We are surrounded by images and messages that do not tell the truth about the good life.
This week, Forbes released its annual top celebrities list, The Celebrity 100. Quite simply, the list measures, as Forbes shamelessly puts it, "money and fame". Calculating the in-crowd includes looking at earnings over the past year, as well as "media and social networking power".
One gets the sense that we are encouraged to idolize these people. Wealth and fame are incredibly seductive, and have become the holy grail in our modern religion of self-worship. Beyonce, JayZ, Dr. Dre, Ellen DeGeneres, Rhianna, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber, Lady Gaga, etc. are among our new saints – even though many of them are anything but.
The longer I am a parent, the less I understand our fascination with celebrities. Being a parent, I think, opens your eyes to what is really important in life – things like unconditional love, selflessness and stability. Yet, the celebrity culture seems to turn everything on its head: what is essential for a happy life is not valued, while the less important things – such as wealth, fame and beauty – are touted as the only way to happiness.
Recently, the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in the Guardian that we need celebrities because we have a natural tendency to admire people who seem glamorous and successful. We should ‘anoint’ good celebrities, he argued, so that we can channel our admiration appropriately.
I disagree. In fact, I think it’s a dangerous idea, because celebrity culture is based upon myths about what it means to live a meaningful human life. For instance, celebrities are portrayed as skinny – but with big breasts – unbelievably beautiful or handsome, wealthy and famous. The message we get is that, because of these things, they are therefore of more value than us. And they have more fun, better sex, and more meaningful relationships. Indeed, the wisdom from celebrity land is that wealth, fame and beauty are the things that give anyone value, and they must be pursued above everything else.
Now, these may be myths, but they are very powerful myths. Because celebrity culture is an integral part of our wider culture, these myths can affect us. Sadly, they can also have a great influence upon our children.
Parents as leaders
So, how do we help our children understand the myths of the celebrity culture as myths? I would suggest that how we answer this question has to do with what we perceive our role to be as parents. Is our role to bring a child into the world and then let that child uncritically absorb whatever ideas happen to be prevalent in society at the time? Or, is our role to provide leadership to the child regarding the ideas he encounters?
Indeed, are parents leaders? As a society, do we perceive them as leaders? I don’t think we do. When you first became a parent, did the doctor hand you your baby and say ‘Congratulations, what a fabulous leadership position this is for you!’? Probably not. It may have been more along the lines of ‘Good luck with that.’
And yet, here is some startling news. The very same Forbes magazine which eagerly ranks the power and influence of celebrities in our culture, also ran an article by Rob Asghar this year ranking the toughest leadership positions. The job of ‘stay at home parent’ was ranked as the #1 ‘toughest leadership role’, beating such positions as university president, congressman, and CEO!
Why does Asghar consider parenting to be such a challenging leadership role? Quoting family therapist Joanne Weidman, Asghar argues that ‘the greatest leadership challenge for a parent today is to be countercultural …’ We must be ‘thoughtful, intentional and articulate’ about ‘determining what on the children’s achievement hamster wheel is good for [our] family’. In the same way, we must also draw ‘boundaries around what is not’ good for our family.
On this view, parents are leaders because they have a vision of what is ‘good’ for their family that is not dependent upon current cultural expectations and norms. And, it’s interesting that Weidman uses the word ‘countercultural’. This implies that there is much that is valued in our dominant culture that will not be a part of our vision of the good life.
In other words, when parents are leaders, they don’t worry about ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – or, say, the Jolie-Pitts – in terms of what they buy, how they look, what they do, or what they think. They parent to the beat of their own drum.
Parental leadership as vision
What kind of leadership model is this? I think the key concept here is vision. This leadership model involves seeing things that your children can’t see, usually because they do not yet have experience, maturity or wisdom.
For instance, I’ve seen the sadness and emptiness that happens when people – especially women – base their self-worth on their appearance. Thus, the vision I have for my children is that they learn to value themselves for who they are, and I lead them according to this vision. I teach them to be healthy, but I tell them to be happy with the body that they have. At this stage in life, they may believe the ubiquitous cultural message that what you look like determines your worth, but I am trying to lead them away from this false notion.
Interestingly, Plato had a notion of leadership that may provide some insight here. Plato’s vision of the ideal leader is one who has a true conception of what is ‘good’. He is called to lead others, however, who do not have this understanding. Indeed, those who he leads are living in a state of deception regarding the good. It is the leader’s responsibility to recognize those deceptions and try to govern his followers instead according to the truths which he knows but they do not.
One of Plato’s most famous discussions regarding his idea of leadership as countering deception is what is known as his allegory of the cave. In this allegory, he invites us to imagine prisoners living in a cave, chained so that they cannot move and can only see in front of them. Unbeknown to the prisoners, there is a fire in the cave behind them which casts some light against the wall of the cave facing them. There are also people behind them, who hold up various artificial objects, like figures of men and animals, which project shadows onto the wall by the light of the fire. Because the prisoners cannot see – and have never seen – anything other than these shadows, they suppose that the shadows are indeed reality.
Plato then asks us to consider what would happen if one of these prisoners was set free and could be ‘healed’ of the ‘unwisdom’ of the cave. The prisoner would be unchained, forced to turn his head and look at the fire and the objects behind him. Plato argues that this experience would, at first, be painful and dazzling; the prisoner would be confused and still believe that the familiar shadows on the wall were the ‘real’ objects rather than the objects themselves. He would experience further trauma if he were forced out of the cave and into the sunlight, where he could experience reality to an even greater extent.
Yet, Plato argues that gradually the freed prisoner would come to understand the difference between the reality of the world above and the deception of the cave. He would be happy for himself that he had gained wisdom, but sad for his fellow prisoners in the cave when he thought of what they considered to be wisdom. Thus, he would have a duty to go back down into the cave, to help enlighten his fellow prisoners as much as possible.
The challenge: leading our children away from Plato’s cave
Now, I’m not saying that Plato’s allegory of the cave is something that we can apply directly to parenting. For one thing, most parents I know do not consider themselves to be as ‘all-wise’ as Plato’s ideal ruler, or the freed prisoner of the allegory. Although they have strong values, they continue to learn about the good, even as adults. So, they refine their idea of the good life on an ongoing basis. For another thing, although children are lacking in understanding, I would not consider childhood to be a state of deception. Adults can be deceived as well as children, and indeed, there are times when children can see the reality of a situation far more clearly than adults.
Yet, Plato gives us as parents plenty of food for thought about our culture and what it tells us to believe. We and our children are surrounded every day by images and messages that do not tell the truth about what is means to be a happy human being, or live a good human life.
As parents, when we can recognize the falsehood in our society’s messages, no matter how popular these messages are, we have a duty to reason with our children and expose them for the ‘shadows’ that they are.
They may disagree with our reasoning, and think that we are the ones who are deceived, not them. And, there will probably be other parents who discourage you from having and implementing a vision of the good life for your family. They will think you are over-protective and domineering, and will want you to ‘go with the flow’.
But of course, this isn’t supposed to be easy. There must be reasons why parenting is such a tough leadership challenge.
Holly Hamilton-Bleakley lives in the USA and is the mother of six children. Her other qualifications include an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History and Political Thought from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, England) as well as a BA from Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA). She blogs at Philosophy for Parents, where an earlier version of this article was published.