Choosing for the Children: Parenting in Times of Uncertainty

by Robyn Repko Waller

© Robyn Repko Waller

Lack of choice is frustrating,  but sometimes choice — choosing for others — can be equally daunting

This August parents and guardians of children across the country are facing unenviable decisions about childcare and school in the time of COVID. Carers of school-age kids have been surveyed by the school district, if they are lucky, as to their preferences for the fall term: Would you prefer that Kid to return to face-to-face instruction, attending class with their teacher and friends, all while social distancing in masks? Or would you rather Kid learn remotely, in your home via Zoom class meetings and online apps? Perhaps you prefer to homeschool Kid this year? 

And then comes the long-awaited roll-out of the official school reopening plans: For some, there are disappointingly limited options, only the course of delivery chosen by the district or institution; that or homeschool. But, for some, there are more options: Kid can learn in the classroom, remote, or be homeschooled. It’s up to you, the parent or guardian. You’ve been afforded the gift of freedom of choice (unless those free will skeptics are right about our reality)! 

Now there are numerous ways in which this freedom of choice is problematic — or  perhaps isn’t actually a freedom of choice in the first place. These complicating factors of childcare have been much discussed in recent months: The reality on the ground is that COVID-related childcare changes have exacerbated existing socioeconomic inequalities, especially for those with essential or essentially in-person jobs, single parents, or those without back-up carers. On the one hand, those parents face job loss (and so critical income) if reliable workday care is not available, and on the other, they must send children back to f2f schooling even if they don’t believe it is wise to do so. Learning pods — small groups of children with private instruction — aren’t an option for most considering the cost. In this way, the choices made aren’t from an expansive freedom of choice. 

Moreover, women workers, who are more likely to work part-time and are compensated at lower wages, are increasingly pressured to “adapt” to the reality on the ground by cutting back hours or giving up work entirely for childcare responsibilities of remote or homeschooling. Alternatively, their children may have to attend in-person despite any preferences otherwise. We can’t all work from home. Gone are the days of reliable daycare, aftercare, and grandparents as babysitters. And teachers too, as carers, are increasingly being sent back into f2f instruction with the young ones, sometimes regardless of preference, with the looming possibility of  COVID outbreaks among teachers and school staff. These pressures, whether overt or covert, too restrict any sense that one possesses freedom of choice over the matter. 

Yet, even if we could or do have freedom of choice over the pathway traveled by our children and our family in these times, deciding what to do for schooling (and a myriad of other weighty family issues) is not without much hand-wringing as carers. Among the lessons the transformative experience of parenting teaches, I’ve come to appreciate that freedom of choice, a valued and hoped-for aspect of human life, is a messy matter when it comes to decisions pertinent to the formative experiences of others. Who your child becomes depends not insignificantly on the path you take, for yourselves or for them. That is, parenting has taught me that having autonomy to shape another’s character is a daunting task. Freedom of choice to chart the path of our children’s experiences, especially in troubling and uncertain times, is at the same time a valuable good and an intimidating prospect. 

Hence, here I want to focus again, as with last time, on the experience of agency during COVID. I had previously explored what it’s like for all of us, struggling to process the unchosen reality of the pandemic for our lives. Desiring that it were otherwise, back to normal, and acting at times in spite of the presented reality. We are, in some sense, agents without control. We can’t control the fact that the virus is among us or what the science of COVID tells us about risk (even if we can control our local behavior). 

But now I want to explore what it’s like to decide in the face of options, that control in whatever local and non-absolute sense, what you decide in such uncertain times. Moreover, I don’t care to say much about what it is to decide for yourself or for the general ‘other.’ Often, when we discuss major moral decisions or dilemmas, freedom of choice is framed in terms of the reasons we have for the alternative paths available. And those reasons, prudential and moral, have to do with how those potential courses of actions figure into our plans, short- and long-term, for ourselves (career goals, say) and how those courses of action will influence the well-being of others beyond me (for example, that someone stands to be helped or harmed by my action). Those others can be individuals to whom I bear no particular relation except as fellow persons. I don’t wish to discuss these COVID-related choices here in the framework of utilitarianism or in terms of generic respect for others. Rather, I’m most interested in how the special relationships we have as carers to our dependent loved ones, especially young children, shape the experience of choosing for them.

Philosophers are fond of thinking of our decisions made with freedom of choice as akin to charting a course in a garden of forking paths. The metaphor is borrowed from Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges who wrote in “The Garden of Forking Paths”:

I lingered, naturally, on the sentence: I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths. Almost instantly, I understood: ‘the garden of forking paths’ was the chaotic novel; the phrase ‘the various futures (not to all)’ suggested to me the forking in time, not in space. A broad rereading of the work confirmed the theory. In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses– simultaneously–all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. (p. 7)

Among those philosophers who have taken on this picture is philosopher Robert H. Kane. He writes poignantly of our free will residing in those moments in which we are genuinely torn about what to do and have reasons to pursue incompatible but significant paths in our lives. Jane is torn between spending more hours at the well-paid job she loves, full of career advancement, or spending those hours on a humanitarian cause close to her heart. In these moments, he argues, we exercise a freedom of choice — to choose distinct paths — and, further, these decisions are peculiar in the sense that any way we choose we would approve of the decision. Moreover, significantly, how we choose and so act in that moment shapes our character: what we later value, believe, desire, prefer, how we are as individuals. That character  in turn strongly influences how we later act. Kane calls these ‘self-forming actions’. This is where free will lies in life. As he expresses it:

…agents who exercise free will are both authors of and characters in their own stories all at once. By virtue of “self-forming” judgments of the will (arbitria voluntatis) (SFAs), they are “arbiters” of their lives, “making themselves” out of the past that, if they are truly free, does not limit their future paths to one. (p. 41)

I’ve long found this aspect of his picture of agency compelling — that our true freedom is in the moments, however few and far between they are, where we get to set a piece of our character and so influence our future actions. And certainly if the context of the choice is a high stakes and uncertain one, the decision is all the more significant. Still, though, I’ve come to believe there are even more fraught contexts in which freedom of choice resides and in which agents feel the daunting weight of decision-making, what I’ll call ‘other-forming actions.’ This is why child-focused decisions in these times are so hard. 

Other-forming actions are simply those decisions we make, torn between the genuine alternatives before us, that will significantly shape or transform the character of another under our care. I take it that many people don’t experience making these decisions until adulthood, if they are lucky and privileged. When I informally ask students about free decisions they’ve made they often cite decisions about how to spend their down time, what to eat, and, the most significant of all, where to go to college or if to go to college. Others report which major or career path to choose. The latter of these being self-forming actions of some stripe.

In contrast, in deliberating about other-forming actions, one does not primarily or perhaps at all concern oneself with the consequences of the open alternatives for oneself. Rather, one focuses on the consequences for others under one’s direct care. Some of these other-forming actions are in the context of privileged decisions: If the family moves to place X, the children will say goodbye to their tight knit community of friends in place Y and will become emerged in the place X culture and way of life. If the family stays in place Y, the children will miss out on the potential cultural experiences in place X but will retain their current personality and community.

Others are made in heartbreaking contexts: potential divorce, medical treatment options. How one decides and acts in that moment sets the path of formative development for another, and moreover there may be no clear answer as to the best option. Personality, interests, peer group, opportunities are all part of that path, on which you are in part responsible for setting them down. It’s a dizzying prospect for the person deciding, especially if the paths contain many unknowns.

Decisions about kids’ schooling, childcare, and social activities are the other-forming action  of COVID times. Perhaps some carers have a clear idea of the path forward and have committed to one way or another without inner conflict. Many, though, feel the pull of competing reasons: to keep kids out of certain or all f2f activities for personal and public health reasons versus to return the kids to normalcy and allow them to thrive socially as kids are disposed to do. All of this deliberation is made more difficult by the uncertainties of the course of the pandemic. Importantly, this decision is an other-forming action, with significant time at home among family to promote a tighter knit family bond but with time away from school seeing an erosion of kids’ important peer friendships.

To decide here is not just to decide for yourself; the decision about the path to choose for your child, when more than one is open, is a fraught one.