately.  Ideally, the children will mature enough eventually to have these externally imposed boundaries removed altogether so they can set their own boundaries.

Three Stories of Tough Storge

Parents often struggle with how to determine, set and enforce these boundaries.  Both the metaphysical and the man-made worlds have their own harsh penalties for failure of adults to act rationally.  The natural laws of human health frown upon excessive consumption of tobacco, sugar, alcohol and other toxic substances.  The human laws of productiveness frown upon sloth, tardiness, poor workmanship and other toxic behaviors.  Hence, parents do their children no favors when they set no boundaries that reflect in some form these realities that children will encounter in adulthood.  Conversely, they also throttle their children's growth when they set excessively confining boundaries.  Both approaches fail to teach reason by drawing false maps of reality in the minds of children.

How can a parent teach his child about the nature of the world in a loving fashion, i.e. in a way that expresses genuine, rational concern for the child's long range growth into a fully functioning adult?  He can do this by always painting an accurate map of reality in all his transactions with his child.  This includes the core spiritual virtue of self-responsibility, i.e. the ultimate requirement for the child to become a fully independent being of self-sustaining, self-generated action.

An effective parent would need to weave this principle into every conversation, every interaction, and every decision with his child.  Its fundamental nature leaves no room for compromise to accommodate the wishes or feelings of the child.  Such an uncompromising adherence to principle may well earn the oft-used label "tough love" or, to use the ancient Greek term, "tough storge."

Three stories can illustrate how even unsophisticated parents totally unfamiliar with Objectivism have successfully employed "tough storge" to raise their children into fully functioning adults.

Preschool Pajamas

A local community college instructor taught a class in a subject that interested me and my wife.  So we took a night class with her.  During one of the breaks, the subject of parenting arose.  This instructor told us of her daughter's memorable first day in kindergarten.  As a parent, she had responsibility for assuring that her daughter arrived fully dressed on time ready for class.  So she deliberately placed this burden of readiness squarely onto the shoulders of her daughter in childhood just as the laws of nature and man would do to her daughter in adulthood.  She politely informed her daughter that she expected her to set her own alarm clock, get herself out of bed, awake herself fully, dress herself fully, serve herself her own cereal, and stand ready to leave for her first day of kindergarten by the appointed time.

As you might guess, the appointed time came and the daughter still lay asleep in bed.  So her mother scooped her into her arms, placed her into the back seat of the car and took her to school in her pajamas.  Needless to say, this upset the daughter immensely and drove her to tears.  Her mother did cut her a little slack by leaving a set of clothes in the back seat so her daughter could at least don them on the way to school rather than spend all day in class in her pajamas.

Harsh though this lesson may have seemed, it also hewed very much to the harsh realities of adult life.  The daughter learned her hard lesson.  From that day forward, she made herself fully ready in a timely fashion for school with no more prompting from her mother needed.

Farmhand Foolishness

I grew from child into adult on a farm.  My father expected me to spend time every day doing chores such as feeding the cows and bringing firewood onto the porch.  As a first grader spreading his wings, I decided one day to make my demands for fair wages known.

"I want you to start paying me for all this work I do!" I said sternly.

"I understand completely," replied my father nonchalantly.  "I expect the same from you.  So I need payments for rent, for clothing, for food, for electricity, for ..."

"Uh ... never mind, Daddy," I quickly squeaked.

Communists and "children's rights" advocates might balk at this bourgeois treatment of the proletariat.  But anyone who loves a free society must absolutely see the educational value of this exchange.  No abstract appeals to objective value theory could possibly trump the impact of this brief yet powerful dialogue.  It illustrated in just a few short seconds the very nature of the trader principle in a capitalistic world.

High School High Jinks

Years ago, my wife made friends with a professional hypnotist through a local business women's group.  When her friend decided to change office locations, we offered to help her to move.  A middle aged woman who joined us that day shared with us the story of her son's wayward teenage years.  She had grown suspicious about his performance in high school and so laid down the law with him.  She promised not to snoop on him but kindly informed him that if she learned he had been lying to her about his class attendance and his grades, he would have hell to pay.  As you might have guessed, when the report card came, it registered all failing grades due to his poor attendance.  He had clearly skipped many classes that term to play hooky.

So his mother promptly cracked the telephone book open and looked in the business section under "Military Schools."  She started at the top of the list and called each listing until she found one with an opening for her son.  Two weeks later, he found himself in military school.

The young man felt quite unhappy with this turn of events.  He immediately began to curse the upper classmen to their faces.  "You have a filthy foul mouth, cadet!  It belongs in the bottom of a trash can!"  So they grabbed him and thrust him face first into the bottom of a trash can.

After extracting himself from the garbage, he continued his futile attempts to buck the system and dug himself deeper and ever deeper into a hole of academic penalties.  Finally, he made a whiny call to his mother.  "I'm going to run away from here!" he bawled.  His mother shrugged and replied, "Son, head north and don't look back."

With his bluff called, he had to make some tough values choices.  Should he learn to enjoy the bitter milk of the teat that fed him, or should he take his chances in the outside world on his own as a runaway teenager?  He decided to swallow the bitter milk.  He spent considerable effort to master the rules of the academy and climbed his way back out of the hole into which he had dug himself.  He then spent additional energy to earn extra points for exceeding expectations.  At one point, he even called his mother for a care package of cleaning products for polishing the restrooms to an exceptional shine.

In the end, he thanked his mother for sending him there to help him onto the straight path of self-discipline.

Objectivists may find this woman's treatment of her son unduly harsh.  They may bark buzzwords popular in freedom circles such as "unschooling" and "teenage liberation" and other slogans.  However, do recall that a parent must absolutely help her child to experience fully the harsh realities of both the natural and human worlds.  This includes the reality of confronting choices and weighing values.  She also promised him that he would have hell to pay if she learned of his fraud, an objectively immoral offense at any age.  So she would have done him no favors by allowing his tomfoolery to continue coddled or otherwise unabated.  Rather than claim that he simply engaged in a "sanction of the victim," I contend that he finally awakened to the true nature of the world with his mother's help.


Parents have a moral obligation to do their best to raise their offspring into fully functioning adults.  This obligation comes as close to "duty" as one would ever come in the Objectivist ethics, but it still arises from causality, i.e. from the parents causing the effects of their children's very existence in the first place.  The task of nurturing incapable infants into capable adults must include conditioning children to deal with the best and worst aspects of both the metaphysical and the man-made.  Helping them to confront the very nature of self-responsibility and its difficult values choices becomes a necessary aspect of sound parenting.  These three stories offer concrete, real life instances of such instruction.  Objectivists would serve themselves well by learning from them.
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