de Botton considers the central question of parenting: how best to prepare your child for the world. His central insight was summed up beautifully by the final paragraph:
It seems we cannot spontaneously feel important enough to ourselves, sufficiently worthy of carrying our absurd figure through the tangles of life, unless at some point - at around the time when we were still interested in reading Enid Blyton - we were privileged enough to derive a sense of mattering limitlessly and inordinately to another person.
I agree with this wholeheartedly. My children do matter limitlessly to me, more than any one else ever has or, I dare say, ever shall; it seems vitally important that I manage to communicate this fact to them: to let them believe in the core of their being that their father's love is unconditional and will continue all my life.
How best, then, to communicate this to them? Here is where I believe de Botton was in error. He seems to equate mollycoddling with mattering. i.e. I must mollycoddle my children to show them that they matter to me.
Some of the examples he gave were patently reasonable: I should listen to my children, and take account of what they want in my decision-making. I should also listen to my children's questions and try and answer them with care and consideration. This is sound advice I think. It is also, I suspect, a relatively modern notion in Western parenting; one can't imagine the typical Victorian father (however loving) wasting a deal of time on his five year old's whimsy.
On the other hand, though, some of de Botton's examples seem to me absurd:
[One feels obliged] not to go to a bookshop for fear of boring one's charges or to drive them another few miles just in order to get them a special kind of strawberry milk their palates prefer.
Patent bollox! My children matter limitlessly to me, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop reading. And I don't think the world should be arranged to suit their every caprice. This is one of the central dilemmas of parenting: I undoubtedly need to take care of myself and the world around me, even when that sometimes (apparently) conflicts with the immediate welfare of my children. I need to make choices, and those choices cannot always be to favour my child, for this will in the long run backfire. An entirely banal example: if I'm bored and irritable because I have no book to read, then my children aren't going to benefit. It's banal, but somehow that's the point...
Responsible parenting means doing the best for one's children in the context of everything else that is going on in the world. I hope that my children will understand that it is in part because they matter so much to me that I will not be driving another few miles for their strawberry milk: because I want them to understand the importance of restraint, and because the world in which they will live is slowly choking on car exhausts.
de Botton's motivations are splendid, and some of what he says is insightful. But we cannot get around the fact that there is no formula for parenting. Difficult decisions just have to be made...