Friday, February 02, 2007

The Capability Approach and Parenting

I have planned on writing this post for several months but never get to it, partly from being busy and also from fear of misrepresenting a complicated idea. I want to be very ambitious about Green Parenting. I don’t want to only write about planting a tree or going hiking with my baby. I don’t only want to write about swapping vinegar from Windex. I want to think about parenting in the broadest possible sense. What do I hope for my daughter? What do I hope for myself and my wife as parents? What are the parents’ and society’s obligations to the child?

When I think of these grand questions, the first answer that comes to my mind is very simple. I just want each of us to be happy. Then I have to wonder what happy means. Comfortable? Secure? Rich? Ensconced in a solar-powered mountain chalet? If I think hard about these answers, they all have problems. For example, I have known parents who sheltered their children in suburban homes and stockpiled massive trust funds, but the children did not thrive as adults. I know many sad, maladjusted children of wealthy families. That does not mean I want to abandon my questions. What is happiness? What is a dignified life? What is a meaningful life? A full life?

I think the Capability Approach can help us sort through these questions, even though it was not really developed as a parenting model. It was first conceived of by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Regular readers of this site might be familiar with Sen. He won the Novel Prize in Economics and I had the opportunity to interview him, the recording of which I posted on this blog. Nussbaum is a famous scholar at the University of Chicago, who writes about philosophy, law, feminism, and a wide range of other topics. Their collaboration has led to a burgeoning new area of inquiry and has already influenced the UN, the EU, and national governments. (Sen and Nussbaum were even married for some time and I like using a theory born of miscegenation to think about my miscegenating family.)

The Capability Approach focuses on an individual’s abilities to choose the kind of life they find meaningful. It focuses not just on legal rights, but on “doings and beings,” or outcomes and functionings. Nussbaum has suggested a tentative list of basic capabilities that we might discuss and come to a consensus about as the minimum standard for a life worth living. If you want to see the full list, check out her recent book Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, and Species Membership. Below is an abbreviated version of her list:

1. Life; being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length
2. Bodily health; being able to have good health
3. Bodily integrity; having one’s bodily boundaries treated as sovereign
4. Senses, Imagination and Thought; being able to use the senses, to imagine, think and reason
5. Emotions; being able to have attachment to things and people outside ourselves
6. Practical Reason; being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life
7. Affiliation; being able to live with and towards others, to recognise & show concern for other human beings
8. Other species; being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants and the world of nature
9. Play; being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities
10. Control over One’s Environment A) Political; being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life. B) Material; Being able to hold property [both land and movable goods] not just formally, but [with] real opportunity [for use].

What I like about the capability approach and this list is that the individual is envisioned as a social being whose well-being depends in part on government, economy, and social norms. Even though the approach was designed primarily to evaluate policies and statutes, I think it could be useful in many other contexts. For parenting, I think the list could be used not just to think about raising a child so that he or she has a life of dignity, but about parents as well.

This conception of parenting would be in contrast to popular theories of parenting which tend to be narrow. For example, attachment parenting valorizes the attachment between parent and child. It is often silent about the mother’s need for a fulfilling life and just about anything that does not relate to attachment. Ferber seems interested in a convenient schedule for the parent and a child who exemplifies the myth of American individualism. The American Pediatric Association guide is focused on the child's bodily health. Let’s think about well-being and about society, community, parents, and children together in the broadest and most substantial way we can.

6 comments:

Henitsirk said...

Have you heard of the RIE method? I've incorporated some of their concepts with my children. I was reminded of this by #3 on Nussbaum's list, because with RIE, respecting the baby is all-important. This extends even to mundane things like diaper changing, where you would always tell the baby what you are about to do, so that you do not treat the baby like an object to be changed, and you respect the baby's need to know what will happen to them.

GreenDaddy said...

I hadn't heard about it, but I've started to read it about it now. It does sound consistent with Nussbaum's list. When she mentions bodily integrity, her emphasis is on control over reproduction and freedom from violence including sexual violence. I think respect for a baby's boundaries counts too. Sounds like RIE is about raising a capable individual.

cake said...

this is a really interesting post, thank you for sharing it. i agree that many popular approaches to parenting can be too narrow. i read about a lot of them, and then incorporate what makes the most sense to me and my values.

i disagree that attachment parenting doesn't consider the well being of the parents...from what i understand, the parents' happiness and fulfillment is crucial to developing a strong, trusting relationship with your child, which is pretty much the point of attachment parenting styles.

GreenDaddy said...

Thanks cake.

About attachment parenting. I think there's a difference between justifying a mother's own needs because she is a human and justifying them because the baby needs a happy, fulfilled parent. Although the destination that attachment parenting and "capabilities parenting" lead to would usually be similar, I think there would be times when they depart. But I don't know if I can come with an example.

I should probably refrain from criticizing attachment parenting until I do have an example. It's just that the Sears always represent mothers "having to go to work" as a tolerable sacrifice when its absolutely necessary. I don't like the implicit ordering of priorities behind that. I definitely think nations, societies, and families have to reconsider how much parents work and how little support we get, and create a discourse that has room for lots of different kinds of families trying to raise kids who have meaningful lives.

Laura said...

Yay Martha Nussbaum. She rocks. :-)

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